John D. Rockefeller – Sinner or Saint?

A way to a man’s heart is through sex, food, and Ron Chernow books. The last one is probably particular to me, but thankfully my wife knows me very well; for Christmas last year she bought me Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr by – you guessed who – Ron Chernow. I first became interested in Rockefeller after watching the History Channel series The Men Who Built America which profiles the dominant imperialists of the Gilded Age. The History Channel usually churns out complete garbage, but this show was actually informative and entertaining – compared to the ubiquitous alien conspiracy theory shows. Rockefeller is one of the most complicated men I have ever read about and hence Chernow’s biography of him took up a mammoth 700 pages.

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Rockefeller, unlike Vanderbilt or JP Morgan, was not your typical Rober Baron who accumulated money for the sake of hedonism. Wealth and success to Rockefeller represented God’s blessings – blessings which could not be squandered. He lived a simple life relative to his fortune which in today’s money was worth 400 billion dollars. Oil was the foundation of that fortune and for decades his company, Standard Oil, dominated the global refining business. With vast wealth comes enormous controversy – Rockefeller was a ruthless businessman who negotiated unfair trade deals with the railroads – squeezing out small refiners in the process. These shady business practices were during a time when industry was mostly unregulated in America. Ida Tarbell, the famous Muckraker journalist, vilified Rockefeller – subsequently rallying public opinion and the US government to break up Standard Oil’s monopoly. Ironically, the break up of Standard Oil made Rockefeller even wealthier – he continued to own large shares of his stepchildren’s companies still known today: Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, Sun, Conoco.

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Rockefeller stepped away from the oil business in his late 50’s and enjoyed a long retirement of philanthropy. Thanks to several Rockefeller foundations, the fields of education, medicine, and research were expanded. It can be argued that the United States world-renowned college system is a direct result of Rockefeller – he set the standard for medical research and founded the prestigious University of Chicago. Before Rockefeller, the state of medicine in the US was that of snake oil salesman – after Rockefeller medicine evolved into a rigorous scientific discipline. Some would question whether we should support philanthropy from “dirty” oil money? I would argue that Rockefeller made business decisions like a strict father; they were harsh but many times fair, as the oil business was in large part saved by Rockefeller’s big thinking principles. During the financial crises of the late 19th century, many small refiners went bust all while Standard Oil maintained record low prices for the consumer. Capitalism is tough and Rockefeller was one of the toughest. When we critique his decisions, we must look at things contextually. Rockefeller was not without blame, but I don’t think that his legacy is one of a sinner. I think his legacy is complicated and the fairest assessment should come from his opponents…

“The press, once hostile to him, formed his biggest cheering section. ‘It is doubful whether any private individual has ever spent a great fortune more wisely than Mr. Rockefeller,’ Pulitzer’s World editorialized in 1923, while the Hearst press, not to be outdone, states, ‘The Rockefellers have given away more money and to better advantage than anybody else in the world’s history since the ark stranded on Ararat.'”

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I believe that Rockefeller is no saint when compared to the world as a whole…but maybe a saint when compared to the wealthiest individuals in the history of the world. Excessive wealth usually corrupts and leaves no positive legacy. Rockefeller following his religious views used each penny wisely. Those pennies may have been tainted, but in the end, they were shined up for a noble purpose; a purpose which Rockefeller pursued until his death at 97 years old. So what’s your verdict? Was Rockefeller a sinner or a saint?

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Meet a President on President’s Day

It’s that time of year again – President’s Day! This is one of my favorite holidays because I get to ask random people about their most beloved President. I usually get an odd look, and some people even feel offended as if I’m probing into their political ideology. Usually, I get the following answers: Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Almost like a game of Pokemon, I try to find people with rare favorites like James Buchannon or Andrew Jackson. My favorite President is by far Theodore Roosevelt and if you like to learn more about his extraordinary life click here, here, and here. These past few weeks have been heavy with posts on Presidents, and it is partially because of today’s holiday commemorating George Washington’s birthday. This is a special post because it marks my last Founding Father to report on – John Adams. I read John Adams by David McCullough and highly recommend it to understand this peculiar second President of the United States. Who knows, maybe after reading this, you’ll have a new favorite.

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John Adams was born in Quincy, Massachusettes on October 30, 1735, to a pious farming family. As a direct descendant of the original Puritans, Adams began his life steeped in a culture of morality and tradition. Adams did not care for his early schooling and at one point wanted to be a farmer – this was vetoed by his father, and he was sent to Harvard College in 1751. While in school, Adams excelled in his studies and eventually became a lawyer with a promising career in Boston. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Abigail Smith, and they would go on to have six children – two dying early in life. While in Boston, Adams became an active opponent of the Stamp Act and unfair taxation by the British Government. He would actually go on to represent the British Soldiers who were responsible for the Boston Massacre – believing in the justice of the court and eventually receiving massive publicity from the trial. His reputation as a sharp lawyer and proponent of liberty led to his election in the First and Second Continental Congress. He was responsible for pushing the government into a bicameral legislator and the final passing of the Declaration of Independence – Jefferson said that Adams was the “pillar of the Declaration’s support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.”

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With his success in the Continental Congress, Adams was elected Ambassador to Britain where he negotiated the final treaty ending the Revolutionary War in 1783. He became Vice President under Washington and took the Presidency himself as a Federalist in 1797. Adams’ Presidency could be best summarized as a placeholder for Washington’s policies. Adams was pro-British and supported Atlantic trade between the two countries; he prevented war with France and balanced a tightrope of European powers trying to take advantage of the young republic. In the end, Adams’ presidency was nothing to do backflips over. His personality while in office was prickly and somewhat aloof – preferring the opinion of his wife over his cabinet members. Adam loved to argue, and he was not one to sway with public opinion. He had a strong moral foundation, but an excessive paranoia of opponents which led to the Alien and Sedition Acts – limiting the inalienable rights of the citizenry.

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He was viewed by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans as a tyrant. Adams lost his reelection and eventually went into retirement near his birthplace in Quincy. He would stay active in political opinion and eventually mend his friendship with Jefferson in later life. John Adams did not excel in the public eye and was always best suited for the intellectual backrooms of government. Although he had difficulties appeasing the masses, he became a role model in respects to morality which surpassed most Founding Fathers. Unlike the Virginian leaders, Adams was an abolitionist from birth and never owned a single slave. He corresponded with his wife with a love that was genuine and uncompromising. Adams was a modest and shrewd businessman – living without the suffocating debt ubiquitous for southern leaders. Adams and Thomas Jefferson would end up dying on the same day – the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Adams is one of my “honorable mention” Presidents because what he lacked for social skills he made up for in reading and writing. He had a library of over 3,000 books and believed these words full heartedly…

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“Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”

Happy Presidents Day everyone! 

The American Dream…Nightmare

What is the American Dream? Is it a dream of opportunity and wealth? Is it a dream that is still attainable? Is it even a dream and not a nightmare in disguise? I always saw the American Dream as the ability to reach any goal in life. America was and still is the land of entrepreneurship, innovation, and Cinderella stories. Great men and women came to this country for a better life – many times from places where dreams were never mentioned. My wife and I are blessed to be on the right side of the American Dream (read on to know what that entails), but many people do not have the same position. For a majority of Americans, the dream is no more realistic than an episode of Leave it to Beaver. 

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Everyday people struggle to meet their bills, pay for food, find employment, save for retirement and notice optimism in the nightly news. It is even worse for minorities who not only struggle to find well-paying jobs but also worry about harassment and unfair treatment on an institutional level. To better understand the nightmarish side of America, I read Death of a Salesman by Arthur MillerDeath of a Salesman won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949 and is one of the greatest American plays of all time. It follows the downfall of Willy Loman – an exhausted salesman who is losing his mind in the rat race of business. It is a gut-wrenching ride that requires you to question the very foundations of success.

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On the surface, Willy Loman looks like a prime candidate for the American Dream: He has a beautiful wife, two sons, a suburban house, a successful traveling sales job, and friends who admire him. These surface level attributes quickly fade away with reality: He regularly cheats on his wife, his one son is a womanizer while his other son is a wandering thief, his house constantly requires repairs, his job no longer pays the bills, and his supposed friends are nowhere to be found. By the end of the play, Willy is completely lost in the past reminisces of “better” times and his dreams of being a respected businessman. Arthur Miller paints a sad picture of what the American Dream can look like – a lifetime of sacrifice only to be fired and thrown to the curb of American capitilism.

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In the end, Willy kills himself so his family can collect the life insurance – his funeral is only attended by a few people. So what should we take away from this anecdote of the American Dream? I think Arthur Miller was pretty spot on. The American Dream is not for everyone and success is as elusive as a fleeting mistress. We should reframe the American Dream from one of material/prideful success to one of relational/altruistic success. Let’s not dream of being loved by everyone and impressing others with our possessions. Let’s dream of lives filled with close relationships that are synergistic – fostering self-actualization. A life well-lived is in our grasp, but we have to reframe our dreams – less external pridefulness and more internal peacefulness.

“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”
-Arthur Miller

Hendrick Meijer: The Paradox of Thrifty Generosity

Do you have a favorite grocery store that you frequently visit? There are many different reasons to like a grocery store: price, cleanliness, food selection, location, fellow shoppers, familiarity, etc. My Mom loves “Hardings” because they play good music-even though they have awful food selection and people are regularly caught shopping lifting (the most recent story was of a woman running out of the store with a package of bacon concealed under her armpit). My favorite grocery store is Meijer (pronounced My-er) because it has low prices, great food variety, and a clean store. I try to avoid Kroger because it is a little dirty and Walmart is more circus then grocery store (I was there a couple days ago and witnessed a employee yelling at a customer for asking a question). I have gone to Meijer my entire life so I thought it would be good to learn more about its founder Hendrick Meijer in the book Thrifty Years: The Life of Hendrick Meijer by Hank Meijer.

Hendrick Meijer (1883-1963) was born in the Netherlands and lived a very hard life as a manual laborer during his teen years. The Netherlands did not allow for upward mobility and had strict class divisions between the rich and poor. Feigning the arduous labor of factory work, Meijer set sail for America to build a better life for himself. Hendrick settled in Holland, MI which was a Dutch town that emulated the piousness and tight-knit community of the old-world. For the next five years he did odd jobs in foundries but never found a niche that fit his dynamic personality. Eventually, he took up the trade of barber and found a stable job in Greenville, MI. Thereafter, his childhood sweetheart, who had been waiting 5 years for him to get a steady job, moved to America to be his wife. Meijer had two children and continued his barber profession until the Great Depression. At nearly 50 years old, the Great Depression took away most of Meijer’s clients and he needed to figure out some other form of income. He had an empty building and the advice he was given was to open up a grocery store-“everyone needs food, even in a Depression.” At that time however, the small town of Greenville had over 20 grocers with almost a 100% failure rate; as soon as one would fail someone would change the sign and open a new store. Meijer was different from the other grocers because he was honest, cut prices even while sacrificing profits, and cared for the customer above all else. His determination to offer the lowest prices and work 16 hour days, 7 days a week led to more customers and eventually several stores. When Meijer died in 1963 he had dozens of stores throughout west Michigan and a business that had millions of dollars of sales annually. Today, Meijer is privately owned with 213 stores, 72,200 employees, and 15 billion dollars in yearly revenue.

Hendrick Meijer is a very admirable man because of his character and generosity towards other people. When Meijer was running his first store he was the only grocer who accepted “taboo” food stamps from the downtrodden of the Great Depression. Meijer was obsessed with getting the lowest prices for his customers even if he didn’t make money on the sale; for most of his life his business was barely profitable because of this approach. He had three of his stores burn down and each time he said “we will rebuild” without flinching-living a creed that you can’t worry about the things outside of your control. He was a practical joker who loved to make people laugh and would always talk with his employees and customers as if they were his long-time friends. Meijer was a innovator who wasn’t afraid to fail and who made a whole new life for himself at the ripe age of 50. I learned a lot from Meijer and I think that his life has inspired me to live with more character and less worry about the future. I think many people struggle today because they try to figure out their life story before it happens. Emulate Meijer with his openness to change and his resilience in the face of life’s obstacles. My goal is to be less thrifty with my generosity and hopefully impact people positively just like Hendrick Meijer did throughout his entire life.