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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The Asthmatic Boy who Became the Unstoppable Man Part 2

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Theodore Roosevelt is by far my favorite president. He lived an extraordinary life that in many ways transformed the world we live in today. Do you like National Parks? Thank Teddy. Do you like Wall Street regulations? Thank Teddy. Do you like food that is safe to eat? Thank Teddy. Do you like Teddy Bears? Thank Teddy. His accomplishments while in office were extensive and to completely understand his political mastery you should read Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. I honestly did not know much about Teddy’s political accomplishments before reading this book. In high school, we were taught that he carried a big stick and was a imperialistic bully. That caricature is quite inaccurate and not even close to his level-headed-fair demeanor in domestic and foreign affairs.

William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 which transferred the head office to Vice President Roosevelt. The funny thing was, none of the big business men wanted Roosevelt to be president and that is why he was given the worthless position of Vice President. They were afraid that he couldn’t be bought and that their extensive monopolies would be attacked. Roosevelt was not anti-industry but rather respected the need to give laborers more rights to maintain social order and the need to prevent monopolies from controlling prices. During his two terms, Teddy negotiated the end of a major coal strike, brought 40 anti-trust suits to court, broke up the biggest monopoly in the world-Standard Oil, negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, won the biggest popular vote landslide in 1904, established 5 national parks, purchased the land for the Panama Canal, proclaimed 18 national monuments, protected 150 National Forests, pushed Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, hosted the first black man for dinner in the White House, defended the Monroe Doctrine in Venezuala, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was able to accomplish all these things because he knew how work the media and befriend almost anyone he met. The “big stick bully” is not how he carried himself; when it came to decision making he took his time and always thought about every outcome with the highest degree of civility.

I really admire Teddy not only for his political accomplishments but his life outside the office. He was immune to discomfort and would be outdoors whenever possible-regardless of the conditions. Nature was his first love and he traveled throughout the US during his two terms hunting, camping, exploring, and vigorously exercising. Along with his love of the outdoors, he was an avid reader who could sit for hours immersed in books of all subjects. He could out smart, out hike, and out eat almost any man he encountered. Teddy’s life is an inspiration for my own life and sadly I am no where close to his manliness levels. I watch a lot of TV, I don’t like to go out in the rain, I need a noise-maker to sleep, I waste time online, and I hike with a walking stick to fend off small dogs. I strive to be more adventurous, more erudite, and more compromising like Teddy and I know it will take me a lifetime. My biggest obstacle to being more like my favorite president is TV; my goal is to watch less so that I can read more and spend  more time outdoors. Small steps must be taken to stand on the great shoulders of Theodore Roosevelt.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
-Theodore Roosevelt

 

The Hydrocarbon Man

Could you imagine your life without petroleum? Our daily lives from the food we eat to the cars we drive depend on the oil industry. Without oil, we would not have our comfortable life of abundance and hyper-connectivity. I always knew oil was important and that it had influenced a lot of our world politics in the last century. I never knew the full extent of how oil shaped the hydrocarbon man until I read the The Prize by Daniel Yergin. This book is 800 pages of pure geological-political-historical-orgasmical enjoyment. It won the Pulitzer Prize and encompasses the rise of the world-oil industry between 1859 to 1991. Suffice it to say there is no easy way to summarize this book. There are some very important events in world oil that everyone should know:

1859-“Colonel” Drake drills the first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania
1870-John D. Rockefeller forms Standard Oil Company
1873-Oil fields in Russia open for development
1896-Henry Ford builds his first car
1901-Gusher at Spindletop, Texas discovered: beginning of Sun, Texaco, Gulf
1903-Wright Brothers first flight
1907-First drive-in gasoline station opens in St. Louis, MO
1908-Discovery of oil in modern day Iran
1910-Discovery of “Golden Lane” in Mexico
1911-US Supreme Court rules dissolution of Standard Oil Trust
1914-World War I sees first mechanization of battlefield and need for secure oil
1922-Discovery of oil in Venezuela
1930-Discovery of biggest oil deposit in East Texas
1936-Hitler occupies the Rhineland and ramps up synthetic fuel production
1938-Discovery of oil in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
1938-Mexico nationalizes foreign oil operations
1939-WWII begins with all countries heavily dependent on oil to mobilize soldiers and weaponry
1951-Iran nationalizes foreign oil operations
1952-First Holiday Inn opens (middle-class hitting the open road)
1955-First McDonald’s opens in suburban Chicago
1956-Discovery of oil in Nigeria and Algeria
1960-OPEC founded in Baghdad
1968-Oil discovered in Alaska
1973-Yom Kippur War: Arab Oil Embargo (price per barrel rises from to $2.90 to $11.65)
1975-Automobile Fuel Efficiency Standards introduced in America
1979-Iran overthrow of Shah and Iranian hostage crisis
1981-Panic from problems in Iran send oil from $13 to $34 dollars a barrel
1982-OPEC implements first quotas
1983-First launch of Crude Oil Futures
1989-Exxon Valdez tanker accident
1991-Gulf War motivated by large reserves of oil in Kuwait

That is a lot of dates but they are all very important to understand. In the beginning, America was the main world producer of kerosene which was used for lamps. Uses for oil started to change with advancements in the combustible engine. At the turn of the 20th century, oil was starting to be used for gasoline in automobiles and fuel oil for all types of transportation. World War I was an experimentation in technology and showed countries how crucial it was to have secure access to oil reserves. The outcome of World War II was determined by who had the most oil. Germany and Japan both exhausted their supplies and were helpless to move their war equipment in the last battles. After World War II, the Middle East came center stage in supplying industrialized countries and the US was no longer a supreme exporter of oil. The Middle East would use their oil to increase prices and control foreign policy up until the 1980’s. In the 80s, oil began being traded on the futures market and its price was no longer exclusively controlled by OPEC. Oil is everywhere and has shaped our modern day lifestyle, politics, and even geo-political borders. I highly recommend reading this book because it shines light on our interconnected world and how it was shaped by a single commodity.