Wednesday, May 8, 2013

David Farber's "Everybody Ought to be Rich"

David Farber is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism; Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter with Radical Islam; and Sloan Rules: Alfred P. Sloan and the Triumph of General Motors.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Everybody Ought to Be Rich: The Life and Times of John J. Raskob, Capitalist, and reported the following:
On page 99 we meet Billy Durant, the erratic founder of General Motors. Durant is one of the co-stars of my biography of John Raskob, the “organizing genius” of early 20th century capitalism. Raskob, as head of finances at GM, teamed up with Durant in the 1910s to re-capitalize and restructure GM in a bid to move the fledgling company past industry leader, Ford. As I write on page 99, they had a beautiful partnership right until Raskob “came to understand that Billy, though a lovable, charming, spectacularly shrewd business visionary, had to go.” The history of capitalism, as page 99 suggests, is not a story filled with sweetness and light.

Throughout his life, Raskob had a gift for partnering up with extraordinary men, including Pierre du Pont, Alfred Sloan, Al Smith, and Cardinal Francis Spellman. Raskob was a master of finance and made his first millions at Du Pont and then GM. He envisioned, built, and held a controlling interest in the Empire State Building. He ran Al Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign and then headed the Democratic National Committee until Roosevelt and his boys deposed him. Raskob then helped invent modern American conservatism by founding the American Liberty League, an anti-New Deal “Super-Pac” funded by super-wealthy men.

Raskob, a devout Catholic who donated tens of millions to his Church, believed that capitalism could be made to work for everyone. He helped establish modern consumer credit by institutionalizing auto loans at GM and by promoting employee stock ownership plans and mass investment trusts. Raskob insisted that under a capitalist system, “Everybody Ought to be Rich.” Unfortunately, the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression got in the way of his vision of a free market wonderland.

My biography of Raskob is intended to be an empathic account of one of America’s least well known but influential capitalists. It is also a story of a man who believed too much in his own hype; Raskob was an extraordinarily talented and driven man who never much understood how the great majority of Americans made their way through the stormy seas of modern capitalism.

From page 99:
... Between 1915 and 1918, Raskob moved in stages from DuPont to GM and from Pierre’s ablest lieutenant to his own man. As his investments in GM increased, and even as he convinced Pierre to invest more of his own money in GM, and then as he won over the DuPont Company Executive Committee to sink tens of millions of dollars into GM stock, Raskob remained almost completely under the spell of GM’s founder, Billy Durant. At the same time, though, Raskob gradually came to understand that Billy, though a lovable, charming, spectacularly shrewd business visionary, had to go.

General Motors was the brainchild of William Crapo Durant, known to his legion of friends and admirers as Billy. Durant was a spectacular entrepreneur, a capitalist risk-taker of the first order, a man who could, in the near legendary words of his onetime employee Walter Chrysler, charm a bird out of a tree. He had been born at the end of 1861, making him a generation older than Raskob, and his upbringing could not have been more different than Raskob’s. Durant’s maternal grandfather had been a successful businessman, railroad president, and then the governor of Michigan; his uncle was a US congressman. The family was full of hard workers, men and women of integrity who had made good and served their communities honorably. At the same time, Billy’s father, also a great charmer, proved himself to everyone’s satisfaction to be a ne’er do well, a something-for-nothing stock-market plunger, and a drunk. Durant’s father came and went during Billy’s early years, finally disappearing before Billy turned ten.His mother returned to live with her well-to-do and ultra-respectable family in Flint, Michigan. Fatherless, young Billy Durant, in the words of his biographer, “was buried under waves of maternal cosseting ... garbed like a little prince.”8 Durant saw it much the same way, telling a journalist, with tears in his eyes, that his mother “always thought I was a wonderful boy. And I have tried not to disappoint her.”9

Billy Durant, child of a scandalous marriage and spoiled by his adoring mother, grew up to be man of uncanny confidence with little sense of limits. He was blessed with a talent—too much a talent, it turned out—for business risk and financial improvisation as great as any person alive in the early years of the twentieth century. A salesman of prodigious ability, by his late thirties he had mastered the world of business by creating the largest horse-drawn cart business in the United States and Canada, overseeing sixteen factories and a spectacularly successful sales operation. But in the very first years of the twentieth century, Durant left the horse-drawn cart behind. He had seen the future in the automobile before almost anyone else, and though without mechanical knowledge or aptitude he made himself one of the avatars of the brand new industry.
Learn more about Everybody Ought to Be Rich at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue