Ron Chernow – Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Ron Chernow – Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

I read this as part of my recent research on antitrust regulation; Rockefeller’s Standard Oil remains a touchstone case in the field. Chernow does a good job of portraying Rockefeller as neither devil nor saint. Just as people today get hyper-emotional about billionaires such as Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, Rockefeller was a hotly divisive figure in his day. His detractors bordered on the obsessive, especially Ida Tarbell, who comes across as apoplectic as Koch and Soros obsessives do today.

Rockefeller’s father was a quack doctor selling natural remedies who left his family for months at a time, and turned out to be a bigamist. Rockefeller was his father’s opposite in almost every way, except for their shared insistence on always paying their debts on time. He also had his credulous side, believing in homeopathy and other quack remedies. He retained a strict Baptist faith for his entire life, which left him with a rather narrow mind—though this didn’t stop him from having a case of wandering hands in his old age that was creepy even by the standards of the time.

On the other hand, Rockefeller always tithed, both before and after he made his fortune, and had great concern for charity and the poor. Despite his wealth, he does not come off as a greedy man. He didn’t seem to enjoy money so much as putting in the required work to make money, and succeeding at it. He also played a large role in the founding of the University of Chicago, whose famous economics department would likely have appalled Rockefeller, who was a trade protectionist and favored a managed cartel economic system that was in vogue during the Progressive Era.

Chernow’s focus is more on the man than the company, but Standard Oil is entwined enough with Rockefeller that the reader sees just how quickly the company grew, and how it became a popular lightning rod. The ongoing controversy over Standard Oil’s discounted rail shipping rates comes off as just plain dumb, just as the controversy over tying web browsers into operating systems was in the Microsoft antitrust case a century later. Chernow is no free-market ideologue, but the fact that Standard Oil continued to reduce prices and expand output reveal how tenuous its dominant market share—as is the fact that it nearly collapsed as electric lights displaced kerosene lamps. If the automobile hadn’t emerged around this time, and Standard hadn’t been clever enough to pivot to gasoline and lubricants and away from kerosene, the big 1911 antitrust suit would likely never have happened. Monopolies cannot last without government help—though Rockefeller is not entirely blameless on this front.

Rockefeller’s long life also allows Chernow to treat the Rockefeller children and grandchildren in some detail, and as with any family, they were a varied lot. Some shared his business acumen. Some tried but weren’t quite up to the task. Grandson Nelson became New York governor and Gerald Ford’s vice president. Daughter Edith took to a bohemian lifestyle, and even fell in the psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s circle, which ended up being quite expensive, and more than a little scandalous.

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