Quotes – A Well-Ordered World

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.

~Confucius

Review – The Drama Of The Gifted Child

The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (buy on Amazon.com)

by Alice Miller, published 1979, 1997

Recently I was discussing economic and social philosophy with some friends and the question came up about why certain philosophical ideas aren’t more popular or well-known if they seem to be more logically correct than the alternatives. We entertained a number of reasons why this might be but the one that stuck out to me as particularly weighty is the idea that the truth is deep, long and heavily nuanced and doesn’t make for quick, emotional soundbites. I made the quip, “Why is the economy the way it is? Do you have 5 years to study what you’d need to know to understand it?” followed by, “Why does the political system look as it does today? Do you have an entire lifetime to devote to studying all of human history?”

The other weighty suggestion that was offered is that there are many philosophies that cater to telling people what they want to hear (ie, an easy to accept reality) and only one that emphasizes telling it like it is (ie, a hard truth about reality).

I see echoes of these two notions in the opening of Alice Miller’s “Gifted Child”:

The damage done to us during our childhood cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in our past. We can, however, change ourselves. We can repair ourselves and gain our lost integrity by choosing to look more closely at the knowledge that is stored inside our bodies and bringing this knowledge closer to our awareness. This path, although certainly not easy, is the only route by which we can at last leave behind the cruel, invisible prison of our childhood. We become free by transforming ourselves from unaware victims of the past into responsible individuals in the present, who are aware of our past and are thus able to live with it.

Most people do exactly the opposite. Without realizing that the past is constantly determining their present actions, they avoid learning anything about their history. They continue to live in their repressed childhood situation, ignoring the fact that it no longer exists. They are continuing to fear and avoid dangers that, although once real, have not been real for a long time. They are driven by unconscious memories and by repressed feelings and needs that determine nearly everything they do or fail to do.

This book asks the reader to consider two troubling ideas. The first is that they are likely to be carrying some emotional baggage from their childhood that originates with the way they were cared for by parents and other important adults in their lives. The second is that they are likely to transmit this baggage to their own children (if they have any) and other important, intimate relationships if they don’t find a way to come to terms with it beforehand.

Like the consideration made about the popularity or penetration of certain economic and social philosophies, these ideas are troubling for most people to accept because it forces them to revise their current understanding of the relationships they have with important people in their lives, it forces them to take responsibility for the course of their lives and their choices and give up the perverse safety and security of seeing life through the eyes of the helpless victim and it forces them to concede that the present is not a unique or isolated moment pregnant with infinite possibilities, but rather one moment at the end of a string of moments stretching back into the earliest reaches of human history in which possibilities exist but are limited by certain choices and events which took place in the uncontrollable past.

There is of course great freedom in choosing to explore these troubling ideas but they come at the cost of a grave responsibility that few, based on my practical experience, seem willing to bear.

To find this freedom, one must seek out “the lost world of feelings.” Human infants are entirely dependent upon their adult caretakers for their survival, unlike most other animals who, while weak and undeveloped, are nonetheless able to move around, seek shelter, find food, etc., on their own almost immediately after birth. For a young human, being ostracized or unloved by ones parents is a death sentence. Therefore, the human psyche is wired at birth to prioritize adapting to the parents’ emotional needs over fully developing its own.

If certain emotional expressions or behaviors prove to be problematic for the relationship with the parents, the human child will work to repress and hide that part of themselves. They will disown it and their personality will become dichotomized into “me”, the feelings and behaviors and characteristics I acknowledge and accept because they have demonstrated value with my parents, and “not me”, the feelings and behaviors and characteristics I deny possessing or experiencing because they have been a source of conflict with my parents, on whom I depend for survival.

This is what Miller means when she talks about searching for the “true self.” The irony, however, is that

the child does not know what he is hiding.

That is, it is not as if the child knows what his true self is and isn’t and is lying to himself and others about who he really is. It is more like, he has shoddy vision and can’t see a focused image of himself in true detail, or else he has a map of himself leading to the buried treasure of his own reality but he doesn’t know how to read the map and therefore doesn’t know where his self is or even what he’ll find when he gets there. Every now and then this person might get a glimpse or a sense of their true self in a particularly emotionally charged moment but really all they’re experiencing is the anxiety indicating the existence of repressed and disowned selfhood, not a look at what is missing.

To heal, these emotions must be encountered and experienced. Further, painful emotions must be resolved by tracking down their genesis in early childhood experiences. Memories and relationships with respected and important adult caretakers must be studied and re-evaluated through the more objective eyes of an independent adult rather than the way they were first constructed by a subjective and immature child. This not only allows the adult of the now to be released from the terrors of the former child but it can enable the adult to have new modes of living and doing:

Rational, constructive action depends not only on the intactness of our intellectual faculties, but also on the extent to which we have access to our true emotions.

[…]

the inescapable conclusion is that for people to be able to organize their lives, they must have access to their emotions.

This is one of the many and for me, the most important, takeaways from this book. It is not enough to rationalize about a choice and a potential plan of action. To actually develop an impetus to act requires an emotional experience. Adults who repress certain parts of their emotional selves due to childhood traumas become incapable of acting in certain areas of their lives. They become procrastinators, perfectionists or otherwise evasive in the area of making a decision, acting on it and then sticking with it.

By finding and integrating one’s lost world of feelings, one has the opportunity to become active and empowered in new areas of one’s life that were otherwise mysterious, frustrating or dormant.

One question that comes up for some people as they consider all of this is, “But why did my parents ever treat me in such and such a way?” Using some of the memories and recollections of a famous cultural writer as an example, Miller says,

like so many gifted children [he] was so difficult for his parents to bear not despite but because of his inner riches. Often a child’s very gifts […] will confront his parents with conflicts that they have long sought to keep at bay by means of rules and regulations. These regulations must then be rescued at the cost of the child’s development.

The parents’ childhoods involved repression as well. For their own survival they learned to disown parts of their emotional experience or certain of their behaviors that caused trouble with their parents. They rationalized this turn of events and created rules for living that would help them avoid these perceived dangers. And then when they had children, these rules and procedures came into question by the existence of the innocent child. And so a new round of repression is started.

The only way the cycle can be broken is for the adult to make the painstaking effort to connect with his child self and understand what happened and how it has impacted him, and then he must choose to live his life differently with that new awareness of his past. This is hard for many to do because

What they do not see, because they cannot see them, are the absurdities enacted by their own mothers when they were still tiny children.

Another powerful idea contained in this book is an explanation of the appeal of irrational ideas to adults with traumatic childhood experiences. The trauma of childhood is itself irrational– there is no “reason” for any child to be abused or neglected by those who brought it into the world, and save those who are simply unlucky in having some external misfortune befall their family (ie, the child is made an orphan when the parents die unexpectedly), there is no excuse or justification the adults could offer a child as to why they are being treated as they are. For survival reasons, the child must make a place in their psyche for irrational ideas to exist because in doing so they “close the loop” on the irrationality and make it seem rational. “Some things just don’t make sense” is a way to make sense of things that don’t make sense.

When this space for irrationality exists, adults can become wedded to irrational ideas and beliefs, such as political ideologies, abusive social relationships or supernatural superstitions. On one hand, they lack the ability to rationally resist these ideas and beliefs because they are willing to accept that not everything has to make rational sense in their lives. On the other hand, they may positively identify with the claims of these ideologies because they appeal to their own experiences or sense of self as a victim who is oppressed by others, that is, they offer a way to feel like they’re getting even. On this point Miller is worth quoting at length:

Oppression and the forcing of submission do not begin in the office, factory or political party; they begin in the very first weeks of the infant’s life.

[…]

Political action can be fed by the unconscious rage of children who have been misused, imprisoned, exploited, cramped and drilled. This rage can be partially discharged in fighting “enemies”, without having to give up the idealization of one’s own parents. The old dependency will then simply be shifted to a new group or leader. If, however, disillusionment and the resultant mourning can be lived through, social and political disengagement do not usually follow, but our actions are freed from the compulsion to repeat. They can then have a clear goal, formed out of conscious decisions.

Once our own reality has been faced and experienced, the inner necessity to keep building up new illusions and denials in order to avoid the experience of that reality disappears. We then realize that all our lives we have feared and struggled to ward off something that really cannot happen any longer; it has already happened, at the very beginning of our lives while we were completely dependent.

The term “fighting yesterday’s battles” comes to mind when thinking about this irrational space.

While Miller’s analysis applies to any child and any adult experiencing emotional pain and depression (whether they’re aware of it or not!), the book is especially focused on the plight of “gifted” children because of the uniquely problematic experience they can have in this area due to their talents and abilities. Not only do “gifted” children tend to experience these emotional troubles more deeply,

many people suffering from severe symptoms are very intelligent

but they also tend to experience these troubles uniquely through feelings of grandiosity and contempt.

Grandiosity is the concept of identifying one’s personal value as a person with one’s special talents and abilities. One’s greatness isn’t just a part of one’s self, it IS the self. But this complicates the emotional life of the gifted child because it is inevitable that not every part of themselves is grand. There exists then another dichotomy, wherein all the parts that are grand (which may be very few and overall represent a quite limited part of the total person or experience of self) are “me”, and all the parts that are normal or weak (which is likely then the majority and the wider experience of self) are “not me”. And if my parents love and care for the grand gifts I have but dislike or don’t know how to deal with the unexceptional aspects of my self, then

we remain at bottom the one who is despised, for we have to despise everything in ourselves that is not wonderful, good, clever… we despise… in short, the child in ourselves and in others.

[…]

“Without these achievements, these gifts, I could never be loved. would never have been loved.”

An emotional experience that often goes hand in hand with grandiosity is contempt.

The function all expressions of contempt have in common is the defense against unwanted feelings. [ie, despising what is not grand about oneself]

[…]

Once we are able to feel and understand the repressed emotions of childhood, we will no longer need contempt as a defense against them.

[…]

Contempt as a rule will cease with the beginning of the mourning for the irreversible that cannot be changed… it is, after all, less painful to think that the others do not understand because they are too stupid.

Gifted people often experience contempt for others as an expression of insecurity about the repressed parts of themselves that are not part of their gifts. Unable to have empathy and kindness towards themselves in these areas, they become impatient and hostile towards those reminders of their own weakness that they see in others.

Sadly,

hating and offending an innocent person, using him as a scapegoat, can only strengthen the walls of our inner prison of confusion, isolation, fear and loneliness: it cannot free us.

And the most innocent person of all, the most unfair scapegoat a person can choose in this drama, is their child self. Whether these ideas are new or familiar, I encourage anyone reading this to consider the implications of the ideas contained in this book not as if they describe a set of generalized human experiences but rather as if they describe something specific and personal to the reader himself. If this book’s message can be taken to heart and internalized, it can be the jumping off point for great personal change that will ultimately resolve itself in what Miller refers to as a “healthy self-feeling”:

I understand a healthy self-feeling to mean the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and needs one experiences are a part of one’s self.

 

Quotes – Excelling In Trivialities

Anger, spite, malice, impatience, and a vehement desire of getting the better in a concern wherein it were more excusable to be ambitious of being overcome; for to be eminent, to excel above the common rate in frivolous things, nowise befits a man of honor. What I say in this example may be said in all others. Every particle, every employment of man manifests him equally with any other.

~Michel de Montaigne

How Science Is Science? How Irrational Is Irrational?

Daniel Kahneman helped make chic the idea that mankind is fundamentally irrational, especially when it comes to economics or more crudely as people think of economics, money. At least, that’s what people who read his “Thinking, Fast and Slow” book think he was saying.

I find this “science” to be infuriating and misleading. It gets people to overemphasize the small, selectively irrational parts of the workings of the human mind while ignoring the large, broadly rational parts of the human mind. If what you needed to know about humanity is that we’re really just irrational, you’d be at a loss to explain the wonderfully rational world around us– physics, engineering, social organization and yes… economics.

I have a low estimation of people who find this book and its message appealing. It says a lot more to me about their unresolved childhood traumas and emotional needs than it does about the way the world really works or anyone else’s ability to think critically about various subjects.

And that’s all assuming that what Kahneman wrote a huge book about was actually true! But if it’s not even true, if his science lacks scientificness, well, then we’ve got real problems. On that note, this was fucking embarrassing:

From Daniel Kahneman

I accept the basic conclusions of this blog. To be clear, I do so (1) without expressing an opinion about the statistical techniques it employed and (2) without stating an opinion about the validity and replicability of the individual studies I cited.

What the blog gets absolutely right is that I placed too much faith in underpowered studies. As pointed out in the blog, and earlier by Andrew Gelman, there is a special irony in my mistake because the first paper that Amos Tversky and I published was about the belief in the “law of small numbers,” which allows researchers to trust the results of underpowered studies with unreasonably small samples. We also cited Overall (1969) for showing “that the prevalence of studies deficient in statistical power is not only wasteful but actually pernicious: it results in a large proportion of invalid rejections of the null hypothesis among published results.” Our article was written in 1969 and published in 1971, but I failed to internalize its message.

My position when I wrote “Thinking, Fast and Slow” was that if a large body of evidence published in reputable journals supports an initially implausible conclusion, then scientific norms require us to believe that conclusion. Implausibility is not sufficient to justify disbelief, and belief in well-supported scientific conclusions is not optional. This position still seems reasonable to me – it is why I think people should believe in climate change. But the argument only holds when all relevant results are published.

I knew, of course, that the results of priming studies were based on small samples, that the effect sizes were perhaps implausibly large, and that no single study was conclusive on its own. What impressed me was the unanimity and coherence of the results reported by many laboratories. I concluded that priming effects are easy for skilled experimenters to induce, and that they are robust. However, I now understand that my reasoning was flawed and that I should have known better. Unanimity of underpowered studies provides compelling evidence for the existence of a severe file-drawer problem (and/or p-hacking). The argument is inescapable: Studies that are underpowered for the detection of plausible effects must occasionally return non-significant results even when the research hypothesis is true – the absence of these results is evidence that something is amiss in the published record. Furthermore, the existence of a substantial file-drawer effect undermines the two main tools that psychologists use to accumulate evidence for a broad hypotheses: meta-analysis and conceptual replication. Clearly, the experimental evidence for the ideas I presented in that chapter was significantly weaker than I believed when I wrote it. This was simply an error: I knew all I needed to know to moderate my enthusiasm for the surprising and elegant findings that I cited, but I did not think it through. When questions were later raised about the robustness of priming results I hoped that the authors of this research would rally to bolster their case by stronger evidence, but this did not happen.

I still believe that actions can be primed, sometimes even by stimuli of which the person is unaware. There is adequate evidence for all the building blocks: semantic priming, significant processing of stimuli that are not consciously perceived, and ideo-motor activation. I see no reason to draw a sharp line between the priming of thoughts and the priming of actions. A case can therefore be made for priming on this indirect evidence. But I have changed my views about the size of behavioral priming effects – they cannot be as large and as robust as my chapter suggested.

I am still attached to every study that I cited, and have not unbelieved them, to use Daniel Gilbert’s phrase. I would be happy to see each of them replicated in a large sample. The lesson I have learned, however, is that authors who review a field should be wary of using memorable results of underpowered studies as evidence for their claims.

Some Takeaways From My Time At The D.School

I’m back from Stanford’s d.school and have a few ideas I jotted in my notebook while I was there:

  1. Learn to celebrate failure; watch how you react to it
  2. Let go of your desire to control outcomes; with humans involved, nothing ever goes according to plan
  3. Try things, practice, iterate
  4. Don’t build expense into prototyping; the more it costs, the harder it is to iterate and change and the less you can learn from your failures
  5. Don’t make insight generation complicated
  6. Where is the burning platform? Look for that place and work on the problems involved
  7. Innovation is the outcome of a process, and innovators are the people who do it
  8. The design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test and back again
  9. The answers are not in this building
  10. When empathizing, spend 15% of your time engaging, noticing and following-up and 85% of your time seeking stories
  11. The purpose of your empathy research is to capture emotion; what is it? where does it come from?
  12. Gravitate in your empathizing and your design thinking process between flaring and focusing
  13. When defining, start with an observation, make an inference, then form a hunch that can carry you to insight
  14. Solve one problem at a time
  15. POV essentials: preserve emotion and the individual, use strong language, sensical wording, non-obvious leaps and generate possibilities that lead to problems the team wants to help solve
  16. 5 users are sufficient to capture 85% of usability cases
  17. Tail-end users have explicit needs and better represent the implicit needs of median users
  18. The future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed
  19. Trusting relationships are the foundation of generative work
  20. Learn how things fail before it matters, not when it does
  21. You can only learn by doing, not by planning
  22. Match prototyping resolution to idea certainty to allow yourself to hear the inevitable critical feedback
  23. Testing = empathy; your prototype is your empathy probe
  24. The value is in the user and their emotions, not in the prototype or experience model itself
  25. The goal is to develop empathy with the user, not the make the prototype perfect; seek understanding
  26. All action aims at advancing the frame and the concept towards convergence
  27. What do your users say about the concept? The users’ reactions and excitement indicate proximity to convergence and likely next steps
  28. 3 elements of storytelling: action, emotion and detail
  29. 100% of people who succeed, start
  30. Struggle and learning are complements; there is no learning without struggle, and the more one struggles, the more one has opportunity to learn; you can not master new knowledge from a place of comfort

Some or even many of these are probably difficult to make sense of or place without further context about the design thinking process.

What Is Austrian Economics?

I was recently invited to give a talk to a group of local investors about Austrian economics. The presentation ran about 2hrs w/ questions. Below is the slide show I shared, which I believe also has slide notes attached that explain the contents of each slide. The material, while lengthy, is not comprehensive. This is supposed to be a holistic flyover. Also, while the intended audience were investors, really only the last few slides pertain to things investors would want to know and the majority of the presentation should make sense to anyone interested in learning more about (Austrian) economics.

What is Austrian economics? Praxeology for practical (value) investors
In preparing this presentation, I found two resources helpful. One is a “top 10” list of what Austrian economics is about according to Eamon Butler from the UK. The second was from an article I searched for which I think I found on Mises.org called “What is Austrian economics?” which I then distilled down to the summary concepts from the larger narrative of the article.

Eamon Butler

  1. Economics is about individuals (micro vs. macro)
  2. Economics is not like natural sciences (no experimental method; in economics cause is known, effect is unknown, in natural sciences effect is known, cause is unknown)
  3. Subjective value vs. objective value
  4. Prices communicate meaningful info about value and cost
  5. Competition is a process of entrepreneurial discovery, not deterministic perfection
  6. Private ownership essential to price formation and exchange (can not get prices without exchange, prices show us what is most valued versus least valued)
  7. Production is an entrepreneurial act that may result in malinvestment
  8. Money is not neutral and inflation distorts the economy
  9. Spontaneous order vs. central planning
  10. Govt intervention involves social guesswork and has real costs

What Is Austrian Economics?

  1. First job of an economist is to tell govt what it can’t do
  2. Methdology of the “thought experiment”
  3. Economics is not about amassing data, but verbalizing universal facts and exploring their logical implications
  4. “Marginalist revolution”
  5. methodological individualism; science of individual choice
  6. uses deductive logic
  7. emphasizes universal fact of time preference
  8. normal rate of profit = interest rate
  9. heterogenous capital w/ time dimension
  10. economic growth = capital intensitivity and longer (roundabout) process
  11. regression theorem; money originates in the market
  12. ABCT (application?)
  13. socialism permits no ownership and exchange of capital goods; creates calculational chaos
  14. deductive method; praxeology, logic of action
  15. monopoly theory; welfare & utility; theory of the state

Review – The Bully Pulpit

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism

by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published 2013

I picked up this title for two reasons. The first reason was to try to explore the phenomenon of “fake news” and the mainstream media’s war on Donald Trump’s presidency (and vice versa), to better understand the modern concept of the official press as an important check on government/regime power. The second reason was because at (now) 2,024 reviews on Amazon with an average 4.5-stars, this book seemed to promise it’d be a great, and long at 700+ pages of narrative text, story and I was looking for a great story, something that, whatever I thought of the point being argued, at least proved to be interesting and artfully constructed.

On the second point, I find myself frustrated. The research that went into this book is clearly exhaustive– the author speaks almost as much through verbatim quotes from primary source documents of the period (journal entries, private correspondence, public speeches, newspaper articles and editorials, memoirs, etc.) as she does in her own voice. This lends itself to creepy quirks of the book, such as the preponderance of quotes in which Theodore Roosevelt is found explaining himself in confidence via correspondence with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a character whose relationship with Roosevelt is never formally introduced or explained! It kind of makes Teddy seem like a tool of some higher, shadowy powers. Why was he constantly justifying himself to another politician when the author never bothered to tell us when and how they met?

But this doesn’t seem to make for a great story. The narrative is rather breathless and sycophantic in tone. Teddy, a progressive openly-hidden amongst Republican ranks, is one of the good guys, he never gives up and, progressivism being the inevitable enlightened state of the universe toward which historical events are constantly moving us all, he of course never meets any real resistance along the way and always wins in the end. And this is a good thing. We never see the author questioning him, catching him in contradictions (though there are many for the alert reader!) or asking how it is that this One, Good Man managed to succeed in a wholly corrupt system and reform it despite the various Interests who had so much at stake in stopping him.

For a critic of progressivism, there is no profundity to consider; for the advocate, no value in confirming what is already known. The story is boring.

As for the topic of “fake news” and watchdog journalism, that must’ve developed at some other time period. We learn again and again of how Roosevelt took various progressive journalists of the era into his confidence and made friends of them, and them of him, with many ebullient feelings being shared all around. We learn of his unique talent for cultivating relationships with these journalists who then heralded him and his policies for public consumption, and we also come to understand the important value this access represented to people who essentially are merchants of information those with access frequently come by. In some scenes, we see them conspiring so closely that it almost seems that the journalists are formulating policy, and the politician is writing the story.

In other words, we see a symbiotic relationship that serves power. Where’s the watchdog here?

One thing I wondered as I read this book was, “Was progressivism truly inevitable?” It’s hard to see how it could’ve been stopped, or what would’ve existed that was much different from it if it had been. Roosevelt’s insidious support for what every critic at the time could quite obviously see was socialism, from within the Republican party, which according to repeated insistence from the text had a stranglehold over the entire government, calls to mind the cliche, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” It seems that there was a competitive advantage in politics in moving further and further to the left, no matter what party you came from, and the investigative journalists of the era (such as the evil Lincoln Steffens, who spent many years becoming “educated” in Europe about Marxism on his businessman father’s nickel) were only too happy to assist in readying the public for this ideological assault. When you read the accounts of the period of union workers intimidating “scab” worker families (women and kids), beating strike-breaking workers and even dynamiting non-union workers in public places, it kind of sounds like terrorism, something that seems like it would be a hard sell to good-hearted middle class Americans.

Yet, that is the side of history that won, and guys like Roosevelt and the investigative journalists helped make it happen.

It seems like it’s worth not forgetting that when listening to the media today tell us the important role it plays in preventing democracy from dying in darkness while it does the bidding of the Deep State.

3/5

Review – The First Tycoon (#review, #books, #capitalism, #history, #entrepreneurship)

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

by T.J. Stiles, published 2010

How and why did Cornelius Vanderbilt, steamship and railroad entrepreneur, become America’s “first tycoon” and in the process earn a fortune worth an estimated $100M in the 1870s? The simplest answer provided by this lengthy biography is that Vanderbilt was able to think about abstract entities such as corporations as representing competitive business opportunities in an age when most other people controlling them thought of them as profitable grants of privilege from the State (which they were). The result was that Vanderbilt thought strategically about his acquisitions in the sense of actively seeking to own things with identifiable competitive advantages (the best route, the lowest operating costs, network effects) which he would then exploit while slashing prices, while his competitors were stuck playing defense until they gave up and offered to buy him out in self-defense.

But the book really doesn’t offer enough specific and concrete evidence to validate this thesis, it’s really just a hunch and an attempt to read between the lines of what is offered. Like most biographers and historians, Stiles consistently fluctuates between the two extremes of failing to provide the necessary evidence to actually understand what was happening and why, and forcing a tortured narrative metaphor of “the capitalist as king/general” that ends up just confusing the issues. Vanderbilt is constantly in “rate wars”, is “battling” for control of companies and finds himself with an “empire” after yet another “conquest.” But we never hear this language in Vanderbilt’s own quotations (based upon written correspondence, newspaper interviews and courtroom testimony) which are numerous.

How Vanderbilt saw himself as a businessman and operator, and how Stiles chooses to depict him with his jarring anachronistic fadism are even more incongruous because Stiles himself spends much of the time arguing against his own descriptions! It is a puzzling choice. Perhaps books about old tyme capitalists don’t sell well without a not so subtle nod to the villainous Robber Baron laying in wait inside of all of them, but it’s a shame because the much more interesting story would’ve been the one told through Vanderbilt’s own eyes. Not to mention the fact that the Robber Baron myth is a lie perpetrated against Vanderbilt, not because he was a horrible monopolist but because he was such a pain in the ass to the horrible monopolists!

[The NYT] attacked him for, as he wrote elsewhere, “driving too sharp a competition” [… deriding] “competition for competition’s sake; competition which crowds out legitimate enterprises… or imposes tribute upon them” [… and called on] “our mercantile community to look the curse of competition fully in the face.”

Similarly, there are constant references to “the world Vanderbilt helped make” with reference to markets and businesses, the city of New York and the emergent nation of the United States of America. And while certainly the man’s actions and decisions were influential and impactful, Vanderbilt was not a statesman and never saw himself as anything more than an ambitious private citizen. There is not one example in the book of Vanderbilt plotting to remake the world in his own image. This is just another forced biographical trope that dopey readers, editors and authors seem to think makes a story ten times better to insist upon when the world just doesn’t have that many psychopaths in fact.

Other information missing from the story that seems essential to charting Vanderbilt’s rise: what he paid for various business assets and how he financed them, what he earned from them and what he paid in taxes, when he controlled an asset and when he was a minority partner, etc. Especially, we should like to know his leverage over time and how he was able to benefit from the various money panics that occurred repeatedly throughout his business career. One thing is for certain, he seemed to always be a buyer in such scenarios, never a seller, and he seemed comfortable being in control of his investments and making and enforcing operating policy, rather than being a mere financial speculator such as a partner like Daniel Drew might.

There are many charming bits of early American social and business vernacular we learn sprinkled throughout the book and its strength is in providing so many direct quotations from primary sources, especially the business media of the day, which really help to flavor the narrative and transport the reader to the place and time described. But this can also be a weakness, when the author ends up name-dropping a litany of capitalists involved in some deal or scheme and dribbling their worries and anxieties from private correspondence over several pages as the deal unfolds. I found it difficult to follow and mostly tuned out what I assume are supposed to be the action-packed moments of the story.

I first read this book shortly after it was published in 2010. I since decided to re-read it and while I wish I had had a bit more energy and focus when I did, I am glad of it. I took a new and different appreciation from some of the book’s events than I did on first pass, which suggests I’ve either improved my mental framework or at least changed it in meaningful ways over the last 7 years. Vanderbilt still comes across as a unique and heroic figure, a true titanic will. The narrative is as confused and cluttered as ever, and while I think there were the makings of a better, more concisely argued book here, and the author certainly has done his research, I am not convinced he did the right research or even fully understood what lessons he was taking away from it. The result is I’ve since downgraded the value of this particular work in my mind and think it belongs to a pretty standard class of historical biographies. Vanderbilt the man himself though is easily a five out of five as far as members of humanity are concerned!

I’ve got far more I’d be willing and able to discuss about this work and Vanderbilt as an example in private correspondence than I think I could fit into a short, coherent blog post, so really ruminating on this story will have to wait for another time and a different occasion.

3/5