The Tuesday

Economy & Business

The Significance of Business in American History

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan shortly before the closing bell as the market takes a significant dip, February 25, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Hello, and welcome to The Tuesday.

Home and Away

Here is my recent podcast with the Aspen Daily News. We talk about this National Review article, “Billionaires and Baristas,” about the Aspen housing market, part of a three-story package on housing and housing policy. Here’s me on being ready for covid-19, on being ready for Bernie, why we should make it easier for felons to get good jobs, and why conservatives should think twice before cheering the Harvard administration’s vetoing of the economics department’s job offer to Gabriel Zucman, a leftist economist.

My National Review archive can be found here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

Words about Words

I was very fortunate to have the experience of being present at what turned out, sadly, to be the last of the National Review editorial dinners at William F. Buckley Jr.’s home. (“73 73rd Street at 7:30” — easy to remember.) At one point during the dinner, Bill was talking about some writer’s prose style. He turned to me: “It was . . . what’s the word, like ‘engraved in stone’?” “Lapidary?” “Yes, lapidary.” (I went home that night and wrote a letter to one of my high-school English teachers, reporting that WFB had asked me for a vocabulary word and that I’d had it, and that she should ask for a raise.) Lapidary as a noun means someone who cuts and polishes gems; as an adjective, the American Heritage Dictionary has it “Marked by conciseness, precision, or refinement of expression: lapidary prose.” Lapidary is one of those very National Review words, like exnihilate or immanentize. That’s a tradition worth keeping up, I think.

Unapologetic Prescriptivism

“The new EV from the American automaker is sure to make some people jealous in other markets,” writes an automotive journalist about the new Menlo electric automobile from General Motors, which will be sold only in China. But you would not write that, because you know the difference between jealousy and envy — you are jealous of that which you already possess and envious of what others have that you desire: A jealous husband is anxious about his own wife, but if he covets someone else’s wife, he is envious. Someone who is very attentive to honor may guard his reputation jealously or he may envy the standing of a rival. Most of the time, people use jealous when they mean envious, not the other way around. If these distinctions seem trivial, consider that it is useful to have different words for different things. Forte (fort) and forte (for-TAY) do not mean the same thing and are, in fact, borrowings from different languages: The one-syllable word indicating something you are good at comes from French, while the two-syllable word meaning to pound the piano keys with emphasis comes from Italian. They both have an underlying connotation of strength. But here you will see the limits of prescriptivism: The mistaken usage of forte has become so common that if you say it correctly, people will correct you.

Please send your language questions or remarks to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com.

Why Has Big Business Moved to the Left?

Something I have observed in my travels and reporting over the past decade: From Wall Street to Silicon Valley and from Aspen to Austin, the culture of the American business elite has moved distinctly to the left.

Why?

“Wealthy businessman” used to be practically a synonym for “conservative” in the popular imagination. That was not always entirely accurate, inasmuch as some of those old Robber Barons were actually quite progressive in their economic assumptions (back when “destructive competition” and “public interest” monopolies were all the rage), but it was broadly true.

It is not true today: If you look at the ten, 20, or 50 largest U.S. companies, you will see corporate cultures that, with few exceptions, range from politically neutral(ish) to politically progressive, and practically none that is assertively conservative in the way Apple or Amazon — or ExxonMobil! — is assertively progressive. (It seems to me significant that the largest exception, Koch Industries, is privately held rather than publicly traded.) Even Walmart’s vaunted conservatism is, largely, a thing of the past. The wealthy businessmen of our time are by and large progressive in their instincts: The Democratic primary field in 2020 had two technology billionaires, a millionaire entrepreneur, and a McKinsey guy, along with bunch of rich lawyers. The list of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time (Bezos, Gates, Buffett, Zuckerberg, Ellison, Page and Brin, Bloomberg) does not contain a lot of Republicans. (Bloomberg gets an asterisk.) Even the Walton heirs have moved in the Democratic and progressive direction, both in their political giving and in their philanthropy.

The shift to the left is especially true of the newer corporate giants, which are mostly technology firms: Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Dell, etc. But even corporate Methuselahs such as Procter & Gamble (founded in 1837) and JPMorgan Chase (descendent of J. P. Morgan & Co., founded 1879) are today distinctly progressive in their politics: P&G was a longtime advocate of homosexual marriage, for example, while JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon was tight with Barack Obama, whose administration courted and enjoyed the support of such Wall Street titans as Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein and Citigroup’s Vikram Pandit. A couple of years ago, I attended a forum at South by Southwest organized by a grievance start-up called Female Quotient, where the audience got an earful about how American capitalism stacks the deck against women and minorities, a wokey-woke woke-ity jolt of wokefulness that enjoyed the patronage of Google, PepsiCo, AT&T, NBCUniversal, Facebook, UBS, JPMorgan Chase, and Deloitte. I guess the guys from McKinsey were too busy prepping Pete Buttigieg for the presidency to attend.

If the politics of Big Business has changed, that is because business has changed.

When he was helping to plot the American Revolution, George Washington was said to be the wealthiest man in the colonies. (He certainly was one of the wealthiest, if not the single wealthiest.) He was a farmer. He was a gentleman, but he also worked — on the farm, as a surveyor, as a miller, and more. The fortunes of colonial America were mostly founded on farming, and agriculture touched everything from shipping to banking — and, later, everything from manufacturing to railroads. Fortunes were made in commodities and land speculation, but they were made by entrepreneurs with backgrounds as farmers and ranchers, merchants, and shippers. Many of those who made fortunes in timber began with saws and axes in their hands. There is a culture particular to the economy of cultivation and extraction. They weren’t day traders — they were settlers.

The entrepreneurial culture of our homesteading frontier society tended to be highly individualistic in its assumptions and its mythologies. Ford was largely the creation of one man, Henry Ford. Procter & Gamble was the creation of two men, J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, men who did their own business in their own way, who created fortunes that belonged to them and them alone. It was this era of capitalism that gave rise to the heroic conception of the businessman as celebrated by Ayn Rand, among others. Some of that is true, and some of that is myth, but one is as good as the other when it comes to informing culture. And the culture formed by the earlier age of American business identified success with virtue, holding that success in business was closely associated with moral success, with sobriety, thrift, perseverance, industry, and other manly virtues. That and the fact that the most important capital of that time was physical rather than intellectual and digital probably explains a great deal of the conservatism of business culture in the 19th century, a conservatism that lasted well into the 20th century.

The wealthiest people in a society such as ours tend to be entrepreneurs, and vast new fortunes most commonly are made by starting a business. There are some very wealthy men who had their incomes mainly in the form of salary, but you do not become a Bill Gates or a Peter Thiel on salary: That kind of fortune isn’t a check the boss writes you — that’s a check you write yourself. But the affections and prejudices of business founders often are transmitted to the adjacent classes of salaried credentialed professionals and businessmen, and founders leave their stamps on the culture through their personal mythologies (often assiduously cultivated) and through the organizations they create. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it probably was easier to transmit that heroic conception of the businessman throughout American commercial culture because there remained a very large number of sole proprietorships and small partnerships, and in many influential professions (doctors and lawyers, for example), the normal course of many careers included hanging out your own shingle and starting a practice of your own.

There is (or, rather, there was) a certain hardness to American conservatism, and there was a certain hardness that was indispensable to business in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. That wilderness did not clear itself. These twin attitudes remained very much bound up with each other, and, to some lesser extent, still are. In disposition, prewar American business and prewar American conservatism were made for each other. In large part, American conservatism before William F. Buckley Jr. defined itself as encouraging and enabling American business, at times through instruments such as tariffs and federal infrastructure projects (Abraham Lincoln’s “improvements”) that later conservatives would reject in favor of a more consistently free-market view. One might understand the “nationalism” of Donald Trump’s economic policies (and those of “economic patriotism” Democrats such as Barack Obama) as a kind of halfhearted return to the politics of “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”

But the frontier is long closed, and American entrepreneurship in the 21st century is fundamentally different from what came before. I do not mean here to elevate one model at the expense of the other or to bemoan the loss of some golden age of Little House on the Prairie capitalism and the virtues that went with it, but only to try to understand what has happened and why.

Modern entrepreneurship is a very different thing from what preceded it: There are more well-established processes and institutions, including the virtual pipeline that runs from the Ivy League and a few other elite schools to Silicon Valley and Wall Street. There is a more intentional model of mentorship, a more carefully cultivated sense of community (especially the one encompassing venture capitalists and technology startups), and a genuine social network (a real one, not a digital one) that helps to connect capital with ideas. There is competition, of course, but Silicon Valley sometimes operates almost (almost) as though it were one large sprawling firm. And just as the individualism of the old 19th-century entrepreneurs was easily transmitted through adjacent professions thanks to economic and cultural similarities, the new progressive culture of Silicon Valley and high finance also finds fertile ground. Lawyers and doctors, to take the classical cases, are much more likely today to work in large, complex organizations than they were in the postwar era, when their professional antecedents were furthering a different understanding of capitalist culture. In the 1950s, there were only a handful (fewer than 40) of U.S. law firms with 50 or more lawyers; Norton Rose Fulbright today has more than 4,000 by itself, and it is not the largest U.S. law firm. The virtues and skills that make one successful navigating that kind of complex social environment are different from the ones that made Friedrich Weyerhäuser wealthy.

Which is to say, the change in business culture is an exaggerated version of the partisan split through American life. If you take a subway to work in a city with more than a million people and go to work in a firm with 8,000 employees, you’re about 1,000 times more likely to vote Democratic than you are if you drive an F-150 and live in the same small town as your grandparents and work in a family-owned business with six employees. As I write in The Smallest Minority, F. A. Hayek worried (presciently) that the predominance of salaried employment in large organizations, displacing sole-proprietorships and more widespread entrepreneurial employment, would change the culture and change attitudes toward property and business management. A world of employees is different from a world of farmers, traders, merchants, and shopkeepers. And that is the world we live in.

Closing Thoughts

What and how business thinks matters. After the 2008 election, I reported in National Review:

Wall Street isn’t politically agnostic, and there’s more to its politics than money. Culture matters, and you won’t find a lot of Pentecostal churches in Greenwich, Conn. Wall Street guys, for the most part, do not have time for social conservatives. “Of course these guys aren’t conservative,” says one longtime bond trader. “Why the [expletive deleted] would they be? We’re talking about guys who live in Manhattan, guys with manicures and eight-figure bank balances. And their wives — their wives aren’t showing up at parents’ day at Brearley with a Sarah Palin button. It’d be like showing up in flip-flops from Wal-Mart. Like showing up in a [rather lengthier expletive deleted] tracksuit.”

This cultural divide is particularly visible in New York City politics. “Ten to 15 years ago, half of the Upper East Side [officeholders] were Republican,” says John Mills, executive vice president of the Lexington Democratic Club. “There’s not one Republican there now. Abortion and gay rights are two of the biggest issues, and there are a lot of Jewish voters here not comfortable with Christian conservatives.”

Wall Street has no love for the southern, rural, and evangelical. But it’s not just the Jesus stuff — the southern and rural parts matter, too.

There is a lot to love about the Southern and the rural. But a conservatism that treats California and New York, the whole of both coasts, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and every city bigger than Provo as the enemy is a conservatism without a future.

Until Tuesday,

Kevin D. Williamson

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