Friday, November 4, 2011

1920s: Presidents of the '20s--Harding

For my next assignment I decided to read consecutively the Times series biographies of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, treating them as one continuous Republican administration.

Up first is Warren Harding, longtime favorite of my father, who is a fan presidential history, because of all of the juicy tales of corruption and intrigue around his death. That is until he read this book.

Many of the authors in this series are fans or apologists for their subjects, as is the case with John Dean.  And I smile that they found a former member of the Nixon White House to write about the infamously corrupt Harding administration.  Throughout the book the author is making two basic arguments:

  1. Warren Harding's legacy has been unfairly, and incorrectly, tied to corruption.
  2. He was not one of the worst presidents in history, but in fact a very good one.

The case Dean makes against Harding being corrupt is actually very solid.  As scandals were breaking at the time he died a lot of colleagues and politicians had incentive to find a scapegoat and focus attention on him to protect themselves.  I had always learned that he was "one of the good old boys", but he actually was not a lifelong Washington politician, having only spent a few years in the Senate before his election.  So there was not a lot of deep relationships with people that would look to protect his legacy.  Also telling, is the media's lack of interest in truly investigating the stories of what happened.

It may have been independently published accounts that made the first or juiciest accusations of corruption, affairs, and even his being murdered by his wife.  While the major press and scholars may not have originated or spread these stories, they certainly did not look to correct the public record by the simple fact that his personal files sat untouched in a basement for forty years.

As for the case that his subject is an under-appreciated President, (the same argument most authors make in this series), Dean's argument is weaker.  At best, if you remove any stain from corrupt colleagues and assume Harding was innocent of any knowledge or involvement, you can say that his presidency was simply incomplete.  He did not live long enough to see a lot of his policies enacted.  His style of leadership in the Senate and campaign trail to "offend no one, make friends everywhere, bring together factions as the peacemaker" (p 52) didn't really translate to a strong leader in office.

At the end of the day, Harding was the transition from the Wilson years of Democratic control to the era of Republican leadership that contributed to the freewheeling 1920s, and eventually its later colossal collapse.   Along with Coolidge and Hoover I plan on reading other books on the decade of jazz, Prohibition, and economic growth built on margin.  I am curious to see how much these presidencies and their policies affected the changes in culture and an out of control economic engine.

Dean's book gets 3/5 stars for being a decent read and attempt at setting the record straight.

(Read October 2011)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

1910s: Early Auto Industry

Each Labor Day weekend I go to Auburn, Indiana for a classic car festival, including a trip to the Auburn Cord Dusenberg Museum that tells the story of automobile manufacturing in Indiana in the first decades of the Twentieth Century. I am always fascinated by the hundreds of small car companies that were founded by tinkering mechanics that added engines to carriages, or by an enterprising businessman to assemble and market autos made entirely from acquired parts.

These were true start up companies at the infancy stages of an industry, with the same as we are seeing today in technology. Many small companies enter the market with an incremental innovation or with access to a new piece of the market. Many of these companies quickly fail, but a few catch enough lightning for short-term success. Then consolidation begins, and access and control of capital becomes an equally important factor to pure innovation and operations.

Many of these pioneer automakers only produced a handful or even just one car under its own brand before being lost to history. The ones that have survived today, the Buick, Ford, Chevrolets, Chrysler, are the result of both a great vision and effort of their founders as much as pure fortune of being in the right place at the right time. Pelfrey's Billy, Alfred, and General Motors is a fascinating story of how two gentlemen had the right vision while being at the right place and time.

While other pioneers, especially Ford, were successful building scale from initial concepts, this story shows how Billy Durant's path to consolidate different brands being the first to create economies of capital gave GM the infrastructure and competitive advantage to quickly emerge as the early, dominant player in the industry. But GM's legacy was only solidified, the author argues, because Durant was succeeded by Alfred Sloan who tranformed Durant's conglomeration into a single-functioning company with economies of scale that could continue to compete and grow.

While even now we are seeing companies take a competitive advantage to grow to a dominant position and then later lose when it cannot adapt, the story of GM's early generations shows the rare company that is able to radically evolve. In recent years we have seen IBM reinvent itself after Microsoft's rise, and then Microsoft's struggle to change.

This book was great after reading the stories of the industrial revolution titans taking advantage of innovations and government trying to adapt to keep up with a rapidly changing country. The rise of the auto industry expands upon these trends resulting in stories of average born but industrious individuals competing and building national businesses. The true American story of the Twentieth Century was born.

Pelfry's book is a really fun read, 5/5 stars. It was written for a General Motors anniversary and maybe is a little too bias toward the company legacy, especially compared to Ford, but I didn't care here and the stories of the various characters and ventures were well researched and told.

(Read August 2011)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

1910s: WWI

I am not a big fan of military history, but I needed to read about World War I as it seemed to be glossed over in the shadow of World War II in history classes. It almost seems reduced to trivia answers: the Archduke Ferdinand, trench warfare, doughboys, the Red Baron, Treaty of Versailles. Maybe the fact that the US was late to enter the war and it was relatively brief and less painful than the Europeans' experience that it is almost overlooked in US history studies. Go to any large bookstore (while you can) and peruse the history and military aisles. There are rows and rows of Civil War and WWII books. Entire sections. And nestled in between you will probably find the obligatory account of the Spanish American War (most likely focusing on Teddy Roosevelt) and maybe a book or two about the Great War in Europe.

But what was the experience of the United States? Even if it was a short engagement the mobilization was massive compared to the somewhat recent conflict in Cuba. And the country was a very different place than when a previous generation raised arms in the Civil War. How did that happen? That is what I wanted to read about. With no compelling recent books I found The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I written in 1968 by Edward Coffman. The book is exactly as advertised in the title. It barely covers the European conflict prior to the American involvement and then focuses exclusively on the planning, mobilization, administration, and finally major battles.

The battle description in the latter part of the book were interesting from the perspective of the decision-making and communications challenges, however it did not capture the true experiences of the thousands that lived and died through the horrors of early modern warfare.

The first half of the book described a mobilization effort that is still almost unbelieveable. The United States had a very, very small standing army and the institutions and infrastructure were basically nonexistent, or relics of the Civil War. That includes people and knowledge. The conscription, training, feeding, clothing, and moving of more than a million men from a standstill is remarkable. Of course many had little to no training. Others used sticks instead of guns for practice until they reached the front. Tanks and airplanes were brand new technology that no one knew how to use and maintain, let alone to understand and coordinate optimal military strategies for them.

The infrastructure created, including the financing and industrial relations, will obviously be key to the country's ability to expand into a world power in the coming century, specifically its lead role in WWII. (Personal shout out to Mr. Bernard Baruch for his leadership in WWI as the most famous alum and namesake of my graduate school!) While the book stopped with the armistice, I want to know more how much the country was truly changed by this experience, how much infrastructure remained versus dismantled, and how the attitude of people changed as the soldiers returned to waving flags and bands with stories of the horror of a great war, all against a backdrop of a rapidly world and their country's position in that world was changing.

Coffman's book is a fine read. 3/5 stars. As mentioned the focus is exclusively on the American experience. While it is not a page turner, it is readable and appears to be thorough, with a good use of primary sources and accounts from multiple perspectives. Written in 1968, there are fleeting references to Vietnam and he anticipates World War II, often hinting at people who would later become prominent in that story.

(Read July 2011)

Friday, April 22, 2011

1910s: Taft Administration

I prefer to read biographies and presidential histories on the lesser-known presidents, focusing on specific events for the "big guys". Previous books on Monroe, Polk, Ben Harrison have been pleasant surprises as interesting lessons in politics, insights into a specific time, or just compelling stories. That was my expectation in choosing to read about William Howard Taft instead of Roosevelt or Wilson. My mistake.

Gould's book on Taft is well researched, positioned, and written, but he can only do so much with limited material. The fact is that not much happened during the Taft administration. He was Teddy's chosen successor, but nothing like him in ambition. A much more conservative Republican in both politics and style, his highlights were pushing legislation to tweak tariffs and most international relations issues were with the world powers of Mexico and Canada. Although his legacy shouldn't be hurt by the fact that a war didn't break out on his watch. But he also was not an adept politician, didn't surround himself with great people or look for advice when he should, essentially shooting himself in his foot. Arguably his rift with Roosevelt could have been avoided along with other blunders, which possibly could have resulted in a second term and Taft needing to deal with WWI. How history would have been different.

In the context of the times, Taft's administration does illustrate some of the trends. He approached the office more as a lawyer (or maybe judge), instituted some organization to the administration processes as were being implemented in industry and organizations across the country at the time as the scale of operations in an industrialized society required more organization. But this society required a lot more than just organization, and industrialization and urbanization were creating new problems for people seen in the past several books--from the steel laborers in Pittsburgh, to the Kansas farmers with economic imbalances with the railroads, to the disadvantaged immigrants in sprawling Chicago, to the local bank customer in New York. The trend toward progressivism was clearly taking hold, but the conservative side of the Republicans were essentially disregarding the inevitable. And as the party had been in power more or less for decades, in hindsight it is not surprising that the party leadership could be assumed by a master lawyer/admisitrator than necessarily a master politician and leader. If anything Roosevelt is the more surprising anomaly in personality.

As I said, Gould's book is fine. The material is incredibly dry, but he gets credit for presenting it in as compelling a manner as possible. I would read a book on a better topic by him. 2/5 stars.

(Read April 2011)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

1900s: Bank Panic

The history of the United States economy is filled with boom and bust cycles--often with more regularity, extremes, and currency impacts than the generally steady climate the past two or three generations have experienced. The banking panic of 1907 was similar to many other downturns in its effect on both the economy and the political landscape. The exponential growth of the economy in the decades and years leading up to 1907 had created a particularly volatile situation as the financial infrastructure that was mostly established pre-industrial society was not able to keep up. The lack of a central bank, or alternate centralized monetary controls or regulations, combined with a widely distributed and decentralized banking system across rural areas created a web of interdependencies among financial institutions--large and small--that were neither transparent nor understood by almost anyone. The system was not able to absorb the shocks of the San Francisco earthquake followed by the even the collapse of small corporations whose finances were overleveraged to banks who were also overleveraged. Even if these events had not set off the panic in 1907, the system would have collapsed due to some other events.

1907 was similar to its counterpart one hundred years later in that both were essentially credit crunches do to overly risky, opaque investments by the large banks. However, the similarities end there. With a lack of a central bank or similar institution, there were limited abilities in 1907 for a coordinated reaction to the events as they were unfolding. The establishment of the Federal Reserve and other regulations were a direct result of that experience and of course were instrumental in controlling the magnitude of our most recent recession. (The Fed's effectiveness is admittadly a debatable point.)

At the same time, while a complex tangle of financial investments and relationships led to the panic, it was visible enough that J.P. Morgan and colleagues were able to manage the situation and control certain events from spiraling out of control via spot loans and bailouts of certain brokerages, clearing houses, and even the city of New York's payroll, that were seen as strategic cogs in the financial machine that would lead to out-of-control chaos if they went down. The argument is that Morgan et al's actions over several days in 1907 kept the panic at a recession-level downturn versus a disastrous depression that could have absolutely crippled the U.S. economy and currency.

The Panic of 1907 was one of the first books I identified for this reading list. Taken alone it is a good story, albeit a little academic, on the events leading up to a bank panic and the special circumstances and maybe even heroic efforts of a few powerful men in attempt to quell the storm. The author may be a little enamored with Morgan and I believe there are histories with alternative emphases on events or business cycle theories, but the basic simple lessons of how a panic can be generated are a good perspective to consider current events. As part of this reading project the book is even better in context after reading about the years of expansion and growth in industry, population, and local infrastructure. Transitioning to the next decade I am going to look at the upcoming political history, including the changing political priorities of Taft from Roosevelt coming out of this economic climate.

The book is an average read, 3/5 stars although it probably reads a little smoother than it should for the subject matter. On a side note, this was my first ebook, read on the Kindle app on an iPad, which was a surprisingly enjoyable experience. (Although it showed I still had 50% to read when it ended because of all of the appendices that I hadn't noticed.)

(Read February 2011)