Posts Tagged ‘robber barons’

Charlize is on the floor at my feet. I am relating all of this to her, but she seems disinterested, at best.


Both sets of my grandparents arrived in America at the turn of the twentieth century. They came from Eastern Europe countries where their lives were no longer tenable. After settling here they faced uncontrolled oscillations in the economy that wiped out small businesses and cut the pay of laborers. Those who worked with their hands, including my paternal grandfather and his brothers, realized they had to unite so they helped organize labor unions. Big business owners retaliated with professional strikebreakers, scabs. Streets took on the appearance of war zones. The “Robber Barons” accumulated even greater wealth and political power and flouted both.  Anything sounding familiar?

I never knew my Zaydee (Grandpa) Gross. He died when I was still an infant. He and his brothers, all carpenters, came from a shtetl, a Jewish ghetto, someplace in Eastern Poland. They were escaping from the most recent in an endless cycle of pogroms. Although the brothers eventually started their own construction company they remained strong union supporters and progressive thinkers.

My maternal grandfather worked menial jobs long enough to accumulate capital that he then invested into a mind-boggling array of small, usually one-man, businesses that prospered and went broke as each early twentieth century recessionary cycle repeated. After his wholesale produce business in upstate New York folded he loaded a backpack with sundries; ribbon, thread, needles, pins, that sort of stuff, left his wife and two children with a brother’s family and walked the Erie Canal to Cleveland selling door-to-door along the way. When he reached Cleveland he had enough capital for three packs. He hired two men to work for him and continued. By 1929 he owned a small department store and his son, my Uncle Percy, was attending the Ohio State University. Everything was lost and my uncle left school to join his father collecting junk with a horse and wagon. Before long they had a truck, then leased some land for a junkyard and soon after the Second World War started they owned nearly a city block of Solomon and Son Salvage.

When Grandpa Solomon was in his 90’s he used to go with me sometimes while I made calls to treat horses and other livestock. He would tell me stories about his life as a boy in the Jewish ghetto outside Riga, Latvia where his father operated a small dairy farm. He recounted home remedies used on his father’s one horse and half-dozen dairy cows and questioned whether my modern veterinary treatments were as effective. He never learned to read or write English but read the Yiddish newspapers and knew all of Sholem Aleichem’s stories. A half-smile wrinkled the sides of his lips and the skin around his eyes when he told me his father could have been Teyva of Fiddler on the Roof.

So, my heritage is one of fiscal conservatism coupled with a strong entrepreneurial bent and a dedication to progressive social responsibility. My parents who were influenced and molded by the Great Depression reinforced this.

Now I worry about the world my Granddaughters will live in. The industrial revolution replaced muscle power with machine power. There was strong resistance to the inevitable changes and there was economic dislocation for many. However, people adapted, society evolved and a new economic system was created that rewarded creativity and intellectual innovation while harnessing machine power making labor more efficient and more productive. That process is still evolving. But we are on the brink of a new revolution where machine power and artificial intelligence will replace human thinking and at least some innovation. Artificial intelligence, massive computers capable of processing huge amounts of data and devising new solutions to problems, are on the near horizon.

Significant change is already upon us. Technology, particularly increasingly efficient computer systems and the Internet provide service and content that previously came with a price tag and who amongst us is not tempted to take advantage of “free” anything?

Technology has already taken a significant toll of the publishing industry. Magazines, newspapers, books that used to employ journalists, editors, publishers, artists, photographers and writers are disappearing at an alarming rate. Writers and journalists who were previously paid for their output now blog or contribute to on-line publications with little anticipation of being paid for their efforts. Electronic publication, much of it by amateurs, with little or no editing and no third-party fact checking, is so inexpensive to produce and sell that the authors cannot survive on the proceeds. Writing is fast becoming a hobby. More people make money off of writers than writers make writing.

Musicians have also been significantly affected. The product of their imagination, skill and practice is so easily purloined that to benefit, in any meaningful way, from the sale of their music is unlikely.  People previously paid as translators are almost completely out of jobs. Free software, available on the Internet, makes instantaneous translation possible, albeit not always accurate, but close enough and the software is being improved and updated continuously.

Pharmacists will soon be replaced by computer software and robotics that will retrieve and package your prescription with little chance for human error. I recently heard a program on NPR talking about software that can take data from sporting events and from financial transactions and compile appropriate stories, no writer needed. Driverless vehicles will soon be available. We will not need cab or bus drivers or delivery people. Pizza or sushi will be delivered to your door by a drone. Artificial intelligence is already in the works that will replace engineers and software programmers. Take that you nerds!

Let your imagination run wild. What tasks cannot, conceivably, be done by smart enough machines? The challenge is to define where we, or rather yours and my grandchildren, fit into this new automated society. What productive work will they find to do? How will they be remunerated for their work? Will the importance of productive work be replaced by something else in the new society? If so by what? Maybe there is an underlying message in the popularity of apocalyptic novels, movies and TV programs. They return us to a society that requires basic survival skills.

Charlize does not seem to be as concerned about all of this as I am. Maybe she knows something I do not.

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I’ve been re-reading John Steinbeck, returning to his books after a thirty to forty year hiatus. I read differently now, not surprising with so many additional years to experience life and interpret and perhaps even understand what I am reading. Steinbeck points out that good human qualities include wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity and humility. Good humans live moral, ethical lives, practice the Golden Rule, deal honestly and transparently with others, do not cut corners or press to see how much wealth, power and/or prestige they can accumulate without having to answer for their methods.

Bad people demonstrate cruelty, greed, self –interest, graspingness and rapacity. They \do their best to take advantage of others and believe their worth is determined by how much wealth, power and/or prestige they accumulate. They are sharp dealers who take advantage of every opportunity to accumulate more and don’t seem bothered by moral or ethical issues. They ignore or avoid ethical and even legal issues whenever they believe they can get away with it. They push the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Steinbeck reckons our American society almost always judges the second group to be successful while the first group, those millions lacking wealth, power or prestige are considered unsuccessful. I fervently hope this jaded view is not true, although our society does seem to idolize those individuals who accumulate, through whatever means, and considers them to be “successful”. The rub is that these accumulators, especially as they age, often become philanthropists and re-discover morality and ethics. Sometimes they even re-discover the greatest teacher of those values, religion. Think of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Kennedy, Astor and the various railroad and mining robber barons. The list could include many more recent examples. Their lack of morality and ethical behavior while acquiring massive wealth is overlooked by society because they were or are judged successful, and they managed, for the most part, to avoid prosecution. We anoint these individuals as smart business people and respect, if not adore them.

The probable truth is that all of us have some characteristics of both groups, the division is not so stark, not so black and white. Perhaps our society does accommodate shades of gray behavior that allow an individual to make minor trespasses but, for the most part, live a moral, ethical life and still be considered successful. But then I believed in the tooth fairy for a long time.

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