Paley’s Misinformed Watchmaker Analogy

Paley, in his 1802 book Natural Theology, provides his famous, elegant watchmaker analogy that argues for an intelligent designer of living things. The gist of the quote is that if one comes upon a stone, one might assume that it had always been there, formed by pure randomness, but if one stumbles on a watch, one would not make the same assumption. One would instead assume that there was an intelligent designer who purposefully created it. Quote below for those interested:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.”¹

Therefore, because a watch, in all its complexity, must have a designer, living creatures must also have one, with God filling the shoes of the watchmaker. Over the years, the analogy has been repeatedly used as an argument against evolution, though whether Paley would have denied evolution himself is up in the air as he died in 1805.

The analogy fails as an argument for an intelligent designer because though that specific watch may have been designed and created by one man, the watch as a concept was created by countless humans over many centuries. In fact, thinking about the watch from that perspective, the watchmaker analogy is actually a great analogy for evolution. In the same way that living creatures today originated from prokaryotes that became eukaryotes, mechanical watches originated from sundials and water clocks. There was not one top-down designer of the watch because the watch was invented by humanity as a whole. The same applies to the various components that make up the watch or the economy that provides the supply chain for the creation of watches. Nobody set out to design those systems; they naturally arose from the bottom up.

Watches are also just as prone to the forces of natural selection as living organisms. Water clocks and sundials were inferior to the mechanical watch as a method of telling time and became obsolete in the same way that a creature that cannot adapt to a changing environment will become extinct. Funny enough, in our time, even the mechanical watch is obsolete as a time-keeping device and is instead used much more often as a fashion statement or status symbol. Paley assumed that the purpose of the watch was to tell time but it is clear that watches, for the most part, do not serve such a purpose anymore. Did anybody design that change in the watch’s purpose? No, it was just an evolution in culture.

Of course, understanding Paley’s analogy as one in favor of evolution does not solve the most interesting question: the ultimate origin of life. If living creatures came from prokaryotes and prokaryotes came from a confluence of events after the Big Bang, then where did the Big Bang come from? If all of that was created by an intelligent designer, then who designed the designer?We’ll probably never know, but what we do know is that the watch did not come from one watchmaker.


The Culture of Narcissism – My Thoughts on the Book

Despite being written in 1979, parts of Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism read as if they were written today and remain more relevant than ever. Let’s first define what Lasch meant by narcissism, or at least my understanding of it. Narcissists are not those who are supremely or excessively confident in their own abilities. Just the opposite. They are plagued with feelings of inauthenticity, insecurity, and inner emptiness, and need to be validated by the approval of those around them. It’s clear that with the rise of social media and the desire for likes, retweets, and more followers, we have become even more narcissistic now than in 1979. Back in Lasch’s time, he attributed the increase in narcissism to television and the effects of being recorded:

“Modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions – and our own – were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time. ‘Smile, you’re on candid camera!’ The intrusion into everyday life of this all-seeing eye no longer takes us by surprise or catches us with our defenses down. We need no reminder to smile. A smile is permanently graven on our features, and we already know from which of several angles it photographs to best advantage.”

It’s easy to see the parallels to social media and its influence on our society. That permanent smile is now etched on our faces on Instagram. We project our best selves to evoke envy, seek fame, or for the rush of endorphins we feel as the likes accumulate. And our behavior isn’t the only thing that has changed; even our environment is being altered by social media. Instagram-worthy destinations are being flooded with tourists seeking to capture that perfect image to post. Restaurants have dishes that are designed for sharing via social media, not for consumption. Ephemeral events are booming because of their exclusivity, again for later display on social media as symbols of one’s status. Anybody can listen to Beyonce’s album on Spotify, but only a select fee can watch her perform live at Coachella on this specific year. We crave recognition more and more whether it be from our friends, from our local community or from the mass of fans around the country.

This quote from Lasch about the distinction between fame and celebrity perfectly encapsulates the present:

“Whereas fame depends on the performance of notable deeds acclaimed in biography and works of history, celebrity – the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves – is acclaimed in the news media, in gossip columns, on talk shows, in magazines devoted to ‘personalities.’”

More and more people have embarked on the quest for celebrity as social media has disintermediated the role of previous gatekeepers such as the magazines or talk shows that Lasch mentioned. Those seeking celebrity no longer need magazines to anoint them. They can now appeal directly to their audience through social media. The ostensible ease with which this celebrity is now obtained leads to everybody trying to become one. After all, all “X” needed to become a celebrity was a nice ass or nice abs or to make interesting small talk. And my ass/abs/small talk is so much better than his/hers. And so the desire for external approval continues to grow.

Still, they are right in the sense that becoming a celebrity is much easier now than before. Somebody can quickly go viral on social media, rising meteorically to celebrity status. Yet such an instantaneous rise can be accompanied by an equally instantaneous fall. Celebrities, more than anybody else, recognize just how fleeting it can all be, causing them to incessantly worry about losing their newfound status. We become more narcissistic in our quest for celebrity but celebrities are the most narcissistic of us all. They not only need constant approval from their current adoring fans but also seek to gain more fans so that they can reach the next tier of stardom. As a result, they’re in a constant state of anxiety, forced to incessantly post on social media to stay relevant and obtain new fans, yet plagued with fear that they will make a mistake and become the latest target of Cancel Culture (the latest trend in social media where everyone is collectively outraged (no moral judgements here) for a few hours and tries to tank their target’s follower count or better yet, to deplatform them).

There are other parts of Lasch’s book that are less strong. For example, he also attributes the rise in narcissism to the rise in bureaucracy and “experts” in all aspects of our life. The bureaucracy and the “experts” restrict what we can do and tell us what we ought to do, resulting in a loss of agency and a corresponding rise in narcissism as we become less and less self-confident about our own actions. He spends way too long describing the rise of bureaucracy and its pernicious effects. To me, nothing is more bureaucratic and monolithic than religion. After all, how much agency did worshippers of Christianity really have centuries ago? The people of Lasch’s time had more agency than their ancestors, and the people in our time have even more agency still, but the affliction of narcissism is only getting worse. What seems to be the issue is not one overriding bureaucracy that tells us how to behave, but many bureaucracies and experts that provide conflicting advice. We have the agency to decide which bureaucracy or expert to listen to, and it is that very agency that causes our loss of self-confidence because as we compare ourselves to those around us, it seems as if the path that we choose never seems to be the right choice.

Though I don’t agree with Lasch attributing the problems of today to a rise in bureaucracy, I do think his diagnosis of the symptoms plaguing society is spot on. Here’s another great quote from the book:

“Our standards of ‘creative, meaningful work’ are too exalted to survive disappointment. Our ideal of ‘true romance’ puts an impossible burden on personal relationships. We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves.”

So what do I think are the causes of narcissism? I think it ultimately boils down to the things Lasch mentioned earlier and the human desire to constantly compare ourselves with the people around us. In Lasch’s time, it was television that changed our perception of the world around us. Television and advertisements shaped our views on how we ought to live our life. And they not only provided a template of how we ought to live our life but also a frame of reference to compare our own to. Suddenly, we were no longer comparing ourselves with just the people around us but also the people on our screens. Maybe before, we were content with our imperfect but solid marriage, job, possessions, or lifestyle, but now, they seem much more imperfect than before. Our expectations slowly rise and when reality doesn’t rise to match our expectations, we become more and more disillusioned. And in Lasch’s time, mass media wasn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is today, nor did they have to deal with social media.

Nowadays, we are bombarded with many more screens and the depictions on those screens are ratcheted up to 11, afflicting not only “lowbrow” shows such as reality TV but also prestige dramas. Consider the voyeurism of Billions, a show about the hedge fund industry. In every episode, we see Axe in his opulent penthouse, throwing money around as if he had a limitless supply (which he basically does), and dining in the hottest restaurants. Netflix’s hit show Chef’s Table is basically food porn. We love these shows and clamor for more, and slowly our expectations continue to rise.

But, the biggest culprit of our exceedingly unrealistic expectations is social media. Now, we are not only deluged with the lives of the rich and famous, but also the carefully crafted images of our friends and acquaintances. Nobody ever puts their doubts or how much their life sucks on social media unless it is cited as an obstacle in their wider narrative of triumph. We’re inundated with highlight after highlight, and as we compare the whole of our life to the highlights of someone else’s, our life starts to seem mundane and pathetic in comparison.

So, what should we do about this? I guess we can watch less TV and not go on social media, but still, our society more than ever worships the rich and glamorous. It’s so pervasive that there’s not much any one person can do. Recognizing the growing narcissism and rising expectations around us might allow us to temper our expectations, to seek to live a life that is not so consumed by the desire for glitz and glamour. We can make changes around the margins, and though that might not allow us to escape the afflictions of modern society, it might help us to become more content with our lot in life. I don’t think this is all doom and gloom. There are many benefits provided to us by the advent of social media. I also believe that the younger generations will be better adapted and better equipped to deal with the deleterious effects of social media, that they’ll place boundaries so that their lives aren’t consumed by it. Either that or the stuff of science fiction happens and the world goes to shit. Who knows.

Thoughts on The Third Man

I watched The Third Man for the first time recently and thought it was good but nothing to write home about. Spoilers ahead.

The thing about the movie that bothered me the most was the moral question posed in the movie: whether to turn Harry over to the policemen for selling diluted penicillin in the black market. To me, it was entirely obvious that what Harry was doing was beyond reprehensible. He stole penicillin from hospitals that desperately needed it and diluted it to sell on the black market, knowing the diluted version would be harmful to and could kill people who used it. To me, the question of whether Holly Martins and Anna should turn over their friend to the police was self-evident. And yet, Holly at first refused to help Major Calloway and it wasn’t until Calloway took Holly to see the children who became brain-damaged from the diluted penicillin that Holly changed his mind. Anna refused to cooperate in any way and hated Holly for helping the police. Their sense of loyalty in spite of Harry’s horrific actions was so appalling, maybe even immoral, to me. But after reading other people’s opinions online, I changed my mind.

The movie was released right after WWII and the people living in that time had a completely different life experience and outlook. It was heavily implied in the movie that Anna had to do some unspeakable things to survive the war. To survive, they all had to do morally questionable things whether it be dealing in the black market or other some other illegal activity. Group loyalty was a prerequisite for survival. Cynicism and distrust of authority were rampant. And in this environment, Harry was Anna’s savior, the person who helped her obtain a forged passport so that she wouldn’t have to go back to the Soviet Union. All of a sudden, the morality is no longer as clear. A millennial like me will never fully understand what it was like to live during that time, especially in war-torn Vienna. I can read the history and understand the facts, but at a deeper emotional level, it might be impossible for me to fully grasp it, and maybe that’s why The Third Man didn’t resonate as much with me. I had the same experience watching Apocalypse Now a few weeks ago. After all, what movies do better than any other medium is to reach us at an emotional level. Certain movies, like Casablanca, are timeless because the emotions evoked come from experiences everyone has had. Other movies, especially those from different time periods, might no longer be as affecting because the experiences of the modern audience is fundamentally different. Still, I loved the sewer scene when Holly shoots Harry. I interpreted Harry’s look at Holly as imploring Holly to shoot him so that he wouldn’t have to go to jail and face the police. Even at the end, after Holly helped the police chase Harry down, he still couldn’t help but oblige Harry’s request. And so, he shoots Harry. One last bit of loyalty.

There were many things I did really like about The Third Man, and they tend to be the things other people like, starting with Harry’s famous speech. “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” That’s one hell of a speech. Holly’s character as a representation of American naivety was also great. He was innocent and had such a desire to help, but he clearly didn’t understand the local language and culture. He made things worse for a lot of people such as the porter who was murdered after Holly kept pushing him for more information. This is a lesson that America is still learning to this day. Then there was the ending. It’s the same shot as the beginning. Holly and Calloway drive past Anna, but this time Holly gets off the car and waits for Anna. We expect our protagonist to get the girl, that Holly and Anna will reconcile their difference of opinion and live happily ever after. Anna walks closer and closer and then right past him without a glance. Holly lights a cigarette, resigned to the fact that she’ll never forgive him. What an ending. Harry’s reveal was also pretty good. Maybe it’s because I saw it coming, or because I’ve seen so many plot twists, but I didn’t think it was anything special.

All in all, it was a good movie, but to me, not a great one. Movies ultimately speak to our life experiences and my life has been so different from the people at that time that The Third Man didn’t resonate with me on the visceral emotional level that other movies have. Still, I’d recommend watching and forming your own opinions.

Letters from Nazi Germany? A Counterfactual

I recently watched Letters from Iwo Jima and was blown away by the movie. I’m glad we have enough perspective that a movie humanizing our (the U.S.) enemies in WWII can be met with widespread critical acclaim and without cries of public outrage. Yet, throughout the movie I kept thinking of a counterfactual: the same exact movie but instead of depicting WWII Japan, it instead depicted WWII Germany. 

Disclosure: I was born in China, moved to Canada at 6, and then to the U.S. at 11, where I have been ever since. I disclose this because I believe it makes me more objective than most. I’m Chinese-American but have been indoctrinated by the West so my beliefs are probably partial to both as opposed to only one. 

So, now let’s consider the counterfactual (spoilers I guess for those who haven’t seen Letters from Iwo Jima). The Allies have been making progress beating back the Germans and are approaching a city, let’s call it Iwotown, that lies on the path to Berlin. The main character is an unpatriotic, philosophical Nazi foot-soldier, resigned to the fact that he will probably die in Iwotown, yet determined to do whatever it takes to survive. Most of his friends are similarly disillusioned and not much more patriotic. An ultra-patriot shortly joins their squad and everyone thinks he was sent by the SS to spy on them. We later discover that he was indeed a member of the SS but was kicked out for not blindly following orders. He runs away from Iwotown and surrenders to the Americans but is executed when none of the Americans want to stay and watch him. Then there is Iwotown’s commanding Nazi general, an intelligent, thoughtful commander who, before war broke out, befriended military leaders in America and was even given a beautiful pistol as a token of their friendship. He is a deeply admirable character and in flashbacks we see that he would hate for war to break out between the two countries but if it were to happen, he would dutifully and honorably serve his country (which he does). Lastly there is his charismatic officer who won Gold in the 1932 Olympics for horse jumping. He orders his soldiers to save an American marine who distrusts the Nazis at first but bonds with the officer over American culture (the German officer had befriended some famous actors and actresses when he was in L.A. for the 1932 Olympics). The next morning, the American marine is found dead from his wounds and the German officer reads a letter found in the marine’s pocket out loud to his soldiers. It’s a mundane letter from mother to son, but that’s what makes it so emotional. The Nazi foot-soldiers who had wanted to kill him or torture him for information now break down crying as they realize just how much they had in common with the man they demonized. Sure, many officers and soldiers in the movie conform to our expectations of how Nazis behave, but the main cast of characters, all very different from each other, are humanized in their own way. 

Now, does that sound like an award-winning movie, one that is almost universally praised as one of the best movies of 2018? Could such a movie even get made, and how much public outcry would there be in America if such a movie ever was? I certainly don’t think such a movie is even within the realm of possibility, especially given our current political climate. I’m not saying that a movie like Letters from Iwo Jima shouldn’t have been created; I’m so glad that such a movie exists, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. What I want to figure out is why the same movie couldn’t be made about Nazi Germany. 

Now, some of you might be thinking that I’m making an unfair comparison and that the Holocaust is objectively the most horrific event in history, one that has no parallels. Objectively, that may be true, but I’d argue that almost nobody did the math on the worst atrocities in human history, and only afterwards decided that the Holocaust was an unparalleled tragedy, one that must be emphasized to a much greater extent than any other. That belief is a product of repeated exposure in Western education and culture. Not convinced? Consider the American Revolution vs. the French Revolution. Objectively, the French Revolution’s impact and significance on history is much greater than that of the American Revolution. Yet, in American classrooms, lessons on the French Revolution are a blip on the radar in comparison. I’m sure you can think of many other examples; every country has its own narratives. All Western countries (I think) teach their citizens about the heinous crimes Nazi Germany committed, but almost none teach their citizens about the similarly heinous crimes of the Japanese in WWII. That is certainly not the case in China and Korea. The Holocaust is to the West what the Japanese atrocities are to China and Korea. The events of the 20th century still hold significant sway in Chinese and Korean perceptions of Japan and impact relations to this day. Even if the Holocaust is objectively the greatest historical tragedy, Japan’s actions in WWII is undoubtedly in the same league. So, consider how you feel about the Nazi Germany equivalent of Letters from Iwo Jima, and recognize that there are probably more than a billion people who feel that way about Letters. 

Nazism was confined to a certain time in German history, one that was without redeeming qualities, making it easy for the West, and probably the world, to view it as the symbol for pure evil (rightly, I might add). Japan in WWII doesn’t have the same ring to it and there’s no one word catch-all for Japan at that time. It’s easy to denounce Nazis as the symbol of evil as that word almost separates them from the rest of German history; it’s much harder to denounce the Japanese in WWII since the phrase remains tied to Japan. Yet having that catch-all word can obfuscate the truth. Nazism equating to evil, at least until recently, was one of the few things that had almost universal consensus in the U.S. Nobody in their right mind would defend Nazis, thus the PR disasters of Zuckerberg and Trump. So, our view of Nazism as the symbol of evil prevents us from separating the German citizens under the Nazi government and Nazism as ideology; it blinds us from reality. I’m definitely unqualified to speak about this so I’ll let Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl do the talking. From Man’s Search for Meaning: 

“It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards.”

“In reality there are only two races, namely the ‘race’ of decent people and the ‘race’ of people who are not decent. And ‘segregation’ runs straight through all nations and within every single nation straight through all parties. Even in the concentration camps one came across halfway decent fellows here and there among the SS men – just as one came across the odd scoundrel or two among the prisoners. Not to mention the Capos. That decent people are in the minority, that they have always been a minority and are likely to remain so is something we must come to terms with. Danger only threatens when a political system sends those not-decent people, i.e., the negative element of a nation, to the top. And no nation is immune from doing this, and in this respect every nation is in principle capable of a Holocaust!”

“Resistance presupposes heroism, and in my opinion one may demand heroism only of a single person and that is … oneself! And whoever then says that someone should have preferred to be locked up rather than get on with the Nazis, then that person can only actually say this if they themselves have proved that they preferred to let themselves be put in a concentration camp, and consider this: those who were in concentration camps do in general judge the opportunists far more lightly – more lightly than those who stayed abroad for the duration. Not to mention the younger generation – how can they imagine how afraid people were and how they trembled for their freedom, for their very lives and for the fate of their families, for whom they were always responsible? We can only admire all the more those who dared to join the resistance movement.”

Frankl isn’t engaging in false equivalency. Throughout the book, he makes it very clear that Nazism is to be condemned, that Nazism will attract a disproportionate amount of deplorable people, and that most Nazis were not good people. However, he also notes that there were even “halfway decent fellows here and there among the SS men” and that there was “the odd scoundrel or two among the prisoners”. Frankl reminds us that even within a system as evil as Nazism, there can still be decent people and urges us, especially the ones who haven’t lived through the experience, to withhold judgment. His eloquent words force us to separate the ideology from the people, to recognize that just because a government is evil doesn’t mean that everyone under the government is. To forget that Nazis are human too is to forget a crucial lesson from one of history’s greatest tragedies; condemning them as pure evil distances us from their actions. It presupposes that we all would’ve acted differently under the same conditions they faced. As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. 

So, now that I’ve alienated everyone reading this, let me bring this back to my original counterfactual. Personally I think there are only two positions one could take, given Japan’s WWII atrocities are at least close to being on the same level as Germany’s (though if someone has a very convincing argument, I’m not opposed to changing my mind): one either supports the creation of both Letters from Iwo Jima and its Nazi Germany equivalent, or one supports neither. Based on what I quoted from Frankl and my earlier praise of Letters from Iwo Jima, it’s not hard to figure out which position I support.

On purely epistemological grounds, if only one of the two movies could be made in the West, I’d rather the Nazi Germany equivalent be made (in China or Korea, the opposite would be true). The reason again comes back to how we’re educated and how we view events; it is because we know all the terrible things the Nazis did and view Nazism as the symbol of evil that we should be reminded of their humanity. Most people in the West don’t have a good understanding of Japan’s WWII war crimes, so a movie that humanizes the Japanese army makes their actions seem ordinary and not that bad. The Nazi Germany version however, because of the ubiquitous knowledge in the West of Nazi atrocities, would steer beliefs more towards the truth: that even though what the Nazis did was horrific and inhumane, they were still human like the rest of us. To deny Nazis their humanity is to say that such actions are only possible for beings less than human and to assume that such a tragedy could never happen again. I realize that the very reason such a movie should be allowed to be made is the very reason it won’t be. There are many more points to be earned signalling your outrage than maintaining a compassionate, nuanced perspective. And sometimes, it’s simply more convenient to deny the humanity of those who commit such unthinkable crimes. I won’t impute ignorance to you for doing so; I only ask you to not impute bad intentions to me for disagreeing.


Assessment of John D. Rockefeller, Capitalist & Philanthropist

We picture Rockefeller as the prototypical capitalist: greedy, corrupt, and always scheming. But that picture is only half the story, and even that half is not entirely accurate. In this post, I am going to go into detail on some of the things I found most fascinating about Rockefeller. He is so compelling because of the ambivalent feelings he evokes in others (though personally I mostly admire the man). He was the world’s richest man, but also its greatest philanthropist. He implemented disreputable business practices, but was also a deeply religious and righteous man. When he was lambasted in the media, he refused to respond. And, when he eventually opened up to journalists, they fell in love with him. How did all this come to be? I will do my best to explain. The facts about John D. Rockefeller’s life in this post are almost solely from Ron Chernow’s book Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. The book is fantastic and this post obviously does not cover anywhere close to all of it so I highly recommend that you buy the book, but if you prefer to settle for a less well-written summary interspersed with the thoughts of someone who is not even a historian, then you have come to the right place. All quotes unless otherwise stated come from Chernow’s book.

Early Life

Understanding John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s childhood situation allows us to better understand how his personality developed. He was born in 1839, “sandwiched tightly between two illegitimate sisters, born into a situation steeped in sin.” His father, Bill, married his mother Eliza, but hired Nancy Brown, a woman he had a serious romance with before his marriage to Eliza, as a housekeeper. Within two years, their family had four children, two from each woman. John was the third child and the only male of the four. His father was an actual snake oil salesman who would abandon his family for months at a time to travel around and sell his fraudulent concoctions, leaving Eliza, a deeply religious and strict but loving mother, to raise the children herself. Bill moved his family from town to town, partly because townspeople would catch on to his cons and partly because of his philandering. Around 1852, Bill met Margaret Allen in Ontario, Canada; he adopted a new name and married her in 1855, becoming a bigamist, keeping each family a secret from the other.

Bill was filled with talents (great athlete, incredible at shooting, skilled animal trainer, amazing ventriloquist, etc.) and was immensely charismatic; he could charm anyone, and everyone around him would have a good time. As a result, John worshiped his father as a child, but as John became an adult he grew disenchanted. His personality would serve as a rejection of everything his father was, yet John still inherited some key traits from his father, such as his love of money. Depending on how you view John’s business ethics, you could argue that he also inherited his father’s unscrupulous behavior. From his mother, he inherited the bulk of his personality such as his puritanical nature, the ability to withstand immense burdens, and his famously unflappable demeanor. John had many siblings and as the oldest son, he was given adult responsibilities by Eliza and took on the role of father whenever Bill was away, instilling confidence in his own abilities. Chernow notes that John was not brilliant as a child, but was a hard worker. He also possessed unrivaled patience when he deliberated, but would act quickly and decisively when he reached a decision, a trait that would be on full display later on.

Early Career

At the age of 16, John went on a job search, one that would be mythologized later in his life. He created a list of big establishments that he wanted to work for and would visit each of them one by one, visiting many places more than once. After searching for six days a week for six straight weeks, he finally found a job as an assistant bookkeeper at Hewitt and Tuttle, a day he would celebrate every year for the rest of his life with more enthusiasm than his birthday. Rockefeller was able to shine in his job as he was always good with numbers and understood the power of company ledgers. Digging into the numbers illuminated the fraud and inefficiencies within a company, allowing him to make reasoned decisions based on the true performance of a company.

After a couple of years, John became chief bookkeeper, but, because he was being underpaid, he left in 1859 to form a commodities company with his friend Maurice B. Clark. John was an extremely diligent worker and would always be the first one in the office and the last to leave. The Civil War increased the demand of commodities and caused their company’s profits to boom. Rockefeller was resolutely antislavery but did not serve in the army because he was his family’s sole means of support. In 1863, he and Maurice Clark entered the refining business with Sam Andrews, and though John had some doubts at first, he soon embraced it wholeheartedly.

The oil industry was incredibly unstable at the time. New discoveries of oil caused its price to swing wildly and made the lucky few millionaires overnight. The refining business was more stable, but was still viewed as high-risk because many people believed the oil wells would run dry in a few years. Rockefeller’s succeeded because, unlike the others who looked to get rich quick, he believed in the long-term viability of the oil business.

Rockefeller’s partnership with Maurice Clark would not last. John and Sam Andrews wanted to take on more debt to expand the oil business, but Maurice Clark and his brothers had the majority of the votes in the partnership and felt that it was too risky to expand further. The Clark brothers treated John as a glorified bookkeeper and tried to intimidate him by threatening to dissolve the partnership whenever he proposed taking on more debt. Though he withstood these insults with equanimity, John was slowly plotting; he convinced Andrews to come to his side, and the next time the Clark brothers threatened to dissolve the partnership, John secured Andrews’ vote for the unanimous approval required to dissolve. He and Andrews outbid the Clark brothers at auction for the refining business, paying $72,500 ($1 million today) for it. The company was renamed Rockefeller & Andrews.

Standard Oil

Rockefeller chose Cleveland as the center for their operations because of the transportation network there. From there, they could ship their oil by railroad or by water, giving them bargaining power over the railroads; at the time, railroad costs took a huge chunk out of refiners’ profits. In 1867, Henry Morrison Flagler joined the company as an equal partner. Flagler became the point man for the pivotal deal with the Lake Shore Railroad. Before this deal was struck, Rockefeller’s company was already the largest oil refiner in the world and equal in size to Cleveland’s next three largest refiners combined. The deal was only possible due to the company’s large size and widened the gap between it and its competitors. “Rockefeller and Flagler didn’t simply try to squeeze the railroads – they were much too shrewd and subtle for that – but offered compelling incentives. For instance, they agreed to assume legal liability for fire or other accidents and stop using water transport during the summer months. The biggest plum they dangled before Devereux was a promise to supply the Lake Shore with an astonishing sixty carloads of refined oil daily.” The Lake Shore deal not only gave Rockefeller’s company rebates that lowered its shipping costs below its competitors, but also tied the interest of the railroad to the success of his company. Ida Tarbell, Rockefeller’s most vociferous and well-known critic, later dubbed this his “original sin”.

In 1870, the partnership was abolished and Standard Oil, a joint-stock firm, was created. John had the largest stake in the firm with 2,667 shares of the original 10,000 and would increase his stake whenever one of the firm’s five other shareholders wanted to sell. His brother William, who John brought in to the business to manage the relationships with the bankers and exporters in New York, held 1,333 shares.

Between February 17th and March 28th, 1872, Rockefeller purchased 22 of his 26 competitors in Cleveland, starting with the largest and then working his way down (later dubbed the Cleveland Massacre). John believed he was doing them a service by buying their unprofitable businesses and offering them Standard Oil stock, but they viewed his negotiating tactics as naked threats. Because many were losing money and would’ve ended in bankruptcy, John was able to pay small amounts for their companies, sowing hatred in the owners who believed their businesses were worth more. When confronted with the decision of blaming the capriciousness of the oil market or Rockefeller for their failure, the owners of the conquered refineries chose the latter. This event would feature heavily in later criticism of Rockefeller as the press, exposed to only the point of view of the defeated, would portray Rockefeller as greedy and immoral.

Next, Rockefeller created an association of refiners to try and control the problem of low oil prices caused by excess supply. It sounded good in theory, but the union was plagued by two classic economic problems: the tragedy of the commons and the free rider problem. Firms that were part of the union were incentivized to cheat and exceed their quotas to make as much profit as possible and firms that weren’t a part of the union didn’t have to lower their supply yet still benefited from the higher prices. The association of oil producers was plagued by the same issues. The failure of the association convinced Rockefeller that it was inane to try and control the industry through voluntary associations and he instead decided to control it through acquisitions.

A six-year depression would begin in 1873 and during this time, Rockefeller would abide by the Buffett aphorism of being greedy when others are fearful. He purchased the largest refiners in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the preeminent export company in New York. His strategy was to purchase the largest, most reputable company in the region and have them purchase the smaller players. After his purchases in the major oil regions, he became “sole master of American oil refining.” By the end of 1877, “only five years after the Cleveland Massacre, the thirty-eight-year-old Rockefeller, with piratical flair and tactical brilliance, had come to control nearly 90 percent of the oil refined in the United States.” There were still hundreds of small refineries but they were not a threat to his business and actually served a political purpose, since Rockefeller could point to those companies as evidence of competition.

Rockefeller also took the opportunity to gain control over the railroads by offering to build custom-made facilities for handling oil and oil-tank cars when the railroads refused to do so. By building oil-tank cars, Rockefeller gained leverage over the railroads since he owned almost all of the tank cars and could threaten to pull them, allowing Standard Oil to receive cheaper shipping costs.

The key lessons to Rockefellers success are standard business lessons: buying when prices are low (or being greedy when others are fearful), using a dominant market position to extract better terms, and investing for the long-term instead of being focused on the short-term (custom-made oil handling facilities and oil-tank cars). When making many of these critical decisions, Rockefeller was hesitant at first, but after slowly and methodically thinking through the situation, he acted quickly and decisively. We have to avoid the fallacy of hindsight when looking at his decisions. Looking at the power of the oil behemoth today, Rockefeller’s actions might seem self-evident, but at the time, most believed that the oil industry was a flash in the pan and wanted to get rich quick and exit the industry. Look no further than all the unprofitable oil companies out there and the refusal of railroads to invest in oil-tank cars as proof. It was Rockefeller’s unwavering belief in oil that made him so immensely wealthy; he not only bought other companies when prices were low and risk high, but also bought shares of his own company from other shareholders whenever they got nervous and wanted to sell.

At this point, Rockefeller and Standard Oil’s dominance became somewhat of a foregone conclusion, so I think it makes sense to shift the discussion. There’s still interesting stories in there such as when Standard Oil shifted from railroads to pipelines or when a major oilfield of lesser quality oil was discovered in Lima Ohio, but those recycle the same lessons. Before covering the press criticism of Rockefeller, I want to go deeper into his personality as it dictated how he would respond (or not respond) to the criticism that had such an outsized impact on how we perceive him.

Religion and Personality

As I’m trying to keep this as short as possible, the description of Rockefeller’s personality in this section is his personality in early and mid-life. He lived until he was 97 years-old, and as he grew older and older, he grew more lively and more playful, thus more like the father that he spent so long trying to be the antithesis of.

Since his birth, John Rockefeller’s life was steeped in religion. His mother was deeply religious and raised him and her other children to uphold the puritanical virtues she held dear. As a result, his personality is deeply intertwined with his religion. He attended a Baptist church and did whatever he could to help out, whether it be sweeping the floors of the church or helping raise funds to keep it running. His Baptist doctrine drove his ambition; Rockefeller believed he was given his talent for making money by God and was determined to make as much money as possible so that he could give it away to benefit society. This unwavering belief was also what enabled him to take on enormous risk and keep investing in the oil industry when others were hesitant.

Devotion to the church and his honest nature illustrated Rockefeller’s trustworthiness and allowed him to secure massive loans to grow his company; he never distorted the truth or tried to conceal his company’s problems, and always repaid his loans on time. Even after becoming rich, Rockefeller never traded up to a wealthier church and instead stayed with the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church which had a lower-middle-class congregation. Unlike most people, the Rockefellers grew more religious as they grew wealthier, hiding how rich they actually were from their kids and instilling puritanical values in them. Their houses and estates (especially the later ones), though massive compared to the average house, were still far smaller than they could afford. When their family moved to New York, for example, they kept the furniture left from their house’s previous owner. Rockefeller’s stinginess, unlike that of other enormously wealth people, wasn’t to accumulate wealth for its own sake, but to accumulate wealth so that he could give it away to the benefit of society. One anecdote illustrates both his stinginess and his business acumen:

“In the early 1870s, Rockefeller inspected a Standard plant in New York City that filled and sealed five-gallon tin cans of kerosene for export. After watching a machine solder caps to the cans, he asked the resident expert: ‘How many drops of solder do you use on each can?’ ‘Forty,’ the man replied. ‘Have you ever tried thirty-eight?’ Rockefeller asked. ‘No? Would you mind having some sealed with thirty-eight and let me know?’ When thirty-eight drops were applied, a small percentage of cans leaked – but none at thirty-nine. Hence, thirty-nine drops of solder became the new standard instituted at all Standard Oil refineries. ‘That one drop of solder,’ said Rockefeller, still smiling in retirement, ‘saved $2,500 the first year; but the export business kept on increasing after that and doubled, quadrupled – became immensely greater than it was then; and the saving has gone steadily along, one drop on each can, and has amounted since to many hundreds of thousands of dollars.’”

Rockefeller was unfairly characterized by critics as a cold and malignant employer; in reality, many employees talked about how he remembered all his employees and was always friendly to them. As noted earlier, he was preternaturally calm and extremely courteous. Employees talked about how he never raised his voice, lost his temper, or used any profane words. Contrary to the stereotype of the domineering tycoon, his employees generally gave him excellent reviews and thought of him as a fair and benevolent employer who gave deserving employees a lot of responsibility. Chernow recounts a funny story. Rockefeller was into fitness and put a machine in the accounting department that he pushed and pulled for exercise. When he came in one morning to workout, a junior accountant who didn’t recognize him complained about what a nuisance the machine was and demanded it be taken away. Rockefeller simply responded “All right” and had the machine removed. The employee was later horrified when he realized who he had scolded, but “never endured one word of reprimand.”

In business, Rockefeller distanced himself from his subordinates’ unscrupulous behavior so that he did not have direct involvement and could feign innocence when asked about the acts despite being briefed in detail about all the actions. Although Rockefeller’s business behavior was a relic of his times, and an argument could be made that he behaved better than his competitors, it still doesn’t excuse the fact that he fostered a culture where such unethical behavior was permitted or even tacitly encouraged; distancing himself from the behavior is proof that, at some level, he knew it was wrong.

Rockefeller’s eventual success was determined by his fastidious work ethic, his incredible ability to stay calm, and his unwavering resoluteness after painstakingly thinking through a decision. His belief in himself and the oil industry gave him a long-term approach and was the reason he purchased Standard Oil stock from any executive that wanted to sell some shares. His accumulation of shares equaled almost a third of all shares and was the reason his wealth was so much greater than his other partners’. Of course, as with all exceptionally successful people, luck played a big role in his career. He openly wondered how his career would have turned out had he not gotten his first job after the six-week search. He clearly benefited from getting into the oil business when it was a budding industry and from being able to operate in an unregulated economy (though to be fair, his actions, and those of other contemporary industrialists, were why regulations were written).

Wealth and power both corrupt and reveal a person’s nature. I wanted to dive into Rockefeller’s personality before getting to the press criticism he received because so much of our perception of Rockefeller is colored by myth instead of reality. The popular perception of Rockefeller is that of the prototypical capitalist, especially given how synonymous Rockefeller’s name is with capitalism, in the pejorative sense. We picture Rockefeller (and most other ultra-wealthy businessmen) as a lonely person sitting by the fireplace on his rocking chair, with a pipe in his mouth, scheming of another way to cheat the ordinary citizen in order to accumulate more wealth. I hope that by going deeper into what Rockefeller’s personality was actually like and by providing anecdotes that illuminate his personality, we’re able to remove some of our biased preconceptions. Understanding Rockefeller’s philanthropy will allow us to even better understand him, but since the criticism of him focuses solely on his business practices, I think it makes sense to cover that first.

Contextualizing the Press Criticism

Standard Oil operated in a completely different business environment than the one we have today. I recently read Mary Beard’s SPQR and saw a similarity, so I want to draw an analogy to the Romans. In SPQR, Beard disproves the conventional myth that Romans were an especially belligerent people who conquered and massacred peaceful tribes/towns. Instead, the Romans were a product of their time. It was a dog-eat-dog world and their neighbors were just as belligerent as they were. It doesn’t excuse Roman atrocities, but gives us the proper context to view those atrocities. Similarly, Rockefeller and Standard Oil came from a business environment that makes ours look like peewee flag football. Their business practices were what allowed regulators to create the regulations that govern our economy today.

“In a sense, John D. Rockefeller simplified life for the authors of antitrust legislation. His career began in the infancy of the industrial boom, when the economy was still raw and unregulated. Since the rules of the game had not yet been encoded into law, Rockefeller and his fellow industrialists had forged them in the heat of combat. With his customary thoroughness, Rockefeller had devised an encyclopedic stock of anticompetitive weapons. Since he had figured out every conceivable way to restrain trade, rig markets, and suppress competition, all reform-minded legislators had to do was study his career to draw up a comprehensive antitrust agenda.”

As with the Romans, Rockefeller and Standard Oil’s business practices shouldn’t be excused. But, they should be understood and examined not with our modern lens, but in the context of their time. Much of Standard Oil’s power came from its dominant market position. Its competitors would have done the same thing if they could; in fact, there are many examples in the book of when they used the exact same anti-competitive practices.

Another aspect that must be understood is business-media relations at the time. Corporations now have massive PR teams and relationships with the media that allow them to issue big news and push back against criticism. But, this was not the case in Rockefeller’s time. It was in this crucial time, before companies understood how to properly handle or discredit criticism, that Rockefeller’s reputation was tarnished.

From 1894 to 1897, Rockefeller started the transition to retirement from Standard Oil and by 1897, he had walked away from the corporation. It’s inconceivable for us to not know about the retirement of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, or Bill Gates but that is exactly what happened in regards to Rockefeller’s retirement. His retirement was never publicly announced and he retained the title of president to avoid panic, but he almost never stepped foot on the company’s grounds over the next 15 years and was not involved in the company’s day-to-day activities. Stewardship was handed over to John D. Archbold who made questionable decisions that only invited more criticism of Rockefeller. Reporters knew that he no longer came to work, but they didn’t believe that he had given up control, as he still owned almost 30% of the company, and so continued to criticize him. But, the biggest impact to Rockefeller’s reputation was done by Ida Tarbell’s series for McClure’s, and it criticized not Standard Oil’s current practices, but its past ones.

Ida Tarbell’s series was one of the most influential pieces of journalism in the 20th century and utterly devastated Rockefeller’s reputation, but had it been published today, it would’ve been far less effective. Her series had many crucial errors and she was heavily biased. Chernow does a marvelous job explaining her criticism, its impact, and why it doesn’t hold water:

“She went back to the early Cleveland days and laid out his whole career for careful inspection. All the depredations of a long career, everything Rockefeller had thought safely buried and forgotten, rose up before him in haunting and memorable detail. Before she was done, Ida Tarbell turned America’s most private man into its most public and hated figure.”

“From the perspective of nearly a century later, Ida Tarbell’s series remains the most impressive thing ever written about Standard Oil – a tour de force of reportage that dissects the trust’s machinations with withering clarity. She laid down a clear chronology, providing a trenchant account of how the combine had evolved, and made the convoluted history of the oil industry comprehensible. In the dispassionate manner associated with McClure’s, she sliced open America’s most secretive business and showed all the hidden gears and wheels turning inside it. Yet however chaste and clearly reasoned her prose, it was always informed by indignation that throbbed just below the surface. It remains one of the great case studies of what a single journalist, armed with the facts, can do against perhaps seemingly invincible powers.”

She correctly surmised that Standard Oil received kickbacks from the railroads and even underestimated the kickbacks received. But, her series had many key errors:

“To begin with, the SIC was initiated by the railroads, not Rockefeller, who doubted the plan’s efficacy. And for all its notoriety, the SIC did not cause the oil crisis of the early 1870s but was itself a response to the glut that forced almost everybody to operate at a loss. It is also true that, swayed by childhood memories, Tarbell ennobled the Oil Creek drillers, portraying them as exemplars of a superior morality. As she wrote: ‘They believed in independent effort – every man for himself and fair play for all. They wanted competition, loved open fight.’ To support this statement, she had to overlook the baldly anticompetitive agreements proposed by the producers themselves. Far from being freemarketeers, they repeatedly tried to form their own cartel to restrict output and boost prices. And, as Rockefeller pointed out, they happily took rebates whenever they could. The world of the early oil industry was not, as Tarbell implied, a morality play of the evil Standard Oil versus the brave, noble independents of western Pennsylvania, but a harsh dog-eat-dog world.”

Tarbell also focuses solely on Rockefeller instead of on Standard Oil as a whole:

“Though billed as a history of Standard Oil, the Tarbell series presented Rockefeller as the protagonist and center of attention. Tarbell made Standard Oil and Rockefeller interchangeable, even when covering the period after Rockefeller retired. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether Rockefeller is a real person or a personification of the trust.”

“This great-man approach to history gave a human face to the gigantic, amorphous entity known as Standard Oil but also turned the full force of public fury on Rockefeller. It did not acknowledge the bureaucratic reality of Standard Oil, with its labyrinthine committee system, and stigmatized Rockefeller to the exclusion of his associates. So Flagler came off relatively unscathed, even though he had negotiated the secret freight contracts that bulk so large in the McClure’s exposé.”

And lastly, she was about as far from neutral as a person could be:

“Although Tarbell pretended to apply her scalpel to Standard Oil with surgical objectivity, she was never neutral and not only because of her father. Her brother, William Walter Tarbell, had been a leading figure in forming the Pure Oil Company, the most serious domestic challenger to Standard Oil, and his letters to her were laced with anti-Standard venom.”

“As Pure Oil’s treasurer in 1902, Will steered legions of Rockefeller enemies to his sister and even vetted her manuscripts. Far from cherishing her neutrality, Tarbell in the end adhered to the advice she had once received from Henry James: ‘Cherish your contempts.’ Amazingly enough, nobody made an issue of Tarbell’s veritable partnership with her brother in exposing his chief competitor.”

Her father was also one of the countless oil businesses out there ruined by Rockefeller. Here is Chernow’s ultimate conclusion of her work:

“However pathbreaking in its time and richly deserving of its accolades, the Tarbell series does not, finally, stand up as an enduring piece of history. The more closely one examines it, the more it seems a superior screed masquerading as sober history. In the end, Tarbell could not conquer her nostalgia for the Titusville of her girlhood, that lost paradise of heroic friends and neighbors who went forth doughtily to do battle with the all-devouring Standard Oil dragon.”

And, the “most celebrated and widely quoted charge that Tarbell made against Rockefeller was the least deserved: that he had robbed Mrs. Fred M. Backus – forever known to history as ‘the Widow Backus’ – blind when buying her Cleveland lubricating plant in 1878. If every melodrama needs a poor, lorn widow, cheated by a scheming cad, then Mrs. Backus perfectly fitted Tarbell’s portrait of Rockefeller.” In reality, her plant was poorly run and outdated. She valued her plant at $150,000 to $200,000 and was ultimately paid $79,000 by Rockefeller which would seem extremely unfair except for two crucial facts. The first was that when Rockefeller offered to return the company at the same price or give her stock in the company at the same price paid by Standard Oil, Mrs. Backus indignantly threw the offer in the fire. The second fact was that it was three times more than the plant was actually worth! The plant would’ve been bankrupt had she kept operating it, a fact acknowledged by Mrs. Backus’s brother in law when he sent Rockefeller a letter thanking him for saving them from ruin and paying such a steep price. To add insult to injury, Mrs. Backus invested the money she received from the sale  in real estate and ended up becoming extremely wealthy, yet still slandered Rockefeller whenever she got a chance.

Tarbell’s series would have never had such an impact today as PR experts could have hurt her credibility by pointing out all her factual mistakes and her clear bias for the other side. They could have also threatened McClure’s with a lawsuit. But, at the time, there was no playbook for combating such criticism and Rockefeller did what he thought best: to stay quiet and not draw any more attention to the controversy as he would ultimately be vindicated by the truth. Unfortunately, that was the worst thing to do as his silence led people to think that all of Tarbell’s criticisms were true (though of course many of them were true, silence was still the worst way to handle the situation). Chernow summarizes the reputational damage done by the Tarbell series and Rockefeller’s conviction nicely:

“Had John D. Rockefeller died in 1902, at the outset of the Tarbell series, he would be known today almost exclusively as a narrow man of swashbuckling brilliance in business, a man who personified the acquisitive spirit of late-nineteenth-century American industry. But just as the muckrakers were teaching the public that Rockefeller was the devil incarnate, he was turning increasingly to philanthropy. What makes him so problematic – and why he continues to inspire such ambivalent reactions – is that his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad. Seldom has history produced such a contradictory figure. We are almost forced to posit, in helpless confusion, at least two Rockefellers: the good, religious man and the renegade businessman, driven by baser motives. Complicating this puzzle is the fact that Rockefeller experienced no sense of discontinuity as he passed from being the brains of Standard Oil to being the monarch of a charitable empire. He did not see himself in retirement as atoning for his sins, and he would have agreed emphatically with Winston Churchill’s later judgment: ‘The founder of the Standard Oil Company would not have felt the need of paying hush money to heaven.’ He was also insistent that his massive philanthropy paled in importance beside the good he had done in creating jobs and furnishing affordable kerosene at Standard Oil.”

Before transitioning to his philanthropy, I think it’s important to note that Rockefeller would later develop very good relations with the press. The catalyst was a trip to visit his daughter in France. On the ship, Rockefeller met and befriended a reporter named Hoster. Hoster only knew the Rockefeller portrayed by the press and was shocked to discover a completely different man. Upon Rockefeller’s return to the US, he started to open up to the press. In short time, the press fell in love with him, charmed by his courteousness and light-heartedness. Rockefeller even became friends with many in the press and invited them to hang out with him. As it turns out, Rockefeller was naturally great with the press; had he opened up to them earlier, the narrative in the press would’ve been completely different, another example of the lack of understanding of the media at the time.


Ever since his first job, Rockefeller recorded all of his expenses in meticulous fashion in a small red book that he called Ledger A. Decades later, Ledger A would disprove the accusation that he was a greedy man who tried to cleanse his guilty conscience by donating his “tainted” fortune to charity. In Ledger A, we can see that he donated 6% of his wages to charity in his first job, at a time when he still had to support his mother and siblings, and was light-years away from being wealthy. By the time he was 20, he was donating more than 10% of his wages, shaming those of us who are firmly middle/upper-middle class yet do not donate a penny to charity, like me.

By the 1880s, letters were flooding in begging him for money, and there were so many requests that he could no longer handle them all by himself, causing him enormous stress because he wanted to both personally handle all requests and still make sure that all the money was being given away to worthwhile causes. From the book:

“Personal charity had long been his pleasure, his pride, his recreation, not something delegated to underlings, and he found it hard to break these honorable habits, especially in the midst of so much controversy about his business methods. As Gates noted of his earlier years, ‘He used to meet people, read letters, weigh appeals, send checks and receive grateful replies, all in his own person.’ For such a perfectionist, giving money away was fraught with far more nervous tension than making it. He valued money too highly to dispense it lightly and wanted to investigate all requests before acting upon them. As the Lord’s fiduciary, he was responsible for seeing the money well invested.”

As mentioned earlier, Rockefeller’s unparalleled success in the oil industry, even more than his partners, came from his unwavering belief in the industry. Religion fed that belief as Rockefeller felt like he was bestowed with god-given talents to make money and had a duty to make as much as he could to then give that back. Therefore, to Rockefeller, a man of deep faith, philanthropy was much more important that business. Succeeding in business was just a means to accumulate money for his ultimate purpose, giving to those in need. As scrupulous and methodical as he was in business, Rockefeller was even more so in philanthropy; properly giving away his fortune was of the utmost importance to him. He not only wanted to give to worthy causes, but also wanted to ensure that any institution he gave to did not dependent on his wealth alone to function.

Throughout the early and mid-1890s, Rockefeller desired retirement but stayed on to help steward Standard Oil through crises it faced. He started spending less and less time at Standard Oil until 1897, when he stopped going to the office completely and started to devote his full time to his philanthropy. Ironically, because of the advent of cars, Rockefeller became far richer in retirement than when he was working; when he retired in 1897, he was worth ~$200 million whereas by 1913, he was around ~$1B.

Frederick T. Gates was hired as the point man for Rockefeller’s philanthropy and he, more than anyone else, was responsible for executing Rockefeller’s vision until Rockefeller’s son, Junior, inherited the fortune. Together they transformed the art of giving away one’s wealth. They founded the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, Spelman College, and more.

Everybody knows that the University of Chicago is one of the best colleges in the midwest. But what they don’t know is that it was founded because of Rockefeller and he was the pivotal figure in getting it off the ground. In a few short years after its founding, it became the best college in the region and among the best in the U.S. He not only spent massive amounts of money attracting first-class staff to the institution but also made sure that his name wouldn’t be plastered throughout the college. Later on, he even severed personal ties with the college and turned it over to the public.

Another one of Rockefeller’s projects was The Rockefeller Institute, a revolutionary place for its day; it was the first to be devoted solely to biomedical research and the first to place scientists, not trustees, in charge of expenditures. At the time, skeptics thought it would be “relegated to ivory-tower irrelevance” but a few years after its founding, it saved hundreds of lives from an outbreak of cerebrospinal meningitis. And today, it is still the preeminent research institution with numerous Nobel Laureates.

Rockefeller’s money also went to overlooked aspects of medicine and public health. For example, Charles Wardell Stiles had a fix for hookworm but was being laughed out of the room by government officials and physicians. Rockefeller’s foundation provided him the money and attention to establish connections with the U.S. government, allowing Stiles to cure half a million people of hookworm within five years and ultimately, millions abroad. Another example was in changing the state of medical schools in America. At the time, Johns Hopkins was a fantastic institution; other medical schools however, not so much. Out of 155 medical schools in the U.S. and Canada visited by a man named Abraham Flexner, only 23 required more than a high school education. And many of their labs were a complete farce, even by the standard of the day. Rockefeller provided money to shape medical education, using Johns Hopkins as a model.

Rockefeller, unlike the people of his time, had a desire to improve the lives of black people, donating to many charities since the beginning that helped them. He also gave the money to help build Spelman Seminary (named after his wife) which eventually became Spelman College, one of the best colleges in America for black women. In light of this, it makes what happened with the General Education Board (GEB) so sad. It was started by Rockefeller and his son, John Jr. to help educate poor black people in the south (and was originally supposed to be called the Negro Education Board). However, the people that were hired to the foundation were men of their times and believed that black people should be educated but still subservient to white people. The GEB ended up doing great things for southern education, but didn’t succeed in its original intention: helping educate poor black people.

A theme throughout all of Rockefeller’s philanthropy is changing education at its roots, whether it be medical education, public health, or colleges. From the book:

“By the 1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation was the largest grant-making foundation on earth and America’s leading sponsor of medical science, medical education, and public health. John D. Rockefeller, Sr., had established himself as the greatest lay benefactor of medicine in history. Of the $530 million he gave away during his lifetime, $450 million went directly or indirectly into medicine. He had dealt a mortal blow to the primitive world of the nineteenth-century medicine in which patent-medicine vendors such as Doc Rockefeller [his father] had flourished. He had also effected a revolution in philanthropy perhaps no less far-reaching than his business innovations. Before Rockefeller came along, rich benefactors had tended to promote pet intuitions (symphony orchestras, art museums, or schools) or to bequeath buildings (hospitals, dormitories, orphanages) that bore their names and attested to their magnanimity. Rockefeller’s philanthropy was more oriented toward the creation of knowledge, and if it seemed more impersonal, it was also far more pervasive in its effect.”

He gave away $530 million in his lifetime and his son, John Jr. gave away an additional $537 million directly and $540 million through their various philanthropies. According to Chernow, the $1.6 billion given away makes Rockefeller the greatest philanthropist in American history. On a side note, reading this makes me think about what a sham the Rockefeller Foundation is today. I haven’t done much research into it, so I could totally be wrong, but from what I know about most foundations, which give away the minimum amount, and a quick look at the foundation’s 2016 Annual report ($4B in assets but only $174M in grants and direct charitable activities), I’d say the Rockefeller Foundation is like most other ones that give away as little as possible. John Sr.’s intention was to give away all of his wealth carefully and responsibly. Considering how large that wealth was, he could be forgiven for not giving away all of it in his lifetime. The same applies to his son. But the foundation now is a perversion of what it used to be; it’s giving away the minimum so that its trustees can continue to have a job. It has shifted from prioritizing the needy to prioritizing its current stewards.

Bill Gates Comparison

When I read Chernow’s biography of Rockefeller, I could not help but compare him to Bill Gates. I haven’t done research into Microsoft’s meteoric rise, so correct me if I’m wrong anywhere. Using generalizations, both Rockefeller and Gates benefited from operating in a new and booming industry, crushed competitors, became synonymous with money, and spent the later years of their life giving it all away. In fact, one could argue that Rockefeller behaved “better” that Gates did, yet suffers a worse reputation today.

Standard Oil operated in a dog-eat-dog world, before there was any anti-trust legislation; in fact, anti-trust legislation was built by analyzing the actions of Standard Oil. Gates doesn’t have that same excuse. Rockefeller also tried to be very gracious whenever he bought a competitor, purposely overpaying at times, and always offering Standard Oil stock, which he believed would be very valuable (the companies he acquired always took cash, to Rockefeller’s chagrin). Their performance under questioning by the government also could not be more different. Rockefeller came across as witty and charming, and Chernow described him as being smart enough to see many steps ahead of the questions being asked to avoid any traps. Gates, meanwhile, came across as arrogant, leading many Americans at the time to view him as a villain. Lastly, Rockefeller has his “Ledger A” to disprove the notion that he was giving away his fortune to cleanse his conscience. I do not think Bill Gates is giving away his fortune to wipe away any guilt from his business actions, and I applaud everything he and his foundation have done, but I do not think he has anything similar to Rockefeller’s Ledger A, which proves a long track record of charitable contribution from the time before he was anywhere close to being rich.

So why do their reputations differ so much? I think there are many reasons. The biggest is that Rockefeller is not understood. Unless you decide to do research on his life, your conception of him as a man is going to be entirely wrong. How we view Rockefeller is bundled together with how we view the other robber barons of the time. We view them as the epitome of corruption and anti-trust behavior, as people who accumulate money for its own sake. And we view Rockefeller, who is probably the most famous of them all, as the prime culprit. Another reason for Rockefeller’s poor reputation is because of the lack of press understanding at the time. The Ida Tarbell series completely ruined his reputation, and though his reputation slowly recovered as his philanthropy became more well known, that series forever left a blemish. As mentioned earlier, the series got a lot about Standard Oil right, but it also got many things wrong, especially its assessment of Rockefeller the person. With our understanding of press relations today, the series would have never had the impact it did and Tarbell would have been immediately discredited. Today, we rightly view Bill Gates as a great man, one who is at the forefront of doing everything he can to save the world. Yet, we do not view Rockefeller, arguably an even greater man, in the same lens. I am not saying that Rockefeller is a more moral or righteous person than Gates, because frankly I do not know enough about either to make those judgments, but I definitely do not see a reason to label him a worse man.


I personally disagree with Chernow’s assessment of Rockefeller’s legacy, but here it is:

“In truth, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., had left behind a contradictory legacy. An amalgam of godliness and greed, compassion and fiendish cunning, he had personified the ambiguous heritage of America’s Puritan ancestors, who had encouraged thrift and enterprise but had also spurred overly acquisitive instincts. He had extracted mixed messages from his religious training as well as from his incongruously matched parents. Not surprisingly, he had served as an emblem of both corporate greed and philanthropic enlightenment.”

My opinion of Rockefeller’s legacy is intertwined with my opinion of Bill Gates’ legacy. I feel like Chernow is offering a false balance by presenting Rockefeller as a neutral figure who balances “so much evil” with “so much good”. At the time of his death, Rockefeller was eulogized by everybody, including his critics, who chose to focus on his philanthropy. Since then, he has either been lauded or lambasted, based on the times. He was criticized for his greed during the time of the Great Depression, but praised for everything he built during the patriotic fervor of WWII, when there was “a renewed appreciation of the iron men of American industry who had bequeathed such military might to the country”. Today, during times of greater wealth inequality, we again start to focus on his avarice. I view him as a great, but complicated man. I will leave it up to you to read Chernow’s fantastic biography of him to decide.

Interesting things that I didn’t cover (just a few among many): relationship with Frank, his estranged brother; oil in Lima, Ohio; breakup with Andrews, his long-time partner; fight with the Pennsylvania Railroad; Rockefeller’s wife Cettie; John D. Jr.; later personality and improved relations with the press; the isolation of money

Weekly Digest 10/4/18

Scott Alexander steelmans NIMBYs (4,900 words) – Scott is a great writer which is why I think all of his blog posts are must read, but I felt there were many holes in his argument. Luckily, he is also willing to provide a platform for those who disagree with the position he took in a follow-up comments article (3,000 words). The commenters that most reflected what I was thinking were Gwern (trillions of additional economic growth created doesn’t sound so bad) and DS (NYC has severe housing restriction as well so it’s not a good comparison; a better one would be Seoul).

David A. Kaplan on the Supreme Court – The title on the Longreads website is deceiving, since the article doesn’t explain how the Supreme Court got to be the way that it is. Instead, it goes over the secrecy and excesses of the court. Interesting nonetheless. The court that was all but irrelevant when the Constitution is now all powerful and carries itself accordingly (not in a good way). (5,000 words)

Every Frame a Painting – I’ve been living under a rock and just discovered this YouTube channel 2 years after its last video. My god is it amazing. Having discovered it right after seeing Seven Samurai this past weekend, I found the video on Kurosawa especially great. As someone who didn’t go to film school, I miss a lot of the technical details, which is why these videos are so engrossing. My favorites so far are the Marvel Soundtrack, Jackie Chan, Texting, and Snowpiercer videos. If you like this channel, I also recommend the Lessons from the Screenplay channel.

Bill Simmons interviews Matt Damon – The stories Damon tells are riveting. I don’t watch celebrity interviews, so I hadn’t heard any of these stories. (108 min.)


Weekly Digest 9/27/18


Ben Thompson on the departure of Instagram’s founders – Many news publications are blaming Zuckerberg for their departures, but Ben Thompson illustrates why Instagram’s founders leaving was inevitable. Prior to it being acquired by Facebook, Instagram had an extremely compelling product, but no monetization engine. Enter Facebook. Facebook had been thinking of ways to monetize its product from the beginning and could integrate Instagram seamlessly into its ad ecosystem. On top of that, Facebook could provide Instagram with the infrastructure to scale exponentially without hiccups. Thompson provides Snapchat as a contrast to Instagram. Snapchat also has a compelling product, but is floundering without a great way to monetize, and potential new users are staying with the Facebook-Instagram behemoth instead. Instagram’s acquisition was great for both Facebook and Instagram, a perfect win-win acquisition: Instagram’s founders could focus on the product while Facebook provided the infrastructure for it to scale and monetize seamlessly; Facebook gained a company that lets it reach a different consumer segment at, what appears in hindsight, a big discount. (2,400 words)

Nikita’s “software disenchantment” – I wish I could properly understand Nikita’s rant. Unfortunately, without a programming background I can’t. His premise makes sense to me. Hardware is magnitudes stronger than it was a decade ago, yet websites, computers, and phones take forever to load or boot up. Why? Because of bloat. Commenters replied that software is a relatively new industry and that this issue will be fixed over time. As someone who wonders why everything takes so long to load still, yet has no background in this area, I hope so. (2,800 words)

An Army officer on tequila’s role in Mexican relationships – A reminder that there are many different types of sipping liquors besides whisky. Tequila is one such example, so when dining in Mexico for business or government trips, don’t shoot it like you would with your buddies. (1,400 words)


Dan Carlin on the USS Indianapolis – All of Dan Carlin’s stuff is must-listen and this is no exception. I didn’t know about the USS Indianapolis before listening to this and the whole thing was engrossing; I’ll make sure to read the book Carlin uses eventually. For those who don’t know, the USS Indianapolis was the ship that delivered the parts of the first nuclear bomb in WWII. It got sunk by a Japanese torpedo after delivering the parts and its crew was stuck in the middle of the ocean in shark-infested waters for days. They didn’t get discovered immediately because the mission was top-secret, among other reasons. It’s a story about humans being pushed to the edge and in many cases over the edge of human limits. (53 min.)

Russ Roberts interviews Rodney Brooks – Great interview on artificial intelligence. I was most fascinated with their discussion about Isaac Newton. Brooks talked about Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote about a sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic and then used Newton as an example. If we showed Newton, one of history’s greatest minds, an iPhone and all of its capabilities, he would have no conception of its limits. The iPhone can play videos and map the world, has access to Google which gives us the world’s knowledge, plays music, video chats with other people, etc. Faced with this, Newton would think it was capable of anything. One example of the iPhone’s limits that Brooks gives is that it needs to be charged. Yet, as he points out, Newton would never have anticipated that limitation based on everything he just saw the iPhone do. In some ways, our understanding of AI is like Newton’s understanding of the iPhone. The technology is so far beyond our current conception of what is possible that we can’t understand its limitations. The two also discuss a lot of other cool interesting stuff that I’ll leave for you to discover. (65 min.)