Monday, June 07, 2010

Robber barons revisited

Last night I started reading The Rational Optimist, which so far is fantastic. Here's a brief excerpt on the notorious "robber barons" of the 19th century:
Rail freight charges fell by 90 percent between 1870 and 1900. There is little doubt that [Cornelius] Vanderbilt sometime bribed and bulled his way to success, and that he sometimes paid his workers lower than others -- I am not trying to make him into a saint -- but there is also no doubt that along the way he delivered to consumers an enormous benefit that would otherwise have eluded them -- affordable transport. Likewise, Andrew Carnegie, while enormously enriching himself, cut the price of a steel rail by 75 percent in the same period; John D. Rockefeller cut the price of oil by 80 percent. During those thirty years, the per capita GDP of Americans rose by 66 percent. They were enricher barons too.
Meanwhile, Apple's Steve Jobs is worth billions and has also presided over the reduction in price of the now ubiquitous iPhone from an initial $499 three years ago to a mere $199 now for a much more capable device. Is he a modern-day robber baron? If so, we could use some more of them.

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