All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1964

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1964/8


Straws in the Wind

I had an interesting experience at a meeting of the Williamsburg International Assembly recently. Some forty-five foreign graduate students at American universities had come there for a conference. Thinking to bait the majority who were citizens of socialist or semi-socialist countries, I tried out a theory of the depression of the nineteen thirties on them. It had been caused, I said, by politicians who made a bad mess at Versailles in settling World War I. It had been “institutionalized” by the New Deal. But in spite of the drag of government intervention in the thirties, American business­men had continued to lay their bets on the future. The bets paid off in the late forties and the fif­ties when all sorts of new indus­tries proliferated. There were the chemical industry, the electronics revolution, the air lines, new meth­ods of food preservation, the change in agricultural machinery—a hundred new things.

What was amazing was that the students did not take any particu­lar objection to the argument. Can we deduce from this that the traumatic experience of the thir­ties no longer casts a spell on young people? Or that socialism, especially to those who come from socialist lands, has lost its allure? If so, the world could be off on a new tack—and some U.S. politi­cians are going to be badly fooled.

Marxist Fires Dying

That the Marxist fires are in­deed dying is the burden of Isaac Don Levine’s I Rediscovered Rus­sia, 1924-1964 (Dwell, Sloan and Pearce, $4.95). This little book, an account of a quest to uncover new material in Soviet archives about Stalin’s baleful effect on Russian cultural life, is not primarily de­voted to “big” issues of war, peace, and economic and political organization. But Levine, who hadn’t been inside Russia since 1924, couldn’t help taking the po­litical temperature of the country. The agricultural crisis was appar­ent on every hand. The efforts of the intellectuals to break out of the prison of orthodox Marxism were obvious. And the war be­tween Khrushchev and Mao Tse-tung was an indication that the crusading fervor had gone out of the Russian brand of communism.

“I could not escape the feeling,” so Don Levine wrote after leaving Russia, “that the crest of the communist tide, which had been sweeping over the globe since 1917, is behind us… Khru­shchev’s portentous boast that communism would bury us… seemed like a grim piece of buf­foonery” against the “realities of the poverty-stricken land… I could not shake off the thought that I had rediscovered Russia at the moment when the corrosion in her political armor had set in and when the tide of history had taken a decisive turn in favor of the West.”

The Levine argument would not have bothered those foreign stu­dents who had gathered at Wil­liamsburg, even though some of them—the girl from Poland, for example—were skeptical about any quick collapse of communist control in Iron Curtain lands. What is being demonstrated around the world today is that people won’t work for dictatorial political masters. In the commu­nist countries the calculated slow­down is endemic. On the other hand, in the lands that still retain a good deal of capitalism clever men find ways of increasing pro­ductivity and creating new busi­nesses in spite of the dead weight of the socializing politicians.

Self-Help Is Best

This is apparent in a remark­able book called Money Talks! by Charles Sopkin (Random House, $4.95). Mr. Sopkin had the bright idea of seeking out some self-made men of the mid-twentieth century and letting them spill their egos—and super-egos—for exact quota­tion. None of the men he inter­viewed seemed to care about play­ing things cool in their remarks on the passing show. The result is a wonderful shoot-from-the-hip book which proves that men can still be men in spite of the drive, fostered by public relations ex­perts, to homogenize everything and everyone in our culture.

Money Talks! makes it obvious that “growth” is the product, not of manipulation of taxes and gov­ernment spending, but of the rag­ing desire of exceptional individ­uals to cut free of bureaucratic in­hibitions and to think for them­selves. One does not even have to be very original. William P. Lear, Sr., who went into the jet plane production business at the age of sixty, says he depends on “hind­sight” in picking out new oppor­tunities. His formula is to determine what has gone over in one part of the country, and then try it out in another. He thinks any­body can make money in Europe these days simply by adapting things that have succeeded in America in the nineteen fifties. But this “worrying about fringe benefits is bad. It’s definitely bad because this anxiety over security is the basic thing undermining our whole American way of life…Security isn’t worth that much. [People]… should be secure by virtue of their abilities, their abil­ity to cope with things, rather than relying on the built-in secur­ity, we’ll say, of a governmental agency. This is pitiful to see.”

Help Wanted!

Then there is Carole Stupell, who runs a gift shop on Fifty-seventh Street in New York. She says she could branch out every­where and make money if she could only find competent people to work for her. “There is no such thing as being out of a job,” she says, “there is always room. Everybody is looking for people who are willing to work and prove that they are worth what they want to get.” But who wants to work today? Ten years ago a Ph.D. walked into Miss Stupell’s shop and asked for a job. In a month he had become Miss Stu­pell’s assistant. In six months he was running her desk. After sev­eral years he left to start his own advertising agency. But Ph.D.’s today would consider a job in a gift shop beneath them. Miss Stu­pell worries a bit about this. She’d like to open a branch in Palm Beach, but she doesn’t know where to get the personnel. It’s as easy to buy for fifty stores as for one, she says, but how discover fifty good lieutenants in an age when the philosophy of the younger generation is “that the world owes them a living”?

Wallace Johnson of Memphis, Tennessee, began to make money after he was forty years old by building houses. He didn’t have any cash, but he matched a will­ingness to borrow with a good eye for the market created by the population explosion… J. J. Mascuch, an inventor in the “nine­ty per cent tax bracket,” special­izes in keeping his eyes on other people. When he saw them slipping on boat decks, he found a way of putting emery dust into boat deck lacquer. Nothing very profound about this way of coming up with better mousetraps, but it has made a killing for Mr. Mascuch. As for Philip Sagona, he came out of a slum by perfecting himself at basketball, not with an eye to be­coming a professional athlete but merely to get an athletic scholar­ship which would enable him to study—and really study—at a good college. He’s now a big man in the perfume manufacturing business.

So it goes in Mr. Sopkins’ book. One man markets quality frozen Mexican foods. A watch company executive, retired at sixty-five be­cause of inflexible company regu­lations, gets hold of a rival com­pany and makes a great competi­tive success of it. A man whodoesn’t own his own studio makes commercial pictures for television—and then begins to compete with Hollywood in regular movie pro­duction. What it all adds up to is that it is as easy to make money today as it has ever been, pro­vided you have the eye for a “growth” situation. And why talk about the baleful effects of auto­mation when Carole Stupell would still like to open fifty new shops?

 

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Centers of Initiative

Our economy has the tremendous advantage of possessing three and a half million business enterprises outside of agriculture and about six million business enterprises in agriculture. This means that the American economy has nearly ten million places where innovations may be authorized. Have you ever thought of that? Ten million places where experiments may be tried, where no further authority is needed to authorize an experiment. Our economy operates under about ten million separate private busi­ness budgets. No regimented economy can hope to compete in dynamic drive with an economy which possesses nearly ten mil­lion independent centers of initiative.

SUMNER H. SLICHTER

From United States Investor, May ¹7, ¹947


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.