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Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 - Jack Beatty

A financial history of the United States from 1865-1900.  Beatty covers diverse subjects as large-scale strikes in the steel, railroad, and meatpacking industries;

poll taxes, controversies over the composition of our currency (silver-backed vs. gold-backed vs. bimetallic vs. pure fiat), rise of large-scale industrial capitalism (particularly the West Coast railroad system, and Andrew Carnegie's Homestead Steel plant), yellow journalism, Populism, Progressivism, America's foray into colonialism in the Philipines and Cuba,  the astonishing growth of Chicago and its attendant corruption, and the ignoble history of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

 

For the most part, it was an enjoyable enough read... informative and engaging. My only complaint is the author's tendency to become preachy, and his offputting habit of peppering a mostly-evenhanded text with fits of obscene bias. When discussing the currency debates of the 1890's, Beatty jumps into the 110-year past fray by declaring then-supporters of the gold-backed dollar to have been gold "fetishists".  Later, when weighing the merits of William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley, Beatty goes off on a diatribe about the Democrat's "enfeebling aversion to statism".  I admit: I'd probably have more tolerance for these outbursts, if I happened to agree with Beatty, but since I don't, I just wish he'd STFU.  

 

The whole term "betrayal" seems overly dramatic in this book's title... but I am sympathetic to Beatty mourning the economic transition that occurred in the Gilded Age: the shifting of American productivity and wealth from a broad base of farmers and artisans... local producers of all types... to the rarefied "tip of the pyramid" of highly centralized, capital-intensive, mechanized platforms of large-scale industry. Calling this betrayal makes it a bit personal, when a lot of very impersonal forces brought this about. Probably the largest factor was the railroads, which brought the cost of transporting raw materials and finished goods into a range where factory production could actually be profitable. Carnegie would never had a viable business making thousand pound steel beams for construction, if these needed to be shipped by horse-drawn wagon over dirty roads, or even pulled by horse teams along the Erie Canal. 

 

A second big factor is the application of scientific methods to farming, and the rapid development of the incredibly fertile soil of the Midwest and Great Plains in the mid-1800's which made farming much more productive and efficient. This freed labor off the farms, making manpower more readily available (and labor a buyer's market) for large urban industry.

 

Unfortunately, once industry concentrated incredible amounts of wealth (e.g. when the U.S. Navy decided to armor plate its fleet with steel from Carnegie's Homestead Steel plant, the company was realizing profits upwards of $40 million/month in 1900 !) into the hands of a very few "captains of industry", it fueled a pipeline of money to corrupt politicians on a scale far grander than had existed in America before. The cozy relation between the plutocrats and their bought off politicians drove further injustices in which public government aided private enterprise against the general population. The two most flagrant such abuses include (a) government tariffs to protect chosen industries, thus needlessly driving up costs to consumers in order to prop up robberbaron profits; and (b) use of taxpayer-funded military force (either the National Guard or the Army) to crack the skulls of striking laborers. In this context, I guess the word "betrayal" isn't too strong after all.