My good friend and fellow blogger Frederick Ingram of Corporate History International has written an intriguing review of what appears to be a quite intriguing book: historian John Oller’s White Shoe: How a New Bread of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century. Based on Ingram’s review alone, the book is a fascinating dive into the heady politics of early twentieth-century America, the transition from the relative laissez-faire capitalism of the so-called “Gilded Age” into the economic, political, and social reforms of the Progressive Era.
The Progressive Movement fundamentally transformed the United States, in many ways (constitutionally) for the worse. But it was an attempt to rectify some of the excesses of the Gilded Age, and to ensure that workers were not merely cogs in faceless corporate machines. In reading Ingram’s review, I heard echoes of Tucker Carlson’s recent on-air musings, particularly the idea that efficiency is not a god to be worshipped blindly, and that capitalism is great, but it should work for us, not the other way around.
The more things change, the more they stay the same: Carlson’s diagnosis of America’s current ills echoes attorney (and future Supreme Court justice) Louis Brandeis’s “curse of bigness,” the argument against efficiency-for-its-own-sake. I was struck, while reading Ingram’s review, how much our own age mirrors the period that, in many ways, begat our current crises: the Progressive Era of 100 years ago.
According to Ingram, a consensus of sorts was reached among these big Wall Street Lawyers (WSLs), which ultimately prevented radicalism and presented “capitalism with a human face”:
“The end of ‘The Last Great Epoch’ coincided with the end of World War I, flanked by the funerals of the earlier generation of great industrialists and white shoe pioneers. ‘Each year has the significance of a hundred,’ said William Nelson Cromwell in 1918, and this applied not just to armistice negotiations but vast swaths of human society. Business, law, and government in the US would be professionalized and regulated, but still relatively free by world standards. The reforms advocated by enlightened and informed WSLs formed a barrier against imported radicalism. Even rightwing attorneys backed movements such as social security, child labor prohibitions, and even minimum wage.”
Ingram, as I mentioned, is a good friend, and we’ve had some lively discussions over the years about the “big questions” of life. His thoughtfulness and reflexivity are in full display in his review here, as he links insights from this work to concurrent readings of Jordan Peterson and Christopher Andrews. He also brings in his own experiences working in “BigLaw,” as he calls it, the grueling world of billable hours and 80+-hour workweeks.
To (indulgently) block-quote Ingram once more:
“Having worked as a BigLaw accounting clerk myself, I have an issue with the Cravath System and the slavish devotion to billable hours. Is your spouse really going to leave you if you don’t make $250,000 this year? Will your children no longer look up to you? Is that worth being a cortisol-addled prick 80 hours a week, every weekday of your miserable life? Wouldn’t it be wiser to make, I don’t know, $100k or even $50k and have your peace of mind back?”
As much as I admire the energy and drive of the restless striver—and as much as I over-work myself—Ingram makes a compelling point. Money doesn’t buy happiness (although it certainly buys a great deal of freedom), and the pursuit of it can lead other, more enduring obligations—family, friends, faith—to wither.
An excellent review, from a good friend. Check it out at https://corporatehistory.international/2019/01/27/new-white-shoe-review-for-you, then pick up a copy of Oller’s book.
White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century by John Oller (Dutton: 2019). Review by Frederick C. Ingram, CorporateHistory.International, January 27, 2019.
White Shoe promises to deliver an engaging and revealing tale regarding the handful of New York City attorneys who effectively created big business as we’ve known it, the “new high priests for a new century.” As an accomplished historian (The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, Da Capo: 2016) and former Wall Street attorney himself (Willkie Farr & Gallagher), John Oller is well placed to fulfill this tall order.
In a previous economy, I researched hundreds of corporations for the International Directory of Company Histories, so the prospect of peeking a little beyond the opaque public relations and investor relations curtain intrigued me. I’m also reminded of strolling along Fifth Avenue, whose equally opaque walls…
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