David Henderson Talks to the Occupy Folks

David Henderson has a wonderful 4-part series of a talk he had with an Occupy-type crowd in Monterrey.  He does a good job of showing how the roots of many of the problems the Occupy folks fret about lie with government power rather than free markets.

part 1

part 2

part 3

part 4


Here is a point he makes in part 3 that I have made before

"Or consider this," I said, "Who was the wealthiest man in America early in the 20th century?" "John D. Rockefeller," said someone. "Right," I said, "and at its peak, John D. Rockefeller's net worth was, in today's $, about $200 billion, which would make him richer than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett combined."

"But think what you have that he didn't. He couldn't watch TV, play video games, surf the Internet, or send e-mail. During the summer, he didn't have air conditioning. For most of his life, he couldn't travel by airplane. He didn't even have [and here I picked up my cell phone] a 1G. And here's the big one: If he got sick, he couldn't use many medicines, including penicillin. Calvin Coolidge's son, after playing tennis on the White House lawn and getting a blister, died. He didn't have antibiotics."

"So you could say that you're richer than Rockefeller. Isn't there a song about that?Here's the test. Who here would trade places with Rockefeller?" I asked. About 5 people stuck up their hands. "Then you're not," I said. "Who wouldn't trade places with Rockefeller?" I asked. About 15 people stuck up their hands. "You are," I said.

I wrote something similar of San Francisco 19th-century millionaire Mark Hopkins

Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people’s access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin’s business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

The only mistake in this I would correct was to say Mark Hopkins was old at 64.  The average lifespan was in the forties, but this was mainly because of childhood death.  Once someone made it into their thirties, they had a pretty good chance of living into their sixties.


  1. Another guy named Dan:

    Don't forget that Rockefeller lost a daughter to typhus when one of his servants mixed a pitcher of lemonade with lake water rather than well water at his summer house. Why was the lake water contaminated? Because neither Rockefeller or his neighbors had access to even rudimentary sewage treatment.

    Today the death could have been prevented with a $45 vaccination as well.

    And why lemonade? Because at the time the ice itself was a luxury item, as there was no mechanical refrigeration, no canned soft drinks, or prepackaged foods of any kind other than canned meats and some vegetables.

    And then again why servants? Because there were no vaccum cleaners, no microwaves, electric stoves, blenders, or garbage disposals.

  2. David R. Henderson:

    Thanks for the publicity. Good point about Hopkins. I may use it.

  3. A Critic:

    Rockefeller also spend years if not decades being ill. His doctor put him on a diet of milk and graham crackers - and that's it. Aside from his use of real estate and landscaping he led a rather boring life. What's the point of money if you don't have a blast with it?

  4. Craig:

    These people don't give a damn about how poorly Rockefeller lived compared to the middle class nowadays. Rockefeller, in their minds, had power and that is his sin. And don't try to explain to them that only the government has real power, it falls on deaf and [very] dumb ears. He was financially successful and that cannot be tolerated.

  5. Gil:

    Translation: wealthy people did not exist at least 1950, 1980, or the year 2000. Prior to 1950 there were merely less poor people.

  6. steve:

    Hmmm... very difficult choice. Live better today or be incredibaly rich in the past? I can't help but think about all the women throwing themselves at me even if I didn't have air conditioning.

  7. I Got Bupkis, Fomenter of "small-l" libertarianism:

    If you listen to the OWS people most of them are just about "gimme gimme gimme".

    It's just not FAIR that THAT kid has a 64 box of crayons!! I should have one too!



  8. Gil:

    Why would you want to rich in the past to score women? Ever seen a painting of good-looking women from times of yore? Even those who weren't fat wouldn't be considered particularly good-looking. Not to mention the average woman from the days of early photography show most women were quite masculine back then. It's little wonder many people had no trouble going into a celibate order in the olden days.

  9. Anon:

    Gil wrote: "wealthy people did not exist at least 1950, 1980, or the year 2000. Prior to 1950 there were merely less poor people."

    Gil -- if you define wealth relative to your peers, then you have a point. Rockefeller certainly had it better than the common man in his day.

    But Rockefeller had it worse in many ways than even the lower-middle class today.

    (also, your "Prior to..." sentences makes no sense -- pretty much everyone was poor by today's standards).

  10. EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy:

    I'm a big fan of these arguments (progress has made the common man richer than the kings of old) and use them often.

    But there is a fly in the ointment that should not be neglected: status. Status has real meaning. There are not only psychological but physiological effects to being high- or low-status. That may be what motivates the people would like to trade with Rockefeller.

    To my mind the question of status is more interesting than that of wealth in this age of nearly ubiquitous material well-being, and I think it is one of the things that motivates the Occupy types. Of course, I think they have missed the biggest cause of inequalities in real status: the concentration of political power in a centralized government.

  11. steve:

    @Gil LOL, old timey women were ugly even masculine? It's a wonder the human race managed to survive. Perhaps, you are looking at too many DaVinci paintings and sculptures. He used male body builders for all his models then added boobs. Looks it too. Go figure why. Gay? Taboos against female models? I don't know.

    As for fat, that was the style at one time. Basically meant rich I think, since all the poor women were skinny.

    Besides, Rockefeller would have been 1900s-1920s. I quite like the flapper look.

  12. Ian Random:

    I guess Coyote's point is that despite their extreme wealth for the time, even the less well off today have access to things they couldn't imagine. Look at the OWS mob and all the smart phones they carried around. One point mention in his post, I think the OWS types overlook is that a lot of high earners work long hours. Average work week for a lot of doctors is 50 hours. My boss makes more than me, but he has to carry a pager all the time. If he can't get someone to cover a shift, he works that shift.

  13. Shane:

    I liked the water example, but this is where advocates of Capitalism, I think, go wrong. He leaves the reader with a splinter in the justice of their minds. The reader comes away believing that justice has not been served and that "naked" Capitalism is somehow not fair. I think a better way to handle this example is to show how free markets remove the injustice of this situation. I propose this as a finish. So the person decides that $50k is gouging and instead of getting a law passed he himself goes back to start a competing source of water. With this simple branch on the argument people can vent their very strong sense of injustice, and the converstation turns to solutions within Capitalism. Heck you could even show how government intervention could make a mess of what might be a good thing. But leaving people hanging without an idea of how to cure the injustice just gives Capitalism a bad name.

  14. me:

    Strictly speaking, the impression I got of the Occupy movement is not that they are protesting against capitalism and free markets (the things that made us all so fabulously wealthy) or desire to be rich while at the same time living in the past.

    They protest the lack of freedom and government interference (wall street bailouts, reductions in civil liberties) and skewed playing field (just think drug convictions for everyday folks vs lack thereof for the mega-rich). So, in a sense (albeit probably unconsciously and ineptly), they are expressing support for precisely the mechanisms that so enriched all of our lives.