The American empire is not disintegrating. Americans are reassessing national values, vision, mission and strategies. It is the regular exercise of any healthy enterprise. She still reigns supreme as the most powerful cultural, political and economic influencer on the planet. China and Russia can destroy the world but are no match for America as influencers. Small countries like Israel and Singapore are disruptors nibbling at American prowess in spheres like innovation. But America, primarily US businesses, adapt quickly. They buy out the competition. Israel, for example, is a most willing seller. Business history tells us a lot about nation-building.
History teaches how religious beliefs, military prowess, political architecture, and entrepreneurial sparkle weave a tenacious web in nation and empire-building. Yet, business history receives short shrift in business schools and academic writing. Prof. Richard Vague, in An Illustrated Business History of the United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021) writes: “Less has been written on this subject than on US political, military or social history, even though… business is equal to any of those fields in influence on society and arguably greater.”
Real estate is the business of business
The pursuit of wealth always determined the priorities in Western countries. For instance, colonialism and its by-product of slavery became enshrined in law. Tax codes favor corporations over individuals. The Dutch East India Company valuation hit $8.28 trillion in 1637. By 1720, the English South Sea Company and Mississippi Company were valued at $4.5 and $6.8 trillion.
Before the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, wealthy Virginians established The Ohio Company in 1748. It was essentially a real estate company to profit from westward expansion. “From the outset, ambitious Americans well understood that buying land and waiting for the population to increase was a path to riches.” Andrew Carnegie quipped, “90% of all millionaires become so through owning real estate.” I know Ray Kroc became one by insisting franchisees lease their McDonald’s from Kroc. American real estate is valued at $60 trillion. Real estate is “the single highest-value asset in the United States, greater than the value of stocks, bonds, or any other major asset category,” Vague reports.
War is the business of business
American imperium is not threatened despite our hideous exits from Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. We maintain over 200,000 military troops on 800 known bases in 150 of the 195 nation-states across the globe. Eleven US aircraft carriers roam the seas. America spends more money employing more people engaging in cyberwarfare and intelligence gathering across the planet and in outer space.
Presidents abandoned isolationism in the 1800s. The US Navy and newly formed Marines engaged foreign powers on sea and land. The Civil War birthed the modern arms and ammunition industries, the federalization of transportation, science and medicine, the business of prisons, the mass production of food and more like no other war before it. World wars took American business and commerce to a whole new level. It moved president Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to warn the country, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
Vague brings this relationship to today: It is a war that most “profoundly affected the course of US business and incubated technological innovations that propel business forward.” The military spawned the digital revolution of the 1980s. The government’s Manhattan Project catapulted the US into the nuclear age, producing bombs, power and medical possibilities. We built the highway system not to sell cars but to move soldiers and equipment cross-country fast and furious.
Building wealth through tech
The newest revolution is in artificial intelligence and big data. Dominating the new directions for business growth and concentration of power are social media, biotech, Fintech, space tech, infotech, Med-tech, nanotech, ed-tech, prop tech, sleep tech and Green Tech.
Small nations like Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong and several of the Gulf States are ferociously penetrating markets with tech innovations and products. But their leaders have learned little from the history of business. Nation-state building thrives on entrepreneurs building legacy companies, a subject Prof. Vague covers extensively.
Israel’s business parks are dominated by office towers housing American, European and Chinese companies. Israelis do not build the infrastructure for a long-lasting growing nation-state. There are no legacy companies. Israeli politicians take pride in their entrepreneurs selling businesses. A major newspaper and several websites give weekly reports on how much money Israeli businesses sell for in a heated M&A environment. There is no mention of the ensuing job losses and dearth of associated infrastructure. Israel’s largest company is cybersecurity Check Point Software Technologies.
America’s business sector undergirds the nation and is the world’s greatest influencer. US tech stocks are more valuable than the entire European stock market. America might have lost its manufacturing edge to Asia and other low-wage countries, but robotics, innovations in mass production and the vagaries of dictatorial rule in those countries are spurring America to sharpen its competitive edge. The American empire is strong despite adventurous setbacks. Its business sector is the integral engine of growth and leadership. Small nations should look to American business, learn its history and apply the lessons to grow their own nations to sustainability.
Vague’s history book is 320 pages of facts, stories, cartoons of the period, charts and pictures. The book is laced with over 300 pictures and he tells the stories behind them. He includes lots of stories about failed choices and failed leaders. The empire absorbed them all, shook them off and moved on. Small nations don’t have the luxury. The breadth of his scholarship and sourcing of materials offers lessons of great value to political decision-makers and businesspeople. The stories and brief biographies of characters are amusing but readers should learn from the successes and failures.
The author pays short shrift to the ruthless influences of Papism and antisemitism across the business world and their influences on America’s development of all its institutions. An Illustrated Business History should include more information about the contributions of slavery in building the American economy. The slave trade was a wealth-building business. It stretched from Africa to Europe, North America and South America. Slavery and the institutional posterity of racism and sexism (e.g., Jim Crow Laws, red-lining by banks that created America’s slums) it left behind dominate the news today. The push for diversity, equity, inclusion, social change and anti-sexism is led today by business and industry.
The writer manages an investment company and writes for financial companies about business, social, and political issues. He is a free public speaker for community groups and consults on matters of commerce and industry.