Capitalism: tamed but triumphant

Today the Monitor begins three days of coverage marking nine decades of its publication. Wednesday's issue will include a special 90th anniversary section.

A century that began with a surge of raw capitalism is ending with capitalism victorious. It dominates the world.

Communism, which sprang to importance with the Russian revolution of 1917, has gone down to defeat. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a symbol of the end.

Socialism, a nonauthoritarian half sister of communism, which also promotes state-owned enterprises, still lives - but barely. It is fading fast in the developing world where it has held on in some countries for years.

The robber barons who flourished in the first decade or so of the 1900s have been tamed in the industrial world. Their monopolies have been destroyed or shaken by antitrust laws and other government regulation. In the United States, the inadequate Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was bolstered by the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.

Back then, John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil, which controlled 85 percent of the US domestic oil trade, felt the might of federal trustbusters. Today it is Microsoft that is under the gun.

In Russia, a few robber barons flourish after picking up state enterprises at rip-off prices. To outsiders, they have the primitive air of the frozen mammoths that are uncovered occasionally in the tundra of Siberia.

One reason capitalism has thrived is its vitality. It creates wealth and jobs like no other economic system. Another reason is that capitalism gradually became more humane. The enemies of free enterprise had less to complain about.

Child labor, for example, has greatly diminished, certainly in the richer nations. In the US, Congress in 1916 outlawed the interstate trade of goods produced in factories where children under age 14 worked. At the time, 13 percent of the textile industry's workforce were children. Two years later, the Supreme Court said Congress had exceeded its powers. But better treatment of children continued.

Jolts to the system

Trade unions grew more powerful, fighting for better wages, improved safety, fewer work hours, and other benefits.

In the early part of the century, the Wobblies, the nickname for the Industrial Workers of the World, scared capitalists with their radical socialist and anarchistic views. But they faded away in the conservative society of America. They were replaced by the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the CIO merged in 1955, a time close to the peak of union power in America. Since then greater industrial efficiency, anti-union managements, the rise of service businesses, and prosperity have shrunk the proportion of workers represented by unions in the US - to less than 15 percent of non-farm workers today.

The economic misery of the Great Depression of the 1930s, with output dropping 30 percent in the US, brought further moderation to the rigors of capitalism. The system needed repairs.

Washington politicians may nowadays talk about an end to the era of Big Government. Yet the heritage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal remains. Both Republicans and Democrats talk about saving the Social Security system set up under FDR. That law also introduced unemployment insurance and disability payments, both unassailable.

Bank deposits are safe because of FDR's federal deposit insurance. The Glass-Steagall Act separated commercial from investment banking - a separation that has been partly dribbled away in the past two decades.

The Tennessee Valley Authority was created. Government regulation was expanded over electric power and transportation. Workers won the right to bargain collectively under the Wagner Labor Relations Act of 1935.

At least as important, the Depression changed thinking on the role of government. Influenced by the famed British economist John Maynard Keynes, politicians over the next few decades saw the use of monetary and fiscal policies as necessary to stave off major slumps.

These policies worked. The Federal Reserve, created in 1913 to deal with financial panics, learned from its mismanagement of the nation's money in the Great Depression. It made sure the supply of money to the US economy didn't shrink. Though the US has experienced nine recessions since the end of World War II, none have come even close to the depths of the 1930s Depression.

Traction from technology

New technology has dramatically changed American business since 1908, and raised productivity enormously. In that first decade, railroads reigned. There were some 193,000 miles of track in the US, about 50,000 more than today.

The 42 percent of the workforce in farming has shrunk to 3 percent today. By 1918, Ford's cheap mass-produced tractors were revolutionizing food production. Horses as work animals became rare.

People forget that most employees worked six days and got only Sunday as a day of rest. Average weekly hours have fallen from 52 to 39.

Inventions brought new industries. Eastman Kodak Company introduced the point-and-shoot Brownie camera in 1900 for a dollar apiece, making photography easy for amateurs. Orville Wright flew his fragile airplane in 1903. A dozen years later, flying machines engaged in dogfights in World War I, and by 1939, airliners were crossing the Atlantic.

The automobile, which had been a toy for the rich, became a huge business when Henry Ford in 1908 introduced the Model T, assembly-line production, and lower prices. The same year W. C. Durant consolidated Buick and Olds into General Motors.

New oil finds in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana soon had a new market for their output.

The auto altered America. Highways crossed the nation. Suburbs sprung up around the cities. Lifestyles were transformed, with weekend colleges and camps possible. Teenagers and women especially won new mobility.

By 1915, a telephone line had been stretched from New York to San Francisco. Clarence Birdseye discovered the merits of fast-freezing food, and in 1924, formed General Seafoods in Gloucester, Mass., to market frozen fish.

Radios provided entertainment and news to almost half of US homes at the time of the 1929 stock market crash. Few homes - or cars - lack radios today.

The first computer, an electro-mechanical device filling several hundred square feet of floor space, was put into operation in 1931 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, by Vannevar Bush and colleagues.

The transistor, developed in 1947 by three scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories in central New Jersey, led to the computer revolution of today.

The wax cylinders of the early phonographs were in turn replaced by 78 r.p.m. flat discs, then LP records, audiocassettes, and today compact discs selling more than half a billion a year.

There were more products, more industries. After World War II, Chester Carlson invented xerography, Roy Plunkett came up with Du Pont's Teflon. The list goes on.

Economics go global

The balance of economic power in the world shifted during the century. It started with the dominance of Britain. But American industrial power grew steadily, sped up by the two World Wars.

At the end of World War II, with European and Japanese industry flattened by the fighting, the US produced about half of world output. After rapid recoveries abroad, the US has a 20 percent share of global output. It remains the greatest economic power.

Japan was seen as a challenger to the US for much of the 1970s and 1980s. But a burst bubble in stock and real estate prices brought an extended slump to the hard-working nation in the 1990s.

Nonetheless, the American share should shrink in the years ahead as new technology and modern management techniques spread across the globe. Today there are more than 50,000 "transnational" firms with some 450,000 foreign affiliates spreading modernization as well as producing goods and services.

This internationalization of the world economy has accelerated. The present Asian and Russian financial crisis is seen as only a short-term slowing in that trend.

Despite this "globalization crisis," companies made some $400 billion of direct investments in plants, equipment, and offices in nations outside those where they are based in 1997.

In 1999, 11 European nations will introduce a common currency, the euro. It is the next step in the coming together of the European Union to rival the US and its dollar.

Tariffs and other trade barriers have come down worldwide. When economists speak of a world economy, they really mean it as this century winds down.


Many companies and goods familiar today first appeared in the marketplace a surprising number of years ago. Here are a few - it's an arbitrary sample - from the first part of the century:

1908 - Gideon Bibles, paper cups, The Christian Science Monitor.

1909 - Lipton tea, electric toasters.

1910 - Neon lights, Hallmark Inc., Hamilton Beach food mixer.

1911 - Crisco vegetable shortening, Domino sugar, the seaplane.

1912 - Oreo and Lorna Doone cookies by Nabisco, Hellmann's mayonnaise.

1913 - Peppermint Life Savers, Quaker Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat.

1914 - Wrigley's Doublemint gum, auto road maps by Gulf Oil.

1915 - Pyrex, Kraft processed cheese.

1916 - Windshield wipers, lipstick in metal cartridges, Keds sneakers.

1918 - Airmail service, granulated laundry soap (Rinso), pop-up toaster.

1919 - Pogo stick, dial telephones, commercial airline service.

1921 - Wise potato chips, Van Heusen's starchless stiff collars.

1923 - Milky Way and Butterfinger candy bars, Pan American Airways, Hertz Drive-Ur-Self car rentals.

1924 - Wheaties cereal, Kleenex tissues, self-winding wristwatch.

1926 - Prestone antifreeze, Good Humor ice cream, miniature golf.

1927- Wonder Bread, Borden's homogenized milk, Gerber baby food, transatlantic telephone service.

1928 - Peter Pan peanut butter, broccoli (introduced into the US from Italy), Fleer's Dubble Bubble gum.

1929 - Front-wheel drive, mobile homes.

1930 - Scotch tape, Plexiglas, pinball machines, Hostess Twinkies, flashbulbs.

1931 - Bisquick, Clairol hair dye, Schick electric razor.

1933 - Monopoly, Ritz crackers, Windex glass cleaner, drive-in movie theaters.

1934 - Laundromat, Hammond pipeless organ.

1935 - Fluorescent lights, Gallup poll, Toyota automobiles, parking meters.

1936 - Polaroid sunglasses, Waring blender, trampolines.

1937 - Supermarket shopping carts, drive-in banks, Spam, Howard Johnson restaurants.

1938 - Steam irons for the home, Nescaf instant coffee, Fiberglas by Owens-Corning.

1939 - Automatic dishwasher, air-conditioned automobile.

1940 - Automatic gearbox, the Jeep, color television, M&Ms.

Source: Our Times: The Illustrated History of the 20th Century (Turner Publishing, Atlanta).

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