Tag Archives: America

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memory of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance

  1. JD Vance wrote this book not because he’s accomplished anything extraordinary, but because he’s accomplished something ordinary. His poor upbringing and difficult childhood indicates he’d never escape but he was able to graduate from Yale Law School.
Key Takeaways
  1. There is of course inequality but there is also a lack of agency, of responsibility, of accountability that JD has found in his cohort
  2. The honor culture of the south leads many into violence and revenge, not being able to let an insult go
  3. For most hillbillies, the only way up is to move out. There are astonishing numbers of people moving away from the Appalachian region every year, in pursuit of a livable wage
  4. People don’t expect much of themselves because the people around them aren’t doing very much
  5. Despite all the social and peers pressures, JD received a different message at home that it was alright to learn and to strive and that made all the difference to him
  6. Parent’s desire for their kids to do better didn’t just relate to education, work, and pay, but to relationships too. Low expectations for those living in the Appalachians is hurting every generation
  7. JD had no role models for relationships and thought that screaming, violence, and hitting was how adults spoke to each other
  8. We are all very bad at judging ourselves
  9. His grandma was his most important positive influence as she showed him not only what was possible but how to get there. She helped him raise what he expected out of himself
  10. The instability in JD’s life was so disruptive. He was in several different homes with several different father figures in only a couple of years. Once he had a safe, stable place with grandma, he was able to focus and do his work
  11. JD enlisted in the marine corps and graduating was his proudest accomplishment. He got out of his learned helplessness and it made him see and question things once he returned home
  12. Sometimes those in power try to help the helpless without truly understanding their situation, which often ends up with negative consequences
  13. When a group believes that hard work will pay off, they all work harder and go all-in, often with amazing results
  14. The predominant emotion in lower middle class working white Americans is a sense of pessimism and a lack of accountability. They’re not willing to work hard and be consistent and blame others or the government for their problems
  15. Most successful people don’t even play the same game as the people JD grew up with. He had no idea how important networking, one’s social capital, was for one’s prospects. He learned this during his time at Yale Law and going through the interview/admissions process
What I got out of it
  1. An amazing dive into the life of poor Appalachians and the struggles they face. JD told his story in such an open, transparent, vulnerable way and gave me insight into situations I didn’t appreciate or know much about before. Inspiring how hard JD worked to escape his situation, his learned helplessness

Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw


  1. Nasaw sheds a different light on Carnegie than what we get through Carnegie’s autobiography. Nasaw reveals Carnegie’s more egotistical and bullheaded side but balances it by showing the good Carnegie he done for the world through the accumulation and dispersion of his wealth.
Key Takeaways
  1. Carnegie’s autobiography is good but lacks certain events, chronology is off at times and there are errors either by the author or the numerous editors
  2. Author has found evidence contrary to the very rational, moralistic man who brought civility to the industrial revolution that is portrayed in the autobiography. Much of his money came from shady business practices and he was not different from the men he competed with, simply different in how he used his new fortune. Recognition that the more he earned the more he could give the community made him an ever more ruthless business man
  3. By his early thirties had amassed great wealth through Pennsylvanian oil wells, iron manufacturing, bridge building and bond trading
  4. Moved to NY in 1870s and only worked a few hours per day. However, he accomplished more in these hours than most men do in a day. Spent rest of the day pursuing intellectual and philanthropic ventures
  5. Every business decision seemed to be spot on and soon saw he wouldn’t be able to give away all his wealth while still alive
  6. Focused on world peace towards the end of his life. Opposed US intervention in the Philippines. Realized at 80 that these efforts were in vain and spent remaining years alone and isolated, unable to return to Scotland
  7. Birthplace, Dunfermline, Scotland, was a center of industrial revolution and textiles
  8. Father was a good man but not a very hard worker. Mother was the savior and helped keep food on the table
  9. Moved to Allegheny City, PA in 1848 to escape a depression in Scotland. Father still couldn’t get a job so family relied on mother and Andrew got a job as a telegraph carrier
  10. His first dividend check from a private investment was an eye opening experience for him as it was the first money he made not from his direct, manual labor.
  11. Exaggerated his role in the sleeping car investment. He merely got a kickback and was not part of the negotiations with Woodruff
  12. Learned early on while at the Pennsylvania Railroad the importance of cutting per unit costs 
  13. Made his first fortune in oil drilling and then iron bridges
  14. Took 3 months off and went back to Scotland and traveled the world
  15. Avoided the draft and made a lot of money by supplying the Union army
  16. Took a year off to travel Europe in order to soak up culture and see railroads and iron/steel mills
  17. Spent lavishly on this trip and came back with some expensive investing mistakes
  18. Invested in some somewhat speculative railroad stocks which he would later reinvest into his steel mills. He left this crony capitalism out of his autobiography and denied it later in his life
  19. When Carnegie got into producing iron, he immediately brought in similar accounting practices that he used in his railroad businesses
  20. One of few to survive panic of 1873 without significant losses. Sold a lot of investments at a loss but got enough to keep running his businesses
  21. Became a bon vivant and ladies man in his late 30s. Very social and became very well mannered and literary. Known as extremely happy and charming. As proud of his charm as business acumen
  22. Key to Carnegie’s steel success lies in reducing costs and economies of scale. He was also very good at bolstering excitement and support for his businesses. Aimed for volume over margins
  23. Carnegie did a great job delegating, giving his men goals but never the how to
  24. Spent a lot of time writing and traveling the world in his early 40s
  25. Eventually married Louise Whitfield when he was 50 after 10 years of courtship and a rocky relationship
  26. Mother was a huge influence on him and they lived together until he got married
  27. The railroad boom of the 1880s and the switch from iron to steel rails multiplied his fortune
  28. First donations were for reading rooms for his employees which eventually evolved into massive public libraries across the country
  29. Adheres to Spencerian evolution which stated that short term pain (firing people or lowering wages) would have to be endured in order to prosper long term
  30. Carnegie was very good, for better or worse, at compartmentalizing his life
  31. Was unique amongst prominent business men in that he wrote a lot and was candid about his views – socialist leanings, very optimistic on America’s future, America has a better system and government that Britain
  32. Wealthy men’s money is to be given away and not spent. Any man dying with a great fortune harms his family and greater society
  33. One of his top men, Frick was excellent at working with politicians in order to ensure tariffs, union laws and other regulations worked in their favor as much as possible
  34. The Homestead Strike caused Carnegie and Frick a lot of trouble and after it Carnegie was no longer thought of as a man of the people but greatly helped Carnegie Steel as they essentially broke the Amalgamated Union and greatly increased hours and productivity of his employees
  35. Carnegie and Rockefeller decided to combine forces instead of compete. Carnegie would ship all iron ore in MN on Rockefeller trains to Pittsburgh
  36. Carnegie was very anti imperialist and publicly criticized president McKinley over his actions in the Philippines
  37. Carnegie and Frick had a big falling out over agreements made on their holdings of the company. Frick eventually lost and the two men never spoke again
  38. Carnegie was committed to keeping up volume no matter the price in order to keep the machines and men working at all times
  39. Combined companies with JP Morgan’s US Steel and from his sale became the richest man in the world ~$120b in today’s dollars
  40. Donated millions to the Scottish school system so that worthy but poor students would be able to attend
  41. Funded nearly 700 libraries in the US and hundreds more abroad during his lifetime. Also donated thousands of church organs. He took his “all eggs in one good basket” approach to philanthropy as well
  42. One of his strengths was his charm and was able to befriend a lot of powerful people including several American presidents, English kings and many more. He was especially fond of Herbert Spencer and Teddy Roosevelt
  43. Carnegie took a great interest in politics and was staunchly anti-imperialist and soon became known as the “apostle of peace.” Spent the majority of his post retirement life pursuing the goal of world peace but often through means which his supposed allies like Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft thought unrealistic and somewhat ridiculous. Carnegie way overhyped his influence and friendship with these presidents
  44. Was most proud of the Hero Fund which was his own idea
  45. When he realized he wouldn’t be able to give away his fortune during his life, he set up the Carnegie foundation of New York with nearly $8b in 2014 dollars
  46. Carnegie was shaken by the emergence of WWI and was prescient in saying that unless a group was set up to establish world peace the fallen countries would soon rise up again in revenge
  47. Carnegie died in 1919 and had given away a large portion of his fortune. He had donated nearly $350m (tens of billions of dollars today) to various causes but world peace and public libraries received most of his attention. He did unbelievable good during his lifetime and set a precedent for other wealthy people on how to effectively disperse wealth during their lifetime. He had flaws like everyone, enjoyed his fame, befriending rich and powerful people and oftentimes bought he knew best but it came from a good place and his never ending enthusiasm and optimism drew people in. 
What I got out of it
  1. It was interesting to get a different outlook on Carnegie’s life, personality and influence than what Carnegie portrays in his autobiography. Nasaw is more critical and shows that Carnegie wasn’t as pure and innocent in his business or political affairs as many believe. Nasaw criticizes but also makes sure to give Carnegie the credit he deserves for the amazing good his wealth has done for the world

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

  1. Isaacson does an amazing job of recounting Franklin’s impressive life and how it helped shape America’s values and character. Franklin rose through the ranks to become one of the world’s most foremost scientist, writer, inventor, diplomat and political leader.
Key Takeaways
  1. Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, author, political thinker and more. He was one of the most illustrious Renaissance men ever
  2. Only man to shape all the founding documents of America – alliance with France, treaty with England, Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution
  3. Multitudes of inventions – stove, bifocals, 2 party legislature, electricity, and continually reinvented himself But maybe his most important invention was an American identity based on the virtues of the middle class
  4. Over anything else, he was pragmatic and wanted to do well unto others
  5. No really deep, long-term relationships and cannot be considered a great father or husband as he spent most of his time away from them
  6. Franklin was not very religious but preached tolerance of every sect
  7. He was like a chameleon who adapted to the times and the people/culture around him. His pragmatism, maxims, frugality and industriousness drew critics for its lack of romanticism but far more fans. His ideas were ripe for the period and increasingly so during the boom of the American economy and industrial revolution
What I got out of it
  1. So impressive to me how many different fields Franklin was successful in. He took practical and actionable steps in every one of these fields and I think that is what set him apart. He did not waste much time on theorizing or on other pursuits that would not have some immediate benefit.

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