This review is about four years late, but I'll do it anyway, for two intelocking reasons: one, it's a pretty good book, and two, it's easily misunderstood.
The book is Charles R. Morris' The Tycoons, first published, if I read this right, in 2005. Let's start with the misunderstandings which are, I suspect, either self-inflicted or the work of an incompetent publisher. The most important arises from the subtitle: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy. I can't think of a single respect in which this phrase is accurate. Granted, Morris puts a spotlight on the fabulous foursome--rather, threesome, since he never quite makes the case that Gould belongs in their company (in preference to, say, E.H. Harriman, who seems every bit as important as Gould, and in his own lone). But it's almost perfunctory: when the three are relevant to some larger story, he keeps the focus on them; otherwise, he simply moves away. And the profiles themselves are pretty much second-hand stuff, summaries of what you'd get in more complete form from any number of standard biographies.
What Morris does far better--where he is far more helpful--is in his review/analysis of the vast secondary literature on the structure of development in the 19th Century. Thus he has a number of enlightening insights to offer about the place of technology/innovation in economic growth (in this respect, a good companion to Joel Mokyr's Levere of Riches)--close alongside such related matters as the development of replaceable parts. He also offers a fascinating discussion of what you might call the "puzzle of deflation." That is: after 1873, American prices went into a cycle of decline. But wages in many cases seemed to decline more slowly than other expenses--so the lot of ordinary people might seem to have improved. Yet they weren't happy with it. What can have caused this unrest? Morris doesn't have a ready answer, although he offer some general comments about social instability. But he sets forth the evidence nicely, and makes a good case for the proposition that the puzzle did exist.
More generally, Morris offers some useful notes toward a general analytical framework to understand both the successes and the perils of the economy at the end of his story. That is: we have a market heavy on items with high fixed costs and low marginal costs. Railroads are perhaps the obvious example: it takes a ton mof money to build a railroad, but once it is in operation, you re impelled to accept almost any return, hoever trifling, rather than let your stock sit idle. This led to persistent cycles of oversupply and "ruinous competition"--two words that JP Morgan, in particular, tended to utter as if one. A lot of the competition does indeed seem to have been ruinous, but it seems to have accompanied a spectacular cycle of innovation and technological creativity. As an aside, Morris points out that we've gone through something of the same nature in our own recent past in telecoms--think of how many winners and losers we saw in the 90s in telecoms, but think how much the product has changed as part of the same process.
Morris sets himself up here for what I take to be a more general message about the 20th Century, although he doesn't spell it out in detail. In my own rephrasing: the American economy was the victim of its own success. "We" (=they) built up a network of complex and powerful--yet dynamic--entities, capable of producing a huge volume of product at low prices (think Model T Ford, bakelite telephones). Yet we made ourselves so invulnerable that we went soft. We became a woolly mammoth which had no idea what to do when the cave men showed up with clubs and spears. The reader is invited as an exercise to identify his own favorite example. Mine would be steel. Morris pointed out that almost nothing happened by way of innovation in American steel production after the great consolidation at the turn of the (20th) Century. Protected by strong tariffs and the ruination of our competitors, we still enjoyed a pretty strong domestic steel industry at the end of World War II. The generation after that can be read as almost nothing more than a cycle of evasions and lost opportunities as we threw away our received advantage.
Morris is so good at what he puts into this book that it is a shame to consider how much he has left out. But you'd have to concede that you can't call it a universal history, no matter how good it is at the breech-loading rifle and the open hearth furnace, if it leaves out any but the slightest mention of the trans-Atlantic cable or the electric light bulb.
A final word about the personalities. As I say, Morris may not regard them as central to his story. Still, he has some interesting insights. He seems to give the highest marks to Rockefeller who, in Morris' view, had a spectacular ability to be right sooner than just about any of his competitors (and not nearly as evil as his critics charged). He is slightly more guarded on Morgan. Morris grants him his energy and integrity. He finds Morgan guilty of a certain lack of imagination--yet ironically, it may be this very lack of imagination that may have kept him on message, and made him such a rock of stabilityin time of trouble. Carnegie by turns comes across as talented and energetic, yet a hard man to like or admire--often mean and mischievous with his friends to the point of (ironically) obstructing his own best interests. Gould remains for me a fascinating character--was he a creative scoundrel or just a scoundrel? Morris seems to vote for the former, although he doesn't offer enough by way of detail to make his case.
Ironically, perhaps the best portrait in the book is one of a man not in the title, and whose presence is only tangentially relevant to Morris' plot. That would be Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of "Taylorism," and "efficient management," the dark progenitor of the modern business school. Morris clearly dislikes Taylor whose attitude he finds mean and snobbish, and whose pretensions he finds overblown. I suppose his point here is that Taylor represents all that went wrong with the American economy in the (early decades of) the 20th Century, just as the other four represent what went right with it in the 19th. He's certainly onto something here and I think I'll forgive him for not quite integrating the character sketch into his general point.
Granting its limitations, though, I still can't think of a better introduction to the structure of the American economy than Morris' account. As qualified, highet marks.