Do you like your car? The fuel you put in it? The lights in your house?
You can thank behaviors that would probably be illegal today, says Stephen David, one of the Emmy-nominated writers and executive producers of the History Channel non-fiction series "The Men Who Built America."
The four-part story, which looks at such 19th- and early 20th-century innovators as John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, looks at both the technological advances and morally questionable behavior that made America the great land it is today. It's a story of monopolies and union-busting — but also astonishing innovation.
David (left) tried to avoid a history class feel, he said, by treating the story as "a dude's soap opera," filled with hatred and petty grudges that sometimes led to greatness.
Emmy voters took note. The series is nominated for four awards, including in the categories for which David is nominated, Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series and Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming. Some credit for the feel of the show goes to Brainstorm Digital, the same company that works on HBO's Prohibition epic "Boardwalk Empire."
What message do you hope this conveys?
We were trying to do a documentary where we went into character. There's a lot of stuff you learn from textbooks, and it gives an almost mythologized version of events, such as, "This person did this to change the world." And you know that's not how people really do stuff. It might be fear, it might be insecurity, it might be greed. There's a lot of ego involved.
We hear so many complaints about corporations now. Are we better off than we were then?
I think the difference between now and then is there wasn't the possibility of having jobs outside this country. You couldn't outsource. I filmed the show in West Virginia, and I was in a lot of towns, steel towns where you could see the jobs were not coming back. Those jobs were in other countries … Even though there were monopolies and unions had problems back then, at least there were jobs.
Where would a Steve Jobs rank with Henry Ford and other industrialists of this time?
If you take someone like a Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, these people, some of them had 10 times more money. Let's say that Bill Gates has about $78 billion. [Forbes says it's actually a mere $67 billion.] In today's dollars, Rockefeller would have had close to $1 trillion.
There are always people like these people. The opportunity is always there … You just have to come up with something that everyone needs and be the first one to do it … And be able to play the system in what would now be completely illegal ways.
Are you amazed at how much influence these people still have?
They did spend a lot of money at the end of their lives putting their names on a lot of buildings … They pretty much spent most of their lives making as much money as they could to solve some inner problem. And then they realized it didn't, and they spent the rest of their lives giving away their money and putting their names on all kinds of things.
Do you think these men did more good or harm?
I think they did more good than harm. Whatever they did or however they went about things, there were no laws not to do those things. They were genius business innovations. Somebody coming up and being able to put together a monopoly — that wasn't illegal back then. That was just genius.
And the fact that Rockefeller put together a monopoly — at the time it was kerosene, what they were really drilling for was oil — it made it possible for it to be so cheap that everyone in the country could have light in their home.