5 of the richest companies in history

Inconceivable wealth. And a few lessons in how not to get rich, too.

  • You've definitely heard of Apple. But what about the Dutch East India Company?
  • Did a 1911 Supreme Court decision result in more millionaires in America than any other court case?
  • One example of how not to do it: the rise and fall of the Mississippi Company.

Dutch East India Company

The VOC flag. Photo credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr.

Known under the initials VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), the Dutch East India Company would be worth about $7.8 trillion today. Founded in 1602, it accomplished globalist capitalism some 400 years before everyone else did. It began as a shipping company — with a 21 year monopoly on the Dutch spice market — before branching into almost every aspect of the spice trade, from production to consumer sales, while still keeping a massive footprint in the shipping industry at large for more than 100 years. But this success came at a massive moral cost: they exploited foreign workers, imprisoned many, and benefitted hugely from the slave trade. But for that 100 years, VOC was a gargantuan presence around the world. They controlled armadas of ships that were able to fight off navies and take territories, an impressive feat for a privately held company (imagine if Arby's began to take over entire city blocks).

You could probably say that the very idea of globalism stems from the VOC. Europeans wanted spices and textiles from Asia, but Asia didn't want very much in return except for precious metals — which Portugal and Spain had in abundance at the time. Paraphrasing here for the sake of brevity, the VOC created a hugely profitable trade corridor between Asia and Europe. And from around 1620 to 1630, the VOC used profits to reinvest in itself, becoming exponentially bigger in the process.

The Mississippi Company and the South Sea Company

John Law

Ooh, boy. This is a story. In you lived in France in the early 1700s you'd have likely heard of the Mississippi Company. Depending on which version of their history you read, you'll get two very different narratives about the company. They either controlled much of France's commercial interests in the New World for 20 years before fizzling out due to mismanagement... or they shipped convicts and prostitutes to Arkansas and Louisiana to ostensibly work for them in order to inflate their numbers and increase speculation on paper which nearly led to bankrupting France.

Both versions of the company history hold true. The central figure of the story was a Scottish economist named John Law who convinced the then-king of France, Louis XIV, to allow him to run the Banque Générale Privée ("General Private Bank") in 1716, taking on the national debt, which he then used to finance the Mississippi Company to organize trade with the New World. Law's company, in the space of two short years, bought several other shipping companies in order to create a near-monopoly of trade on the world's oceans. In order to fund such a massive operation, in 1720 the Mississippi Company became tied into the Banque Générale, which became the Banque Royale. Law kept pushing the valuation of his company and soon began shipping prisoners and prostitutes to America to work for his company as part of a marketing scheme which promised huge returns on stock.

The thing is: the scheme worked... but only for a very short while. Stocks soared, and then crashed. The whole cycle lasted just 4 years. Law fled to London and then to Venice, where he gambled away what he had left and died penniless in 1729 in Venice.

At roughly the same time, a joint-stock company was formed in England called the South Sea Company. John Law had been exiled from England after killing a man in a duel in 1694 (and was only free as he'd managed to escape prison and flee to Amsterdam), but after word of his successes with the Mississippi Company reached British shores they decided to set up their own similar joint-stock venture. The South Sea Company was given a monopoly to trade with South America. It, too, overvalued itself... mostly through speculation of a £70 million line of credit through the King of England himself, which never actually happened. A rush on stock by a who's-who of the who-was in England at the time (including Sir Isaac Newton, who had bought about £22,000 in South Sea stock) — followed by a slew of insider trading by South Sea employees who realized the bubble was about to burst — brought about a huge economic crash.

Both the South Sea Company and the Mississippi Company didn't actually do much trading with the Americas. It was mostly just a clever marketing ploy combined with public gullibility.

Saudi Aramco

Invited foreign and Saudi investors attend the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh, on October 24, 2017.

The head of oil giant Saudi Aramco said that a lack of recent investments in the oil sector could lead to a shortage of supplies. / AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE

Businessmen in Saudi Arabia

Still around today, Saudi Aramco is one of the world's biggest oil producers. Adjusted for inflation, at it's height, the company was worth $4.1 trillion.

When oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932, the Saudi government accepted a bid from the newly-founded California-Arabian Standard Oil Company to search for oil in nearby Saudi Arabia. Soon after, Texas OilCo bought a 50 percent stake in California-Arabian. For the next five years, no oil was discovered and the company was hemorrhaging money. Finally, oil was discovered in Dhahran in 1938 and production quickly soared. Changing its name to Arabian American Oil Co (or, for short, Aramco) in 1944, it was then forced to share its profits with the Saudi government starting in 1950. This essentially nationalized the oil production, leading the huge amounts of money for the Saudi government. In 1980, the Saudi government assumed full control of Aramco.

While not quite as colorful a history as the Mississippi Company, Aramco is itself responsible for what economists now call the "golden gimmick" — wherein (and I'm definitely paraphrasing) a country's government takes shares from the company because it's just so darn profitable. Must be nice.

Standard Oil 

John D Rockefeller circa 1930: at work in his study. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ever heard the phrase "richer than a Rockefeller"? Well, that's because John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870 in Ohio. It became the largest oil refinery in the world for a number of years. Adjusted for inflation, in 1905, it was worth well over $1 trillion in today's money.

Rockefeller controlled 90 percent of the oil in America during the early 20th century; oil was used during that time primarily as a light source for lamps (this is before electricity became widely available) and then, with the invention of the car, became fuel for automobiles. Rockefeller was the cornerstone of two major industries until 1911, when Standard Oil was dissolved by none other than the U.S. Supreme Court for being an "illegal monopoly." When Standard Oil was broken up into 34 different companies — the shares of those companies became worth more than Standard Oil was, thus making Rockefeller obscenely wealthy instead of just extraordinarily wealthy.

How rich was John D. Rockefeller? Well, in 1913 he alone was worth about 2 percent of the entire U.S. GDP — about $400 billion, when adjusted for today's inflation. He attributed his success to a hard work ethic, his faith in God, and his abstinence from alcohol.

Oh, and those 34 companies? Two of them, Jersey Standard and Socony, became Exxon and Mobil, respectively. They eventually merged into a new company called Exxon-Mobil. That single company took over exactly where Standard Oil had left off and became a huge player in the gasoline industry. In 2007, it was worth $572 billion.

Apple

Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks during an Apple special event April 8, 2010 in Cupertino, California. Jobs announced the new iPhone OS4 software. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Apple was founded back in 1976 by Steve Jobs, a canny marketer, and Steve Wozniak, an unparalleled programmer and computer genius. They had early successes in personal computers with the Apple I and the Macintosh, but by the mid-'90s they'd petered out, seemingly much more interested in appeasing shareholders than the public. Did you know Apple made CD players for a while? Digital cameras? A lot of people don't remember Apple's "weird" period.

But let's single out the the Apple Newton. This PDA (personal digital assistant) nearly bankrupted the company in 1993 after being rushed out before it was ready; it's handwriting recognition feature could barely read anything other than block letters and was widely mocked. Hold that thought for a paragraph.

Around 1997, Steve Jobs returned to the company and decided to concentrate on what the company did best: personal computing that catered to regular day-to-day users rather than avid tech professionals. He began to cater to different groups with singular products. The PowerMac for pro users. The iMac for classrooms. The MacBook and the MacBook Pro for people working out of coffeeshops.

But then Apple created the iPod, which could hold an entire library of music in your pocket. It was followed by the iPhone... a landmark device that put the internet, colors and all, in your pocket. The iPhone, funnily enough, has huge similarities to the much maligned Newton. Now consider the iPad and the Apple Pencil and how their handwriting recognition technology is considered the best in the industry. Sometimes you have the right idea but just 20 years too soon.

Then there was the iTunes store, which took over the music industry. Then the App Store, which transformed the tech ecosystem. In August of 2018, they became the most valuable company in the world with $1 trillion in value.

Which is still pennies compared to the Dutch East India Company. But hey. Who's counting?

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.