In Washington, the best way to get good press is to announce you’re leaving. Case in point: Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (call him Jay), D-W.Va., is stepping down when his term ends. And The Washington Post makes haste to bring him laud.
“Jay Rockefeller wasn’t ever going to be just some Democratic senator from West Virginia,” writes Manuel Roig-Franzia. The story intimates this is because Rockefeller, as an heir to a vast fortune earned through unbridled capitalism, needed to make amends. “He found a way to be a Rockefeller that was about serving people,” the senator’s longtime political adviser, Geoff Garin, told the newspaper.
Well, hold on just a moment: the senator’s great-grandfather probably did more to “serve people” than anyone in history. He just did so in pursuit of profits. John D. Rockefeller, of course, created Standard Oil. Liberal legend claims that Rockefeller crushed competition and acted as a cruel monopolist.
But as Alex Epstein explained in the Daily Caller, Standard Oil actually helped consumers, by driving down prices. “In 1865, when Rockefeller’s market share was still minuscule, a gallon of kerosene cost 58 cents. In 1870, Standard’s market share was 4 percent, and a gallon cost 26 cents,” Epstein notes. “By 1880, when Standard’s market share had skyrocketed to 90 percent, a gallon cost only 9 cents -- and a decade later, with Standard’s market share still at 90 percent, the price was 7 cents.”
Inexpensive oil products made heating and lighting a home cheaper and safer, thus saving lives and increasing human productivity. Not to mention eliminating the need for whale oil, and thus preventing those mammals from being hunted to extinction. And when the light bulb began to make kerosene obsolete, the refining industry ramped up gasoline production instead, providing the fuel that would usher in the automotive era.
Americans were now able to live where they wanted, how they wanted. They were able to eat fresh food delivered by trucks. Entire industries grew up around the car. Industries as diverse as automobile manufacturing, housing and retail sales all boomed in large part because of Rockefeller’s innovation. He helped create opportunity for untold millions of Americans.
What has Sen. Rockefeller done during his three decades in the Senate? “He was the author of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, better known as CHIP, which provided coverage to 8 million children,” the Post explains. “He also was a leading supporter of President Obama’s sweeping 2010 health-care reforms.”
Funny you should mention health care. The retiring senator’s approach is exactly the wrong one, since it encourages the expansion of government-run health care. That’s bad, in part, because “Medicaid Patients Have Worse Access and Outcomes than the Privately Insured,” as a report from The Heritage Foundation detailed last year. Taxes are soaring as well.
So let’s look again to Jay Rockefeller’s capitalist ancestor for a better plan.
“In 1900, John D. Rockefeller was the richest man on the planet. But despite spending an astounding sum of a half-million dollars -- the equivalent of more than $11 million today -- he was unable to prevent his grandson from dying of scarlet fever,” writes Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Ames in their book, Freedom Manifesto.
Having amassed the world’s largest fortune, John D. Rockefeller then devoted his entrepreneurial talents to giving it away and helping others. “He came up with the idea for an American institute devoted purely to medical research -- an idea that now seems commonplace but was considered revolutionary and even quixotic at the time,” author Ron Chernow explained in a lecture at The Manhattan Institute. “Nobody imagined that you could just pay grownups to sit back and dream up discoveries, that you could institutionalize innovation.”
The Rockefeller Institute became -- and remains -- a leader in the fight against communicable disease. It swiftly developed a treatment for meningitis, for example. “At the time of the institute’s founding, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria and typhoid fever were considered the greatest known threats to human health,” the modern-day Rockefeller University Website explains. John D. Rockefeller’s generosity, born in tragedy, changed the world.
Sen. Rockefeller’s children don’t seem interested in running for office. “He’s got great kids and I think they’ll find other ways to serve,” Garin told the newspaper. Rockefeller himself writes that his family will remain involved, which “could mean public service, like me, or doing good work for the environment, health care and other important fields.”
Here’s an idea: Maybe they could emulate the first John D. Rockefeller and focus on creating wealth, using their creativity to generate opportunities for themselves and others. That’s the best way yet devised to give something back.