The Capitalist Heroes We Forget

The death of Steve Jobs has offered us a symbol which is surprisingly rare: the capitalist as a hero.

The tributes to the Apple co-founder have praised his vision, entrepreneurial drive, single-mindedness, how he defied convention, and developed a business model centred on innovation.

These attributes are not unique to Jobs. He is an icon because of our relationship to the products he developed. And Apple made a point of showcasing Jobs – he launched their new products personally.

But his death reveals a peculiar cultural blindness. We don’t often celebrate the achievements of capitalist entrepreneurs, in life or in death. Military leaders, political figures, religious and royal icons, yes, but not capitalists.

August this year saw the death of Keith Tantlinger, the American inventor and entrepreneur who, with his business partner Malcom McLean, developed, marketed and sold the modern shipping container beginning in the 1950s.

The standardised container sounds simple, but it was revolutionary.

Before the container, goods would be stuffed, manually and arbitrarily, into the irregular shaped holds of ships. This incurred enormous labour costs, theft and accidental losses. Armies of unionised longshoremen would load a ship by hand, unload it by hand, load the cargo onto trains and trucks by hand, and helped themselves to samples. The expense of all of this had to be factored into the price of consumer goods.

McLean and Tantlinger had to face down unions protecting their members from the threat of a standardised, secure, labour-saving container, and the automation those containers made possible. They had to face down regulators protecting the trucking industry from competition. Ports unsuited to the new containers confronted closure. Gone are the old ports of New York. The great ports of the world are now in Le Havre, Busan, Felixstowe and Tanjung Pelepas.

This largely unheralded story is told in a 2006 book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson. It is not much exaggeration to say that we owe a great deal of the last half-century of globalisation to their big metal box. Thanks to the container, the cost of transporting goods is near zero. Markets which were local are now global. Manufacturing networks are spread across hemispheres.

It is that box which allows Apple to produce the iPhone and iPad at lowest cost in Shenzhen and Brazil. And that box which facilitates the production of the iPad’s competitors.

Not to diminish Steve Jobs, but there is no person on earth who hasn’t benefited from the entrepreneurial drive of Tantlinger and McLean.

Yet when these two died, they met with a tiny fraction of the acclaim we’ve seen for the Apple boss. No prime minister or president was asked to reflect on their achievements. No newspaper rejigged its cover for the inventors of the shipping container.

The news aggregator Factiva records 23,133 separate stories on Steve Jobs in the first four days after his death on Wednesday. Keith Tantlinger only received 26 stories in the entire month after his death. When Malcom McLean died in 2001, he was mentioned 41 times.

It’s not a competition. But it is a revealing comparison. Jobs is exceptional in the public eye not simply because he was an exceptional capitalist – although he undoubtedly was – but because his products are in the front of our mind.

We know we’re using an iPad; the touch, design and functionality is clear. We don’t know that the only reason we can is because someone else invented and constructed and marketed and sold a container to bring it to us. The achievements of McLean and Tantlinger are entirely in the background. Virtually every single mass-produced item in the world finds itself in one of their boxes at some stage during the manufacturing and distribution process.

Jobs has breached the unwritten rule that only statesmen, or intellectuals, or others who spurn profit can be true heroes. Even though it is capitalists more than anyone else who have built the world.

Indeed, the idea of a hero entrepreneur is almost entirely absent in popular culture. lists 33,000 biographies of political, military, and royal figures – nearly 50,000 if you include religious leaders. It lists only 3,000 biographies of business leaders.

Extraordinarily few films depict business people in a positive light. Two biopics stand out: Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is one of the rare pro-capitalist genre, as is the largely forgotten Tucker: The Man and His Dream, the Francis Ford Coppola film based on the automobile innovator Preston Tucker. They offer portraits of individuals who were both heroic and tragic. Howard Hughes and Preston Tucker were innovative risk-takers whose success rested on filling the demands of their consumers.

And in both of these films, the dramatic obstacle they have to surmount is not just commercial but political. Competitors allied with governments tried repeatedly to frustrate both Hughes and Tucker by raising the regulatory barriers to innovative entrants. The same happened with McLean and Tantlinger. Any truly great innovation necessarily upsets the interests of the status quo.

Steve Jobs’ achievements were substantial. Anybody who brings a product to market that so many consumers want is worth celebrating. But there are many other stories of capitalists and entrepreneurs who have shaped our social and economic lives. In light of the huge reaction to Jobs death, we might think about broadening our search for heroic icons to the profit-making world.