Wednesday, August 28, 2013


In 2006 the author was asked to deliver a presentation for a Sanders Research Associates conference, that was later cancelled. The ideas that arose from that endeavor have been expanded. What appears below is the first segment, which will be continued later.

Micro Versus Macro View of the World

During my brief talk, I want give an overview of my own concept of the historical development of transnational globalism by use of a metaphor that effectively depicts the growth and evolution over the last five centuries of similar patterns that have occurred among various nations and the economic models they use to sustain that nation's economy.

Then I want to go into a little more detail into one family I have studied which has had a very significant role in behind-the-scenes transnational finance. The family we’ll be looking at, like most merchant bankers, started out as just merchants. Whether we use other terms, like “private” bankers, “investment” bankers, or simply “venture capitalists,” they are essentially small groups of very discreet people—often family members—who have access to vast pools of wealth, which they promise to invest at great rates of return. Their costumes may change from one generation to the next, but they are always at the scene, pulling strings (often hidden behind the curtain) to make history unfold as it does.

Patterns Beginning in Early 16th Century

The earliest examples we find of global trade, such as the exploits of Marco Polo, were family enterprises. Even Christopher Columbus, after his initial discovery of the “new world,” made four or five subsequent voyages with his brothers and son. Shipbuilding was a family business, and therefore the seamen who became traders operated in family units as they set out in search of the unknown.  Over time they established trading networks in various ports throughout the world, attempting to make a profit each time they unloaded their ships in a different location. The danger was great, but the promise of large returns on a successful voyage made the risk worthwhile.

It didn’t take the seasoned travelers long to realize, however, that competition brought profits down, and that it could be eliminated by acquiring a monopoly from their local prince, or a concession from a foreign one—to have the sole right to engage in that particular enterprise in that precise location. However, such a trading right would be worthless unless it could be protected by force. The development of nation states occurred as local fiefdoms expanded, garnering increased power to secure these commercial rights. Political boundaries went as far as the lord of that domain could protect the people within.

Organic Metaphor

I tend to think in organic, rather than mechanical, terms. Visualize if you can a series of oceans surrounding masses of land. Each mass of land with a separate economic system is depicted as if it were a self-sustaining plant growing in an earthen pot. There is a root system, a cluster of leaves and a stem.   

Spider Plant as metaphor
Over the centuries, as the plant increases in size, it becomes root-bound. The roots consist of members of the economic society who cultivate the soil in some fashion--like miners or farmers--who have become unable to provide enough resources from the restrictive boundaries of this pot to furnish nutrients for the plant’s leaves in order to produce a surplus above bare subsistence that would allow the plant to produce flowers or seeds to ensure physical survival. 

It was that lack of resources, as well as the bland existence of life that motivated explorers to escape the walls of the fief during the dark ages. And it was what they brought back from their adventures that resulted in further change.

Thus the Renaissance was like a genetic mutation of the medieval plant. Think of the stem of that plant as being the lord of the manor whose responsibility was to ensure the most efficient production of all units within the plant by properly coordinating distribution of raw resources and finished consumer goods. He served as the clearinghouse or marketplace where all such products were exchanged. He could maintain power only so long as he was able to satisfy the needs of these units. The lord recognized his power was draining away when there was no longer enough soil in the pot to feed all the leaves. He either had to enlarge the pot (something that would require a war), or he had to find another way of getting the necessary nutrients. The solution he found was to change the plant’s structure.  
Since this is my metaphor, I allowed my lord of the pot to create the spider plant; lords of the various pots equate to the crowned heads of seventeenth-century Europe, whose lawyers devised the concept of the chartered company. These crowned heads were, by this time, desperate for new resources, having found that wars to increase the size of their pots had further depleted their resources. As new lands were claimed on behalf of each root-bound pot by explorers  authorized to trade outside the pot, the lord found he or she had magically acquired the means to pay these explorers as bankers suddenly popped up, generously offering to turn that new land into ready cash (specie) for the pot.

 “Give us a portion of that new land as a grant,” they said, “and we will do your work for you, as long as we have a monopoly on the trade.”  

Like stems of a spider plant, each pot on the original map began sending out new shoots, each with its own cluster of roots and leaves ready to plant itself in new soil and recreate itself. When this shoot (like a colony) settles on soil, its roots can develop to feed its leaves while still being connected to the original stem by the stolon, which allows it to send the required percentage of absorbed minerals back to the parent plant, whether assessed against the company or the settlers brought there by the company.  

In return, the lord is able to promise protection to the colony should a threat occur. Thus a reciprocal relationship was developed between trading families who invested in such charter companies and the heads of state. That relationship persists to this day even though the legal framework has evolved from chartered companies into multinational corporations.

Unfortunately, a metaphor is not the truth. It is a visual and an intellectual aid to assist in understanding the truth. It must be tested for accuracy. The plant metaphor acts as the macro illustration of the world. What follows is the micro test. Here we focus on one example--one family network arrived in America only a decade or so after the Constitution was adopted. We will examine that family to learn how its banking business became intertwined with governments in America and abroad, in so doing testing whether the metaphor we have presented gives a true and accurate picture of the world.

With reference to modern financial institutions, what is now called Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown, Inc. is the result of a series of investment bank buyouts culminating in 1999 when the German bank acquired all assets of the old  investment bank established in Baltimore, Maryland, by Alexander Brown who first arrived in America in 1800 to engage in the linen trade. 

White Linen Hall in Belfast, Ireland
Brown’s parents were William and Margaret Davison Brown, who were living in Ballymena, Ireland, when Alexander was born in 1764. Scots like the Browns had begun to settle in this section of Ireland at the height of Parliament's legal dueling with Charles I in 1641.

Fifty years later, upon accession of William and Mary and creation of the Bank of England, the Protestant population began to explode in Catholic Ireland restrictions on the woollen trade, coupled with legislation allowing linen to be shipped duty-free to England and to British colonies in America, increased the importance of the linen industry in Northern Ireland.

Most of the immigrating Scottish families stemmed from Huguenots who had fled France during the latter part of the 16th century rather than convert to Catholicism. For more than a century the flax and linen industry would be Northern Ireland’s main source of wealth as trading networks were established by immigrating families.

1 comment:

Gary Lynn said...

Thank you, Linda, for the history lessons.