Chris Mayer

In 1881, Dakota Territory had never sold a bushel of wheat to anybody outside of Dakota. Six years later, it sold 62 million bushels.

What happened?

I recently read Garet Garrett’s The American Story, which came out in 1955. It is a well-written history of America, unusual because of its emphasis on the powerful economics that drove the country to great heights. Garrett tells the Dakota story in this book, which is a useful reminder about how economies grow and prosper.

What happened in Dakota was that farmers invested in machinery. The riding plow, the reaper and the combine harvester made the farms far more productive than they had been. Suddenly, the labors of one man could produce 5,000 bushels of wheat. A single miller could turn that wheat into 1,000 pounds of flour.

But that was not all. New railroads connected the farmer to the mill and the mill with markets and ports in the East. The energies released were enormous. Garrett writes:

“So the labor of four men — one a farmer in Dakota, one a miller in Minneapolis and two on the railroad — plus a very low rate for ocean carriage — could put into Europe enough flour to feed 1,000 people for a year.”

Let’s look at another example: steel. In 1870, there was nothing anyone would call a steel industry in the U.S. Americans bought their steel from Europe. Yet 30 years later, Americans would produce more steel than Germany, France and England put together.

Again, the investment in machines and rail and roads unleashed a torrent of once frozen economic potential.

Those forces worked wonders as a free people tinkered, invented and created. “In sheds and attics and little machine shops everywhere,” Garrett writes, “with sticks and strings and glue and bits of metal, eccentric minds were making models of things that might work, either to save labor or to save time — two thoughts with the same meaning.”

Steam drills. Sewing machines. Electric lamps. Rotary printing presses. Cranes and elevators. Steam engines. Steel ships. Air brakes. Plumbing. Refrigeration. All of these things came in the years that followed.

Millionaires sprouted up like mushrooms. “Most of these new millionaires had come from the ground — from the mines and steel mills and oil wells and packing houses — and smelled of their work,” Garrett writes.

Wall Street financed great undertakings that would be beyond the power of five or six rich men. Huge sums of capital went toward growing the new industries. Many of the larger enterprises now had public stockholders.

The first billion-dollar company in America was United States Steel, stitched together by J.P. Morgan. It owned not only steel plants, but coal mines, limestone quarries, ships, railroads and whatever else touched on steel.

Wall Street sold it to the public for $40 per share. Then it fell to $9. But a few years later, Wall Street was buying it back from the public at $100 per share. And soon it topped $200. It was a heady, risky time. If you bought five stocks, odds were that two might go to zero. But the three, held long enough, produced fortunes.

This is the work of a free people. Testing things. Trying them out. Succeeding and failing. It is a rough laboratory from which winners and losers emerge through trial and error. It is what builds great wealth, great economies and great countries.

It is the American story of two centuries past.

While there are no virgin places for a new American story to take root, no empty continents where a people might go to try to build something from scratch, there are new versions of the American story unfolding in places likely to produce astounding wealth in similar ways.

In places like Mongolia or Myanmar, for example, you find today’s Dakota Territory. Not that Mongolians are as free as those American pioneers, but there is so much frozen potential to unlock by applying technology and know-how and capital to their situations. It’s these mind-bending changes — and the lure of profiting by them — that attract me to explore the world beyond the developed West.

Sincerely,
Chris Mayer

Original article posted on Laissez-Faire Today 

Chris Mayer

Chris Mayer is managing editor of the Capital and Crisis and Mayer's Special Situations newsletters. Graduating magna cum laude with a degree in finance and an MBA from the University of Maryland, he began his business career as a corporate banker. Mayer left the banking industry after ten years and signed on with Agora Financial. His book, Invest Like a Dealmaker, Secrets of a Former Banking Insider, documents his ability to analyze macro issues and micro investment opportunities to produce an exceptional long-term track record of winning ideas. In April 2012, Chris released his newest book World Right Side Up: Investing Across Six Continents

Recent Articles

In the Downdraft of Hormegeddon

Bill Bonner

The economist Milton Friedman didn’t go far enough when he said, “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.” Oftentimes, that power is rendered more harmful -- to the point of Hormegeddon -- the better the intentions behind it. In today's essay, Bill Bonner highlights the conditions necessary for popular delusions and the disasters they lead to. Read on...


Addison Wiggin
Health Care Costs: Still the Pig in the Federal Python

Addison Wiggin

Right now, health care makes up about 25% of the federal budget. A scary statistic to be sure... But here's an even scarier one: health care's portion of the federal budget doubles roughly every 20 years. Yikes! Addison Wiggin explains why this is and what needs to change to prevent health care from taking up half the federal budget. Read on...


Six Signs Your Government’s Too Big

Chris Campbell

Is your government too big? Find out in today’s Laissez Faire Today with six “red flags” to look out for. Chris Campbell covers everything from one ObamaCare whistleblower to the strange case of our new Ebola czar. Read on…


McDisaster: Fast Food Is Dying – Make a Killing From It…

Greg Guenthner

McDonalds stock is getting crushed right now. Shares have been in a tailspin since June. But it’s not just Mickey Dee’s. Coca Cola shares are in freefall, too. Bad news for them. But if you want to rake in a pile of easy money, it could be great news for you. See, Americans just aren’t choking down this junk like they used to. The fast food burger, fries and a Coke are just down payments on an early coronary - and Type II diabetes. And everyone’s finally gotten the message. So how can you play the trend? Greg Guenthner explains…


In the Year 2024

James Rickards

Panopticon goggles? Severe market panic in 2018? Gold confiscation by 2020? Jim Rickards' shocking thought-piece in the spirit of A Brave New World or 1984. Click to see how markets, economics, your money, gold, privacy, wealth building and more look a decade from now in the year 2024...