Looking Ahead Fifty Years

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Comments on Looking Ahead Fifty Years by Roger W. Babson (revised edition) c. 1942, 1948

Roger W. Babson was an investor, serial college founder, and 1940 Prohibition Party Candidate for President of the United States. I just read (and skimmed) his book "Looking Ahead Fifty Years" from the early 1940s acquired from a second-hand book shop some years ago. Much of it is quite accurate, identifying the competition between communism and capitalism as a defining tension. Much of his commentary on business vs. labor and macroeconomics would still be current today (in short, we have learned very little in 70 years, though he doesn't quite get rational expectations.). His admonitions to "Diversify!" put him right up there with modern personal financial advisors. But there are some really (in retrospect) amusing bits:


p. 22 "Rule Three: Invest in companies which are not dependent on high tariffs and would not suffer from European or Asiatic competition in the years ahead. A thoroughly reorganized traction company in a large city would qualify, while a textile company would not."

[For the kiddies: traction is an old-timey name for streetcar, interurban, and other electric railways. They used to be publicly traded, and profitable.]

Other forecasts are quite good:

p. 29

"Within the next fifty years practically all mail and most of the express will be carried by airplanes. What a standard commercial plane is developed, the depreciation charges can be reduced so that the cost of carrying passengers and light freight will be less by plane than by rail. When this comes at least one third of the railroad mileage will be scrapped."

Some of today's planning complaints are not so new:

p. 56 "Fifty years ago Main Street was made up of local concerns, owned by the best citizens of the community. These concerns have been largely driven out by the "chains." Every Main Street - in all parts of the country - now looks just the same."

1 Comment

Actually, I think his "rule three" was quite astute. While he may not have offered the best investment advice in choosing a "traction" company as his example, the overall hypothesis ended up playing out exactly as identified. Industries that had previously enjoyed protectionist tariffs through the mid-century (textiles, steel/automotive, etc.) were decimated by the 80s due to open trade agreements.

There's a reason that the public transit unions are among the strongest (if not the strongest) unions in the US today -- their jobs can never be outsourced overseas.

David Levinson

Network Reliability in Practice

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This page contains a single entry by David Levinson published on February 9, 2012 8:38 AM.

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