OWEN D. YOUNG AND AMERICAN ENTERPRISE: A Biography by Josephine Young & Everett Needham Case Case


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Owen Young (1874-1962), of General Electric, is one of the very few major figures from America's industrial heyday to have escaped obloquy, then and now--the very reason, perhaps, that the only previous Young biography is a laudatory midlife portrait by Ida Tarbell, the erstwhile muckraker, published in 1932 (when Young was a prospective presidential candidate). The present massive Life, by his writer-daughter and her educator/financier/administrator husband, a one-time Young aide, may be fairly deemed a labor of love. But it is also written with dash--and close, absorbing detail; it explains how a sophisticated, progressive corporate executive functioned; it illuminates the myriad aspects of 20th-century business life--from ""fair competition"" to labor relations to international trade--in which Young played a prominent, independent role. Born poor, on an upstate N.Y. farm, Young shone academically at an early age; went to St. Lawrence College, where he emerged as a natural leader and (in an unusual courthouse sojourn) discovered the law; worked his way (extra-quick) through Boston University Law School; entered a Boston law office, became a partner at 32, and, in the course of opposing GE, attracted the notice of company president Coffin--who, in 1912, tapped him as general counsel. At this point in the narrative, Young has an appendectomy, affording him time for reflection, and Woodrow Wilson, his choice, is elected president. What--the Cases have him ponder--did he want for General Electric? ""Well, for one thing he'd like to show Wilson that a business need not be inefficient or anti-social just because it was big. This would involve finding out more about Wilson's legislative program on the one hand, and GE's contracts, policies and ways of doing business on the other."" (A motif, thereafter, is ""the lag of the law"" behind business practice.) And lest this sound rigged, there is the voluminous record: Young's creation, at government behest, of RCA (to consolidate radio broadcasting in American hands); his immediate and continuing attention (later, as GE board chairman and on public committees) to ""employee welfare"" and labor rights; his salient, best-known service in easing German WW I reparations payments--crucially, to foster international trade; his unorthodox stand on public power, his attempts to shore up employment after the Crash, his defense of FDR and the New Deal. . . and, throughout, his rapport with fellow-conciliator/internationalist Herbert Hoover (whom Young had hoped to enlist as a Democrat). There is too much here for the casual reader--but not for someone who can appreciate a graceful, meticulous account of a big-business career celebrated by the likes of radical historian William Appleman Williams.

Pub Date: July 21st, 1982
Publisher: Godine