WT Business Beat

By Nick Wakeman

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A whale of a story

A couple issues back I did an interview with Eric Jay Dolin, the author of Leviathan, a history of whaling in the United States.

I wanted to write about the book because I thought the rise and fall of an industry would have some lessons for today, maybe some warnings.

At the time of my interview with Dolin, I hadn't read the book, only a summary. But I took it to the beach.

While he didn't write the book with business or economic lessons in mind, the book is full of them. One I gleaned is that companies within an industry don't just compete with each other, but with all other industries. The competition is for investors, workers and resources. Those factors sent whaling through ups and downs even before the rise of petroleum as a replacement for whale oil.

One little tidbit I found interesting was that the British struggled and failed for over a centry to compete with American whalers. One reason -- British sailors were paid a salary so it didn't matter how many whales they caught. American sailors were paid according to how successful their trip was. They had an economic incentive to catch as many whales as they could as quickly as they could.

Another theme in the book is the conflict between politics and commerce. Dolin tells the story of one whaler who, decades before the Revolutionary War, argued with England that they didn't have the right to tax him because he wasn't represented in Parliament. During both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Nantucket tried to have itself declared nuetral because the wars interfered with whaling. Too many ships were being captured and sailors imprisoned.

When I returned from vacation I was pleasantly surprised to see a review of the book in the July 23 New Yorker. I'd include a link, but it doesn't seem to be available online.

The review was positive so I'm not alone in liking the book.

So what are you reading this summer?

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Jul 24, 2007 at 9:54 AM

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