Malta: World War II’s Most Intriguing “What If?”

The Irresistibility of World War II “What Ifs?”

History buffs love to contemplate alternative scenarios. World War II is a particularly rich trove for novices like me to indulge in such debates. Some of the more popular ‘what if?’ scenarios include assessing the war’s outcome if Hitler kept his tanks rolling to the beaches of Dunkirk in mid-1940, if the Japanese found the American aircraft carriers docked at Pearl Harbor on that infamous December 7, if Hitler focused exclusively on taking out Moscow in late summer 1941 instead of shifting forces to focus on Kiev, if the Germans reacted quicker on D-Day to crush the Allies beachhead, and if America did not have the atomic bomb and attempted an invasion of Japan. Through the years I’ve consumed countless hours reading about, mulling over, and debating with others such scenarios.

The Republic of Malta’s Embassy, captured by author during a recent trip to Washington D.C.

Yet my favorite World War II ‘what if?’ scenario is one that does not garner much interest beyond dedicated military history fans and professional historians. It revolves around the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta. The question is a simple one: what if Germany invaded Malta in the spring/summer of 1941 instead of Crete and delayed the decision on invading Russia (Germany’s Operation Barbarossa kicked off in June of that year)? I believe the answer is that World War II would’ve ended up very different, and not in a good way.

Everyone Saw the Obvious (Except for the Chief Decision Maker)

What’s scary about an Axis invasion of Malta is that many of Hitler’s best generals and his Italian ally Benito Mussolini all wanted to do just that. They named the plan Operation Hercules. And the British feared it.

In February 1941 German General Erwin Rommel arrived in Tripoli, taking command of what eventually becomes the Afrika Korps. Britain was sitting on a precarious precipice in Africa, with Sir Winston Churchill calling it, “the peg on which all else hung.” Churchill in April 1941 proclaimed losing Egypt and the Mideast “would be a disaster of the first magnitude to Great Britain, second only to successful invasion and final conquest!”

Rommel’s abilities in the field only intensified the concern of the British in Africa. The Desert Fox shared Churchill’s strategic assessment of Africa: Rommel advocated to ignore Greece, go after Malta, secure supply lines to Africa, and then take Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the Mideast oil beyond. The British Empire would be severed in two. An immediate invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941 was not necessary under this plan of attack, since once Africa and the resource-rich Mideast were secure, Germany could deal with Russia at its own choosing and across several different fronts of attack, including the Caucuses.

Rommel’s boss and rival, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, agreed with him (the two did not care for one another; Rommel had more charisma but Kesselring was probably the better commander). So too did Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, who advised Hitler in May 1941 for a decisive Egypt-Suez offensive in autumn 1941. And Italian dictator Mussolini was fully supportive of focusing on Malta.

All understood that Malta posed a constant threat to Axis supply lines in the Mediterranean. Supply limited what Rommel could do. If the convoys had a bad week, Rommel halted; if supplies made it through, Rommel was virtually unstoppable.

In May 1941, if Germany dropped paratroopers onto Malta instead of Crete (which was strategically and tactically irrelevant) and the Italian navy kept the British Mediterranean fleet at bay for a short period of time, the exhausted and depleted island would likely fall. Malta in Axis hands would provide air superiority over the Med, which would allow Rommel better reinforcements, turning the tide of Africa to the advantage of the Axis. Egypt would fall, the Suez Canal would be seized, access to Mideast oilfields would be open, and perhaps it would’ve brought down Churchill and his government, incentivizing the British to press for peace.

Best yet for Germany under this scenario, a Malta invasion would’ve delayed or canceled the disastrous June 1941 invasion of Russia. Ironically, the reason Hitler decided to not invade Malta, so he would not need to delay Operation Barbarossa, ended up being his biggest strategic blunder of the war and led to his demise. Few decisions were as decisive as Malta in World War II: one decision has Germany likely victorious and the opposite decision leads to inevitable, crushing defeat.

What Happened Instead: Hitler’s Epic Barbarossa Blunder

Despite the chorus of voices from his leadership circle, Hitler would have none of the Malta invasion talk. Instead, in 1941 Germany went after Crete in May and invaded Russia in June with Operation Barbarossa. Hitler decided to attempt to render Malta useless by relying on constant air assaults. Once a Malta invasion was off the table, Rommel hoped he could get to Cairo without the island secured.

It’s hard to overestimate how massive of an effort Barbarossa demanded on Germany and the Axis. Over three and a half million Axis troops attacked along an 1,800-mile front. Eighty percent of the German army was assigned to the Russian front. Think about what Rommel may have accomplished if he had something even close to Barbarossa forces in Africa, and the resulting secure supply lines, that Axis control of Malta would’ve provided.

Sure to his word, Hitler had the Luftwaffe and Italian air forces pound Malta relentlessly in 1941 and early 1942 (by December 1941 the island sustained over 1,000 bombing raids). The first half of 1942 saw German and Italian air raids ruin Malta’s capacity to function, and Rommel received 90% of his reinforcements during this time. But in late April 1942, Kesselring lost many of his squadrons in the Med to reassignment on the Russian front.

Churchill saw his opening and did not hesitate to act decisively to supply Malta. The Allies put together a massive convoy destined for Malta and named the effort Operation Pedestal. Statistically, the Axis won the battle of Pedestal, and the convoy took a brutal beating in the summer of 1942. But enough of the Pedestal supply made it to the island to buy her valuable time until the late 1942 Allied victories of the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) and Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery at El Alamein. Churchill knew what Pedestal meant when he said, “when this war is a misty memory in the minds of old men, they will still talk of the convoy for Malta which entered the Mediterranean in August 1942.”

Four Lessons the Malta Decision Teaches Us

The events surrounding Malta in World War II inform us of four vital lessons that are applicable today.

Lesson #1: Know Thy Opposition

First, although Hitler made strategic blunders (perhaps the biggest being Malta/Barbarossa), often refused to listen to his generals, and was a monster, there was one arena where he was unrivaled in his ability: reading and understanding the politics of his allies, rivals, and enemies.

Hitler understood the Allies’ weakness wasn’t in technology, industry, weaponry, or strategic positioning. Instead, he knew the weakness lay in the democracies’ longing for peace, leaders who were idealists, and populations desiring to be left alone. Hitler saw this and used those traits against his rivals and ultimate enemies to grow his power to the point where it altered the course of history and ruined millions of lives.

This first lesson has parallels today. A new axis aligned against the western democracies is taking shape with China, Russia, and Iran. Instead of Chamberlain willing to appease Germany to secure “peace in our time” to save Europe, we have Climate Czar Kerry willing to appease China to secure nonbinding carbon reduction pledges to save the planet. If leaders like Xi are paying attention and can read rivals, I fear the outcome today might be similar to that in the 1930s.

Lesson #2: Allies Matter

Second, allies can look good on paper or on a map, but they can make situations complicated and end up being a net detriment. Such was the case with Italy and Germany in World War II. These two nations had a complex relationship.

Approaches to Mediterranean sea power differed greatly. Germany was constantly frustrated with Italy’s unwillingness to commit its capital ships in battle. The Italian navy was formidable, but constantly torn between viewing taking on the British navy as a historic opportunity or a mortal threat. The British suffered no such hesitation, and saw the purpose of capital ships to engage in battle.

Mussolini regretted by spring 1942 the alliance with Germany (prior to throwing his full support behind Hitler, Mussolini attempted to forestall the outbreak of war and considered allying Italy with Britain and France) and the empty promises that came with it. Conversely, Hitler viewed Italy as a burden, not an ally, and ultimately preferred Italy had remained neutral. Amazingly, the alliance placed both nations in a worse off position during the war and helped lead to their demise.

The lessons here are to choose allies carefully, think through what you expect to gain from them, and preserve your reputation of living up to your promises once in the alliance. The Italian-German pairing in World War II shares traits with the current debacle in Afghanistan, with the now exposed/fallen Afghan government in exile and the lost credibility of the U.S. through the Biden administration’s broken promises. Like Italy and Germany in World War II, we somehow managed to make each other worse off.

Lesson #3: Don’t Let Ideology Trump the Rational

Third, Hitler should’ve known history better back in 1941. Instead, he played right into Britain’s hands. By invading Russia, and not sticking it out in the Med, Hitler obliged Britain’s historic strategy of how to deal with powerful adversaries on continental Europe: ally yourself with a land locked nation with a large army to open a multi-front war against your enemy. Germany enabled that British strategy into action with Barbarossa.

Germany did so because Hitler allowed ideology to trump practicality in his decision making. He saw Russia and communism as the great evils to vanquish. The sooner he went on the attack against the Soviets the better – the consequences be damned. That cost Germany everything in the end, not just Malta and the Med.

Hitler’s placing ideology over rational decision making when it came to Barbarossa brings to mind the recent U.S. failed experiments in nation building and our current leaders’ obsession with placing climate change objectives over national strategic interests. A democratically elected president in a modern, free society can make as big of a blundering mess as a madman heading a fascist regime in the 1940s when ideology reigns over reality in strategic decision making.

Lesson #4: Energy Security is Vital

Fourth, so much of World War II (and, for that matter, all major global conflicts) was about logistics, supply lines, and energy security. Japan invaded southeast Asia to get oil. The U.S. imposed an oil embargo on Japan to check the Rising Sun’s march. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in response.

The same held for the European and Mediterranean theatres. Germany had to deliver oil to Rommel from Romania, which was a long and exposed supply chain. The Achilles’ heel of the Italian navy in the Med was lack of reliable oil supply from Germany via Romania, thus the Italian fleet was never able to assume full operational range.

Yes, Barbarossa held the promise of oil in the Caucuses, but also presented existential risk to the invader. But sticking to the Med and not invading Russia would have secured oil in the Mideast and split the British supply lines in two. All of it undertaken with the same risk Germany and Italy already had signed on for.

Today, energy security drives geopolitics more than ever. Russia uses energy, particularly fossil fuels, as a tactical lever and strategic fulcrum. China fully embraces the carbon atom to grow its manufacturing prowess. Meanwhile, both nations laugh as the United States and western Europe erode their strategic positioning and stretch their energy supply lines by pursuing obtuse climate change goals into the distant future, and do so by mandating energy derived from materials, components, and equipment that can only be found and made in places like Russia and China.

Conclusion

In early 1941, Hitler had four ways to break Germany out and win the war; two might’ve succeeded, one likely would’ve succeeded, and one would’ve certainly destroyed Germany (and indeed, did). Fortunately, Hitler chose the last.

His first option was to invade Britain. It was risky, but if successful would win the war lock, stock, and barrel. His second option was to strangle Britain by doubling down on waging submarine warfare on shipping. That was already working and, with singular focus, could’ve brought Britain to its knees.

His third option was the best for Germany: win the Mediterranean to get into the Mideast and Asia. That would cut the British in two, link up with Japan, and secure valuable resources. Taking Malta would’ve made the pivotal difference.

His last option was invading Russia and pouring his armies east. A two-front war, with one front against a legendary foe. History showed that decision to be disastrous for prior invaders, and Hitler made sure history repeated itself.

The crucial turning point of World War II? Not the miracle at Dunkirk in summer 1940. Not summer 1942 when Rommel was stopped at El Alamein and the battle of Stalingrad commenced. Not even Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Instead, the crucial turning point was the summer of 1941 when Hitler turned his attention away from the Med, declined to seize a little island named Malta, and instead launched Operation Barbarossa. In that light, Douglas Porch put it best with, “The Med was not the decisive theatre of the war, [but] it was the pivotal theatre, a requirement for allied success.”

For two great reads on the topics of Malta and the Mediterranean theatre in World War II, check out:

Operation Pedestal: The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942 by Max Hastings and The Italian Campaign by John Strawson.

The Unsung Icon of Western Pennsylvania Football Royalty

Western Pennsylvania is steeped in football tradition. The cradle of quarterback legends Joe Namath, George Blanda, John Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly. Beyond marquee QBs, the region I call home could fill Canton with its own dedicated wing of current and future members: Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, Mike Ditka, Russ Grimm, Jimbo Covert, Bill Fralic, Aaron Donald, Jack Ham, Sean Lee, Joe Schmidt, and Ty Law to name a few. We’ve enjoyed a pro team with six Lombardi’s and two collegiate teams with multiple national titles.
The stacked legacy and legendary names of western Pennsylvania football make it easy to gloss over one of the most impactful native sons of the sport. In the region’s coaching tree, there sits a giant who enjoys both icon status among the football elite and unsung status across the general fan base. No offense to Cowher and Ditka, but the most accomplished football coach from western PA is a position coach who became the godfather of offensive lineman. He’s the greatest name in the region’s football history that you probably never heard of: Joe Moore.

Coach Moore’s Story

Coach Moore is an exemplar of western Pennsylvania. He was raised during the Depression in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood and married a Rankin girl. He started coaching high school football in upstate New York, moved on to Towanda and Erie in Pennsylvania, and then became the head coach at Upper Saint Clair (USC) high school in suburban
Pittsburgh in the early 1970s.

Coach Moore built a successful program at USC and set the stage there for his successor, Jim Render, who became the winningest football coach in Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) history. Moore’s defensive captain during his first year at USC was a kid by the name of Kirk Ferentz, who went on to great things at Iowa, becoming its winningest coach and today stands as the longest tenured head coach at a single FBS program.

Moore’s legendary collegiate coaching career started at the University of Pittsburgh in 1977, where as part of Jackie Sherrill’s staff he led an epic nine-year run of unprecedented talent development of offensive linemen. The names he nurtured to greatness at Pitt are a generational who’s-who of the O-line: Bill Fralic, Mark May, Russ Grimm, Emil Boures, and Jimbo Covert.

After Pitt, Coach Moore spent two years coaching the offensive line at Temple, and then in 1988 began a nine-year run at Notre Dame. Over those nine years for the Irish he sent all but two of his starting linemen to the NFL. One of the most articulate and passionate ambassadors to the Coach Moore legacy through the years has been Notre Dame two-time All-American Aaron Taylor. Coach Moore’s coaching tree bloomed from his tenure with the Irish: Andy Heck was a player for Moore at Notre Dame who went on to a lengthy NFL career as a player and won a Super Bowl as the O-line coach for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Joe Moore was a direct, to-the-point man. He was an intimidator, but in a good way. There were zero airs and graces about him; he simply oozed western PA. He had the perfect personality and style for instilling greatness and realizing raw potential with rough, unpolished talent. His style was optimally suited to develop boys into men.

One of his most famous sayings captured his philosophy of linemen with, “there is no greater feeling in life than moving a man from Point A to Point B, against his will.” He loved teaching the fundamentals and was a master at manipulating players mentally to motivate and prepare them for competition.

As he would often say, those around him would love him at times, hate him at times, but kill for him all the time. His linemen through the years may have had Jackie Sherrill or Lou Holtz as their head coach, but they all played for Joe Moore.

The Joe Moore Legacy

Sadly, we lost Joe Moore much too early in 2003. Although the man may be gone, his memory lives larger than ever. His memory is evident both publicly and privately.

Coach Moore’s public memory is embodied in the Joe Moore Award (JMA). The JMA is awarded annually to the best collegiate football offensive line unit. The award is presented by the Joe Moore Foundation for Teamwork and recognizes the toughest, most physical offensive line in the country. The JMA is the only major college football award to honor a unit or group, not an individual.

Another visible aspect of Moore’s legacy is the Joe Moore O-Line Camp, held every summer in suburban Pittsburgh. The camp provides high school players the chance to be instructed in the craft by an impressive list of former Joe Moore players, headed by NFL Hall of Famer Russ Grimm. The star-studded coaches who regularly attend the camp are testament to the lasting impact their coach had on them decades ago in college.

However, Coach Moore’s most important legacy is one that escapes public notice: his family. The Moore’s raised three boys in suburban Pittsburgh, and today the extended family has grown to include the coach’s grandchildren. I know the extended family well; they are close friends. I can tell you the best part of the Joe Moore legacy is that his grandchildren are the type of individuals you would want to live next door to, befriend, or have your young kids emulate.

In his chosen profession, Joe Moore achieved greatness. In the endeavor of his family, Joe Moore exceeded greatness. I hope we are all as fortunate.
Learn More About Moore
View a video tribute to Joe Moore here.
Read about the Joe Moore Award here.
Follow the Joe Moore O-Line Camp on Twitter: @JM_OLine_Camp.

What Does the Presidential Medal of Freedom Truly Value?

With a new administration in Washington, much is changing. One thing that will not change is the forthcoming numerous photos and video clips of individuals having a medal draped around their neck by President Biden.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony has been consistently embraced by our Chief Executive. Whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, presidents love the photo op of awarding the medal and recipients enjoy the attention upon receiving it. It is one of few constants in a constantly changing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded by the president, “for especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” The defining criteria are sufficiently vague to allow sitting presidents to award the medal to basically whoever they desire, and from just about any walk of life.

In many ways, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the ultimate lifetime achievement award for individuals lucky enough to elicit favor of the White House. It’s obviously a big deal for the recipient, and prior recipients (excluding a few in hindsight) were deserving.

But it also serves as an indicator of what and who the elite political class value most. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded to the same walks of life, careers, and sectors that government is designed to fund, nurture, and grow. What the government awards correlates to what the government thinks is most important in society.

Which got me thinking. What do the award data tell us about what our elite leadership thinks is most important and less important in society?

The Analysis and the Data

The successive terms of Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump provide nearly thirty years of data. Over these four presidential administrations, over 300 Presidential Medals of Freedom were awarded. That’s a decent sized data set to perform a quick analysis.

To assess the data, recipients were classified into eight categories, using general career/sector descriptions. The eight are:

  • Charities, foundations, and advocacy
  • Politics, government, and civil service
  • Arts, entertainment, and media
  • Sports
  • Academia
  • Labor
  • Business
  • Science, technology, and engineering (STEM)

For some recipients, assigning one of the eight categories was a judgement call. For example, 2018 medal recipient Alan Page enjoyed accomplishments of note in both government and sports. For individuals straddling more than one of the eight categories, they were assigned to the category they were most known for. Thus, Alan Page is included in the sports category.

When you mine the data set of these medal recipients, what conclusions stand out?

Conclusion #1: Presidents Enjoy Awarding Medals

Not a shocker. We know politicians love attention and awarding medals is a great opportunity to be seen in a positive light. Thus, it comes as no surprise presidents hand out these medals like candy. Clinton, Bush, and Obama all hit the one hundred medal mark during their tenures, with Obama being the most prolific awarder, clocking in at a rate of nearly 15 medals per year in office.

Interestingly, Trump had the lowest medal award rate per year in office, at six. That’s half of his three predecessor’s average rate of 12 per year in office. Was it because Trump didn’t place as much importance on the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was more selective in his criteria when choosing awardees, or had a smaller pool of candidates due to the Resist Movement? Hard to say, but Trump stands as an outlier on medal frequency versus his predecessors.

Conclusion #2: Government Picks the Most Winners From…Government

Perhaps a shocker to some, but it should not come as a surprise if you’ve been paying attention to how government tends to operate in an insulated ecosystem separate from the citizenry it is supposed to serve. For all four presidents save Trump, the biggest grouping of awardees is from the combined categories of “charities, foundations, and advocacy” and “politics, government, and civil service.”

For Clinton’s class this grouping comprised over 75% of the total, while for Bush’s class it tallied nearly two-thirds of the total awardees. The representation tailed off a bit under Obama and Trump, coming in at 43% and 29%, respectively. Across all four presidents cumulatively, half of the 300+ awardees hailed from government, politics, or advocacy closely tied to both.

Although I am sure these 150 awardees are deserving of the award (maybe a few exceptions), it shows that government has its greatest affinity for itself.

Conclusion #3: Hollywood, Media, and Sports Are Medal Magnets

Presidents are increasingly drawn to the entertainment complex when doling out Presidential Medals of Freedom, like moths to a flame. Trump loved the jocks: he awarded nearly 60% of his medals to individuals in sports. Obama loved the arts: he tied almost a third of his medals to the necks of singers, writers, and actors.

Bush was slightly less weighted to sports and entertainment than Obama and Trump, but still awarded 38% of his medals to this combined group. Surprisingly, Clinton was the least impressed with athletes and cultural celebrities, having awarded a relatively paltry 5% to the group.

Clinton aside, the data show our leaders place enormous weight on those who provide entertainment to society. If you can consistently sink three-pointers or stream a hit song, the trend indicates you may be in line for a Presidential Medal of Freedom someday.

Conclusion #4: What Matters Most is Recognized Least

The United States is a capitalistic society based on a foundation of free enterprise and individual rights. Americans have a 200+ year legacy of technological innovation that continually raises quality of life for all.

This is a country of “doers” who disrupt the status quo and create wealth. Someone should remind Washington, D.C. of this.

Nearly thirty years of four presidents handing out Presidential Medals of Freedom shows that our political elite care little for business and STEM. The share of awardees hailing from business and technical fields is consistently embarrassing.

Bush (at 15% of awardees) and Obama (at 14%) were slightly less embarrassing than Clinton (at 8% of awardees) and Trump (at 4%), but all four are saying the same thing: those who achieve and create value are not placed on the same pedestal as those who entertain or live in and around government.

A Stark Contrast Between Two Rivals

Almost thirty years of data from the Presidential Medal of Freedom paints a clear picture. Our leaders favor the image (sports and entertainment) and the familiar (government and advocacy groups closely tied to it) over the substance of those who create value in business and technical fields.

We have the Presidential Medal of Freedom. China has its Thousand Talents Program.

The Biden administration is mulling over who the next celebrity or athlete will be to join the ranks of prior awardees Barbara Streisand, Robert Redford, Robert DeNiro, and Tiger Woods. Meanwhile the Chinese are figuring out which advanced technology it needs to procure from us through its program funding and rewards.

Which country is playing the long game and which is fixated on shiny distractions?

We are running out of time to adjust course as to what matters in American society.

A good start is to improve the optics of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—shifting its weighting of awardees to those who create, enable, and serve the vital pillars of free enterprise, technological advancement, value creation, and geopolitical competitive advantage.

The more medals we tie around those types of necks, the better off the world will be.

Who’s Big Tech’s Daddy? Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie

Over the past 150 years, starting with post-Civil War Reconstruction, America has delivered to the world the largest improvement in quality of life in history. Capitalism, free enterprise, and individual rights were the ideological columns that allowed the edifice of the human condition to rise.

As you sit in your climate controlled home, streaming movies, using Door Dash for dinner, and waiting for your vaccine of choice, you might ascribe all this technological innovation and progress to the behemoths of big tech: Apple, Google, Amazon, and so on. Certainly, these modern-day FAANG titans sit at the fore of the idea economy.

Yet our modern economy of services and ideas consists of tiered levels, with the prior tier serving as a necessary and supporting base to the next tier. No internet, no digital streaming. No electricity, no internet. No carbon, no electricity. And so on, back to the most fundamental building blocks of an economy.

Americans have lost sight of this fundamental economic truth, blinded by the mesmerizing clicks and taps of apps. Add to the mix fabricated mistruths about the demise of the “old economy” spewed by the elite and the Left in academia, government, and monied foundations, and many of us today are transitioned from uninformed to misinformed when it comes to drivers of the economy and our lives.

A historical refresher is in order.

Our modern economy is built upon five successive pillars, each one rests atop predecessor pillars and supports subsequent pillars. Lose one pillar and you lose the pillars above it. Let’s meet the new bosses, same as the old bosses.

Pillar #1: Don’t Call Them Robber Barons

Everything we enjoy in our modern life traces its roots back to, and continues to depend on, the founding fathers of our economy. Most of them rose to prominence in the period of American history after the Civil War and before World War I; a time where industry rebuilt and then drove America to global prominence.

The three faces that sit on this pillar’s Mount Rushmore are Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. Vanderbilt built, integrated, and consolidated the transportation network, specifically rail, that allowed a nation to grow and its industry to thrive. Rockefeller took the fragmented and disorganized industries of oil and refineries and brought order that spurred the innovation of new products, including gasoline. Carnegie was the visionary who saw the need for a new product to build our cities and structures: steel.

Innovating from their home bases of New York, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, these three men along with others fused a backbone of the American economy that we depend upon to this day. They were far from perfect, as incidents like the Homestead Strike painfully illustrated. But they were great, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Most importantly, they set the stage for Pillar #2 of our modern economy.

Pillar #2: Finance Powers Innovation

As railroads, steel mills, and refineries grew into industrial titans, finance evolved into a powerful catalyst to accelerate progress and spur more innovation.

J.P. Morgan revolutionized finance as an instrument to optimize commerce, and he was not afraid to get in between Rockefeller and Carnegie where he saw opportunity to create value (for example, Morgan bought out Carnegie and created U.S. Steel). Morgan showed how the purse could be a force to be reckoned with, even for the world’s most powerful industrialists.

J.P. Morgan also funded new innovators and innovations, playing Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse against each other as they demonstrated and commercialized electricity generation. Edison brought us light, he and his competitor Westinghouse established electricity generation at scale, and Morgan provided the capital to enable all of it (Morgan eventually took control of Edison’s company and recast it as General Electric).

But if no rail, oil, or steel, then no modern finance and electricity. Once these two pillars were in place, it set the stage for the next pillar that would fundamentally reshape the world.

Pillar #3: The Societal Impact of the Modern Assembly Line

Thankfully, at about the time politicians and bureaucrats were working to take down the Standard Oils of the world, a new breed of creators appeared on the scene to keep progress moving. Henry Ford took the recipe ingredients of steel, gasoline, finance, and electricity to revolutionize manufacturing with the modern assembly line.

Ford’s assembly line made automobiles affordable. His manufacturing innovations also established an eight-hour workday and a living wage for workers, who would then have both the time and money to purchase and enjoy cars. That drove up the demand for cars, making Ford more profitable. Policy makers have been trying to replicate this virtuous circle ever since.

Others took note of what Ford was doing in autos and looked to copy it for other products. Hershey figured it out for candy while others applied it across a spectrum of industries. The worker and consumer both benefitted, with increasingly worker and consumer being one in the same. In many ways, the American middle class was the most impactful innovation of this pillar.

All of Ford’s necessary ingredients came from predecessor pillars. Without them, there would be no assembly line, all the consumer benefits that derived from it, or a middle class. Nor would there be the benefits of the next pillar that Ford and his peers made possible.

Pillar #4: Rise of the Service Economy

The prior three pillars of the economy provided the feedstocks to efficiently manufacture consumer goods. Workers increasingly were able to enjoy and afford these products, driving up demand. And technology expanded the gameboard of what and when things could be enjoyed.

All of this birthed what we know today as the service sector of the economy. Mechanics were in demand to repair cars. Beauticians were wanted to assist with application of makeup and hair care products. Entertainment became a massive industry as movie theaters and television became ubiquitous.

Before you knew it, the service economy was as big, or perhaps bigger than, the manufacturing sector of the economy. But without a strong manufacturing base, there would be no service economy. If you don’t build it, you won’t service it. If you lose the large number of high paying jobs in manufacturing, people won’t be able to afford services. Obvious to most, but frustratingly foreign to many politicians and policy makers today.

Everything was now in place for the fifth and final pillar.

Pillar #5: The Idea Economy

The prior four pillars set the stage for increased specialization, innovation, and widespread technology diffusion. Suddenly everyone had computers, cell phones, and internet access. Entrepreneurship blossomed and the largest corporations in history were created by thinkers tinkering in garages.

Big tech and the idea economy are awesome innovators and innovations. Yes, at times their power needs to be checked when impeding individual rights such as free speech. And these entities must be constantly reminded that their initial and ongoing success hinge on the underlying pillars they rest upon. But like Rockefeller and Carnegie before them, we are much better off with today’s tech titans than without them.

What’s Next?

Donald Rumsfeld famously referenced “known knowns” (things we know that we know) and “known unknowns” (we know there are some things we do not know). Our 150-year American economic journey of prosperity has definitively proven Rumsfeld’s two axioms true.

Our “known knowns” are that if you sabotage any of the underlying economic pillars, you will unleash the widespread collateral damage of ruining the subsequent pillars. That’s true even when the aspiring destroyers are trumpeting the need to do so under the banner of the public good or saving the planet.

The “known unknowns” are the future pillars to be created and brought to society. We don’t know what they are or when they will appear. But we do know the frequency and timeliness of them will hinge on our ability to protect the current pillars and nurture the ideological columns that made them possible: capitalism, free enterprise, and individual rights.

Post that in your app and stream it.

Major College Athletics: Financial and Moral Failings

Major college sports enjoy an image of enlightened morality coupled with financial prowess.

Tune in to any major NCAA televised event and you are bombarded with constant messaging of social and political progressivism. Individual schools and programs publicly embrace a spectrum of causes, from the liberal to the outright leftist.

The television advertisers during commercial breaks are a who’s who of the largest, most powerful corporations in the world. March Madness and the FBS rake in billions of dollars annually, from broadcasting revenues to merchandising. Schools join major power conferences not for geographic convenience or to preserve historic rivalries, but instead to secure lucrative payments for the programs.

Yet these false images mask unpleasant realities. Major college sports are financially broken and mired in immorality. The unsustainable truth manifests in four failings.

Failing #1: Major College Athletic Programs Bleed Cash

The accounting does not lie. Less than 10% of Division I NCAA athletic programs make money, defined as sports revenues covering sports expenses. Meaning 90% of Division I athletic programs lose money.

There is a misconception that Division I football and men’s basketball programs rake in big bucks, which are then used to cover or subsidize the other sports at a school. Although football and men’s basketball bring in the most revenue at Division I schools, only 20% of all Division I men’s basketball programs brought in more revenue than the basketball program spent, according to the Wall Street Journal. Football did a bit better, but only 28% of Division I programs brought in more revenue than what they spent.

If one adds up all Divisions I-III programs across the NCAA, total revenues were $10.6 billion while expenses were $18.9 billion, creating a massive deficit. Less than 10% of Division I programs cover their expenses with their revenues. These deficits get plugged by direct and indirect subsidy via government revenue (taxpayer dollars), excessively high tuition, and the hidden costs of college these days in the form of student activity fees and the like.

If you never watch a college game, you pay for college sports via taxes. If you are a student that doesn’t have an athletic bone in your body, you pay for major college sports programs through escalating tuition. Government and academia created a system where all are forced to subsidize these money losing endeavors, whether we desire to or not.

Failing #2: Higher Education Puts Your Dollars in the Fluff Instead of the Substance

College athletics spend massive amounts of money on a host of program line items, but the single largest expenditure line item is coaches’ salaries at $3.7 billion (student-athlete compensation won’t appear on the list, another hypocrisy of academia). That’s not by accident.

Many people are shocked to learn that in 39 of the 50 states the highest-paid state employee is either a university football coach or basketball coach. In most of these 39 states the difference between what the college coach is paid and what the governor is paid exceeds a factor of ten.

Public university football and basketball coaches in these 39 states have compensation levels that grossly exceed the pay packages for the heads of the state medical, law enforcement, and educational organizations. Taxpayers in these 39 states are forced to pay excessive amounts of money for someone who can design a 3–4 defense or who can talk a seventeen-year-old into committing to the state school basketball program instead of those dollars being invested in efforts to provide improved cancer care, to keep the streets safe, or to improve math and reading proficiency in the public school systems.

Failing #3: Moral Hypocrisy Abounds in College Athletics

The NCAA, individual universities, and college sports programs all tout commitments to a host of progressive issues. These commitments are trumpeted everywhere you read, watch, or listen.

Until you compare the actions of universities behind the scenes to the public rhetoric. Major college sports programs display shocking hypocrisy when there is an opportunity to procure money. If major funding for a new facility is in play, universities drop all pretense of moral authority and will chase the almighty dollar.

One could choose from a gaggle of examples to illustrate how major college sports programs drop their high-and-mighty platitudes to grovel for funds. The owner of hundreds of fast-food restaurants that peddle unhealthy food and don’t pay living wages to employees leads the funding to revamp UCLA’s historic Pauley Pavilion. The CEO of a lingerie clothing brand that promotes unrealistic images of women to impressionable young girls has Ohio State’s football complex named after him. And a CEO notorious for his eagerness to slash jobs is one of Florida State’s biggest football boosters.

But the biggest example of hypocrisy is found at the University of Oregon, where the founder of Nike and track team alumnus Phil Knight is paying for a $270 million renovation to its track facility. This is nothing new for Knight or Oregon, as he has gifted over $1 billion to the school over time. He is free to donate his money where he sees fit.

What is hypocritical, however, is Oregon’s willingness to take Knight’s money. Oregon is one of the most liberal/leftist campuses in the nation. Equality, inclusiveness, and climate change activism are pillars of core beliefs on the Eugene campus. So, one would think Oregon would be picky and only accept money from donors epitomizing those pillars.

Not the case when it comes to Knight and Nike. Nike has been criticized for decades for its questionable manufacturing practices and whether they embrace child labor, low pay, and worker abuse. The Nike supply chain of overseas contractors is murky and there is concern oppressed Uighurs in China may be forced laborers in its supply chain. Many of Nike’s shoes and apparel are constructed of evil carbon-based materials.

Behind its politically correct ad campaigns, Nike is as brazenly capitalistic as one can imagine. But when a glistening new track facility, equipped with a barbershop, museum, and murals is in play, the Ducks sweep their morals under the bleachers. Rest assured this will not preclude the university from lecturing the rest of society on how to behave.

Failing #4: College Athletics Abuse the Concept of Human Capital

Funny how academic institutions that created the concept of, and preach to business the importance of, human capital will unabashedly exploit student athletes.

The exploitation of the student athlete is evident across three fronts.

The first is the most obvious: star athletes at major programs bring in millions of dollars of revenue for the school, yet the athletes are paid nothing close to a fair or living wage. Worse, most of these athletes will never make it to the pros and many of them will suffer injuries that can last a lifetime, from the physical to the cognitive. Major college sports are designed as human meatgrinders.

The second front of athlete exploitation is colleges, in concert with pro sports, using anti-competitive collusion to deny athletes opportunities to ply their trade in the free market. How ridiculous is it that in 2021 it is nearly impossible for a gifted athlete to exit high school and enter the NFL draft? Or that we are still duped into lamenting the ‘one and done’ mentality of the college basketball elite when it should be ‘none and done.’ Higher education and the big business of pro sports have imposed a system of indentured servitude on the most gifted of athletes.

The final front of human capital exploitation is misleading athletes and their families with the fiction that they will graduate with a free education in a skill that sets them for life. That is far from the rule today. Instead, the big-time programs know many of their student athletes will never graduate with a degree. Many who do graduate will be armed with a useless piece of parchment stating a major that has little demand in the real world (I suppose the student athlete shares the same fate as many students in this facet of academia’s failing).

A Moral Imperative for Change

Major college sports need an overhaul. Tear down these programs built upon failed business models, fiscal deficits, moral hypocrisy, and human capital exploitation. Build in their places sustainable models that meet the following four criteria:

  • Division I athletic programs only spend what they generate in revenues and donations. Taxpayers and students should not be forced to subsidize sports through excessive taxes and tuition levels.
  • Division I programs should pay star athletes fair compensation for what the athletes bring in as revenue. Dispense with the tired and bogus argument of, “well, the player gets paid with a free education.” That degree, if the athlete actually graduates, may end up not being worth the paper it is written on.
  • If a college sports coach at a public university is paid more than the governor of the school’s state, the president of the university, or the dean of its medical school, society should question if that school is acting in a way that is consistent with its charter as a public institution of higher learning. The university should be required to submit formal justification for the coach’s compensation package, much like a public company must submit a proxy to its owners to defend its executive pay packages.
  • Donations are only accepted if the donor and his/her business clearly comply with the mission statements and core values listed on university websites, speeches, and brochures. If they don’t comply, the school should either decline the donation or relax/modify its mission statement and core values so that a conflict no longer exists.

Until these reasonable, transparent, and rational reforms are adopted, academia, its leadership, and student body should refrain from activism and public discourse. The unwillingness to hold oneself accountable to the standards you lecture society to adopt is blatant hypocrisy that destroys credibility.

If academia wants to talk the talk, we should demand they walk the walk.