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Checking, Ghostwriting, Fertility, Ads, Ideology, Corporate Mortality, Rates, The Banana King



The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King. In 1870, bananas went for the equivalent of $47/bunch. Now they're an absurdly cheap source of calories, and have been for some time (in his memoir, Frank McCourt talks about moving to the US in the late 1940s, where he couldn't necessarily afford to take the subway but could subsist on bananas). How we got to this point is partly a story about the general rise in agricultural productivity over the last century-plus, but it's also a wild story of corporate governance, corporate-government relations, market coups, and literal coups.

The book is partly a portrait of one person, Samuel Zemurray, and his decades-long quest to dominate the banana business. Zemurray started scrappy in the 1890s, buying small shipments of bananas and shipping them as quickly as possible before they spoiled, and ultimately built up the second-biggest banana company in the US, before selling it to the biggest, United Fruit. This sale was partly political: Zemurray's company, Cuyamel, had bought land in an area claimed by both Honduras and Guatemala, and United Fruit's efforts to keep him from using this land came close to causing a war between the two countries. A few years later, when United Fruit's profits collapsed during the Great Depression, Zemurray launched a hostile takeover. This takeover was hostile indeed ("You've been ——ing up this business long enough. I'm going to straighten it out." —Time magazine, 1933).

The book is also a portrait of a particular time in a particular part of the world. It's a sort of nonfiction Nostromo where the focus is on hustle, power, and big personalities. There are characters with names like Jake the Parrot King, or people who'd eventually become public figures—John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles both worked for United Fruit before their government service—service that perhaps coincidentally included taking some actions that were very favorable to United Fruit's interests, at least at first.

United Fruit and Zemurray overreached in 1954, when he and the CIA helped launch a coup in Guatemala to depose their left-leaning president. This ended up drawing attention to United Fruit's habit of claiming implicit veto power over the decisions of banana-export-unfriendly governments, and raised the question of whether government policy in the region was determined by US interests or UF's. A good reminder that if you're good at business, you'll eventually solve all of your business problems and be left with less tractable political ones instead.

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