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Kenneth (left) and William Hopper (handout)

Long road back to Plymouth

Economy | An interview with Kenneth and William Hopper, authors of The Puritan Gift

What first drew two British brothers, born in Glasgow, Scotland, on the eve of the Great Depression and educated in the British system, to take a sharp interest in America's Puritans? Asking the question via email prompted a transatlantic response from Kenneth Hopper, now 84 and living in New Jersey, and William Hopper, who is 81 and resides in London. Both are authors of The Puritan Gift, a featured book in WORLD's annual books issue even though its British edition is now nearly four years old (see "Citty upon a hill," July 3, 2010).

First William would offer a detailed reply, then Kenneth would edit his account by changing words here and there and striking through text that might seem to give "Elder Brother," as William refers to him, too much credit. But according to both:

"This started, as I understand it, when Ken was visiting factories in the U.S. in the 1960s and formed a view which he expressed to himself in the words: 'There is a Puritan behind every door.' In other words, a common managerial culture underlay the success of all these organizations explainable in terms of the country's origins, which were of course religious in inspiration. When I joined Ken in the serious writing of our book after 2000, we both tried to develop this concept in terms of the four characteristics named on our page 3. It was Ken who originated the phrase 'Puritan gift.'"

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Elder brother Kenneth elaborated:

"[I was struck] particularly in the manufacturing Midwest by the relaxed, down-to-earth culture of the managers in my audiences. [An engineer by training, Kenneth served as an industrial consultant and was giving seminars in factories on employing college graduates as factory foremen.] There was little sign of the dominant acquisitive thinking of Ayn Rand and early Milton Friedman that I found pervasive in New York."

When he told audiences about a project to help the developing world, Kenneth "invariably found the executives keen to help." Surprised by the contrast with European executives, he began to realize how little American history he knew. Back in New York, Kenneth browsed used paperback bookshops. ("Finding them in the 1960s can be compared to stumbling on the internet," he said. "They carried a seemingly infinite pool of knowledge, and all for the price of a download.") Kenneth had noticed the considerable time American executives took getting down to details before making decisions: "And there was [admiral, historian, and Of Plymouth Plantation editor] Samuel Eliot Morison on page 20 attributing the success of the Puritan Migration to exactly that! . . . Further years of furtive reading in the bookshops revealed the influence of the Puritans being carried forward through the centuries." He collected what he calls "a small library" of about 1,000 books on the history of American technology and its management, which he maintains today.

Meanwhile, William, a modern linguist by training, began what became a 40-year career in investment banking, starting as a financial analyst at W.R. Grace & Co. in New York, then becoming personal assistant to Sigmund Warburg at S.G. Warburg in London. He put together capital investments from East Asia in the 1970s to Eastern Europe in the 1990s and beyond. In 1979, running as a Conservative, he won what many considered "a spectacularly safe" Labour Party seat for the first elected European Parliament.

It's perhaps the global economics perspective of The Puritan Gift that has left American audiences underwhelmed by it. Yes, it's about them historically, but perhaps not enough for modern economists and armchair analysts who want an instant diagnosis of the current economy. (The brothers also said they suffered from poor marketing of the book when it came to America.) But attention on both sides of the Atlantic did come after a BBC correspondent who attends William's church featured the book in several broadcasts, leading to articles in the Financial Times.

More generally, said William, "You have to ask why any readers should have wanted to pay attention to a book which was: (a) unclassifiable-was it about religion, social history or management?-and (b) written by two elderly gents without professional qualifications who had never written a book before." But the brothers said they predicted it would be a "slow burn" of a book.

Four years later, the book is poised to hit its largest audience yet-Asians. This month the brothers accepted an offer from the largest press in China to publish a Chinese-language version. They also are considering proposals to publish it in Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Indonesian, and Chinese classic script (for Taiwan). While The Puritan Gift focuses on U.S. history, some of its most useful material highlights the origins of the "Asian Miracle." Using documents from the Civil Communications Section (CCS) of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Tokyo headquarters, the Hoppers demonstrate the transfer of Puritan principles across the Pacific that fueled what, according to them, is mistakenly called a "miracle." Kenneth said, "CCS coached a not very effective group of manufacturers to put them on the path of being competitive in world markets."

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