He was named after Oliver Cromwell, but the resemblance stops there. O.C. ("Crom") Carmichael III not only makes a living in the marketplace, he sells some of the better products of the marketplace of ideas through his Audio Classics cassette series.
Carmichael majored in business and minored in economics at Vanderbilt University, but he confesses that "what I now know about economics is self-taught. My economics professors would be disappointed to hear that I didn't learn anything from them, but they'd probably agree."
After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1971, Carmichael went to work for First American National Bank in Nashville, where he spent five years working in various departments as a trouble-shooter, helping them straighten out multimillion-dollar loan problems of different subsidiaries.
In the mid-'70s, remuneration in the banking field was proportional to the amount of imagination needed to survive in the then-heavily regulated banking environment. Carmichael moved on to areas where an individual could make more of a difference—and be rewarded accordingly.
He bought into a small company, Sports Industries of America, which has, over the past eight years, grown to distribute products in 28 states. That firm is now a subsidiary of Carmichael & Carmichael, which Crom owns with his brother. Their various subsidiaries include wholesale distribution of sporting goods, bowling supplies, and other merchandise.
Dealing in tangible goods and brand names was a whole new ball game from marketing something fungible, like bank loans. He was soon to diversify further, however, into retailing the tangible embodiment of something more intangible than cash: ideas.
Six or seven years ago, in the course of reading financial newsletters, Crom became interested in the Austrian school of economics. What set it apart from other economic theories, he says, is that "it made sense. Economics is a function of human motivation—of the way people are, not how we'd like them to be. When it comes to capital investment, that's almost all there is to it. In free enterprise, a loss is limited to the amount investors had to put in—but with government, the loss can be infinite. Prosperity takes human endeavor."
Meanwhile, trying to make use of time spent commuting, Crom experienced the advantages of instructional audio cassettes. In his case, he could drive and listen to talks on financial analysis and other topics. The concept became the basis for Crom's next venture.
A couple of years ago he was at a seminar hosted by the Washington, D.C.–based Cato Institute. He heard libertarian scholar George H. Smith lecture on the American revolution, and the two of them began to talk about producing a series of audio tapes discussing the ideas of the great thinkers of history. The fruit of the discussion was the Audio Classics, a series of tapes edited by Smith that hit the market in the fall of 1985.
The tapes weave historical narrative together with the words of the thinkers Smith selected for the series—an eclectic group spanning the spectrum from Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith to Karl Marx, Edmund Burke, and Machiavelli. Audio Classics, advertised in think magazines as diverse as National Review, the New York Review of Books, and REASON, has grown to 700 subscribers in its first several months of existence.
Crom contrasts the tapes' approach with the usual approach to teaching history: "When I was in school and studied history, I heard the who, the what, the when, the where—but not the why." The Boston Tea Party, for example, was not simply a protest against a small tax on tea but a protest against the principle that Britain had the authority to levy such a tax at all—and a protest under circumstances in which the tea would shortly have been seized by the colonial government anyway. As Carmichael notes in reference to his twelve-year-old daughter, "The cassettes give her a different perspective on what she's hearing in school."
Carmichael's successive business ventures have been a constant learning experience—learning tied in with his reading of economists. "What Adam Smith says about the wealth of nations is just as true for a business. Each individual business has characteristics different from other businesses," he notes. "That's why division of labor is so important to prosperity. If you don't have someone in charge of each of these specialized functions who really knows that function, you won't be as competitive. A lot of the basic business principles are relevant to the audio publishing field; but there's a lot new, too. It's harder to define the target market as a retailer than as a wholesaler, but we are producing a quality product and making the consumer aware of it."
Carmichael, who is divorced, enjoys spending time with his two children. He also likes golf, playing tennis, skiing, reading—and listening to audio cassettes. He is planning on producing a series of tapes on economists, as well as tapes covering different periods of history. Perhaps if enough of us hear a more-rounded recounting of history than the government-school version, we won't be condemned to repeat it.
John Dentinger is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Tom Paine Meets the Walkman".