Sunday, April 12, 2015 2:10 AM
I made the mistake of watching too much History Channel—they had a run of episodes today of their series “The Men Who Built America”. I won’t go into that title—it speaks for itself—but the story makes a case for the main thrust of American growth in the late 19th—early 20th centuries being attributable to a handful of men—Vanderbilt with his railroads, Rockefeller with his petroleum, Carnegie with his steel mills and skyscrapers, and J.P. Morgan using Edison’s innovations to create the power-and-light industry. I think Ford and his assembly-lines came next—I fell out after one-hour-too-much of this stuff, so I can’t say for sure.
However, I had seen enough. The History Channel makes it plain that these were all predatory, unscrupulous men whose attainment of ‘greatness’ in history involved business methods so rapacious that they are all illegal today. Cartels, monopolies, price-fixing—these guys were lucky to be first—not just because of the advantage being first gave them, but because they got to be grossly unfair before any rules were made. We see a similar frontier-like approach to the digital business world—entrepreneurs doing whatever they like in a field where no rules yet exist.
But it is the story of the factory workers, mill workers, and miners that gives us our most depressing history lesson. The bitterness we feel at the treatment of these miserable victims of economic bullying (with plenty of physical bullying thrown in by strike-breaking troops and Pinkerton agents) is only sharpened by the knowledge that the minimum wage is still a bone of contention a full century later. The hands that make American industry run are still considered expendable, or at the least replaceable. And the Owners of this country still feel that their employees are among their possessions.
Where does this curious entitlement come from? Is it the average person’s inclination to do what they’re told that gives these people the mistaken impression that it’s okay to go beyond merely taking the lion’s share, and going all the way to the point of squeezing the employees down to the lowest possible wage, regardless of the company’s profitability? What makes this okay? Who the hell are these greedy bastards?
It’s just plain stupid. Well-paid employees drive the economy. Subsistence-wage workers only profit today’s bottom-line, and that for just one company—that they guarantee an at-best stagnant economy in the larger picture seems like something that should be addressed. That, and another point brought up by the History Channel’s little series—that these ‘magnates’, and entrepreneurs generally, will push limits and squeeze wages not for sound business reasons or the sake of efficiency, but to be the alpha dog, the top of the heap, whatever the hell that means. In effect, we had an Industrial Revolution mostly because of a few men with serious emotional issues and zero self-awareness of their motives.
That such people today often speak out against social or charitable programs is part of this mind-set. It is clear that it costs less to deal with needy people’s lacks up-front than to clean up the mess after they fail to provide for themselves—the fact that it is also more humane is beside the point, economically. This is plain to see, just as it is cheaper to keep people healthy than it is to pay for health-care after they get sick. The economy of a city would get as big a jolt, perhaps bigger, if it helped underserved communities heal themselves than it gets from gentrification of an area, driving out the existing community by driving up the rents. But that’s just not flashy or pushy or fast enough—that’s not the way rich people like to do things.
But it’s the way we think of ourselves that bothers me the most. These jerks make up this paradigm where 99% of us are treated like the mud on their boots—and we just go along with it. Running a business is like running for office—you find mostly jerks doing it, because only jerks would want the job. This is the problem—most people don’t want to be in charge. It’s like cops—you get a lot of cops who are just bullies—but how many people want to do that job? Not many, except for those few who get off on being bullies. My apologies to you decent cops out there—I know you’re out there, but I also know you’re not unanimous—just saying.
Unfortunately, a business owner, manager, or politician can do a lot more damage than a trigger-happy cop—they just do their dirty work in less obvious ways. There’s a succinct phrase to describe this phenomenon: ‘shit floats’. The paths to power and the skill-sets required to gain power are entirely separate from the requirements of good leadership or good governance. We don’t find our leaders among those most qualified to fill the posts, we get our leaders from those most qualified to get the posts. And anyone with a lick of sense avoids these leadership positions like the plague. A person can have greatness thrust upon him or her, but that is rare—most of us are pretty good at dodging ‘greatness’ when it’s thrust our way. And for good reason—among those ‘giants’ whom the History Channel claims ‘built’ America, there wasn’t a single happy soul. I look forward to the day when we stop confusing ‘greatness’ with the neurotic compulsions of men who lacked supportive father-figures.