In a piece about the whining crybabies among our privileged 1%, James Surowiecki of the New Yorker compares the plutocrats of today to those of the past, to the contemporary breed's disadvantage.
One hundred years ago, he writes, "industrial magnates played a central role in the Progressive movement, working with unions, supporting workmen’s compensation laws and laws against child labor, and often pushing for more government regulation."
Well, sorta. Some industrial magnates did. Others did not. And while Surowiecki is correct in finding today's business leaders to be, in general, less public-spirited than their forebears, the distinction isn't as great as all that. Taken altogether, the impact of big business on the economy and the working class 100 years ago was sufficiently malignant to yield the
Let's take a quick stroll through the history.
To begin with, business leaders in the first decades of the 20th century were not viewed by their contemporaries as paragons of progressive thought. Among their critics was Adolf Berle, whose 1932 book "The Modern Corporation and Private Property" documented how the separation of management from corporate ownership had produced a concentration of wealth that acted against the public interest.
As a member of
Henry Ford is often lionized for granting his workers a $5 daily wage (in 1914). What is often forgotten is that in 1933 he helped precipitate the failure of the banking industry in Michigan by refusing to shore up the capital of the banks, some of which he owned -- thereby impoverishing hundreds of thousands of working-class citizens. ("Let the crash come," he said. "I feel young. I can build up again.")
Banks, Wall Street and the corporate elite fought the New Deal at every turn. "Pushing for more regulation"? Richard Whitney of the
And when Social Security was enacted, the nation's employers stuck fliers in their workers' pay envelopes warning that the new program was a fraud. This prompted FDR to respond:
"Only desperate men with their backs to the wall would descend so far below the level of decent citizenship as to foster the current pay-envelope campaign against America's working people.... It is an old strategy of tyrants to delude their victims into fighting their battles for them."
In 1936, Alfred P. Sloan, the venerated head of General Motors, returned from three weeks' vacation in the south of France to condemn the shorter hours and pay raises the government urged his company to implement. "Of course I believe in more leisure for workers," Sloan said upon disembarking from his ocean liner. "But not by government edict. We should earn our leisure."