He had a more personal concept of how economics worked. He thought of the economy as a web of personal relationships: with his customers; with the workers he hired and trained and sometimes had to let go; with the banker he depended on to get him started in his various new businesses; with the landlord who collected the rent from him; and with his own tenants after he began buying a piece of property here and there, and building some rent houses.
He liked his houses kept up, the lawns mowed, so they would look like something. Spic-and-span. Like a good pair of shoes freshly shined.
Like most Americans, the old man was too deeply involved with labor and capital to think in those terms. Instead he thought in terms of people and whether their work -- and their word -- was good.
When the old man died, people whom the family couldn't remember, maybe had never even seen, kept showing up at the house to pay their respects. They'd all tell much the same story -- how he'd given them credit when they needed it, or a little help when they were trying to get started.
He liked giving people a start. There was Henry Johnson, for example, whom he'd hired as a boy -- and taught how to fix shoes. Henry would stay with him for the next 50 years through the old man's various ventures, mastering one skill after another, and in the end teaching the old man as much as he'd learned from him.
The shoemaker's apprentice would grow old with him, and die two weeks before the old man did. The family smiled knowingly. They knew Henry had just gone on ahead, as usual, to scout out the territory.
On this Labor Day, a great deal will be said in the usual press releases, but none of it will be more eloquent than work done well. To me, two new soles on a pair of well shined shoes still say more than all the Labor Day speeches ever written.
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