The earth moved the other day. The shaking was felt from Long Island to Michigan and was triggered by two giants turning over in their graves. One man negotiated the funeral flip in Oyster Bay, the other in Detroit. This seismic anomaly was brought about by hyperbolic rhetoric emanating from a place called Osawatomie, Kansas.
In what may just turn out to be Barack Obama’s most significant speech since his inauguration, the President seemed to be crystallizing the issue for his supporters—not to mention the rest of us. In true “Rules For Radicals” fashion he appears to be determined to frame the debate as a war between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Stay tuned.
But in his recent remarks, his rhetorical reach exceeded his grasp when he decided to bolster his argument by referring to two men who influenced their times a hundred or so years ago—Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Ford, strange Obama bedfellows indeed. A closer look at these two men—an examination the President of the United States apparently failed to do—reveals that TR and Mr. Ford, if alive and well today, would most certainly be Obama-averse.
Bemoaning inequality and the absence of fairness in the market place, the President suggested that Henry Ford “made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made.” This was an odd reference, since Mr. Ford’s famous, game-changing $5 per day wage in January of 1914 was actually not designed to enable his workers to buy his cars. That was just a by-product.
In fact, Henry Ford wanted to make a profit and then some. He needed about 14,000 workers to outfit his emergent Highland Park, Michigan assembly line and he noted that in 1912 and 1913 his organization processed more than 40,000 new employees, but retention was horrible—something like a 370 percent turnover rate. Absenteeism was a monumental problem and too much of the work was shoddy. So in one fell-swoop, and largely as part of a strategy to beat his competition and make a bigger profit, Ford more than doubled the daily wage from $2.34 for nine-hours to $5.00 for eight hours. Now able to run three shifts, he increased productivity and blew the competition away. It was a form of profit sharing.
But this wage hike came with strings attached. Ford employed his own Department of Sociology. He sent investigators into the homes of his workers to advocate basic values, things like thrift, cleanliness, sobriety, family values, and good morals in general. Ford was a stickler about character. If an employee was found not to be in compliance, the pay was reduced back to the $2.34 per hour for six months. After that, if the worker didn’t clean up his act, he was fired.
Henry Ford was a practitioner of something once called, “welfare capitalism” and it had the effect, in the days building up to World War I, of neutralizing the emerging labor movement. That’s right—Mr. Ford’s efforts were also designed to thwart union development and activity. Henry didn’t want anyone running his business. The auto industry of the day ran unfettered by attempts to unionize workers and without the government control with which the railroads increasingly dealt.
The fact that Henry Ford’s workers could buy his cars was an added bonus and, again, driven by the desire to make money. This is hardly a good example for Mr. Obama to be citing in an anti-capitalistic diatribe. Ford was so anti-union that Detroiters still talk about the famous “Battle of the Overpass” near the Rouge plant in 1937. The Ford Motor Company didn’t go union until 1941 and even then, only over the protests of old Henry Ford, the man President Obama used to illustrate his ideas about fairness.
When it comes to Theodore Roosevelt, most progressives are fond of quoting the post-presidential TR—particularly the quixotic 1912 race. But it needs to be noted that though Roosevelt was indeed a “progressive,” he was hardly a radical socialist. He represented the political center of his day—not the left. He wanted fairness for labor, not labor control of everything. He wanted to save capitalism in a time when radicalism and anarchism were ascendant. This is far from what appears to be a current trend toward the destruction of capitalism.
Roosevelt also opposed unfair practices by Wall Street. But unlike Mr. Obama, he was never supported by the big money of Wall Street. TR very much believed in something we refer to these days as American Exceptionalism—Obama not so much. And when it came to foreign policy, TR’s worldview was about as distinct from that of Mr. Obama’s as is diametrically possible.
Theodore Roosevelt opposed trusts and he would have wielded a big stick against the likes of Fannie and Freddie. He was very much for the government as a referee on the field, but Mr. Obama wants the government to own the teams—or at least some of them. How fair is that?
To quote the late Harry Morgan as Colonel Sherman T. Potter—“Horse Hockey!”