Thursday, July 31, 2003

We seem to be stuck, at least for the moment, in a jobless recovery; as even Alan Greenspan has noted, businesses with ready access to cash are simply declining to spend it on hiring new workers, in part because rising productivity means they don't have to, and in part because they're planning to hire, if at all, then in China. (Some recent good news may herald a change in that, but it'll be a few months yet before we know whether that was a blip or a trend).

In the middle of all this, it's worth remembering that not all American businesses, at all times, have had that attitude; some of them have been aware that it's not enough to produce stuff; you have to pay the workers enough to buy it. Douglas Brinkley's excellent new book on the history of Ford is a useful reminder that Ford management after World War I doubled workers' wages on its own initiative (the famous $5 day). Beyond that, while labor unions had been stumping for years for the eight hour day and five day week, it was Ford that introduced them to the auto industry -- again on its own initiative.

All of which makes Ford's subsequent, notoriously violent union busting even more peculiar -- and of course, not a whit more justified. But the past is a foreign country, and people there aren't always what we expect. Labor and race relations are both "left wing" nowadays, but many labor unions at the turn of the last century were notoriously racist. (As was the Democratic Party; Woodrow Wilson segregated the post office). Electric cars may sound good to us now, but Thomas Edison, of all people, thought they were a crock -- which, at the time, they were. And Ford's Model T, the famous "Tin Lizzie", owed its success to high tech vanadium steel.

Besides, Brinkley doesn't deny or excuse Ford's sins, which are there in abundance, including the union busting and the rabid antisemitism which had Adolf Hitler praising "Heinrich Ford" as an acolyte as early as 1923. Brinkley says he was offered the Ford Motor Company's assistance in covering everything, "warts and all". And in at least one sphere, he actually seems biased in favor of the warts -- the notorious safety problems with the Pinto are covered in detail, quite rightly, but the three solid pages on the Ford Falcon don't detail any of that car's pioneering safety features, like standard safety belts, which were controversial in the industry at the time.

(Nor was this all unique to Ford. The quiet cryptofascism of GM's Alfred Sloan, including funding for reactionary groups like the soi-disant Liberty Lobby, union busting (of course), and much more cordial relations with the actual Nazis than Ford ever had, were arguably more of a danger to the Republic than anything Ford did; see David Farber's briefer "Sloan Rules" for more on those topics).

The book's not perfect -- after World War II, in particular, it gets sloppy and perfunctory in places. The enormous influence (not entirely positive) of the financial executives known as the Whiz Kids deserves more coverage, for instance. But the early chapters on Ford, including the critical role of James Couzens in the early Ford Motor Company, are gems.

The past, as I said, is a foreign country. To one small piece of it, Brinkley offers a fine guided tour. It's worth the trip.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home