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
. (Some recent
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.