Saturday evening we watched a two-part docudrama from the History Channel, called The Men Who Made America. Now get past the sexism and the pomposity of the title if you will. There is something important to be said here.
By intention or otherwise, THC offered up that a few “titans of industry” filled the void left by the death of Abraham Lincoln at the close of the Civil War, and singlehandedly rebuilt America. Dubious as this contention might seem, they offered it with no tongue-in-cheek.
Better that they had since they then peppered the show with commentary from none of than the likes of Donald Trump and Jack Walsh, aided by Mark Cuban and a pinch of Steve Wozniak. These “modern-day entrepreneurs” sought to explain the mind-set of men like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie.
Vanderbilt, having made a fortune in the shipping industry, sells off all his fleet and invests in what he sees as the future: the railroads. Soon he has a commanding amount of track. Gould and Fisk apparently by pure counterfeiting, sell Vanderbilt millions of dollars in fake railroad stock (Vanderbilt is trying to buy up all the little railroads in the best traditions of monopoly), and so anger Vanderbilt that he vows never to be beaten again.
Now that he most of the railway, he must put something in his cars. He contacts a struggling oil man, John D. Rockefeller, and Rockefeller gets a sweet deal to ship all his crude via Vanderbilt’s rails. This lasts until Rockefeller is big enough to want a better deal, so he agrees to send his crude via a railroad owned by a guy named Tom Scott whose right hand man is one Andrew Carnegie.
Vanderbilt and Scott join up in an effort squeeze Rockefeller for more money. Rockefeller replies by building his own pipeline from the oil fields of Ohio and South, to his refineries in the North. Vanderbilt dies, and Scott replies by building his own pipeline that will require Rockefeller pay to move his crude to his Pennsylvania refineries. Rockefeller replies by shutting his PA refineries, throwing the railroads into bankruptcy and destroying Scott. Rockefeller then calmly buys up the destroyed railroads for pennies on the dollar.
Trump, Cuban and Walsh stand as a cheering squad, pontificating about how men like these (and themselves presumably) are cut of a different cloth. They started out poor, worked from dawn until midnight, came up with a great idea, and let nothing stand in their way. It was a game of war to them, take no prisoners and the winner has all the money. These men are apparently men we should admire.
Such men, we come to learn, get up each morning with only one thing in mind–how to beat the competition and secure the whole pie. They do not want to compete, they want to control.
The show tends to imply that Rockefeller, by his actions causes the panic of 1873. No doubt he played some part in it, since it was the over extension of railways that led to the panic, but frankly that bit is overblown from my short delve into the real history.
What is missing here?
It is so clear that all these men were indeed engaged in a game. And the pawns were the men and women who worked on the railroads and in the refineries and all those supporting industries that lost their jobs when these men decided to play hardball with each other. There is nary a breath of concern expressed for all those who will be out of work and what that will do to PEOPLE.
The docudrama points out on the other hand, that the depression that came from the 1873 Panic, caused no inconvenience in the lives of the wealthy.
What is also missing is that the Panic and following depression were caused by the unregulated excesses of these men. There was no mention of quality of goods or services. Nobody cared about the consumer. There was no interest in competition as it relates to improving the end product. Monopoly was the only interest of these men. Raw power and money and what money could buy.
This is the free market economics that are favored by the likes of Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. They are the ideal of Ayn Rand.
Somehow we are supposed to conclude that the ends justify the means, i.e., America got built. And we are to believe without proof, that if left to their own devices, everyone would have been the better for it. But that is not what happened. The excesses of these men led to anti-monopoly laws, unions, limits on working hours, child-labor laws, workplace safety laws, various banking restrictions and so forth.
It is all these things that Republicans are against today. They believe that business, if left to its own devices, will naturally spread the wealth. Except they have no evidence that this has ever happened. Instead, business leaders continue to war on each other to gain the advantage and be kings of their various hills. And NO THOUGHT is given to the worker or the public good.
If you believe that certain business leaders act improperly then why aren’t they being shunned by the rest of the business world? Everyone knows that Trump, once things start to turn sour, gets out and leaves somebody else holding the bag. Yet people continue to “make the deal”. That’s because they secretly admire his success, and look only to out-Trumping Trump.
I suspect The History Channel meant to show us about the great men who built America. Instead what they have done is shown us exactly why we cannot trust the likes of Romney/Ryan or the corporatocracy they envision.