The Era of the Robber Baron–Good or Not So Good?

henry-ford-with-son-edselI’ve been engaged for some days in a debate with an arch conservative. Eventually, I made mention of the era of the robber barons, that time of the Gilded Age, when industrialists of one sort or another came forth and fought each other for supremacy, and while doing so, became largely responsible for bringing about the American industrial age of greatness. It is a greatness that continues to this day, though it may now be on the wane.

The question becomes, at what cost? It seems to me that conservatives are all too willing to let the ends justify the means, finding as the argument went, that the good these men did makes them heroes and the bad they did, well, it’s the price of genius. I suppose it remains to be seen whether any of them was in fact a genius or rather just brilliant at playing the game of king of the hill. I don’t find their ends justified.

Arguably, each exhibited the personality traits that better fitted them to be serial killers, but for the grace of having a different avenue to display their driven self-centered megalomania. They were men who felt born to lead, and born to succeed. And given their complete lack of emotional attachment, they were prepared to succeed whatever the cost. In building their empires, they brought America into a new era, an era that I believe would have been achieved in any case, but of course it’s impossible to know how changing the dynamics would have changed the outcome for good or ill.

I should note that this is likely to be a two-parter, because I want to delve into the life of one of the players, Henry Ford, who came on the scene, arguably at the tail end of the era, but his story is instructive. And I feel fairly qualified to do so, since I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, home of GM, and just down the road from Detroit, home of Ford. I worked in Detroit for two decades, and am familiar with the Ford legacy as well as all the old haunts–the Rouge plant and the Highland Park plant. I’ve been to Greenfield Village, the museum developed by Henry, on more than one occasion, and seen the homes of Edsel and Henry II or as he was known in Detroit, “The Duce”. I’ve read histories of the family. I grew up in a union family wherein most everyone in my family and in my neighborhood worked for GM or one of its supporting industries. I know the terrain.

The story of Henry is to me the story of a deeply flawed individual who was not worth the knowing, but who accomplished much. His talent was in his drive to “be somebody” rather than any particular innovation. Born in Dearborn, to a farming family, Henry’s interests lay in machinery and how they worked. He was allowed to go to work in the city at age 16 and soon became involved with others in the development of the new craze, the automobile. Some 250 other car companies were started at or about the time Henry set up the Ford Motor Company. Securing investors he began his quest to develop a cheaper but reliable car.

Henry’s quest was not merely motivated by a desire for fame and fortune, in fact he cared little for money. He enjoyed fame, but he hated the regular elites of Detroit and elsewhere, including bankers and lawyers. Ultimately when the money rolled in, he chose not to build his mansion in Grosse Point, the elite residence for Detroiters, but he build Fairlane in Dearborn, the then still farming community where he was born and raised. Henry, being of rural beginnings did want to bring a cheap and serviceable vehicle to the farm, where distances to town were long and often arduous. He wanted to make lives easier. But of course, a cheap car would also be one that become available to the average person, not just the rich, and THAT would vastly open the market to unbelievableĀ  sales.

Everyone knows of the success of the Model T, the car that revolutionized America in so many ways. But perhaps people don’t realize that development started with the Model A. Successive models were mostly failures for one reason or another, until he got to the letter T. Being driven to succeed goes with the territory of the robber baron.

When the Model T took off and the orders came streaming in, Henry set his mind to thinking how he might make more and at a faster rate. It is unclear to me whether the idea of a conveyor belt and stationary workers was Henry’s idea or one of his gang of developers, but in any case, it started with one part, the magneto which was broken into pieces and then worked into a piece by piece assembly. They looked for another part to add, and then another, until in the end, the modern assembly line was born, allowing the production of a vehicle in literally half the time or less.

The problem became then, that the work was so boring that his attrition rate was awful. Men quit after a few months. That is not cost effective. So Henry hit on an idea–pay them more. This didn’t mean more in their weekly salary. Oh, no. There was a catch. They signed a contract, worked for a year, and received the equivalency of the $5 dollars an hour in one lump sum. Immigrants who made up a large portion of his workforce, were required to attend the Ford school to learn English. Of course it was hoped that that lump sum might burn a hole in the pocket and be dumped off quickly at the nearest Ford dealership!

This is where things get murky, in the sense that one enters into the dark recesses of Henry’s mind. For Henry believed that he was better than most people, and that belief gave him an insight on how a person ought to live. In one of the most bizarre results, this is what happened when an immigrant “class” finished its English training. An event was scheduled. A very largeĀ  ( andĀ  I mean very very large) pot was constructed. The immigrant “graduates” were required to dress in their native country clothing. They marched up a series of steps to the top of the pot, and descended down into it. Two men then went up with long sticks and simulated the “stirring of the pot”, after which, the immigrants re-emerged now dressed in American garb of suit and tie and bowler, descending to the floor again. Weird? To say the least.

But it did not stop there. A unit of the FMC was set up as a “social” monitoring division. Men went out to seek out the homes of workers and “investigate” them. Henry had a series of rules about how people were to live. The monitors were to determine that people were lawfully married, that they did not drink, that they kept their homes properly clean. Violators were warned. Second violations were met with dismissal. Henry knew best you see how humans should live.

Henry thought the Model T the perfect vehicle. After GM was formed, and then Chrysler, new cars, a range of models and prices, began to be seen on the streets. Edsel, Henry’s son and titular head of the company (in name only of course), urged that a new model be developed. Henry refused. Why? Because in Henry’s view, nobody needed anything more than the Model T. Henry knew best. This was to be illustrative of the relationship between son and father–the father bullied and dictated and the son made the best of it.

NEXT: The Rouge Plant, and Henry’s really dark side, and a finish with the Contrarian’s fun with names!)


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3 comments on “The Era of the Robber Baron–Good or Not So Good?

  1. lbwoodgate says:

    Ford’s anti-semitism is legendary but when free-marketers praise his contributions to capitalism they ignore his mental deficiencies fearing the image it connotes about being ruthless. A trait common not only with the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age but equally as well with those on Wall Street today.

    Nice historical account Sherry. Looking forward to part deux.

  2. Christoph DeHaven says:

    Studies actually show that most people overrate their abilities, and therefore “consider themselves better than most people.” However, Ford was decidedly strange, as your anecdotes suggest. As for the larger question, I think each of these industrialists (I don’t consider them “robbers” or “barons”) is unique. Ford really doesn’t fit with the others, since he rose to wealth and prominence after the Gilded Age and his business model (which eschewed monopoly) was quite different.

    These are men who had their problems, and many were ethically challenged. However, so were the progressive politicians who sought to regulate them. What drove the industrialists was money, but what drove the regulators was power. Can we really say that William Jennings Bryan was a smarter, nobler man than John D. Rockefeller, Sr.? Like the industrialists, the progressive politicians also saw themselves as superior–wiser in their policies, more compassionate, often more Christian, and better qualified to run people’s lives. Government was the means by which their personalities and egos were magnified. Indeed, Ford was something of a progressive himself–the social engineering he put in place in his company and his intrusion into people’s lives is more reminiscent of the crusading politician than the money-grubbing capitalist (and another reason he stands apart from the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gould, and Vanderbilt).

    • Sherry says:

      any actual evidence that “what drove regulators was power”? And what would you suggest might be the happy medium between unfettered corporate greed supported by protectionist/subsidies policies and full out government control? !END

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