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Tom recalls a time when capitalism was about more than Us and Them

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Comedian Dave Chappelle created the classic character Clayton Bigsby, a blind-since-birth African-American who was the reclusive leader of the White Supremacist movement. Bigsby had been brought up in a group home for blind kids and the operators of the home felt it was easier for everybody if they told Clayton that he was white. (You should watch the entire skit on YouTube; it's scandalous and scandalously funny.)

When Bigsby grew to adulthood, he became the best-selling author of underground books (a la The Turner Diaries) with names like Ni--- Stain and I Smell Ni----. In the end, he finally learns that he's black and he promptly divorces his white wife of 19 years because "she's a ni---- lover!"

I have a couple friends who are lifelong Republicans. They both hang out at the lower fringes of what remains of the American middle class and, to put it kindly, they're both past their prime earning years. And yet, they spend an inordinate amount of time preaching the Gospel of the One-Percenters, as though talking about it could actually bring back the now-defunct possibility of upward mobility in America.

They're both like Clayton Bigsby, blissfully ignorant of their own situations. I tried to explain to them that this is not the America that we all grew up in. I told them that with each passing day, it becomes more and more a matter of Us and Them, and then there's Y'all, who lead lives like Us but talk like Them, perhaps in the hope of being invited to a party someday. There's that man standing up on top of the mountain. (It could be a woman, but it damn sure isn't Carly Fiorina, who started with a large fortune in the tech world and somehow managed to turn it into a small fortune.)

That person at the top of the mountain is looking down at Us in the valley. He doesn't want anybody to join him atop the mountain; that would somehow diminish all the stuff he has managed to acquire through whatever means. He doesn't even want anybody to take a step toward the base of the foothills. He's real happy with the way things are.

It didn't used to be this way. Even crackpot Henry Ford had enough sense to pay his workers enough money so that they could buy the products they spent all day making. But then, Henry Ford used steel and rubber and glass to make actual products. Today's robber barons just shuffle piles of money around, making sure that enough falls onto the floor so they can continue to lead the lives of luxury to which they have become accustomed.

(Before I forget, I have to pass this along. As reported herein a few months ago, the 25 biggest money-making hedge-fund managers took in more money last year—I refuse to use the word "earned"—than all 160,000 kindergarten teachers in the United States COMBINED! Plus, they have a special law that says they only have to pay taxes at a rate of 15 percent. Now comes word that the average return on investment for hedge fund investors was a paltry three percent. When the Revolution comes, it won't be the poor dragging the hedge-fund managers into the streets. It will be the sorta-rich, screaming "You ain't gonna Madoff me, Motherf----!")

The shrewd Ford also realized that among the biggest drags on his company's bottom line were high worker absenteeism, low productivity and a constant turnover in personnel that required expensive training for new hires. The $5-a-day pay (more than double what he and the other auto manufacturers had been paying) proved to be, in Ford's own words, "the greatest cost-cutting measure I ever made."

Absenteeism went from 10 percent per day to down below 1 percent. Productivity skyrocketed and labor turnover dwindled to near-zero. Eventually, the other manufacturers were forced to raise their wages for workers to maintain productivity. As Cal-Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken puts it: The greatest thing to come out of (Ford's) plant was not the Model T. It was the middle class."

(Not all of Ford's ideas turned out to be winners. He spent untold millions trying to carve a city-state—grandly named Fordlandia—out of the Amazon jungle. It was supposed to provide his auto plants with a consistent supply of rubber at a stable price. Let's just say the project failed on a spectacular scale.)

One-time U.S. Secretary of Defense "Engine" Charlie Wilson is, even after more than 60 years, still being misquoted as having said, "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." However, Henry Ford undoubtedly found that his policy of paying good wages benefited both his company and the country.

Unfortunately, business leaders don't think like that anymore. In the 1960s, the average CEO of a corporation earned about 20 times as much as his average employee. Today's CEOs rake in about 270 times as much as their average employee (and many CEOs actually believe that they're wildly underpaid).

I sent part of this column to one of my Clayton Bigsby friends. His (predictable) reaction was that I don't understand how capitalism works. Actually, I know how capitalism is supposed to work, but what we have in America today isn't even a reasonable facsimile thereof.

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