A theory that found its way into general use in the 18th century held that, through charisma, intelligence, rhetoric, wisdom or political skills, one person, the so-called Great Man, could use his power to point history in a better direction. After all, what is history but biographies of the great individuals of our past? The converse Great Dolt Theory, in which individuals use their charisma and complete lack of intelligence, wisdom or political skills to completely muck up everything and set all of history back, hasn’t yet found its way into the political canon.
But the person who gets the most press isn’t always the Great. Case in point: Back in the mid-1990s Bill Clinton was president; and there’s little doubt that he did things that benefitted many and other things that damaged the public good. Many think of his two terms in office as starting with Gennifer Flowers, migrating to Paula Jones, and ending with Monica. But, while we were being entertained by Clinton’s scandals, Jeff Bezos was putting Amazon online, creating what would become the ultimate purchasing system. And, while I can’t speak for anyone else, none of Clinton’s scandals affected me much ― but amazon.com quickly became my go-to way to satisfy my voracious appetite for books.
By and large it was a great buying experience until six months ago, but that’s not the point: Who in that time period made a more positive impact on your life and our economy, that particular president or Jeff Bezos with Amazon?
Let’s go back 100 years. President Woodrow Wilson re-segregated our government and got us into the Great War, which led directly to the Second World War. But in that same period Henry Ford and his staff brought us the moving assembly line, doubled the wages of blue-collar workers (which seeded the creation of the modern middle class), and brought the price of his Model T down to $495 ― the price-point where automobiles replaced horses. On the side he had a great deal to do with modern medicine at his Henry Ford Hospital and shortly would deliver the 8-hour workday and only five days a week of it.
Again, not to short or slight Wilson, but of those two men of that particular decade, who do you think did the most for America, including improving your personal life today? I can look out my studio window and see the lasting benefits of what Ford put into place. Conversely, I can read on the newswires stories of the continuing strife and violence across the Middle East, a direct result of the flawed peace that that Wilson enabled for our allies.
Likewise, I can go online and see how Bezos’ Amazon has changed so many of our buying habits. So, if one were to give out an award for the Great Man of the Decade from 1910 to 1920, or 1990 to 2000, I’d vote for Ford and Bezos. Wilson’s and Clinton’s contributions in comparison don’t even come close.
So why does anyone think it’s different in this decade?
Of course, there’s a place for great government. It just seems that often it takes far too long to drag politicians into the reality that circumstances have changed. To see how government and the Great Man Theory work together, let’s go back to the start of our modern, consumer-driven economy. That’d be Henry Ford’s prime.
What Did We Do Before Cars?
When cars first appeared on the scene there were no regulations on their construction, use, or sale. However, it didn’t take long for many cities to realize that this newfangled way of getting around could be dangerous in the hands of some very rich simpletons who owned them.
In Newport, for example, the blue bloods with new vehicles held what they called gymkhanas, in which they used their cars to knock down tenpins as if they were bowling, or even to spear dummy pigs while driving. William Vanderbilt, while driving to his Long Island estate, accidentally hit and killed a gentleman’s horse; Vanderbilt paid him so much for his loss that other farmers in the region would run their worst horses out in front of his car, hoping for their own big payday. So government, acting to protect the masses (and Long Island horses), enacted the first automotive traffic laws.
As the Ford Model T became Americans’ car of choice, better roads, new highways, and farm-to-market roads would all be created to allow the automobile not just to get us to work and back, but to increase America’s national productivity by allowing goods to be shipped coast to coast easily and quickly. Again, Ford created a vehicle that the public demanded, and others soon followed in producing their own versions; but, if the government hadn’t supplied what we needed to become a nation of automobile owners, we wouldn’t be living in the society we have today.
Henry Ford hired William Stout to create his aircraft company, but it was Ford’s engineers who designed the famed Ford Tri-Motor ― and Ford’s people also gave us radio navigation, which made flying coast to coast possible in all weather. True, fewer than 150 Ford Tri-Motors were produced, but they launched the modern airline industry.
Now, Ford built his own airport in Dearborn, and every weekend he offered $5 rides in a Tri-Motor to get citizens accustomed to flying. General Motors owned Eastern and other airlines; numerous automotive giants co-owned the Detroit Aviation Company, of which Lockheed was a division.
So, with Ford’s midwifing both mass automobile production’s birth in the period of 1910 to 1920 and the modern aviation industry’s in the next decade, who improved the world and your modern life more, Ford or Calvin Coolidge? I’m leaning toward Ford again for a Great Man Award here.
On a side note, maybe the runners-up for that award from the 1920s would be Alfred Sloan and Donaldson Brown of General Motors; they literally created modern business accounting, still used today by corporations around the world. So, that too benefits you, just not in the way a quick flight to Hawaii or driving to Colorado does.
Still, there’s a point for government: When a dynamic economic shift comes our way, it will never accomplish its true potential without government intervention to protect the public. At the same time, it takes the power and wealth of government to improve things so that the economic and technology shift benefits the most citizens. So, stop lights, speed limits, and building highways and bridges all contributed to the expansion of the auto industry while improving its safety, which continues to evolve. For aircraft the same is equally true. If government had not constantly spurred manufacturers to find ways to make flying safer, meanwhile building airports to continuously feed the demand for those preferring to fly, that industry would not thrive as it does today.
More embarrassing for the Baby Boomers is the fact that for most of us the Interstate Highway System was virtually complete as we entered adulthood, while most of America’s newer great airports either were under construction or also had just opened. Often it seems Boomers’ great contribution to our society is finding ways to buy a car for less than anyone else or finding a $399 round-trip airfare to London.
OK, Google, Why Can’t We All Be Great?
Given the times, almost every week someone writes me and asks how I can possibly keep my sanity when my primary work is reading hundreds of pages a week of events worldwide. My answer is always simple. When I can’t take it anymore I go open one of my history books and read it. There I find solace in the fact that today’s political debates sound exactly like those of our Constitutional Convention or our very first Congress. And yes, in history one can find incredible acts of valor and wisdom by elected officials; but, more often than not, America moves forward because of the dreams of those who see a better future and the citizens who demand it. And those who change our future generally want nothing to do with politics.
But where would Henry Ford’s car or airlines be today without the government’s creating the environment to maximize use of those machines? Where would Jeff Bezos ― or, for that matter, computer visionaries such as Bill Gates or the late Steve Jobs ― be today if the government had not put so much into creating the infrastructure that underpins what we know as the Internet?
This is no different from America’s earliest days, when government had to take the lead in putting together groups to build our ports for trade and roads across mountains and rivers into the western regions. As the population grew and moving things around quickly and more often was the smart way to grow our economy, a larger and more active government became necessary to make that happen.
Today we debate, often angrily, who’s a liberal and who’s a conservative, but a more important discussion happens far less often. It concerns why we don’t have a government that is both pro-business and pro-consumer ― one that allows the so-called “Great Man” (Or Woman) to come into his or her own more often. We all benefit when that happens.
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org