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By David Ruggles
Henry Ford changed the world with his assembly line method of auto assembly, patterned after processes he observed in the meat packing industry. One might think there is nothing new to be learned about the man, his life, and his legacy. And perhaps there isn’t. But I have never found such a wealth of information and insight in one place as in this wonderful documentary directed by Sarah Coit and to be presented by PBS in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of Ford’s birth.
A study in contrasts and contradictions, Henry Ford was a genius who did a lot of good for mankind, while at the same time his behavior presented a case study for the psychiatry profession. Henry Ford began his career at a time in our history when a few plutocrats had combined net worth equal to a major portion of the entire GDP of the country. Before the turn of the century, John David Rockefeller’s net worth alone exceeded 10% of the GDP of the United States. In today’s dollars, that would be the equivalent of about $1.5 Trillion. Together with Andrew Carnegie, J. P Morgan, John Jacob Astor, Andrew Mellon, and others, monopolies controlled the U. S. economy and government policy was bought and sold at will, at least until Teddy Roosevelt signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890 and the graduated income tax was passed in 1913.
When Henry Ford historically doubled the wage of his workers from about $2.50 per day to $5.00 per day, it was a giant step forward for the country’s middle class. He also pioneered both 8 hour work day and the 5 day work week. Ford didn’t make these moves for altruistic reasons alone. His assembly line production method burned out employees. In the face of overwhelming employee turnover he was interested in employee recruitment and retention. He also attached conditions to the wage which were onerous for many employees. Ford’s “Sociological Department” monitored employees through a network of thugs and spies. Heavy drinking, gambling, and other adverse behavior was strongly “discouraged.”
But Ford was visionary in that he understood that by paying a high enough wage, so his own employees could afford to purchase the product they built, he could become more successful himself. It was a radical theory at the time and enraged his competitors, who were forced to match wages or risk losing their best skilled employees to Ford.
At the time, automobiles were toys for the wealthy. Ford’s Model T soon became a necessity for the masses and spawned a mobile culture that led to the country’s highway system, a burgeoning oil industry, motels, fast food, and hosts of related businesses that fueled economic expansion. And Henry Ford showed that the wealthier could do even better if they had a thriving and consuming middle class to sell to. In that respect he did not regard economics as a zero sum game.
Ford later turned on his employees, unleashing the infamous Harry Bennett to intimidate workers.
Ford resisted offering any color other than black to consumers until it became clear his company would fail if he didn’t.
It was the same with financing. Ford thought debt was evil, and a person did not deserve one of his vehicles if it couldn’t be paid for in cash. He ceded huge market share to General Motors, who pioneered auto financing through General Motors Acceptance Corporation, until Ford was forced to enter the business of auto finance.
He hated the wealthy, even though he was one of the richest men in the world. He regarded investors and stock holders as parasites. He created his own idyllic country retreat, now called Greenfield Village, so he could return at will to the more rural simple life from which he came, despite being the singular impetus himself for modernization and industrialization.
He abused his only son Edsel to the point that Edsel died prematurely of stomach ulcers. It took Edsel standing up to his father to finally get approval to replace the Model T with the Model A. That was the son’s high point in dealing with his father. But Henry resented being proven wrong, and went out of his way to punish Edsel for being right.
Adamantly anti- Semitic, he regularly published inflammatory articles from the local Dearborn newspaper he bought for the purpose.
The documentary is full of movie clips from the period, bringing the history of our country’s industrialization and its dependence on the automobile to life. Students of history, economics, the auto industry, AND psychiatry shouldn’t miss the premiere of this most entertaining and enlightening presentation.