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Time for a little steam control?
By Howard Owen
Critics and business rivals said he would be ruined. Instead, Ford's profits doubled between 1914 and 1916. The move is credited with helping create the American middle class. The people who made more money bought more things (including, as Ford knew would be the case, more Model T's) and boosted the whole economy as other industrialists had to make wage concessions as well in order to keep bright, hard-working people.
So who is going to be the 21st-century Henry Ford? Who is going to save the middle class that Ford helped create (and at the same time, save the whole economy)?
Something has to happen. Do we concede that all the world's work can be done with a shorter work week? If machines are doing the work faster, why can't we have people working four days a week and earning what they used to make in five days, thus re-creating millions of jobs?
Where's all the money that technology has saved us going, anyhow? Maybe the traditional work week becomes four days with the expectation that we spend that fifth day helping the needy.
Technology is supposed to make our lives better. All it seems to be doing right now is concentrating the country's wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
In "Bonfire of the Vanities," one of Tom Wolfe's characters explains about the perils of a widening gap between rich and poor.
"You're investing in steam control," he says, explaining why sometimes the wealth has to be shared. "And you're getting value for money. People own the boilers, but that don't do 'em a bit of good unless they know how to control the steam. If you ever see a steam boiler go out of control, then you see a lot of people running for their lives."
For much of the middle class and below, the boiler's getting pretty overheated right now.
Business Editor Howard Owen writes this biweekly column on business and the economy. He can be reached at 540/ 374-5539 or