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Anyway You Want It

Just finished a book called Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy. I was uninspired by the book, but it did contain several interesting histories of companies such as Kohler, Hormel, Corning and Hershey that people may find useful. One theme that is woven throughout the book, but not explicitly stated, is that the author, Harley Green, has a yearning for a perfect company town that never existed nor will ever exist. He does a fine job illustrating some of the attractive and unattractive things certain companies did for/to their employees.

By the end of the book, I am not quite sure what he wants. There are many pages dedicated to the horrific conditions that prevailed (and still do) in some places. But in the next sentence he seems to also denigrate anything that is done to ameliorate such things. For example, in talking about the exercise facilities, hair cuts, massages, dry cleaning and even “sleep pods” that are offered by some employers – the author ends the passage by saying that all of this is a way to induce workers to never have to go home so that they could work all the time.

I’d like to see an author write down simply what they expect the world to look like and whether anything done by a corporation for and to its workers is agreeable. I also find it odd that such tensions arise in a book like this, and at the same time there is a yearning in society among some folks for corporations to do even more for their workers – provide more health insurance, allow them to spend more time at work on volunteer activities, and the like.

I found my head spinning a few times in the book. Here is one passage:

Managers have inclined toward … more benevolent policies when they faced the following … a liberal or progressive national political climate … since they first came here in the 1980s, Japanese automakers with U.S. operations have been keenly aware that they must work hard to be perceived as good neighbors rather than as interlopers who are stealing away American jobs and wealth.

There are way too many quotes like that in the book for my taste, and I’d be blogging it way too much if I focused on them. But it’s nice to know that the 1980s were a time of Progressivism in the US (did someone tell this to Krugman, DeLong, Pelosi, Obama, and the current left?) It’s also nice to know that this simple idea seems to have been refuted by the author with the stroke of a pen.

And here’s another example of the non-charitable, broad-brush view (straw man-ish too) of non-Progressive ideas that I encounter quite a bit:

The bottom line: American conservatives and many businessmen have long maintained that all problems can be solved via the free market and private enterprise.


4 Responses to “Anyway You Want It”

  1. Thanks for the tip! Books such as these offer interesting facts, often isolated and in contradiction of the author’s intent. Hardy Green’s blog seems to bemoan everything corporate. (The lead article right now is about the suburban corporate campus.) Certainly, corporations are easy targets for libertarians, as well. Digging a bit deeper though, his description of Roebling, New Jersey, falls into the “Eden” category.
    “… the Roeblings would not attempt to gouge their workers as Pullman had. In fact, houses seem to have been rented at below-market rates. […] 750 houses were built of brick, equipped with gas and electric utilities provided at minimum cost. There were also two workingmen’s hotels. Wages were to be paid in cash and credit made available at the general store. But, the company insisted, workers had “no obligation to purchase there.” (In coal towns, there was often a requirement to buy at the company store.)
    “It was common for the men who built company towns to train a watchful eye on those who lived there. […] The Roeblings denied any such watchfulness, and went so far at to install a bar at the town’s inn. It was a dictum of the company that town residents “would be under no obligation to us nor we to them as far as life in the city is concerned.”

    My maternal grandparents lived in company towns when my grandfather worked in coal mines in West Virginia. (They moved to Cleveland in 1931.) My grandmother always spoke in wonder of the fact that they lived in company houses even during strikes and even during strikes coal was free for all. The company housed you and heated you, even if you refused to work. She always found that odd.

  2. Speedmaster says:

    I’ve had that book in my Amazon queue for some time, thanks for letting me know I can safely delete it. 🙂

  3. Rod says:

    Bethlehem was sort of a company town when the steel company was in its prime. Among other things, the steel company not only provided Saucon Valley for its top executives (including the executives who were on a track for upper management), but it had the Bethlehem Steel Club for its other employees, a great golf course and club at a low price. It’s just a good thing that Eugene G. Grace was a golfer and not a tennis player.

  4. Harry says:

    Public companies, the big ones at least, often are run for the benefit of management and the employees below, at times ignoring the stockholders. Not always, but often. Look at the proxy statement, and often you see, or do not see at all) too meager a personal stake in the long-term future of the company. How many times do you see directors own 500 shares of common stock valued at $30 per share?

    If, however a director owns 50,000 or 500,000 shares, some of it restricted, then you can bet he or she thinks a lot about the company’s long-term prospects, including the wherewithal to pay all of its people well. Whether you build a company town depends on the situation.

    Maybe I am revealing my age by referring to the recording “Sixteen Tons” sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford. (Who is Ed Sullivan?) When the recording was made, it referred to a time long ago, part fact, but also part myth: “You load sixteen tons, and whaddah you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don’t call me, cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company sto'”

    The song got the debt part right, but I digress.

    Are not Redmond, Washington, and Culpertino, California, not company towns? How about Kohler, Wisconsin? Would it be good policy for the government to chase them away with taxes and regulation?

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