Learn about Life in the 1920s

Chapter 13: Why be Poor?

Poverty springs from a number of sources, the more important of which are controllable. So does special privilege. I think it is entirely feasible to abolish both poverty and special privilege--and there can be no question but that their abolition is desirable. Both are unnatural, but it is work, not law, to which we must look for results.

By poverty I mean the lack of reasonably sufficient food, housing, and clothing for an individual or a family. There will have to be differences in the grades of sustenance. Men are not equal in mentality or in physique. Any plan which starts with the assumption that men are or ought to be equal is unnatural and therefore unworkable. There can be no feasible or desirable process of leveling down. Such a course only promotes poverty by making it universal instead of exceptional. Forcing the efficient producer to become inefficient does not make the inefficient producer more efficient. Poverty can be done away with only by plenty, and we have now gone far enough along in the science of production to be able to see, as a natural development, the day when production and distribution will be so scientific that all may have according to ability and industry.

The extreme Socialists went wide of the mark in their reasoning that industry would inevitably crush the worker. Modern industry is gradually lifting the worker and the world. We only need to know more about planning and methods. The best results can and will be brought about by individual initiative and ingenuity--by intelligent individual leadership. The government, because it is essentially negative, cannot give positive aid to any really constructive programme. It can give negative aid--by removing obstructions to progress and by ceasing to be a burden upon the community.

The underlying causes of poverty, as I can see them, are essentially due to the bad adjustment between production and distribution, in both industry and agriculture--between the source of power and its application. The wastes due to lack of adjustment are stupendous. All of these wastes must fall before intelligent leadership consecrated to service. So long as leadership thinks more of money than it does of service, the wastes will continue. Waste is prevented by far-sighted not by short-sighted men. Short-sighted men think first of money. They cannot see waste. They think of service as altruistic instead of as the most practical thing in the world. They cannot get far enough away from the little things to see the big things--to see the biggest thing of all, which is that opportunist production from a purely money standpoint is the least profitable.

Service can be based upon altruism, but that sort of service is not usually the best. The sentimental trips up the practical.

It is not that the industrial enterprises are unable fairly to distribute a share of the wealth which they create. It is simply that the waste is so great that there is not a sufficient share for everyone engaged, notwithstanding the fact that the product is usually sold at so high a price as to restrict its fullest consumption.

Take some of the wastes. Take the wastes of power. The Mississippi Valley is without coal. Through its centre pour many millions of potential horsepower--the Mississippi River. But if the people by its banks want power or heat they buy coal that has been hauled hundreds of miles and consequently has to be sold at far above its worth as heat or power. Or if they cannot afford to buy this expensive coal, they go out and cut down trees, thereby depriving themselves of one of the great conservers of water power. Until recently they never thought of the power at hand which, at next to nothing beyond the initial cost, could heat, light, cook, and work for the huge population which that valley is destined to support.

The cure of poverty is not in personal economy but in better production. The "thrift" and "economy" ideas have been overworked. The word "economy" represents a fear. The great and tragic fact of waste is impressed on a mind by some circumstance, usually of a most materialistic kind. There comes a violent reaction against extravagance--the mind catches hold of the idea of "economy." But it only flies from a greater to a lesser evil; it does not make the full journey from error to truth.

Economy is the rule of half-alive minds. There can be no doubt that it is better than waste; neither can there be any doubt that it is not as good as use. People who pride themselves on their economy take it as a virtue. But what is more pitiable than a poor, pinched mind spending the rich days and years clutching a few bits of metal? What can be fine about paring the necessities of life to the very quick? We all know "economical people" who seem to be niggardly even about the amount of air they breathe and the amount of appreciation they will allow themselves to give to anything. They shrivel--body and soul. Economy is waste: it is waste of the juices of life, the sap of living. For there are two kinds of waste--that of the prodigal who throws his substance away in riotous living, and that of the sluggard who allows his substance to rot from non-use. The rigid economizer is in danger of being classed with the sluggard. Extravagance is usually a reaction from suppression of expenditure. Economy is likely to be a reaction from extravagance.

Everything was given us to use. There is no evil from which we suffer that did not come about through misuse. The worst sin we can commit against the things of our common life is to misuse them. "Misuse" is the wider term. We like to say "waste," but waste is only one phase of misuse. All waste is misuse; all misuse is waste.

It is possible even to overemphasize the saving habit. It is proper and desirable that everyone have a margin; it is really wasteful not to have one--if you can have one. But it can be overdone. We teach children to save their money. As an attempt to counteract thoughtless and selfish expenditure, that has a value. But it is not positive; it does not lead the child out into the safe and useful avenues of self-expression or self-expenditure. To teach a child to invest and use is better than to teach him to save. Most men who are laboriously saving a few dollars would do better to invest those few dollars--first in themselves, and then in some useful work. Eventually they would have more to save. Young men ought to invest rather than save. They ought to invest in themselves to increase creative value; after they have taken themselves to the peak of usefulness, then will be time enough to think of laying aside, as a fixed policy, a certain substantial share of income. You are not "saving" when you prevent yourself from becoming more productive. You are really taking away from your ultimate capital; you are reducing the value of one of nature's investments. The principle of use is the true guide. Use is positive, active, life-giving. Use is alive. Use adds to the sum of good.

Personal want may be avoided without changing the general condition. Wage increases, price increases, profit increases, other kinds of increases designed to bring more money here or money there, are only attempts of this or that class to get out of the fire--regardless of what may happen to everyone else. There is a foolish belief that if only the money can be gotten, somehow the storm can be weathered. Labour believes that if it can get more wages, it can weather the storm. Capital thinks that if it can get more profits, it can weather the storm. There is a pathetic faith in what money can do. Money is very useful in normal times, but money has no more value than the people put into it by production, and it can be so misused. It can be so superstitiously worshipped as a substitute for real wealth as to destroy its value altogether.

The idea persists that there exists an essential conflict between industry and the farm. There is no such conflict. It is nonsense to say that because the cities are overcrowded everybody ought to go back to the farm. If everybody did so farming would soon decline as a satisfactory occupation. It is not more sensible for everyone to flock to the manufacturing towns. If the farms be deserted, of what use are manufacturers? A reciprocity can exist between farming and manufacturing. The manufacturer can give the farmer what he needs to be a good farmer, and the farmer and other producers of raw materials can give the manufacturer what he needs to be a good manufacturer. Then with transportation as a messenger, we shall have a stable and a sound system built on service. If we live in smaller communities where the tension of living is not so high, and where the products of the fields and gardens can be had without the interference of so many profiteers, there will be little poverty or unrest.

Look at this whole matter of seasonal work. Take building as an example of a seasonal trade. What a waste of power it is to allow builders to hibernate through the winter, waiting for the building season to come around!

And what an equal waste of skill it is to force experienced artisans who have gone into factories to escape the loss of the winter season to stay in the factory jobs through the building season because they are afraid they may not get their factory places back in the winter. What a waste this all-year system has been! If the farmer could get away from the shop to till his farm in the planting, growing, and harvesting seasons (they are only a small part of the year, after all), and if the builder could get away from the shop to ply his useful trade in its season, how much better they would be, and how much more smoothly the world would proceed.

Suppose we all moved outdoors every spring and summer and lived the wholesome life of the outdoors for three or four months! We could not have "slack times."

The farm has its dull season. That is the time for the farmer to come into the factory and help produce the things he needs to till the farm. The factory also has its dull season. That is the time for the workmen to go out to the land to help produce food. Thus we might take the slack out of work and restore the balance between the artificial and the natural.

But not the least benefit would be the more balanced view of life we should thus obtain. The mixing of the arts is not only beneficial in a material way, but it makes for breadth of mind and fairness of judgment. A great deal of our unrest to-day is the result of narrow, prejudiced judgment. If our work were more diversified, if we saw more sides of life, if we saw how necessary was one factor to another, we should be more balanced. Every man is better for a period of work under the open sky.

It is not at all impossible. What is desirable and right is never impossible. It would only mean a little teamwork--a little less attention to greedy ambition and a little more attention to life.

Those who are rich find it desirable to go away for three or four months a year and dawdle in idleness around some fancy winter or summer resort. The rank and file of the American people would not waste their time that way even if they could. But they would provide the team-work necessary for an outdoor, seasonal employment.

It is hardly possible to doubt that much of the unrest we see about us is the result of unnatural modes of life. Men who do the same thing continuously the year around and are shut away from the health of the sun and the spaciousness of the great out of doors are hardly to be blamed if they see matters in a distorted light. And that applies equally to the capitalist and the worker.

What is there in life that should hamper normal and wholesome modes of living? And what is there in industry incompatible with all the arts receiving in their turn the attention of those qualified to serve in them? It may be objected that if the forces of industry were withdrawn from the shops every summer it would impede production. But we must look at the matter from a universal point of view. We must consider the increased energy of the industrial forces after three or four months in outdoor work. We must also consider the effect on the cost of living which would result from a general return to the fields.

We have, as I indicated in a previous chapter, been working toward this combination of farm and factory and with entirely satisfactory results. At Northville, not far from Detroit, we have a little factory making valves. It is a little factory, but it makes a great many valves. Both the management and the mechanism of the plant are comparatively simple because it makes but one thing. We do not have to search for skilled employees. The skill is in the machine. The people of the countryside can work in the plant part of the time and on the farm part of the time, for mechanical farming is not very laborious. The plant power is derived from water.

Another plant on a somewhat larger scale is in building at Flat Rock, about fifteen miles from Detroit. We have dammed the river. The dam also serves as a bridge for the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railway, which was in need of a new bridge at that point, and a road for the public--all in one construction. We are going to make our glass at this point. The damming of the river gives sufficient water for the floating to us of most of our raw material. It also gives us our power through a hydroelectric plant. And, being well out in the midst of the farming country, there can be no possibility of crowding or any of the ills incident to too great a concentration of population. The men will have plots of ground or farms as well as their jobs in the factory, and these can be scattered over fifteen or twenty miles surrounding--for of course nowadays the workingman can come to the shop in an automobile. There we shall have the combination of agriculture and industrialism and the entire absence of all the evils of concentration.

The belief that an industrial country has to concentrate its industries is not, in my opinion, well-founded. That is only a stage in industrial development. As we learn more about manufacturing and learn to make articles with interchangeable parts, then those parts can be made under the best possible conditions. And these best possible conditions, as far as the employees are concerned, are also the best possible conditions from the manufacturing standpoint. One could not put a great plant on a little stream. One can put a small plant on a little stream, and the combination of little plants, each making a single part, will make the whole cheaper than a vast factory would. There are exceptions, as where casting has to be done. In such case, as at River Rouge, we want to combine the making of the metal and the casting of it and also we want to use all of the waste power. This requires a large investment and a considerable force of men in one place. But such combinations are the exception rather than the rule, and there would not be enough of them seriously to interfere with the process of breaking down the concentration of industry.

Industry will decentralize. There is no city that would be rebuilt as it is, were it destroyed--which fact is in itself a confession of our real estimate of our cities. The city had a place to fill, a work to do. Doubtless the country places would not have approximated their livableness had it not been for the cities. By crowding together, men have learned some secrets. They would never have learned them alone in the country. Sanitation, lighting, social organization--all these are products of men's experience in the city. But also every social ailment from which we to-day suffer originated and centres in the big cities. You will find the smaller communities living along in unison with the seasons, having neither extreme poverty nor wealth--none of the violent plagues of upheave and unrest which afflict our great populations. There is something about a city of a million people which is untamed and threatening. Thirty miles away, happy and contented villages read of the ravings of the city! A great city is really a helpless mass. Everything it uses is carried to it. Stop transport and the city stops. It lives off the shelves of stores. The shelves produce nothing. The city cannot feed, clothe, warm, or house itself. City conditions of work and living are so artificial that instincts sometimes rebel against their unnaturalness.

And finally, the overhead expense of living or doing business in the great cities is becoming so large as to be unbearable. It places so great a tax upon life that there is no surplus over to live on. The politicians have found it easy to borrow money and they have borrowed to the limit. Within the last decade the expense of running every city in the country has tremendously increased. A good part of that expense is for interest upon money borrowed; the money has gone either into non-productive brick, stone, and mortar, or into necessities of city life, such as water supplies and sewage systems at far above a reasonable cost. The cost of maintaining these works, the cost of keeping in order great masses of people and traffic is greater than the advantages derived from community life. The modern city has been prodigal, it is to-day bankrupt, and to-morrow it will cease to be.

The provision of a great amount of cheap and convenient power--not all at once, but as it may be used--will do more than anything else to bring about the balancing of life and the cutting of the waste which breeds poverty. There is no single source of power. It may be that generating electricity by a steam plant at the mine mouth will be the most economical method for one community. Hydro-electric power may be best for another community. But certainly in every community there ought to be a central station to furnish cheap power--it ought to be held as essential as a railway or a water supply. And we could have every great source of power harnessed and working for the common good were it not that the expense of obtaining capital stands in the way. I think that we shall have to revise some of our notions about capital.

Capital that a business makes for itself, that is employed to expand the workman's opportunity and increase his comfort and prosperity, and that is used to give more and more men work, at the same time reducing the cost of service to the public--that sort of capital, even though it be under single control, is not a menace to humanity. It is a working surplus held in trust and daily use for the benefit of all. The holder of such capital can scarcely regard it as a personal reward. No man can view such a surplus as his own, for he did not create it alone. It is the joint product of his whole organization. The owner's idea may have released all the energy and direction, but certainly it did not supply all the energy and direction. Every workman was a partner in the creation. No business can possibly be considered only with reference to to-day and to the individuals engaged in it. It must have the means to carry on. The best wages ought to be paid. A proper living ought to be assured every participant in the business--no matter what his part. But, for the sake of that business's ability to support those who work in it, a surplus has to be held somewhere. The truly honest manufacturer holds his surplus profits in that trust. Ultimately it does not matter where this surplus be held nor who controls it; it is its use that matters.

Capital that is not constantly creating more and better jobs is more useless than sand. Capital that is not constantly making conditions of daily labour better and the reward of daily labour more just, is not fulfilling its highest function. The highest use of capital is not to make more money, but to make money do more service for the betterment of life. Unless we in our industries are helping to solve the social problem, we are not doing our principal work. We are not fully serving.

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