The Men Who Built America (final)

(The Men Who Built America: Part 1 | Part 2)

Well, the last episode of The Men Who Built America finally aired. It could've aired the Sunday before last. You know, 7 days after the previous episode, like all the others. But no. This one was delayed an extra week until after the election.

Could it have anything to do with the final episode being about how the first giants of industry paid out the ass to get a business-friendly president in the White House? A president who would keep regulations on business relaxed so industry could continue to abuse workers and ignore the fact that 1 out of 11 steel workers per year will die on the job? (That statistic is in the show, by the way.)

What goes around has certainly come around. Big business was huge in the late 1800's. So big the giants of industry could spend massive amounts of money buying the media and politicians to get their guy in power. They could intimidate workers into voting for the candidate they favored. It worked in 1896.

Now we're back in the same position we're in. Many businesses are too big to fail, they pay for politicians to come into power to pass laws in their favor.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. These are my final thoughts on the History Channel's The Men Who Built America. (Part one is here.)

Episode two: Carnegie.

Proponents of unrestricted capitalism (Randians) romanticize it, citing that it creates competition between products, which drives innovation and benefits consumers with better products, raised standards of living, etc.

But once again, the way this show portrays it, no product competition is happening. It's all about personal vendetta. Individual men using other human beings to achieve their personal goals, and being rich isn't enough, they want to get even richer!

Carnegie had nobody to compete with, and anybody who actually did was no threat because he just bought them out. Power was a goal unto itself, and revenge against Rockefeller was the engine that drove him.

None of Carnegie's competitors created a product and forced Carnegie to improve his product to compete, which drove his competitors to improve their products to compete in return; all of which benefited consumers who get the fruit of this competition/innovation engine. None of that is happening. Powerful men are out to get each other, and their solution to competition is either to buy it out, or force it out of business by lowering costs to undersell their competitor. How did that happen? Easy: cut worker wages and force them to work longer hours.

Where's the competitiveness that drove innovation there? Where's the benefit to society to let these men crush one another? To me, advocating unrestricted capitalism a la the 1800's is like the Japanese recommending Godzilla and Mothra duke it out because their personal battles help society... even though it destroys the country! There's nothing romantic about this!

The way this series portrays it, Carnegie was a nice guy and Henry Frick was the evil man forcing the workers into deplorable conditions. Edison was only acting under Morgan's orders to smear AC current's image. That's not quite how it happened from what I remember. Edison was just as fierce a businessman as Morgan.

Carnegie knew what had to be done to maximize profits in the face of competition, so he removed himself from the country and let Frick handle the dirty work. He did it save his own image, but he approved of what Frick did. Oh yes, he would have done the same thing if he were there. He just got Frick to do it for him, that way when the shit hit the fan, he had somebody else to take the fall. You wouldn't get that from watching the show though.

Episode three is mostly about the current wars between Morgan/Edison and Westinghouse/Tesla. There's one example of product competition at least, but still, unlike the romantic vision of unrestricted capitalism some people believe we should go back to today, there's nothing honest going on. Rockefeller engaged a smear campaign on electricity to scare people away from it to protect his own business. Edison smeared Tesla's AC system with public executions and the like. Everyone looking out for his own self interest, not improving their own product to compete.

"That's what it feels like to hold a million dollars. Now, learn how to earn it for yourself," says Morgan's father to J. P. as a boy. Sounds like another message to America's poor today. Not to mention the constant imagery of these bold entrepreneurs standing dramatically inside factories they (had) built, railroads and pipelines they (had) constructed, etc. Yay, inspirational documentary!

I like how one person in the show admits the greed and ambition and dirty play built America. It was terrible for the average person, but it built America. Don't romanticize it. It was dirty, and it hurt a lot of people.

Another stated you have to be smart to succeed in business. Yes, but Morgan wasn't smart. He didn't innovate. He didn't build an empire. He inherited all his money.

Morgan bought Edison out right from under him. Took over his own company and muscled Westinghouse to agree to a buyout. Morgan did business on the principle to avoid competition at all costs, and he did just that.

It's hard to portray the American Dream--that if you work hard enough you can achieve it--when Morgan was born into the banking business, groomed from birth to succeed his father as the head of the Morgan bank. He was already in the business. Carnegie was a poor boy who happened to get favor with the owner of a company and was elevated to a position of power because of it.

Edison and Tesla were much better examples of that, but the show left off that Edison cheated Tesla out of money for an invention he created for Edison's company, and that was the reason Tesla resigned. Edison was a ruthless, heartless businessman himself who often took inventions other people made and stole the credit, and the money. You wouldn't get that from watching the show either. It portrays Edison as a nice guy who invented something that changed the world. He certainly did, but Edison himself admitted the Current War was the biggest mistake of his life.

The Men Who Built America portrays the early entrepreneurs as psychopaths, and if you're a big enough psychopath, you can be a great leader of industry, too! Our entire modern economy was built on the mindset of psychopaths!

Back to the last episode.

The show portrays Ford as a different kind of entrepreneur. The kind who doesn't abuse his workers, pays them a livable wage, and creates the 8-hour workday, five days a week. There is truth to that, but they're leaving out the decades of labor union struggles and strikes to limit the workday to 8 hours. Ford didn't create it for no apparent reason; he wanted to be on the side of the average American worker so they'd buy his automobiles. The show also doesn't mention the federal laws and social reforms passed under Roosevelt that forced employers to stop exploiting their workers and busting unions.

It establishes the first titans as "monopolists," and the new entrepreneurs are not like that. They're different. They cared about how they affected people and were nicer than the first men. The series leaves out that they're only different because the people stood up to the giant corporations and demanded safety and fair wages, etc. They demanded to be treated as human beings, not used as tools for an individual's personal gain.

Rockefeller is probably the best example of a man who rose from the bottom, did not have a privileged education or favor with the company's owner, and built an empire from nothing, but it wasn't romantic. He had to crush a lot of people to get to the top. The show doesn't mention all the bad business practices that got Rockefeller in trouble.

For example: Standard Oil would frequently lower prices in a certain region to well below what was profitable in order to drive a new competitor out of business. To compensate for the loss, they would raise prices in a region in which it had the monopoly to astronomical rates. Then when it had the monopoly, it would raise prices again.

Politicians bribed, competitors driven out of business, price gouging, workers abused, people died and on and on, all so he could get richer. Not so he could build America into a great industrial power, not so he could provide a great product to the people. And all of it caused by lack of regulation. That's why those laws were passed in Roosevelt's administration, and beyond. People were getting hurt, prices were manipulated to push people out of business; it was next to impossible to get a new business off the ground because the big boys crushed competition at every turn.

The government stepped in to make sure businesses competed fairly; it wasn't something the new generation of capitalists did on their own free will. They didn't just decide to let everybody compete, to treat their workers like human beings and notice the deaths they caused. The people forced them to. The lack of government regulation caused all these problems. Regulation does not hinder business, as some people keep crying out. It created the even playing field to force businesses to compete the way Ayn Rand romanticizes. The series leaves those details out, and the omission is so obvious I'd call it intentional.

No wonder the last episode aired the weekend after the election.

The series ends with: get back to work you lazy whiners. Go out and get a job! Go be a psychopath so you can become a great titan of business!

I didn't like how the series tried to be inspiration instead of historical. I've seen other documentaries that went into more detail about who these men were, and how they got so powerful. This series, for as long as it is, presents very little material, replacing it with inspirational, cinematic imagery instead.

The Men Who Built America strikes me not as history, but inspiration. Even regarding what life was like back then, it tries to portray the early days of big business as ideal somehow. Not by lying, but by emphasizing certain parts and glazing over others. It emphasizes the number of jobs created, the industry, the mechanization and how what they did led the world into the modern age. But it ignores how they got there.

I submit the series had an agenda, as if Americans have stopped wanting to work for a living or something, and we need to be reminded how wonderful work is and what the rewards may be for working hard. Not to mention paint big business of the past as a bygone era, while big business of the present is kinder, nicer and beneficial. To an extent, it is, but only because of the laws in place that force it to be.

And now here we are again. Business is big and has more power than the federal government. Big business buys politicians to pass laws that favor it instead of the people. They get bailed out while the people who bailed them out get foreclosed. Our public schools are getting shut down while they continue to cash in on government subsidies. I'm not exactly inspired by this.

Remember, the men who built America were the "job creators" certain political groups worship. They were psychopaths who had to win at everything are cared nothing for who they stepped on to get to the top. Without the laws that keep them in check, we'd return to the way of life in the late 1800's. Regulation is not communism. It created the kind of beneficial business we enjoy today.

Again, I'm not against business and innovation and success. What I'm against, conceptually, is devaluing people for the sake of it. I'm against business getting so big it has more say in the government than the people.

(The Men Who Built America: Part 1 | Part 2)


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