My Turn: Wilson was wrong then, and progressives are wrong now

  • Carl and Rose, on their wedding day in 1945. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 9/8/2020 6:20:09 AM

If you are a progressive, in the political sense of the word, here is the philosophy you subscribe to.

First and foremost, you subscribe to the philosophy of the father of progressivism in the 20th century, the intellectual elitist Woodrow Wilson, who was the president of Princeton University before becoming U.S. president in 1914.

Wilson was as wrong about income inequality 100 years ago as the so-called “progressives” are about the issue today. Modern followers of Wilson take the same top-down approach to narrowing the income inequality gap, which is to take from the wealthy and give to the less wealthy.

It did not work in 1917 and it will not work in 2020.

The real solution to narrowing the income gap is to encourage Americans to improve their income by increasing their skill development, not by mandated minimum wage regulations.

In 1917, Wilson decried the income inequality gap by pointing to the wealthiest people of that day. He cited financial engineer J.P. Morgan, steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and auto manufacturer Henry Ford, with their significant wealth compared to the average American worker.

Wilson concluded that the capitalist system did not work for Americans at the bottom of the income spectrum. Wilson was wrong then just as progressives are wrong today, and here’s the proof.

There was a couple born in 1918, Carl and Rose. Carl went off to World War II and Rose became a “Rosie the Riveter” working at a steel mill in New Jersey. After the war, Carl and Rose met and got married.

They both believed in the American Dream and set out to get it for their family. Carl never went past the eighth grade and Rose stopped schooling in the 10th grade. Carl realized that, if he was going to have the American Dream, he had to increase his skills to get a better job.

So, he worked by day and went to night school to get a boiler operator’s license. That license landed Carl a job in the correctional system in New Jersey.

Rose wanted to help out to improve their standard of living. So, when her children were school age, she went to work in a corrugated box factory where she made boxes for 32 years.

Carl and Rose made enough money to move out of the city and squeezed financially into a new house in a suburban development. In this development were neighbors who also believed in the American Dream. There were factory foremen, a small business owner, an accountant for the state, and the most prosperous person in the neighborhood, a brew master for a local brewery.

None of these people had a college education except for the accountant. But they all new that, to have the American Dream, they had to increase their skill-sets on their own. And that is what they did.

Carl rose to second in command of the entire correctional system maintenance organization by continuing to increase his skill development. These actions by Carl and Rose and the others did not have any effect on the wealth of Morgan, Carnegie, or Ford. These men increased their wealth because the stock market rewarded their innovations through their stock prices. These men also had the capital to provide hundreds of thousands of jobs to workers who wanted the same shot at the American Dream as Carl and Rose wanted.

So, Wilson was wrong about the capitalist system not being able to narrow the income inequality gap in the 20th century as his progressive followers are today by preaching a $15 mandated wage minimum without a commensurate increase in skill sets.

Let’s fast-forward to today and replace Morgan, Carnegie, and Ford with Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates, among the wealthiest people in the world. These 21st-century capitalists did not increase their wealth on the backs of working people like Carl and Rose. Their wealth came from the world recognizing the value of their innovations and increased their stock prices just like the capitalists of the 20th century.

I remember when Amazon stock was $35 per share in 2005 and Bezos left a six-figure job on Wall Street to pursue his dream of helping consumers purchase items more conveniently. He could have gone bust and no one would have shed a tear for him.

Amazon’s stock price is over $3,000 today. Now, grandparents and parents have to teach their children that they too can have the American Dream if they want to work for it.

Our workers need to constantly increase their skill-set. Their efforts will not be hindered by the people at the top of the income spectrum but actually enhanced by those innovators by providing job opportunities that workers can grow into.

The American Dream is theirs for the taking. If we buy into the program of the “progressives” and mandate $15 per hour minimum wages for all workers, these progressives will play right into the hands of the largest corporation like Wal-Mart, Amazon, and McDonald’s. These companies have finances that can handle a $15 minimum wage. But their smaller competitors may only be able to pay $10 to $12 per hour wages. These big companies would love this mandate because the government will then eliminate the smaller competitors and further increase big companies’ wealth by putting smaller competitors out of business.

This is what known as “crony capitalism,” where the progressives will enact legislation that favors the big corporation over the small ones.

Wilson was wrong 100 years ago when he thought that if he took from Morgan, Carnegie, and Ford and gave it to the workers at the lower end of the income spectrum, then he could close the income inequality gap.

His progressive followers are as wrong today by taking that same argument and applying it to the situation today.

This is not progressive thinking; it is regressive thinking.

We need to teach our children the same thinking of Carl and Rose and encourage our children to increase their skill sets. By increasing their skills, workers today can have the American Dream without having to deal with the folks at the top end of the spectrum.

I know the story of Carl and Rose is true because they were my parents, and they taught me and my sister how to achieve the American Dream.

I passed that teaching on to my children. I hope you do likewise.

(Joseph Mendola lives in Warner.)

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