After our visit to the Biltmore Estate, I wanted to learn more about the Vanderbilt family, and I discovered a really fascinating (but gut-wrenching) 5-hour historical documentary mini series from 2012 called The Men Who Built America. The series has an 8.7 rating on IMDb, won a lot of awards, and is really worth watching, if for no other reason than to inspire you to avoid oppressing those who are under you, in the work space…or anywhere else, for that matter!The Men Who Built America traces the transformation of America from the post Civil War Era to World War 1, focusing in particular on the lives of four incredibly driven, innovative, and wealthy men: Cornelius Vanderbilt (who connected America via ships and railroads), Andrew Carnegie (who developed the steel industry, opening the way for bridges, skyscrapers and city scapes not only in America but throughout the world, making him one of the richest men on earth), John D. Rockerfeller (who founded Standard Oil and holds the record for being the richest man who’s ever lived, with a net worth of 392 billion [adjusted for inflation], and John P. Morgan (wizard of corporate finance and industrial consolidation in America). At the end, the series also touched on the life of Henry Ford (founder of Ford Motor Company who developed the assembly line technique for mass production). I was mesmerized and horrified at the same time. The first four men were innovative geniuses who worked ceaselessly to build industrial empires. Their work did profit America as a whole, but they were also ruthless cut throats who became incomprehensible rich by oppressing the poor laborers who worked for them. Although they became amazing philanthropists near the end of their lives, I found myself feeling frustrated and outraged by their abuse of power. Why didn’t they share their wealth with the thousands (millions?) who worked for them? In stark contrast, Henry Ford paid his employees about 2.5 times the going wage, provided safe working conditions, and established the 5-day, 40-hour work week. Ford still became plenty rich, but he was so much better as an employer! As the stories unfolded, it occurred to me that the richest men were so busy competing with each other and oppressing everyone that it didn’t even seem like they were enjoying their lives. Today is no different! If every business owner paid their employees a living wage and shared profits more equitably, they could still be wealthy enough to enjoy an abundant life while providing abundant lives for their employees too. How is it that as a nation we’re so consumed by greed? Can we change the men who are building America now? Can we do better, one employer at a time??? As a nation, can we vote in legislation that provides a living wage for every employee who works a 40-hour week?
“Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity. Trust not in oppression, and become not vain in robbery: if riches increase, set not your heart upon them” (Psalm 62:9-10).