Ten generations have come and gone since 1776. Yet the Founders still fascinate us. Books about Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington still regularly dot our best-seller lists.
What so attracts us to these men of means who put their security and their considerable comfort at risk for a greater good? Maybe the contrast with what we see all around us.
Today’s men of means display precious little selfless behavior. Our CEOs and bankers seem fixated — almost totally — on their own corporate and personal bottom lines. They don’t lead the nation. They steal from it.
So who can blame the rest of us for daydreaming about a time when a significant chunk of our elite showed a real sense of responsibility to something grander than the size of their individual fortunes?
Actually, suggests University of Michigan sociologist Mark Mizruchi, we don’t have to go back to 1776 to find Americans of ample means who cared about “the needs of the larger society.” We had this sort of elite just a half-century ago, he argues in his new book The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite.
Many of America’s corporate leaders, Mizruchi writes, spent the years right after World War II engaged in public-spirited debate over how best to put the Great Depression behind us. These corporate leaders didn’t try to gut the social safety net the New Deal created. They helped stretch this safety net even wider. They even accepted high income tax rates on big incomes — their incomes.
Mizruchi takes care not to go overboard. The mid-20th century’s corporate leaders regularly did battle with unions and other groups that spoke directly for average Americans.
But these corporate leaders also displayed “an ethic of responsibility,” notes Mizruchi. They compromised. They tried to offer solutions. They behaved, on the whole, far more admirably than the union-busters, tax-dodgers, and bailout artists who rule America’s biggest banks and corporations today.
What explains why our elite behaved so much better back then? One reason: Corporate leaders in the 1950s and 1960s had to share center stage with a strong labor movement. Organized labor wields much less influence today.
This weakened labor movement has allowed wealth and power to concentrate ferociously at America’s economic summit. And the resulting inequality, in turn, may be the key to understanding why corporate leaders a half-century ago much more resembled the elite of 1776 than those of our own time.
In both 1776 and the mid-20th century, our most financially fortunate found themselves in relatively equal societies. On the eve of the American Revolution, new research documents, England’s 13 American colonies had a much more equal distribution of income and wealth than the nations of Europe.
In the years right after World War II, the United States enjoyed a similar epoch of relative equality. CEOs in the 1950s only made 20 to 30 times what their workers made, not the 200 and 300 times more, on average, that top corporate execs routinely rake in today.
In both 1776 and 1976 America, the top 1 percent overall took under 10 percent of the nation’s income. The top 1 percent share today, as economist Emmanuel Saez details, is running over double that level.
Did this relative equality of revolutionary America and America right after World War II help shape how elites interacted with their societies?
That certainly seems plausible. More equal societies, after all, have narrower gaps between those at the economic summit and everyone else. The narrower the gap in any society, the easier for all — elite and average alike — to feel invested in their society and share a sense of responsibility for its future.
What’s the takeaway? If we want to rekindle that spirit of 1776, not just daydream about it, our course stands clear. We need to create a more equal America.