Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 35

The Giveaway

It is, of course, impossible for years to pass without anything happening. The time from late 1933 to mid 1937 brought Hitler to the front of world affairs and brought nearer the second great war I have experienced. In America, the depression lingered with only slight improvements, but people got used to it and made adjustments.

On the Great Eastern Railway we became realists. We found that we simply couldn't produce enough engines and train enough people to realize the Western Circle as we first planned it, and that, at the same time, we couldn't overcome the many thousands of union employees who staffed the component railways. At least, some of us became realists. Mac continued to run a few turbine engines around the Western circle, and, whenever anyone pointed out to him that they weren't deployed in sufficient force to be economical, he would reply,

"I want the future to be continuously visible everywhere. Then, any dumb shit who denies it will have only himself to blame."

Despite Mac's increasing intransigence, Sam Hanks and Davis made adjustments with the western unions where necessary. There were no more battles in Eugene or elsewhere, and the upshot was that the western roads, operating in a loose confederation, turned a modest profit. Those earnings were invested in the Eastern Circle. We also periodically raided the western roads of some of their best people, offering them tempting positions in the east. The result was an infusion of capital and talent into the Eastern Circle which, by 1937, brought it to an extremely high level of functioning.

Despite these changes, I had the sensation of life remaining much the same, mainly, I suppose, because my relations to the people around me remained much the same.

Sidonie, at twenty three, wasn't much different from Sidonie at nineteen. Vignis, still not thirty in 1937, was hardly less powerful than Mac, and was more consistent in the use of her power and influence. But, when we were alone together, it hardly made any difference.

John Henry went from being Mac's protege, newly arrived from the south, to a powerful national figure in his own right. He was even pictured in LIFE, a giant figure on the rostrum conducting a meeting of the GER union.

I, at forty eight, was in that long period of middle life in which one's powers don't noticeably decline and one's wisdom doesn't noticeably increase.

Speaking of failures of wisdom, it's an unfortunate fact that everything that happens can, for a long time, seem to confirm a hypothesis that happens to be false. In particular, one may unwittingly but wrongly assume that a long series of human actions have been performed with a given set of intentions. Then, if one is lucky, or unlucky, one may see in a flash that thousands of things that seemed clear could have been interpreted, and indeed perceived, in an entirely different way. That is what happened in the summer of '37.

I had realized from an early point in my acquaintance with James MacPherson Garner that he wasn't primarily interested in making money. That part of my hypothesis did stand the test of time. The other part of my assumption was that he was instead trying to realize a Platonic ideal. That, too, turned out to be true. The trouble was that Plato had many Forms. I got the wrong ones, mainly because I didn't know enough about Plato. Sidonie knew more and knew better. She probably knew that I was on the wrong track. But she didn't enlighten me.

Looking back, I have become aware of some of the signals I misinterpreted. Mac let it seem that he was only humoring Vignis by letting her set up her towns. When she came to see me in Waverley, Ohio that time, they had indeed had a fight, but it had concerned the procedures to be used and who was to control the operation, not the basic principles. Then, too, he may have only pretended to try to curb Vignis' ambitions in order to fan them.

What became clear later was that Mac had always been as concerned with the society we were creating as anyone in the system. He may even have married Vignis partly because he believed her to be the sort of woman who would do what she later did.

It was in August that Vignis told me that Mac was thinking of retiring and going abroad for a spell. She also intimated that, if he did, I would be nominated to replace him.

I was very much surprised at first. But, then, I did realize that Mac was the sort of man who, having reached a goal, would afterwards become bored with it. The turbine engines were running around the circle as smoothly as anyone could want, and the rest of the operation presented no problems. As for the continued running of the system, that could be left to me. I had run a railway before. It was a much smaller one, but it hadn't nearly exhausted my capacities. I could do the job, and Sidonie, like Marcia before her, would be a railway president's wife.

When I told Sidonie what would probably happen, she replied,

"All right. We can make whatever arrangements are needed when the time comes."

While not a romantic man, I had expected a little more than that. It seemed almost a matter of indifference to her. For some reason, it didn't occur to me that she knew much more than I.

It was just about a week later that the first event took place that couldn't be reconciled with my previous assumptions.

Mac, on behalf of the GER, signed a series of contracts with the union headed by John Henry. These were varied and complex, but the upshot was a very generous profit-sharing scheme which gave the workers, as part of their wages, something like half of what the profits would have been if they had been paid the union scale (which they never had been). In addition, all the workers, right down to the rank of private, got shares in the company in addition to their wages. These shares would accumulate at a rate that would give them half the company in ten years time.

Although it took the general public, and even the workers, some time to realize the implications of everything in the fine print, Sam Hanks explained it quickly to me.

"Mac's coming as close as he dares to giving the company to the workers. All the minority stockholders in the GER and the holding companies are going to feel cheated, and the price of the stock will drop."

It took two days for this development to hit the market. Because of the general success of the GER and a long string of quarters with slow but steady increases in per share earnings, the stock had been bid up to over 33. In one day, it dropped to 12.

It was that stock market drop which touched off the storm. However, by the time it reached Huntington, Indiana, Mac had resigned as president, field marshal, etc., and was on his way to Europe with Vignis. Their home, including most of the furnishings, was up for sale.

It might be pointed out here that Mac had done nothing fraudulent or illegal. He had a right to negotiate union contracts which he believed to be in the long-term interest of the company. The board of directors, all of whom were his creatures, had approved the contracts. In a brief statement, Mac said that he was following the example of Henry Ford, who had scandalized the financial world by paying his worders five dollars a day. That had been the key to the greatness of the Ford Motor Car Company, and Mac trusted that his present action would produce like results on the GER.

What Mac didn't mention was that he had spent some six years cris-crossing the country and selling non-voting stock in the GER and its associated companies. While he never stated it explicitly, there was an inescapable underlying message in all those addresses to Rotary Clubs and Chambers of Commerce. He spoke only of sharing in the future greatness of the GER, but the message those innocents got, and were meant to get, was that, if they bought enough stock, they would become rich.

I remembered meeting a small town dentist who, in the mid-thirties, hocked everything he owned to buy GER stock. He even sold his wife's engagement ring and replaced it with something from the flea market. His eyes bugging out with his brilliant prospects, he said to me,

"I've put everything into your railway, and nothing I've ever done has given me so much satisfaction. As I figure it, I'll eventually get back just about twelve times what I put in."

There were people like that on the loose then, and there probably still are. If he hadn't met Mac, someone would have taken him for everything. Mac had arranged things so that the dentist would get back approximately as much money as if he had put the original sum in a savings bank.

The objective observer who hadn't heard Mac address those meetings in those great ringing tones of his wouldn't see that any injustice had been done. After all, people who buy stock may hope to become rich, but no one guarantees that they will. All company presidents put the best foot of their company forward, but, as long as they don't give false numbers, they have every right to do so. Mac, needless to say, didn't need false numbers to give a false impression.

The final straw, and to many the most infuriating one, was that Mac didn't profit from any of this. In fact, he cheapened the value of his own large block of stock. It was that, together with the fact that no one's stock became worthless, which exempted him from any sort of legal retribution. On the other hand, those angry Rotarians would rather have had him steal their money than enlist them involuntarily in a do-good scheme for a bunch of black southern cotton-pickers.

It was at this point that one of my assumptions about Mac was blown out of the water. While I had known that the Form of Perfect Circularity was more important to him than money, it had seemed obvious that Mac had a strong secondary interest in making as much money as possible. It actually shocked me when I found out that, at the end of his time with the GER, he had about what he had had at the beginning, some twenty million dollars. If he had worked it for all it was worth, he could have had at least a hundred million, and probably much more.

When I put these matters to Sidonie, she replied, somewhat tartly,

"You always talk as if Plato had only one Form, the Form of Circularity. It's clear from the Sophist, not to mention the Republic, that he had a whole hierarchy of Forms, of which the geometrical ones may have been the least important. You also don't realize how much Plato distrusted and disliked the members of the acquisitive classes, whether they be what we'd call capitalists or workers. Mac follows him in that."

"You mean Mac dislikes anyone who sets out to make lots of money?"

"I think he always has."

"When I first met him, that was what he spent most of his time doing. And he's been a tireless fund-raiser ever since."

At that, Sidonie merely laughed and left me to my naivite.

I would have caught on much earlier if I had read Plato's Republic. I hadn't, and I missed more than the higher Forms. The Republic also recommends an authoritarian form of government. Mac, despite many smoke-screens, actually controlled everything and everyone, with the partial exception of Vignis and John Henry.

Moreover, Plato, in that work, is uncommonly committed to the idea that deceit is justified in pursuit of a noble end. He seems to have used it liberally, and Mac's treatment of the Rotarians was mild by contrast. He had also deceived me, but, then, a man who has just been promoted to president couldn't complain a great deal. Sidonie must have thought it funny that I didn't understand these things.

I began the Republic immediately, and discovered that there is a form of Man. I could only conclude that Mac, with his characteristic laughing immodesty, wanted to approach it. He who does so must be just, and must treat others with justice. Not doing so is comparable to having a little squiggle in one's circle for each unjust act. Mac apparently thought that blacks were treated with less justice than anyone else in America. If one looked back at everything he had done on the GER with new eyes, one saw that all those acts tended toward the end of giving blacks a fair chance.

At that time, there was also a little added pressure. While we had managed to reduce wages on the western roads, the majority of the men working on them were still in the brotherhoods, and were still being paid more, job-for-job, than our mostly black work force in the east. There was some grumbling over this, and John Henry was getting some complaints from his men. He, in turn, prodded Mac a little. None of this was very intense, but Mac was never one to let a problem get out of hand before dealing with it. And, of course, it was a pretty clear-cut case. We had promised our young men that they would eventually be first-class citizens in the railway if they accepted low wages while we were getting started. It was getting time to do something.

Mac could have at least partly resolved the problem by selling off the western roads, but he instead gave the men of the east a deal which put them far ahead of those in the west. It was, simply, a just reward for loyal service.

In those first few days, I didn't quite lose my balance along with my assumptions. I did believe, and still believe, that no one is motivated very much by so-called "noble aims." We use them to justify other things that we want to do, generally with much less noble aims in mind. Mac was no exception to that rule, as will appear in due course. But he was a very puzzling case. Even when he was actually sacrificing a fortune, he consistently talked as if he were trying to make one.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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