WHEN our great American omnibus, ‘new era’ model, skidded across the wrong side of Rainbow Highway, the loss and damage claim was originally supposed to be slight. Mere failure to deliver the happy passengers, safely and on time, at the Pot o’ Gold — famous tavern by the crossroads between Rainbow and Terra Firma — did not seem irreparable. A bit shaken up or disheveled, and more than a bit delayed, one could still arrive where a man can not only eat, drink, and be merry, but never say die.
However, the gaudy vehicle did not stop with a mere skid. It kept right on, overturning the chicken in every pot, crashing through Everyman’s garage, and catapulting the entire company into a thicket of bramble and briar. Deficits, defaults, unemployment, bank failures, foreclosures, bankruptcies — thorns of every kind spared neither things nor flesh. By the time each had tried to rip and tear a path out of the jungle mass, one result was held in common.
In the crass but vital parable of the street, all had lost their shirts!
Now it might be supposed that here, indeed, was a windfall for shirt makers. I refer, of course, to those establishments which supply the better shirts for business people. On the contrary, the shirt purveyors have suffered acutely. Caught unawares with large inventories, they found the usual outlets unwilling to absorb the very styles which seemed so firm in popular esteem. Yet, with full knowledge that a huge pent-up demand lies immediately ahead, shirt production has been hesitant and depressed. Why?
It is not because shirts have gone out. Every dictate of custom, decency, and comfort ensures that all parties to industry will continue to wear them. It is not even because of low purchasing power, although that has of course played its part. Folks simply must replace their shirts, even if they are begged or borrowed. Shirt output is at a standstill because of the virtual certainty that there is impending a marked upset in shirt fashions. It may amount to a revolution in business haberdashery. The whole trade halts, therefore, upon one clear call for the new styles.
Finding myself in accord with nature’s edict that any vacuum is abhorrent, I propose to fill this one with fashion notes. That it might be difficult to find anyone with fewer qualifications as a stylist will embarrass but will not daunt me. In my time, I have recorded sports events, political conventions, heresy trials, village gossip, and other peculiarities of the human race. But I do not recall any assignment to the fashion page. What better time than now, when the whole shirt world literally waits?
Suppose we begin with the banker. Tradition made him the Beau Brummel of business society. In the good old days, shirted and unshirted alike looked to him for succor and for style. What, then, of banker’s shirts?
That he lost that old one rather completely, few will deny. As we look back upon his recent adventures, they must appear as incongruous to him as they do to the rest of us. To assume that a gentleman with silk topper, morning coat, and spats could fare forth into the back alleys, peddling securities from a pushcart, without attracting the rowdy attentions of the gas-house gang and other hoodlums, now appears beyond belief.
Shall we ever forget the spectacle as he staggered out from the cul-de-sac, supported on the strong arm of a government ‘cop’? High hat crashed in, ripped cutaway, the famous frosty eye blackened, trousers smeared in the barrage from his own merchandise, — foreign and domestic, some green, some decidedly overripe — and, worst of all, his linen left a trophy in the hands of rougher and tougher lads!
‘Selling the people what they want,’ one of his spokesmen naïvely described the experiment to a Senate Committee. An experiment greatly social and economic, but hardly noble in motive.
Not all, of course, chose to try the peddler rôle. Some of the smaller fry preferred the relative dignity of the pawnshop. Banker Jekyll, for a generation esteemed by his townsmen as financial adviser and custodian of their funds, slipped out the back door to hang the three familiar golden balls above the unfamiliar name of Mr. Hyde. In the shop that looked very like a bank, you could raise a loan on practically anything that looked like a value, — cameras without lenses, watches without springs, etchings of title deeds, rubber dollies that could say ‘Mortgage!’ instead of ‘Mamma!’ — even jars of Mrs. Malaprop’s Marmalade, that good old-time apple sauce with the repeat sales value.
To-day, behind the windows piled high with assorted junk, the ‘banker’ stands with his coat buttoned tightly to the chin. It is not so much the chill in the deserted pawnshop. It is to conceal the absence of what is commonly worn beneath the waistcoat. Mr. Hyde, too, has been to his ‘uncle’s’ — dear old Uncle Sam who has promised to see him through.
Bankers themselves will give you the best reason for these exhibitions. They say that the public must understand that not everyone is a ‘banker’ who calls himself by that name. This is true. There are shysters, charlatans, and quacks in every profession, however honorable. Moreover, all credit is due to those bankers who stood firm in the faith of their ancient calling. Some of them had to beat back personal temptation to join the crowd. Some had to withstand the criticisms of ‘old fogeyism,’ of being ‘behind the times.’ Well, they have lived to see the times full of empty clotheslines whereon lately a long array of other bankers’ linen has waved in the breeze. Stout shirts and stout hearts are akin in this case.
So we write finis to one of the saddest and most sordid chapters in the long history of finance.
As the prodigal banker returns, having wasted our substance in riotous lending, there is no fatted calf. Assuming, however, that he brings a chastened and contrite heart, we can bring forth a new shirt and put it on him. We are glad to see him take up once more his honored calling. We want him again to become the secure guardian of our money and the servant of sound commercial credit. We wish the times restored when ‘safe as a bank’ meant a standard of integrity and not a Main Street jest.
Thus issues the first of our style edicts. For bankers the new season will be featured by a revival of the oldfashioned, stiff-bosomed, ‘hard-boiled’ shirt. Passing of the soft fabrics, so popular the last several years, is definitely indicated. Bosoms will be broad, amply broad so as to cover the heart. Collars and neckbands will be looser than hitherto, to permit freer circulation of blood into the head. A smart effect will be the cuffs, also stiff like the bosom, in place of the recent vogue for soft cuffs — so soft, in fact, as to be mere slaps on the wrist. Diamond studs, of course, will not be displayed, but in their stead any modest decoration may be used if it carries a personal touch. The general effect will be one of smart conservatism.
In brief, the new shirt for bankers will set them off with a note of distinction in any business group. This is perhaps the most commendable feature of the return to the old style.
Shirt makers should be prepared for more than a mere revival of popularity for the ‘hard-boiled’ shirt among the bankers. An extension of demand through new sales outlets is already suggested. I refer to those groups whose fashions are often set by those of the bankers, such as financial executives, comptrollers, and public accountants — especially the last.
It is true that shirt losses in these groups have been in some measure restricted, partly by the routine nature of their function in business society, partly by the semi-protected area of their services. It is true, also, that they seldom tend to fluctuate to extremes in fashion, chiefly for the same reasons. Nevertheless, under pressure of executive policy or in the stampede of current fads they often do mirror the times.
That the public accountant, for example, should be given so prominent a place in our fashion parade I trust will need no lengthy emphasis. By this time, certainly, all intelligent citizens, who are also investors, should be quite convinced on this point. In the process that connects the investor with the operations of industry, corporate accounts form a vital link. If this is weak, the chain cannot be strong. And the strength of the link depends heavily, first, upon the character of the accounting; in the final view, upon the integrity of the public auditors.
We are a peculiar people. We have deemed it so important to know whether oleomargarine is sold for butter, or whether there is a fraction of benzoate of soda in the catsup, that we have said, ‘Let there be a law!’ And we got the Federal Pure Food and Drugs Act. But that liabilities should be sold for assets, or that there should be liberal doses of ‘preservatives’ in the income accounts, where billions of invested savings are at stake, is left to the lottery of human conscience.
Now it is a truism that most of the larger corporations long ago buttressed this sensitive subject by voluntary action. Strictness of internal accounting, annual outside audit, and regular publicity for reports have marked their policy for a long time. It is also conceded that recently the New York Stock Exchange has kept up a gentle but ceaseless prodding of laggards in the rear. Still, many pious prayers go up from the faithful for ‘education.’ What this situation needs is the business end of a night stick.
Let me cite an instance which doubtless can be duplicated many times. A certain corporation has both its stocks and its bonds listed on several exchanges. One of the most capable and most honest financial men I know exclaimed about a recent report: ‘I would n’t believe it if they made it under oath!’ Knowing personally the methods of its management, I concurred with him. So far as I have been able to learn, the accounts of that company have never been audited in its entire history. Yet a few weeks later I heard an investor comparing that very report with one issued by a competing concern whose accounting policies are among the strictest, and whose annual reports bear the certificate of an outstanding firm of public auditors. Such a condition is not only a snare for security holders, but grossly unfair to competitors.
Standard accounting practice enforced within the corporation, annual audit by public accountants chosen by stockholders, regular and frequent publication of financial statements — these ought to form the minimum statutory code for any enterprise with listed securities. If it is good for some, it is good for all. If it is good for all, it is not an issue for moral suasion, but for the compelling force of law.
Now some may say this is all very well, but in the last analysis its efficiency depends upon the public auditor and his character. That is just my point. They may go further and avow that they have seen some noticeably frayed and dirty linen on members of the craft. That, also, is correct. Even to-day, with their work as formally public and professional as that of the doctor or the lawyer, they have their share of shysters and quacks. The group of C. P. A.’s whose certificates are almost a guarantee of ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth ’ is not nearly so large as it ought to be. But public patronage can enlarge their number and stiffen their code.
This is why I hazard the guess that shirts for auditors will also be whiter and better starched in the coming season.
I have made several references to the investor, especially in his place as stockholder. Lo, the poor stockholder! No ‘forgotten man’ is he, but, on the contrary, the man they all love to touch. His number is legion, and apparently increasing all the time. From every quarter comes the common report that, throughout the depression, stockholders’ lists have been steadily lengthening. Especially is this true of the ‘odd lot’ shareholder, or owner of less than one hundred shares.
Frequent statements have been made that there are variously ten, twenty, even thirty million stockholders in this country. I know neither the source nor the authority for these estimates. They may have been arrived at by tabulating the total lists of all available corporations. What possible method could be used to subtract the countless duplications I cannot surmise. On its face, the top figure surely seems like a gross exaggeration. It would mean one stockholder out of every four persons in our entire population — men, women, and children; native, Negro, and alien; city, suburban, and rural dwellers alike. There may even be thirty million separate stockholdings, which can be just as much to our point. That is — here is a huge, ineffective, and fluctuating multitude, actually the legal owners of our industries. And what owners!
Scattered as sheep without a shepherd, they have divided and subdivided corporate control into well-nigh invisible fractions. We have a whole group of enterprises that number their shares by the tens of millions and their common stockholders alone by hundreds of thousands. The government of business is supposed to rest upon their shifting shoulders. Here, indeed, is one of the elemental problems of future capitalism.
Essentially, the lone stockholder presents a triple problem of light, heat, and power. One might even borrow from the jargon of football and say a ‘triple threat.’
Take the matter of light. In his relation to any particular company, it will not be denied, I take it, that the average stockholder is singularly unenlightened. This plight may be considered, for the moment, quite apart from his difficulty in securing light, to which I have already referred. It is most frequently wrapped up with his more or less basic ignorance of the tools of his trade. The stockholder is often an illiterate in income statements and balance sheets. However carefully they may have been compiled, however honestly they may have been checked, however simply they may have been presented, they are all Greek to him. No wonder he so often construes his investment as a game of chance, playing for black to turn up instead of red.
This is especially true of women stockholders. Recent analyses in a group of large corporations have revealed the surprising fact that a majority of their listed share owners (in numbers) are women. Aside from that portion whose names may be enrolled by the preference or generosity of males, and who, consequently, are not expected to assume the actual responsibilities of stockholding, a large number are investors in their own right. Yet they have had little or nothing to prepare them for the relationship of risk sharer.
In these comments, of course, I omit consideration of senior securities, such as preferred stocks and bonds.
Now it may be too much to expect a general education in accountancy for common stockholders. Yet there is less reason for going it blind to-day than ever before. If the stockholder, like a sheep before its shearers, is dumb, the remedy lies with himself. First, he need not be a partner in any enterprise where adequate light is not forthcoming. That will aid him in guarding both his eyesight and his pocketbook. In the second place, granted illumination, he need only turn a light switch with the technical advisors available to-day. Special financial services and investment counsel have now reached the stage of thoroughness, impartiality, historic completeness, and general efficiency. A careful selection, from a group also not without its quackery, will be well worth the few dollars for a lighting bill.
Perhaps it is an inferiority complex, perhaps it is their sensation of ignorance and weakness, that generates the heat in common stockholders. That there is far more heat than light I think most corporate executives will agree. Mail from this partner to industry is almost invariably tinged with the irritable, the petulant, and often the abusive. The tone of the letter sometimes implies that rascals who are foully plotting against the writer had better beware. A drop in sales is an injury; a loss from operations is a downright personal insult to the stockholder. Rarely is a note of good cheer sounded for the management.
Passed dividends arenever pleasant, and are usually avoided as long as possible — sometimes, indeed, too long. Yet the storm which then descends upon the luckless executive is inevitable. Thought that the step is often taken to safeguard the stockholder’s own interest is forgotten. It is like abusing the skipper for slowing down his liner in a fog. Of course, the many recorded betrayals explain some of the stockholder’s instinctive suspicion and wrath. But they form a friction in the bearings of industry that only enlightenment will dispel.
Now as to power. What is the power of one six-hundred-thousandth of the control in a great utility? The town meeting is impossible; only the ballot box remains. What slender threads bind this partner to his job! Four times a year he may receive — if he is lucky — a dividend check; once annually — if it is not overlooked — he gives his proxy. By this exchange the corporation is governed. If it were not for the directors and that permanent secretariat called the management, even the legal fiction would have gone by the board. Yet is it conceivable that we have settled down to a system in which the great masses of this fiscal electorate have practically disfranchised themselves?
Why should not the stockholders have both information and responsibility as to major corporate policies? Is it of no interest or concern to them that an enterprise is a notorious price cutter, or a focus for market instability in its sales policies? That it is a reckless expansionist in plant and equipment? That it is an exploiter in wages and hours, or is isolated from the coöperative work of its industry? Surely profits are not the sole answer to questions like these. Mere dividends are no substitute for a sound platform and sound policies of the administration which the stockholder places in power.
From these sketchy remarks, quite inadequate on so large a matter, my personal preference in shirts for stockholders may be guessed. I should organize them into a light brigade; drill them to take out the heat of personal grouches and replace it with the zeal of social aims; and discipline them to wield real power in concerted action, instead of sniping chiefly at shadows. In other words, I should certainly put them into black shirts and set them marching on the room where directors meet.
As a fashion commentator, however, I am trying to be a realist, not a futuristic stylist. I know perfectly well that black shirts for stockholders will not come in this season. On the contrary, it is clear that the hair shirt will will be almost universally worn. More often than not, it will be made of the customary goatskin. Others will prefer the softer symbols of squirrel and rabbit. There may be a few forerunners who will wear camel’s hair, calling ‘Repent ye! Repent!’ But these will no doubt be few — just voices crying in the wilderness, where shirt fashions are negligible and reformers are eccentric.
One further note of warning may be issued. The bizarre effects so much in vogue for stockholders’ shirts during the past decade are definitely out. Peculiar patterns with melons, pyramids, and large checks are quite passés. The style, never orthodox, was pushed to such extremes that reaction not only was inevitable but is likely to be prolonged.
In all this I have had the small stockholder chiefly in mind. Shirts for large stockholders will, of course, follow the same trend, with fuller lines all round. One type of stout stockholder may well have special mention. He is the individual who relies on the valet for selections in shirtings.
That there are those either too uninterested or too indifferent to spend some time on so highly personal a habiliment may be a surprise. Among the famous financial wardrobes of America, at least one or two have been, nevertheless, handled in this way. They should be advised that the sleeveless and neckless jersey, happy-golucky style though it be, will be quite impossible during the coming season. Relying for one’s shirt upon a little ‘gentleman’s man’ may involve not merely passing from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three changes; it may result in coming home dressed in a barrel.
As we pass on in our fashion review, I trust none of my readers will be so indiscreet as to embarrass me in one detail. That is to hark back to the fact recorded above — namely, that a large number of the shareholders are women. Needless to say, I am using ‘shirt’ throughout in the generic sense. It is not necessary to be either too technical or too intimate. So far as the feminine is concerned, I am informed that the French have a word for it. The materials used for the ladies, however, will be the same.
Now we come naturally to those chosen ones — the directors. They form the second chamber of industry, a House of Lords with more authority than the Commons from which it derives. With their advice and consent, the executive branch performs its labors. They have power, and their board room is supposed to be well lighted, heated, and ventilated. Into their hands the stockholder hopefully entrusts his fate. He assumes that, being directors, they will direct the course of the ship, wind and tide permitting.
The fair-weather director, like the fair-weather sailor, suffers no pangs. When, however, the ship runs into dirty weather, the director should be more than a distinguished name on the passenger list. Rising commercial gales, heavy seas in industry, and a rapidly falling profit barometer ought to find the director at his post. It is a pity he is more often discovered prostrate in his berth.
Now it must be granted that seasickness is a condition for which a man is far more to be pitied than censured. The fact that his shirt may have blown out of the porthole may not prove too serious if the steward can find him a clean pair of pyjamas. The real problem in this case is to choose real seafaring men. It will no doubt remain a problem until some traditions are broken and a few reforms introduced into the process of selection, nomination, and election of directors. These, however, are matters for the stockholders themselves.
Finding himself in office, the director faces certain duties. Legal routine aside, what are they? In general, the following are the chief factors he is supposed to provide: a sound capital structure; a competent management; corporate policies adapted to changing conditions; support, moral as well as financial, for both management and policies.
By and large, it can be assumed that directors fulfill their part better than do the stockholders. This may be damnation with faint praise. The individual’s record for conscientious service is often better than the ‘by and large’ measurement will indicate. Nearly every management knows that the stockholders have reason to be grateful for the ready and constant response of individual directors. It is as a body that many boards of directors make a more dismal showing.
Now there is, practically, but one method of scoring in business administration. That is the record of earnings. If we judge by this yardstick, it is surprising to consider the history of scores of our enterprises. Returns are highly irregular, or nonexistent. The investor naturally wonders what the director is doing on his job.
Take the question of capital structure. Fundamental to earning capacity is the total burden, and its apportionment among classes of funded debt, preferred and common stocks. The list of corporations where the corner stone itself is askew is no small one. It would take an industrial miracle for the business, under any management, to build a stable or consistent earning power. Sometimes the company manages to drag out a long existence by ignoring junior requirements; in the end, many must face the inevitable in reorganization or receivership. Why don’t the directors face the issue promptly? The answer is simple.
The director’s attitude is like that of any other legislator who faces a vote that adversely affects his constituents but is desirable for the greater good. He is elected to represent the common stockholders. They will be the first and worst sufferers. So the issue is referred, in either honest belief or vain hope that a subcommittee of General Fabius and Mr. Micawber may report a solution. In the meantime, the director’s constituents get nothing; senior securities are injured by an unfavorable showing; management toils on like Sisyphus; and the company, fundamentally infected, is a danger both to the community of its own trade and to the larger society of business.
It takes courage to face a multitude of unenlightened and irritable stockholders with proposals to write off millions of supposed assets. Yet courageous boards have done it, to the ultimate benefit of all concerned.
Consider the problem of competent management. Again the acid test of earnings is applied. But in the laboratory of the board room it must be used with discretion. Industry to-day is a highly complicated affair, and executive change is no light matter. If a gas or electric utility — protected by local monopoly from competition, protected by fixed rates from sweeping changes in commodity prices, protected by increasing consumption from dislocated demand — does not show earnings, management is, indeed, under question. But if cotton and woolen textiles compare unfavorably with silk and rayon, or coal and lumber with oil and natural gas, or rubber tires with automobiles, there are deep-lying reasons, often beyond the control of even competent managers. The director is, more often than not, at a technical disadvantage, and fails to secure evidence or reach a verdict until too late.
In this difficult choice between support and removal, he inclines to the former, often carrying it to an absurd degree. So too with policies for which he looks to the executives for guidance. The same motives, the same difficulties, and the same reluctance to play a genuine rôle of direction affect his decision.
It is the method more than the office that accounts for the toll in directors’ shirts. In the first place, the public conception of the board room as a council chamber is inaccurate. Though the board is usually a small body, it functions like unwieldy assemblies. Its most important work is not done in session, but in committees, finance or executive, or even more often by individual conference.
The etiquette of directors sometimes outstrips the wildest conception of senatorial courtesy. Nihil nisi bonum is applied to the quick as well as the dead. A pointed question brings raised eyebrows like a faux pas in the drawingroom. Dissent is expressed by eloquent silence, and a negative vote is recorded as evidence of treason, sedition, and giving aid to the enemy.
Moreover, by the very concept of stock control and the composition of directorates, there is always MacGregor at the table. The theory is that MacGregor, having the most at stake, can be followed with the least chance of error. If MacGregor is possessed of knowledge and judgment as well as of power, the assumption may be safe. If he wears a stuffed shirt, theory is confronted by a fact, and an ominous one to boot. In this legislature of the body economic, the dangers of the ‘boss’ are added to the timidity and evasions of the representative.
Sometimes, not merely in the small enterprise but in a great corporation, one discovers a board of directors which is nothing more than a caucus of management. This is a dangerous situation. Several years ago a large company, whose directors were all officials, revealed a scandal of national import. I recall a boast of the chairman, also its chief executive: ‘When I want a directors’ meeting, I just press a button.’ In a bitter battle of proxies, a delinquent but dominant stock interest finally acted, long after it had been informed of the menacing possibilities. In this case the executive had assumed the shirt of MacGregor himself.
I wish I could write down in confidence that stuffed shirts were démodés for directors. The losses have been great, but their popularity is greater. That a man, or several men, should be arrayed with a majority of shares does not by itself endow them with virtue as well as power. It will not prevent voting of dividends in the face of a depleted surplus and operating losses when a stuffed shirt is too timid to demand even the financial facts. It will not prevent a stuffed shirt, with that perilous combination of ego and ignorance, from jamming through his personal desires over the protests of management. It will not prevent a stuffed shirt from concentrating on trivial details while fundamentals of corporate health are ignored. It will not prevent a corporation from becoming ‘ kreugerized’ or ‘insullated, ’ or from suffering any other in the long list of industrial ills, when the MacGregors are weak in business hygiene, social ethics, or even in commonplace stamina whereby men are distinguished from dummies.
The stuffed-shirt market will therefore continue to be large. No doubt the bulges will be bigger than ever in some styles. By this means it will be hoped to cover the lack of natural proportions in a season of great economic stress. But comfort may be found in the fact that, as heretofore, not every director will don this peculiarly ugly and unbecoming garment. The vogue will increase for new shirts of white broadcloth. There will be more and more directors who will not consider themselves well groomed unless this material is used — spotlessly white and very broad. In policy meetings, especially, close-fitting lines will be preferred.
For management, the style problem is Hobson’s choice rather than Hamlet’s. In the embattled days ahead for industry, the executive may safely expect to suffer slings and arrows from the rear while he also takes arms against a sea of troubles before him. For him, the new era of recovery and reconstruction means intensified criticism from investors; intensified competition from his rivals; intensified search for adequate revenues; intensified pressure for economies; intensified scrutiny from every well-wisher, and intensified resistance from every foe.
To most of these, at least in some degree, he has always been accustomed. In the recent wild scramble of the briar patch, the loss of his shirt has perhaps toughened him. He always had to be a fighting man. Even if he was one of the vanishing tribe which persisted in wearing the old-fashioned nightshirt, this racking experience of deflation woke him up. He understands that a fellow can’t put up much of a battle in a nightgown, and that he would be a ridiculous sight if he tried. When the jousting is over, the executive will be either the man on horseback or the chap lying on his back in the grime of the arena.
The warfare of the coming competition requires armor. For the executive, therefore, I have no hesitancy in recommending the shirt of mail. It should be worn along with the iron hand, velvet gloves being optional according to the occasion. The shirt should be of the stoutest weave obtainable, with the fewest possible joints or vulnerable openings. As the son of trade goes forth to war, he will have many occasions to be grateful that fashions for him are both sensible and smart.
A word of caution on this style may perhaps be offered to certain specialists of the management corps. Hauberk fashions will need to be adapted to the fighting needs of the wearer. Sales executives, for example, will see to it in the new season that their mail shirts, while stoutly made, are not so tightly fitted as formerly. High blood pressure and overheating must positively be avoided. Mobility, freedom of movement, a certain finesse, should characterize the cut and fashion for them. For the advertising manager, too, the same requirements will be in vogue.
In marketing, the tumult and the shouting must die, since the captains and the kings of high pressure have departed. In the immediate future, stockholders and directors will display more joy over one sale at a profit than over ninety and nine held at a loss. The sales manager who has been defending contracts taken at a deficit by extolling their volume will select his new shirt with discretion.
On the other side of the industrial budget, the purchasing agent may well profit by these examples. Not everyone realizes the vast exchange of goods whose fate lies in his hands. Charged with the huge expenditures of the business household, he must be always, like Cæsar’s wife, above suspicion. That his affairs are administered on the whole as scrupulously and as honestly as they are is a cause for commendation. Since he works under twofold pressure, supervisory and self-imposed, it is not surprising that he so often makes a virtue of necessity. However, the mere fact that he is uniformed in mail gives him no special right to shove the lowly burden bearer aside into the gutter.
Especially if he be dealing with raw materials and natural resources in these days of devastation, he should beware of grinding the faces of the poor against the shirt of mail. In his case, gauntlets will be as ill-suited as spurs for headquarters officers. He should wear the visor of his helmet wide open, to permit a long-range view of the battle. Field glasses, rather than the microscope, should be his favored accessory.
The final place in the industrial fashion show has been left for labor, at once the largest and the most needy delegation. What a loss has been theirs! For with the heavy-laden rank and file the loss of the shirt so often means also the loss of self-respect. The great immediate task of industry is not merely to restore labor to its accustomed place. It is now even more. To enhance that place, to enlarge its share of consumptive capacity, is required in order to assure security, both social and financial, for the rest of the economic structure. No mere resumption of turning wheels on the old axles will cover the ground. Neither axles nor spokes were designed with the present load in mind.
If silk shirts were ever as widely worn by labor as the opinion was widely held in the social register, they have now been lost. My own belief is that the vogue, even in its symbolic sense, was much exaggerated. We have too much sound information on the distribution of national income to warrant many illusions about the actual spending capacity among multitudes of wage earners. Meanwhile, a slow but steady war of attrition has been waged upon employment itself by the fall of waning industries and by the advance of technological blockades. Despite all progress, which I do not minimize, the solemn fact remains of increasing thousands skilled in crafts which no longer need them. Except for brief moments of abnormal demand, they are the most pitiful of reserves.
Confronted by this problem, our faith rests chiefly on the experimenters, or those voyagers to laboratory isles who have never yet failed to return with new discoveries. Yet, while the search goes on for the fountain of economic youth, there are thousands who cannot sit still and wait. Their needs are primitive, felt by the day and not from era to era of national growth. Food, clothing, and shelter; work and play; health, education, and savings — for these things men cannot wait until some far-sailing ship comes in.
One general policy, as a nation, we have at last adopted. The quarantine placard has been posted on our formerly hospitable doors. It serves mute notice of the sickness within. The American family, related though it be to all nations, can receive no guests until the stricken recover. It is a harsh restriction on some, but a vital safeguard to the many. At least it will prevent needless spread of the epidemic.
Another precaution, chiefly in the spirit of emergency, is now being added. Work week and work day are here and there shortened by inviting more to share them. This is essential first aid. But why should any industrialist look upon the method as a temporary tourniquet? Even more, why should any hesitate to apply it as he sees the severed arteries of trade? In the real status of many industries, the six-day working week and the day of nine or ten hours have become obsolete. Almost all data on productive capacity, individual output, and mechanized efficiency confirm this. Nevertheless, the wage earners of yesterday remain to be provided for to-morrow.
The time has come for complete stock taking. Every industry needs to record its own census. It should ascertain total production capacity, normal demand, reasonable allowance for reserves and expansion, both enrolled and idle personnel. Thereafter, upon these calculations, each can make at least a rough approach to the minimum annual man-hours which will be required and the maximum number of employees who must be assigned.
The states and the nation can supplement this effort at planned production by two more remedies. One can be directed at the children’s end of the impasse, and one toward the aged. Of all the anachronisms and paradoxes which bedevil our poverty in the midst of plenty, none is more ghastly than these.
In this greatly populous and wealthy nation, millions of the finest, the fittest, and the most apt of our mature manhood are rusting in idleness. Yet we continue either to recruit or to retain for the industrial army whole regiments, brigades, and divisions from our children and our superannuated. By the hundreds of thousands, the youngsters who should be at school and play are fighting on the business battlefield. Long hours of toil which should be filled with learning; stunting confinement which forbids physical vigor; monotony which dulls the soul of the man or woman to be — these are indeed strange gifts from the fatherland to its young.
At the other end of life are the labor veterans. For years, for decades, sometimes for half a century, they have given their all. One group of responsibilities has been followed by another. Parents have been helped; families have been reared; the old helpmeet has been protected from want. Season has followed season in which the much desired rest or retirement has faded before new demands. Slower in step now than formerly, hands not quite as sure, hearing perhaps a little harder and eyes a little dimmed, yet, even more faithful because more fearful, they labor on.
Despite popular belief, the ‘heartless corporation’ does not make the clean sweep of them which is often supposed. Their very faithfulness has its value. Here and there, to be sure, may be found voluntary pension funds. Some of these have been bitterly subject to the winds and storms of business change. In the main, however, the old soldier may be counted by the thousands, like the child near at hand, displacing each his potential substitute from that generation most fitted for the struggle.
Now, in the name of common sense, would any nation so conduct itself in war? Would it dream of drafting the young and the old when it still had huge reserves of men in their best years? Peace hath its imbecilities even more than war. Self-interest alone, not to mention any concept of social vision for the future of American life, should lead to quick correction. Few investments can bring more immediate returns on a purely economic basis than extension of child labor acts and state provision for the aged. By assuring vigor to the next generation and by providing security for old age, we also assure the use of our best to-day and the reserve of our best to-morrow.
Is it either fantasy or paternalism to see a change in fashions for labor? The sweat shirt, of course, will still be worn, for it has ever been the style for those who must gain their bread by heavy labor. If it, too, has been lost, it must be replaced. But the new fashion prescribes that it shall not be worn so exclusively. The well-dressed toiler will make more frequent changes, will use his sweater fewer hours a day and on fewer days in the week. Moreover, he must begin to look about for more becoming apparel for his children and his parents. Sweat shirts for either the young or the old will be more and more taboo.
Thus we come to the end of our fashion page. Briefly, it has been a search after new shirts for old. The moral of it all? By their shirts ye shall know them.
This fashion-mongering has been no easier a job than I expected. Yet, withal, the effort has been to put one’s self in the other fellow’s shirt. Many of these garments I personally have worn, and have doffed them with relief or with regret, according to their kind. To aid the imagination, these style notes were written while I was temporarily confined indoors. My own shirt had been sent to the corporate laundry. You see, — he admitted shyly and with a slightly superior smile, — that particular shirt was saved from the briar patch. Furthermore — (Will you please pardon me while I answer that telephone?)
My word, how exasperating! It appears that my shirt has been lost at the laundry!