My sister lives in the town of Wilson in Mississippi County, Ark. This was the fiefdom of one of the planter/businessmen of the early 20th century, Robert E. Lee Wilson. At one time, the only property in the town not owned by Wilson was the Frisco depot and the ice plant. Wilson owned several company towns in the area, but Wilson was the headquarters of his business empire. He owned over 46,000 acres of plantations, sawmills and timberlands, a short-line railroad, and banks. More than 2,500 people were employed on his plantations and other enterprises.
Sis recently passed along a book: “Delta Empire”, by Jeannie Whayne, LSU Press, 2011. It is a fascinating account of the building of Lee Wilson & Company, and contributes insight into the flowering of the modern cotton culture in the Deep South. Cobb’s “The Most Southern Place on Earth,” Percy’s “Lanterns on the Levee,” Cohn’s “Where I was Born and Raised,” and Berry’s “Rising Tide” provide social and cultural perspective, while Whayne’s book details the financial finagling, political maneuvering, and exploitation of material and human resources that characterized the Progressive Era.
While reading of the continuing effort of Lee Wilson to find and retain labor, and feeding nostalgia by studying a photo of picking gangs on his plantation, I was struck by the thought that business has always needed people—for their labor, and for their demand for products. In Wilson’s day, much manual labor was required. Willing workers able to follow instructions and not given to thinking too much for themselves could always find employment (if healthy, of course).
Fast forward to the 21st century. Technical innovation, industrial engineering, and relentlessly efficient management have raised productivity of manufacturing and farming to the point that demand for unskilled labor is miniscule. In a sense, we have too many people. Those whose cognitive abilities lie well to the right side of the bell curve can (with proper education and training) find roles in the modern economy that offer comfortable life-styles and opportunity for their children to move up the socioeconomic ladder. Those on the left side of the curve (half the population) face a more daunting future. Their demand for goods and services is still required for a healthy economy, but their ability to earn is limited.
We talk endlessly about education, especially college education, as a reliable way into the middle class. I’m all for it, but let’s be realistic. Throw an iPod into an average classroom of freshmen in one of our many “non-selective” public colleges. What are the odds of hitting someone with the ability to write computer code, master calculus, understand physics, balance chemical equations, or read and write Standard English prose, for that matter? Yes, a college education can open doors for one of unremarkable ability. (A certain Yale product who reached high political office early in this century is an example.) But the prospects for an heir to family wealth who gains admission to his father’s “selective” alma mater as a legacy hardly compare to those for a kid who must borrow money, find a course of study in which he has a chance of success, find employment in that field, and then pay off the debts accumulated over four or more years at $20,000 per year in earnings.
The revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in the early 20th Century found their cadres largely among university students. Many of these were sons of minor tradesmen or semi-skilled craftsmen who manage to get into universities by dent of higher than normal ability, and who were willing to subsist in poverty for the privilege of advanced study. They found that avenues of advancement were limited due to lack of family distinction, or to membership in a non-favored minority – many were Jewish. After having their expectations raised, they found their opportunities limited. This is fertile ground for social discontent.
This century’s Lincoln will be the leader who comes up with an idea of how to utilize the human resources on the left side of the bell in a way rewarding to the individual. We need him to buy into the system, and to go as far as his ability and hard work will allow with dignity intact. We cannot build enough prisons to contain those for whom we have no role at present. The old ways are not working. We need new ideas, and we need them quickly.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.