I’m probably the only person on the planet who remembers an editorial in The New York Times back in 1971 or 1972 criticizing Harold Geneen, the president and CEO of ITT, International Telephone and Telegraph. Over a decade-plus, Geneen had had taken ITT from the 52nd largest company in the United States to the 9th largest. Its sales grew from $700 million to $17 billion, and its profits skyrocketed from $29 million to $550 million. When he took over the firm in 1959, it was a company with both feet firmly planted in the international telephone business. A decade later, it was a multinational colossus with 331 subsidiary corporations, which in turn had 708 subsidiaries. Geneen, according to the New York Times, grew ITT by “virtually inventing the international conglomerate. He did it by buying companies. All sorts of companies.”
Geneen was by any measure as successful a corporate businessman as then existed in the United States. So what was The New York Times doing criticizing Geneen? He had had the temerity to raise his own pay to $800,000 a year, and the Times found this number not just unseemly, but virtually un-American. I can’t find the editorial, but as I recall, Geneen became the highest paid corporate executive in the country, his pay as a multiple of the average worker’s burying every other corporate executive’s.
Seems quaint, doesn’t it? A corporate CEO paying himself eight hundred grand a year? Hell, Les Moonves, the disgraced CEO of CBS Corporation, was paying himself over $60 million a year at the time he was removed after charges of sexual harassment and abuse from multiple women ended his career. The CEO of Broadcom, Hock Tan, is the highest paid in the land, paying himself $103 million last year. Median pay for CEOs, according to The Wall Street Journal, was an astonishing $12.1 million.
What’s the problem, you ask? Well, the problem is, editorializing against the excesses of CEO’s overpaying themselves ended with that The New York Times editorial. At least, editorials naming the CEO in question did. The unseemliness of greed at the top is gone.
That’s where Missouri comes in.
Bear with me while I tell you a story. An old friend of mine, David Vaught, has had a pilot’s license since he was 13, and over the years, I’ve taken a few cross-country flights in a rented Cessna 172 with him. Back in 1971 or ’72, we flew a rented 172 from Illinois to Las Vegas and back. The cost to rent that airplane, as I recall, was something on the order of $27 an hour.
In 1985, we took another rented Cessna 172 from St. Louis down to West Plains, Missouri, where we planned to rent a car and go canoeing on the North Fork River, a beautiful stretch of water that runs through a national forest just north of the Arkansas border.
One of the things that’s fun to do when you’re flying in a light plane is to arbitrarily land at a random local airport you’re passing over. Landing at such a place gives you a chance to use the bathroom, maybe buy a Coke from a Coke machine, and generally have a look around, see what’s going on.
Well, on this day in the summer of 1985, we landed at a small rural airport somewhere on the flightpath between St. Louis and West Plains. It was a tiny airport, just a single narrow runway, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I can’t remember the name of the town it served, or anything else about it really, except what happened next.
We were standing around the airport office drinking our Cokes when we heard the guy in the office on the radio, clearing another plane to land. Down came a Beechcraft King Air, a twin- engine plane that could seat six passengers. It was treat to watch a King Air land. It was one of the top business aircraft flying at that time. With twin turbo-prop engines, it was fast, and it was capable of landing on much shorter runways than business jets like Lears or Gulfstreams.
Which is probably why it landed at that tiny airport on that day. We stood there watching as the King Air taxied up and dropped its stairway. Four men wearing suits and ties exited the plane and quickly walked toward the airport’s exit. We watched as they strode across the road next to the airport and into a one-story factory building at the roadside.
They were the executives of the company that owned the factory. As it turned out, that factory made baseball-style caps for colleges and companies, sewing logos onto their crowns for everything from football teams to company names. The men spent about a half hour inside the factory, and we watched as they walked across the road to the airport.
Just then, the lunch whistle sounded, and the factory disgorged a hundred or so workers, mostly women and a few men wearing jeans and short sleeve shirts. They stood for a moment in the factory parking lot watching the executives who owned their factory as they climbed the steps of their King Air and flew away. Then they got into pickup trucks and Chevys and Fords, and sat there and ate bag lunches or drove away, headed for local cafes and diners.
The airport manager told us the factory executives showed up every few months on inspection tours. They flew the King Air around from factory to factory because flying was an efficient way to get around when you owned multiple factories. They were probably looking in on a factory down in Arkansas by now. King Airs were fast.
The disparity between those men in suits flying in their King Air, and the workers who poured out of the factory for lunch and then straggled back inside later — well, you don’t often see the extremes of capitalism up close. But on that day, we did, and it was incredible.
I can assure you that the factory just outside the little airport in Southeast Missouri is long gone by now. I’m looking at a baseball-style cap of my own as I write this. It’s made of six pie-shaped sections of fabric, sewn together with double stitching into fabric seams inside the cap. The top of the hat is sewn onto the hatband, which is in turn sewn onto the bill, which is reinforced with eight rows of stitching.
They were making caps just like it in that factory in Southeast Missouri. The caps are labor-intensive, with all that stitching. The label on mine says it was made in China, along with every other baseball-style cap you can now buy at a Walmart, or a college souvenir shop. Those hundred jobs, somewhere in rural Missouri between St. Louis and West Plains, are gone. Poof.
You want to know what else is gone? Their votes, when it comes to Democrats, that is. In 1985, Missouri had one Republican and one Democrat in the Senate, and six Democrats and three Republicans in the House. After Tuesday’s election, Missouri will have two Republican Senators and six Republicans in the House. There are two Democrats from Missouri in the House, one from Kansas City, and the other from St. Louis. Rural Southeast Missouri, where we flew through, is solidly red.
That trip in 1985 wasn’t the first time my friend David and I had been to Southeast Missouri to go canoeing and fishing. About ten years previously, we had driven there from his home in Illinois to canoe on another scenic waterway, the Black River. We stayed in a cabin owned by a friend of ours from St. Louis. One night, we drove over to a nearby drive-in to take in a double feature.
Here’s what we watched. The first movie was about some scantily-clad female moonshiners fighting a corrupt local sheriff so they could keep making ‘shine, and the second was about some really scary guys from some northern big city who arrived in a small town in the south and terrorized the locals. The scary guys from the city were black. The locals were white.
At the time we were watching those movies, Missouri had two Democrats in the Senate and nine Democrats in the House, and one Republican.
Years later, when I moved to Hollywood, I learned there was a whole industry of filmmaking in L.A. devoted to the small town drive-in and local grindhouse circuit. There were a couple of studios that would mock-up a bunch of movie posters with sample movie titles and presumed “stars” as depicted by graphic artists and drive them around the rural Midwest and South and put them up outside movie theaters and drive-ins. Then they’d check in with the local theater owners and see which movie posters got the most attention. Then they would assign scripts to fit the titles and shoot the movies on very low budgets with C and D level “stars.” Then they would distribute the movies and rake in the bucks. They were called “exploitation movies.” What was being exploited in the movies at that rural Missouri drive-in was class and racial attitudes. For profit.
Let me tell you who was making those movies. Hollywood liberals. They were distributing them to the people who worked in that factory in rural Missouri making baseball caps, and others like them. The executives who owned those movie companies lived in big houses in Beverly Hills, drove Mercedes and BMW cars, and I can tell you from working out there, they paid themselves very, very well. Some of their companies probably even owned corporate jets, or at least Beechcraft King Airs.
Those movie executives in Hollywood and the attitudes they had about the people who lived in Southeast Missouri are the reason the Democratic Party has pretty much lost the Midwest and South. So are the corporate executives from places like New York and Chicago and L.A. and San Francisco who have closed down factories like the little baseball cap plant in Missouri and sent the jobs overseas. The executives at the New York City hedge funds and venture capital firms and huge corporations who have bought-up smaller companies and centralized everything on the coasts have hollowed-out the center of the country as they’ve flown around in their Gulfstreams and skied in Aspen and attended the clusterfuck in Davos every year. Some of them are Democrats.
Over the years that I traveled to Southeast Missouri to go canoeing and fishing, the Democratic Party began its strategy of concentrating on the “battleground states.” You’d watch the political coverage, and it was all Florida and Ohio and Pennsylvania. Democrats went from contesting the whole country in elections to counting on holding the Northeast and West and what did they call it before it fell in 2016? Oh yeah, I remember. The “blue wall” in the “rust belt:” Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The mistake Democrats have made over the last 40 years is to think that the people in Missouri who worked in that baseball cap factory are stupid, that they wouldn’t notice when Democrats stopped courting labor and went looking for contributions from hedge funders and venture capitalists on Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the same guys — and they are almost all guys — who started paying themselves so much money they’d make even Harold Geneen blush, if he was still with us. CEO pay went from about 25 times that of an average worker in the 1970s to 361 times as much. Indexed yearly income of the average American worker in 2016 was about eight times what it was in 1970.
Missouri went from being a bellwether state — from 1910 to 2004, Missouri voted for the candidate who won the White House every time except one — to sold red. Its voters fled the Democratic Party and started electing Republicans to represent them in Congress and in the White House.
One of the biggest mistakes Democrats have made over the last 40 years is that they stopped shaming these rich fuckers like The New York Times did to Geneen in the early 70’s. That’s what they were doing — pointing to his greed and saying shame on you.
I’m living out here in the Hamptons, and I’m surrounded by rich Democrats who have no shame. They live in gigantic mansions near the ocean, surrounded by tall hedges, and they fly out here on Gulfstreams and helicopters, and they drive around in Porsches and Ferraris, and they don’t care if you see them and their greed. In fact, they want you to. This is where Hillary Clinton came in August of 2016 to raise money. Right here, to the Hamptons. And she wasn’t raising it from Republicans.
We’ve done this to ourselves. Big time rich Republicans went to Davos, so big time rich Democrats went, too. Big time rich Republicans like Harold Geneen (a major contributor to Richard Nixon) started paying themselves unreasonable sums of money, so big time rich Democrats did too. It starts there, and it dribbles down through the rest of the Democratic Party. Republicans can get away with it, because they don’t give a shit, but they’re good at pretending that they do. Democrats actually do give a shit, so they don’t even have to pretend, but they’re terrible at telling people they really do care, and they really do want to do stuff and have done stuff that matters. (Hello, Social Security and Medicare! Can you hear me?) Part of the problem is, they’re too busy copying the assholes who don’t give a shit.
You can’t copy what the other guys are doing and expect nobody to notice. They notice, all right. They might not actually lay eyes on you standing around in the backyards of liberal Democrats in Sagaponack, sipping Rose and nibbling Scotch salmon appetizers, but they know. All the way from Southeast Missouri, they know. And they vote.
We saw them vote for Josh Hawley, a suit filled with air that wasn’t even hot, over Claire McCaskill on Tuesday. We saw them vote six more Republicans into the House. They’ll do it again in 2020, and they’ll help return Donald Trump to the White House if we don’t stop copying Republicans and start acting like Democrats.