FORDLANDIA: THE RISE AND FALL OF HENRY FORD’S FORGOTTEN JUNGLE CITY
By Greg Grandin
Metropolitan Books, $27.50, 432 pages, illus.
Reviewed by Brett M. Decker
Industrial boom-and-bust cycles have driven the rise and demise of large areas since the Industrial Revolution mechanized the world. Some of the losers in capitalism’s big game can be found in the unlikeliest of places - such as the Brazilian jungle.
Up the Tapajos River, a tributary to the mighty Amazon, Henry Ford established a plantation the size of Tennessee to produce rubber for his automobile business, which was the world’s largest. As New York University associate professor Greg Grandin explains in “Fordlandia,” Ford Motor Co. planted its stake in the middle of nowhere, 18 hours by boat from the Amazonas provincial capital of Manaus. This city is 2,716 miles from Rio de Janeiro - the distance between Washington, D.C. and Seattle.
In the 1920s, half of all cars in the world were Ford Model Ts. By the time the model was discontinued in 1927, more than 15 million Tin Lizzies had been sold. The car’s creator, and founder of the company that still bears his name and is run by the Ford family 106 years later, was the richest man in the world. Ford is known as the man who put America on wheels because he made it possible for the masses to buy cars, which had been the exclusive preserve of the wealthy before the arrival of the Model T.
As the industrialist himself put it: “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for … it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one - and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
Ford was more than an automotive engineer; he also was a social engineer. He was a strong defender of American exceptionalism who insisted that his immigrant work force take courses in English and U.S. history and civics as a job requirement. His worldview was based on the principle that social revolution and chaos could be avoided if the lower classes had better jobs and a better standard of living. He believed creating new opportunities could allow the working class to be raised without lowering the investor class.
In 1914, the Wall Street Journal castigated Ford for “economic blunders if not crimes” when he instituted the unheard-of wage of $5 per day for an eight-hour work day. The policy wasn’t entirely benevolent. Central to his idea was that paying people better wages made it possible for them to purchase the products they made, creating millions of new customers.
Ford could only sell cars to the masses if he could make them cheaper and better than anyone else. To accomplish this, he standardized the assembly process using interchangeable parts and the moving assembly line that could churn out a finished automobile every three minutes. Vertical integration, a business strategy in which a company controls every aspect of production and distribution of a product, meant that Ford had major holdings in countless sectors of the economy.
From start to finish, Ford Motor Co. controlled every step of the process from developing raw materials to driving a complete automobile off the assembly line and selling it. And that’s where the Amazon comes into play.
The material demands of feeding massive factories sparked a war for resources that spanned the globe. In many instances, company towns were established where resources were located. Iron City, Mich., was built amid the great forests of the Upper Peninsula to provide timber for Ford cars. The problem was rubber could not be grown in Michigan, and cars require a lot of rubber for tires, hoses and numerous other parts.
The British Empire enjoyed a virtual monopoly on rubber, which came from its vast colonial plantations in Malaya. With this monopoly came the ability to fix prices. After World War I devastated the British economy, the British government cut back on the rubber supply to drive up prices, and thus earnings for the Exchequer.View Entire Story
Brett M. Decker, former Editorial Page Editor for The Washington Times, was an editorial page writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, Senior Vice President of the Export-Import Bank, Senior Vice President of Pentagon Federal Credit Union, speechwriter to then-House Majority Whip (later Majority Leader) Tom DeLay and reporter and television producer for the legendary Robert ...
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