Woodrow Wilson on Efficiency


Woodrow Wilson on Efficiency


Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924




1912 January 27


Richard Olney introduces Woodrow Wilson before his address to the City Club of Boston about his progressive reforms in New Jersey.


Cary T. Grayson Papers, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, Staunton, Virginia




[Address delivered at banquet of real-estate men of Boston at the City Club, with introduction by the Hon. Richard Olney, Secretary of State during the administration of President Grover Cleveland, Jan. 27, 1912.]

Address by Richard Olney, Former Secretary of State, Introducing Gov. Wilson.

I recognize the part I am to play on this occasion and will at once relieve you of any apprehension that I am going to occupy any considerable portion of your time.

This club is nonpartisan, which means, I take it, not that a party man is barred out, but only that neither is his opponent or critic barred out. New Jersey has lent us her governor who in less than two years’ time has become a national figure of the first magnitude and whose name is now a household word from one end of the country to the other. If I may indicate very generally and briefly the characteristics of so short and yet so distinguished a career, I begin by asking you to note one which every citizen wants to see in every public man, be he of his own party or any other, and that is the capacity for leadership. The speech or the writing or the act even is as nothing to the man behind it and to the impression he makes of sincerity, trustworthiness, and general sanity of mind and thought. Be the merits of the great fight in the New Jersey Legislature of 1911 what they may, it brought out a sturdy and sagacious leadership, which won the admiration and respect of foes and the permanent confidence of friends.

There may be, of course, a wrong leadership as well as a right, and when the leadership of a great political party in a free country is concerned, what will be the evidence that the leadership will be wise, that it will rise to the height of great social and political problems; that on the one hand it will not be led away by the abstractions of the doctrinaire, nor on the other hand fail to recognize and apply the essential principles of all popular government? On that point no other or greater assurance is possible than that the leadership shall be a thoroughly educated and informed leadership, a result possible only if the leader shall have made the principles of political science the subject of the closest thought and study and shall have familiarized himself with the history of their application in his own country.

Finally, we live in times when not the foundation but the superstructure of our political house seems to be shaken by the winds of strange doctrines. The foundation is democratic and is solid and means government by the people for the people. But there is intense and widespread dissatisfaction because the claim and belief that our vaunted government by the people for the people is, in fact, government by a class for a class. The present and burning question for statesmanship is, What is the remedy? Is it less democracy or more democracy? Just what shape the prescription shall take—just what measures shall restore to the people their proper power over their own government—is a question over which men may honestly differ, will certainly exhaust the resources of the highest statesmanship, and, perhaps, will never be truly and finally answered until after a period of long and painful experiment.

I am about to present to you a man whose life work thus far is a conspicuous exhibit of the traits and convictions and accomplisments to which I have briefly referred. I am presenting him, not as a high official, nor as a candidate, nor as a Democrat, but as an American citizen entitled to the respect and esteem of men of whatever political faith; as a man who has made good wherever he has been tried; who has proved his possession of the inestimable gift of leadership; who has vindicated the claims to regard of the “scholar in politics”; who, sensible of the abuses which have come to disfigure the administration of popular government, has lost not a jot of faith in popular government itself; and who is of the type of men in whom lies the best hope for the country’s future. I may add that he has a capacity and propensity for telling the truth, which is not always to the advantage or satisfaction of those who ask for it.

Address of Woodrow Wilson.

Mr. President, your excellency, your honor, gentlemen of the real estate exchange, I am not going to talk about politics. I am simply going to discuss public questions. And there is a difference, a very great difference, between discussing politics and talking about public questions. Indeed, it is very difficult to talk politics in America now, because you can not be certain where any man you are talking to belongs.

There is what a football man would call a very broken field, and it is almost impossible to classify men any longer in America, at any rate, after you get them out of the field of their own businesses.

You can not classify a man about other things until you have talked to him for a long time; and it is incredible that a thoughtful man in this State should really be a standpatter, because the penalty of being such is that the whole of your generation and your civilization will run away from you if you don’t move with it.

The theme of my thought to-night as I came here is that we are not at the beginning of a new age, not at its immediate beginning, but near its beginning, and that everything, whether we wish it to do so or not, wears a new aspect for us. Almost every question which it is imperatively necessary we should consider and discuss is, if not a new question, now developed in such a new aspect for America that we must treat it as if it were a new question.

For example, it seems to me that the most pressing thing in America is the question of conservation, not merely the conservation of so much as remains of our unwasted resources—I do not mean the mere renewal of our forests; I do not mean mere preservation and a more economical use of our water power—I mean the preservation of our energies and of the genius of our people.

Questions of sanitation to me are questions of conservation; questions of morals are questions of conservation. You can not conserve the energy of America unless you give to its exercise the proper moral environment. You can not get the best work our of your workmen unless you make them by honest operations to believe that you regard them, not as your tools, but as your partners; and the whole conservation of America is a question of the supremacy of America, of her right thinking, and of her righteous action. We owe it to future generations that we should not waste or destroy our resources, and we owe it still more to future generations that we should not lower the vitality of our workingwomen, check the vitality of our children, demoralize the proceses of our life at any point. And yet how long is it since America troubled herself with questions of conservation? How long is it since we felt in the hey day of thoughtless youth, with so much youth at our hands, that we did not have to be careful in the economy of it; and how constantly did we rejoice that we had put ourselves in a position to be wasteful.

Almost every time public questions are discussed in this day somebody asks the question: “What is the leading question of the approaching political campaign?” Now, I don’t know what is the leading question, but I know what is the central question, or at least I think I do, because I find that every road leads to that question, and that it is the question of the tariff. The question of conservation leads straight to that same radical origin, to this road of the tariff, becasue by protecting ourselves from foreign competition—from the skill and energy and resourcefulness of other nations—we have felt ourselves at liberty to be wasteful in our own processes. I believe that it is one of the most serious consequences of the protective tariff that it has made it unnecessary that we should be careful and saving in our own industrial enterprises. I am going to return to that presently, but for the time being let me point out simply this: That we can afford behind the wall of our tariff to pay for business that we are not doing.

What I mean is this: Take almost any modern combination. Suppose that 20 factories are drawn together in a single organization. Those 20 factories are not all of them similarly equipped for efficiency and economy of action, and it constantly happens that after the necessary money is put into the capitalization for the union of those factories under a single organization a number of them are put out of operation rather than brought up to the hightest point of efficiency and thereafter are carried as dead enterprises. Now, you could not afford to do that if you had to make every part most efficient in action. You could not afford to carry cold furnaces; you could not afford to carry silent looms; you could not afford to put up shutters and make people to whom you sell your goods pay for what you paid to put up the shutters.

We can afford to carry dead business in this country because we have not exposed ourselves to universal competition with live business. And so, finding it possible to do things of that sort, we have gone further—we are paying for things we have not yet used.

There are combinations in this country, for example, in which men have bought mines which they have never opened and which they are carrying, and probably will carry, until the next generation, while we pay the piper. They don’t want anybody else to use the mines, and we are paying for what the next generation will use.

Have you realized the loads, the dead weights, that American business is carrying? You may not have analyzed it in this way, but whether you have analyzed it in this way or not, the prices we are paying for manufactured goods in this country tell the tale of what we have been trying to do. And when we swing our thought back to the question of conservation we see nothing less than this: That now we have got to the point where we have got to do something very different, because the question of trade is a new question in this country.

I have no doubt that the explanations which Gen. Bancroft offers for the falling off in the export business of Boston is one of the explanations for that decrease nationally. I have no doubt that the differential rate in favor of Baltimore has a great deal to do with it, but there is something else that has to do with it.

Have you looked at the general course of the export trade in this country? Don’t you know that the export of grain is steadily going down from natural causes? We used to produce so much more grain than we needed ourselves that we could afford to export enough to feed the greater part of the rest of the world.

But with the increase in our population at a greater rate than the productivity of our soil—or, rather, the use of our soil after the productive fashion—the exports of grain are falling because we need more of it ourselves, and during the same period when this has become marked our exports of manufactured articles have been increasing almost in spite of us by leaps and bounds.

While we have been producing less and less grain in proportion to our power of consumption, we have been producing more and more manufactured goods in proportion to our power of consumption, until now we have a surplus of manufactured goods of which we must get rid or else do an unprofitable business.

At this point we discover that we have done something very singular, considering we are Americans. In the first place, by processes which you know just as well as I do, we destroyed our commercial marine.

I am not going to try to distrubute the blame or to consider whether the measures which produced this effect were well considered at the outset or not. We can afford to be indifferent as to whether they were or not, because we are considering the present or future.

The point is now that you are more likely to see the flag of the little Kingdom of Greece on the seas than the flag of the United States. History shows, and this particular part of the country will bear witness to the statement, that whereas we were once noted as the common carriers of the Atlantic, whereas we once furnished the seamen and ships for a very considerable proportion of the commerce of the ocean, we have, for one reason or another, lost that carrying trade, and you also know, if you are merchants, that the nation which carries the world’s goods can generally see to it that its merchants get the markets.

When we need markets, therefore, now that we are needing them, we have not the hands by which to reach out and take them. Our merchant seamen are gone. Our ships have disappeared from the sea, our registry lists are short and insignificant, and by the same token, while we had surrounded ourselves with this wall of the tariff and were rejoicing in the great area of free trade which we could enjoy in America under our own vine and fig tree, we were becoming ignorant of the markets of the world.

Where are the great East Indian merchants who used to have offices in Boston? Where are those men who understood the tastes and the needs of the ends of the earth? Where are the men who knew exactly what to send to India in order to exchange for what India could send to us to satisfy our tastes and needs?

The great trading nations of the world are not those who understand only domestic needs and tastes. They are those who understand the foreign needs and tastes. I heard it quoted from a great cotton manufacturer to-day that if we only had 200,000,000 instead of 100,000,000 people in this country we would have enough people to take up the full capacity of the cotton factories of the United States.

Well, lacking the additional hundred million, what are we going to do with our surplus goods? We have got to do something we do not know how to do now to make cotton goods of the kind and pattern that are salable in all quarters of the world, and then to place them there.

But the tariff has made this extremely difficult, and at the same time we are preparing transformations for ourselves. What is the completion of that great ditch now being dug through the Isthmus going to mean to some of the Atlantic seaports? When you take the differential off which will even things between you and Baltimore, how are you going to see your way out—how are you going to prevent the great blood of the economic life of the Nation from running down the Mississippi Valley? Where are you going to be when the arteries run north and south instead of east and west?

And after you have got your dock frontage, how are you going to bring the ships of the world here if the currents of trade are shifting, shifting, shifting in spite of you?

Stand pat when the world is changing? Sit still when everything is altering, whether you want it to alter or not? Tell your politicians to let you alone to the enjoyment of your false security when you are not secured at all? When the world itself is being transformed, will you refuse yoruselves to alter your thinking?

There is no such lack of intelligence in this great city of Boston as to dream of the possibility of an inconceivable thing like that. You have got, in order to relieve the plethora, in order to use the energy of the capital of America, to break the chrysalis that we have been in. We have bound ourselves hand and foot in a smug domestic helplessness by this jacket of a tariff we have wound around us. [Applause.] We are not about to change the tariff because men in this country have changed their theories about the tariff. We are going to change it because the conditions of America are going to burst through it and are now bursting through it.

You can not fight a Spanish war and join the family of nations in international affairs and still keep your gaze directed inward upon yourself, because along with the singular change that came upon us, that notably altered or affected the very character of our Government, the Nation itself began to be a different thing. Have you ever thought of the history of our Government, of the history of the Executive part of it? Do you not know that down to the period when we began to shut our doors tight against foreign commercial intercourse the Executive was the most important part of the Government of the United States, and then we went through a long period when, except for the Civil War when there was concentrated energy to be found, the Executive counted for almost nothing and the Congress for almost everything, because every question was a neighborhood question? It was our own. We had not any national spokesman such as the Executive is prepared to serve us. And then came the Spanish War, and since then do you think it is a question that the Executive has again become a conspicuous part of this Government? So soon as a nation must act you must have a body through which it can act. So soon as it becomes a single will you have to have a lodgment for the guiding intelligence, a single will in every nation that is important in international relations—a strong guiding Executive—not because it deliberately chooses to have it, but because it has no choice—it must have it. And so while we have waited and drifted in altruistic fashion into a war for the sake of the Cubans, we altered the center of gravity of our Government. Will we never learn this fact: That you do not make governments by theories? You accomodate theories to the circumstances. Theories are generalizations from the facts. The facts do not spring out of the theories. If they did we would have a very symmetrically ordered series of facts, but the facts break in and ignore the theories—contemptuously smash the theories—and as our life is, as our thought is, so will our Government be.

Very well; our thoughts are concentrated upon ourselves. Now, we are changing our point of view and looking abroad upon the face of the earth, seeking to allow ourselves an outline into the general field of competition, which includes the whole round globe. In the meantime what have we done? Do you really think that the tariff has produced efficiency? Do you believe that combinations, most of which have been made possible by the tariff, have had as their chief effect efficiency and economy? Every tyro knows that, up to a certain point, combination produces economy. But it does not necessarily produce efficiency. That depends upon who runs the combination and on the amount of brains invested, not on the amount of capital pooled; and after you have got your combination, what do you do with it? I do not mean what you say you do with it in public discussions. What do you actually do with it? You have only to ask to look into the testimony before the Stanley Committee; you have only to look into the testimony in the trial of the meat packers; you have only to look in the public records to find what is done with some combinations. There are private understandings with regard to prices. Everybody knows that, and that the penalty of not observing those prices and keeping to them is to be put out of the combination, and it looks—I will not make this as assertion, but I will venture to say—as if the object of some combinations was the prices, not the efficiency, not economy, but the avoiding of the very things that make economy and efficiency absolutely imperative. I do not have to be efficient over and above the point that the men I am in competition with makes it necessary that I should be efficient. If I know enough to know more than the fellow that I am competing with I do not have to increase my knowledge. If I understand the game well enough to check-mate him I do not have to understand it any better, and if I can enter into an understanding with him I do not have to understand it at all. [Laughter.] So that my conviction is—and I think that the admission of every candid mind will be—that in recent decades we have been decreasing our efficiency.

There is only one thing upon which efficiency depends, and that is the whole thing. You can not get efficiency out of your workmen if you overdrive them, any more than you can get it out of your machines if you overdrive them. Did you ever notice how much more tender and considerate of their machines some American manufacturers are then they are of the human beings they employ? Do not you know that every thoughtful manufacturer studies what his machinery will bear, and he will dismiss an employee who puts more on that machine than it can bear or than he ought to put on it? Very well; does he dismiss the same superintendent who puts more on the human muscle and spirit than it can bear? Not often. When you find a manufacturer who is considerate of the strain on his men and who makes them feel that he is taking as much care of them as of his machinery you find the most efficient establishment in the trade. [Applause.]

Would it not be a good idea to draw your cost sheets after a new fashion? Would it not be a good idea to have a cost sheet to show the strain put upon the men in every respect—not merely the physical strain, but a sheet which would show the strain put on them by lack of ventilation in the factory, by the lack of opportunities of amusement, by the absence of the feeling on the part of the workmen that they are really regarded as essential partners in a mutual undertaking which makes every man just as eager to make the product good as his employer could possibly be? It would be a moral balance sheet of the whole industry of the Nation. Do not you see how I am traveling in a circle? It is a question of conservation. Conservation is a question of efficiency. Efficiency depends upon those finer economies which assemble all the elements of energy, and economy is simply another way of spelling the word honesty, thriftiness, getting out of every ton of coal every unit of energy that there is in it without waste, throwing nothing away, making profit out of everything, but particularly out of your relations with your fellow men.

We have this question to answer, therefore, gentlemen, and this is the central question of all politics and it is a perfectly nonpartisan question: What do you want, the economical adjustment, the moral adjustment, the physical adjustment which will produce these results, or do you want a fetish, called protection, behind which there will be waste, plus security? Do you really want to admit that you can not make the American Nation more efficient than any other nation in the world?

The only reason that America is efficient is that American brains are capable of entering into any competition that you can conceive of. The central thing is that so long as we keep American life relatively what we intended it to be, we have only to import a workman who earns 30 cents a day on the other side of the water and find him in an employ earning $2 a day on this side of the water. A man can not change the dexterity of his fingers or his physical make-up in a month, but he can change his point of view. He can catch the infection of the factory in which he works. He can recognize under the intelligent supervision of the superintendent that through his participation and because he has become a constituent part of the great throbbing American machine that we call civilization he can be an infinitely better workman than he is anywhere else.

When you want to cut down your working force, which of your workmen do you dismiss first? Those that get the smallest wages. You don’t dismiss the high-priced men first. If you did you would dismiss the president and secretaries first and superintendents, and you can not get on without those who earn the larger salaries. You don’t dismiss from the top, but from the bottom, which is your admission that the most economical labor you have it your highest-priced labor. That is what you can not dispense with. It is high priced not because of the tariff. Oh, I wish I had time to explode that ancient myth. No thoughtful economist in the world knows so little as not to be able to explode it. Only business men who will not take the pains to become economists believe it, and some of them do not believe it.

A friend of mine who travels all over the world and sells a certain kind of American machine tells me he can sell $350 machines in competition with an $80 machine that does the same work because the $350 machine is more economical, it produces more in a given time and better goods in a given time, yields more to the intelligence of those who use it in a given time than the $80 machine, and the $350 machine is cheaper, produces a smaller labor cost than the $80 machine.

And the man who earns $10 a day, if he really earns it, is cheaper to you than the $1 a day man. And you can afford nothing so ill as to turn away from the idea, from the conception, that American labor is supreme because it is intelligent and not because it gets higher wages. That is a false reasoning; you are putting the cart before the horse. American labor gets higher wages because it is more valuable. Now, any intelligent labor can compete with any pauper labor, and the intellectual absurdity of “protecting” intelligent men from unintelligent is too patent to need explanation. When I hear the reports that tell of protecting American laborers that I know of against the pauper labor of Europe I can only smile that my fellow voters are so gullible.

Now, gentlemen, you can not afford to be narrow in the presence of change, and you can not afford to think that your legislators and your executives are bringing change upon you. Neither can you afford to think that you can take no guiding part in the change. We are facing a new age, with new objects, new objects of American trade and manufacture, because the minute you begin to make models for foreign sale you have to change the machinery, the whole point of view. We are facing new objects with new standards, the standards of cosmopolitan intelligence instead of provincial intelligence, and with a new conception of what it means to produce wealth and produce prosperity. The prosperity of America has often been checked, but it has seldom been aided by legislation. I wonder how any man can keep the red corpuscles in his blood from getting up and shouting when he realizes the age that we are entering upon.

I was saying to-day to some of the fellows out at Harvard that I wished I had been born 20 years later, so that I could have had 20 years more of this exhilarating century upon which we have entered, a century which greets the challenge to originative effort. This is no century for any man who looks over his shoulder; it is no century for any man who has no stomach for the facts that change even while he tries to digest them; a century in which America is to prove once more whether she has any right to claim leadership in the world of originative politics and originative economic effort. This is a century just as worth living in as was the eighteenth century, better worth living in than was the nineteenth century.

When I hear men say that you are attacking American civilization by proposing, not rapid, but slow, steady—if necessary, organic—changes to meet the facts, I wonder what they think of when they look at the flag of the United States. The flag of the United States stands for the biggest kick on record.

The flag of the United States, in my imagination, consists of alternate strips of white parchment upon which are written the aspirations of men, and streams of blood poured out to verify their hope, and in the corner of that flag sparkle the stars of those States that have one after another swung into the firmament to show that there is a God in heaven, that men will not abandon hope so long as they have confidence in the God of righteousness, the God of justice, the God of liberty. [Loud applause.]




Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924, “Woodrow Wilson on Efficiency,” 1912 January 27, WWP20691, Cary T. Grayson Papers, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.