Three millionaires from the late 19th and early 20th centuries may explain why conservatives are so outraged many young Americans are enamored with “democratic socialism.”

George Westinghouse invented air brakes for trains in 1869, drills for oil and natural gas, central switchboards for telephones and the modern power station to transmit electricity.

He paid employees well, established the first pension plan and provided paid vacations, free medical benefits and profit sharing. He created a company town with affordable housing and modern conveniences.

Labor leader Samuel Gompers said, “If all employers treated their employees like Westinghouse did, there would be no need for unions.”

Samuel Insull, another patron saint in the electrification of the nation, helped establish the Illinois State Public Utility Commission to ensure companies continued to invest to meet demand at reasonable prices.

During the Great Depression, he raised money to supplement the pay for teachers, police and firefighters.

George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, established employee profit-sharing retirement, life insurance, disability and savings plans. He distributed 18 percent of his personal profit to his workers.

Eastman promoted diverse hiring — women, minorities, the disabled and ex-convicts — and donated to black colleges.

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Contrast that to today’s titans of industry so beholden to stockholder value that massive layoffs ensue if quarterly reports indicate profits declined. The Economic Policy Institute reported in 2018 that the average pay of a chief executive officer was 271 times the average worker ($58,000).

“Pensions” in the private sector have become something from a bygone era. According to the Los Angeles Times, annual deductibles in job-based health plans have nearly quadrupled in the past 12 years to more than a $1,300 average, which four in 10 workers lack the savings to cover.

Instead of supporting public employees, Republican legislatures have been slashing benefits.

Regulatory measures for the public good and the environment have given way to business considerations. Tuition costs have skyrocketed.

The prevailing ethic is big tax cuts for the wealthy, while assuaging workers with a pittance.

So it shouldn’t be surprising a Harris Poll in March found 49 percent of young Americans would prefer living in a socialist country, 73 percent favor universal health care and 67 percent want free college tuition.

President Donald Trump and conservative commentators are outraged. Yet Trump’s Federal Reserve Board nominee Stephen Moore, founder of the Club for Greed (er, Growth), is the poster man for problem. He stepped aside only after reports he shorted his ex-wife $300,000 on alimony and the IRS $75,000 in taxes.

I identify as a capitalist and “pragmatic Democratic.” Growing up with socialist parents made for nightly contentious dinner debates. They denounced my compassionate business heroes as anomalies and anachronisms.

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Saul Shapiro is the retired editor of The Courier, living in Cedar Falls.


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