Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer August 30, 2011

In the week since he announced he was stepping down as Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs has been accorded the kind of demigod status that Americans bestow on the handful of their countrymen who invent, manufacture and market the goods that change their lives for the better. Jobs has been compared to any number of iconic American innovators, but most tellingly to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

“Like Edison,” wrote the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta , Jobs “accomplished his imaginative feats without the crutch of survey results,” because, like Edison, he was imagining products unlike any that had previously existed. “Like Ford,” wrote the New York Times’s Joe Nocera , who “built the first automobile the middle class could afford,” Jobs brought out a line of inventions that Americans could buy even as their incomes flat-lined.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

It will take some time and perspective before we can judge whether the mouse (which Jobs popularized), the iPod, iPhone, iPad, iTunes and pixel animation measure up to Edison’s electric light, the recording of sound and motion pictures as seminal human creations (although with his invention of motion pictures, Edison created the technology for an entirely new art form — an achievement for which I can think of no modern parallel). It’s not too early, though, for a more definitive comparison between Jobs and Ford.

The father of the assembly line and the Model-T is celebrated (and occasionally condemned) for expanding mass production and mass consumption, for quickening the pace of life and enlarging the scope of cities. Like Edison, Jobs and any innovator whose creations lead to increases in productivity, Ford made his nation richer. In the process, though, he did something that Edison and Jobs didn’t do: He created a new socioeconomic formation — a decently paid working class.

Ford began producing his Model-T’s at his Highland Park, Mich., factory in 1913. One year later, he realized that he could expand his market by paying his workers enough that they could afford to buy the cars they produced. With that, he raised the pay of Ford assembly-line workers to an unheard-of $5 a day.

Ford didn’t just build the first car the middle class could afford; he built the middle class itself. The creation of the world’s first majority-middle-class nation was hardly Ford’s handiwork alone, of course. It took the involvement of people he viewed as his adversaries — business rivals, union leaders who got beat up by Ford’s goons but nonetheless organized industrial America, Franklin Roosevelt and the co-authors of the New Deal — to create the broadly shared prosperity that America enjoyed for the three decades that followed World War II.

Steve Jobs, by contrast, has worked wonders for American consumers, but like many of his business rivals he has abandoned nonprofessional American workers. It wasn’t always thus. In his first stint at Apple, in the mid-’80s, he built, with Jobsian attention to form and function, a heavily automated factory in Fremont, Calif., that employed hundreds of workers to turn out personal computers. But the Macs didn’t sell fast enough, Jobs was fired, and, in 1992, the factory was closed.

Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, and within a few years, the company began turning out its now-legendary product line. But its pods, pads and phones are all assembled in China by Foxconn, a Taiwanese-owned contractor that employs close to a million people, at least 250,000 of whom work solely on Jobs’s creations. Until last year, when a wave of worker suicides and labor unrest forced Foxconn to raise wages and cut hours, the men and women who make the stuff America loves worked 60-hour weeks at roughly 50 cents an hour.

Apple’s American employees are well paid. Stateside, Apple employs designers of hardware, software and packaging; marketers, managers, supply-chain gurus and financial whizzes — a very talented crew. But not a very large one: In its most recent annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Apple said it directly employs 47,000 people worldwide — perhaps 30,000 of whom work in the United States. It employs no U.S.-based production workers.

Which is why Jobs’s elevation to our national pantheon is premature.

Bringing some of those production jobs home while holding down the price of his products probably would require devising factories so automated that they wouldn’t employ all that many workers. Then again, Apple is sitting on $76 billion in cash, and Jobs is still Apple’s chairman. Devoting a few billion to reshape and restart American manufacturing, even if it employs fewer people than in Henry Ford’s time and narrows Apple’s profit margins, could work wonders for exports and, just possibly, lead to Jobs’s most amazing invention of all: a newly vibrant American working-class.

In America, we celebrate our great industrialists. We’re not likely, some years hence, to celebrate our great offshorers or the guys who built the companies with the most unexpended cash.

meyersonh@washpost.com