Alternate Approaches

Down from Filene’s Basement

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is trampling on the needs of average businesspeople — and the legacy of the progressive merchant who may well rate as America’s most innovative business thinker ever.

By Sam Pizzigati

Lobbyists and top execs from the hedge fund and investment banking industries stormed Capitol Hill last week. Their not-so-secret mission: to put the kabosh on any congressional move to regulate the lucrative speculation that has so pumped up prices at the gas pump.

The hedgies and investment bankers may soon have some more broad-based business lobbying help. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Post reports, is “seriously considering” joining the alliance to keep the world safe for global commodity speculators.

That move, at first glance, make little senses. Higher oil prices are making life more aggravating for the vast majority of businesses the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is supposed to represent. So why is the Chamber even considering a cozy up with the crowd that’s raking in billions from higher oil prices?

The answer: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce no longer has much interest in standing up for average businessmen and women. The Chamber has become an ideological warrior fixated on fighting anything that smacks of government “intervention” in the “free market,” be that intervention higher taxes on the rich or regulation of the corporate shenanigans that make the rich richer.

The wealthier the wealthy become, the Chamber firmly believes, the better the business climate for all business people. The sad irony in this Chamber stance: Nearly a century ago, a co-founder of the original U.S. Chamber of Commerce believed the exact opposite.

That co-founder, Edward A. Filene from Boston, ranked among the most eminent businessmen of his time. Historically, he still ranks high. Indeed, this remarkably progressive merchant may well rate as America’s most innovative business thinker ever. 

Filene began his business career, one biographer notes, at a time when standard business operating procedure held “that it is better to sell an article at a profit of one dollar than to sell it at a profit of one cent.” Filene challenged that notion. The lower the profit margin on an article for sale, his long years of merchandising experience had taught him, the greater the potential sales volume — and business success.

True mass production, Filene contended, rests not on production of masses of goods, but production for masses of people. Commercial success, he believed, hinges ultimately on the average customer’s power to purchase. Given this reality, Filene argued in lectures and books, sound business policy should always strive to expand the average consumer’s purchasing power.

Filene practiced what he preached. Within his own enterprise, he bargained collectively with employees, instituted profit-sharing, and supplemented salaries with a then-novel array of fringe benefits.

But Filene’s vision extended far beyond the shelves of his showcase department store in Boston. To help average working people gain access to affordable credit, he laid the foundation for the American credit union movement. To help keep cash from concentrating at the top of the economic ladder, he actively supported high progressive tax rates on the incomes of the rich.

“Why shouldn’t the American people take half my money from me?” he famously quipped. “I took all of it from them.”

Filene’s personal mission included encouraging this sense of community-mindedness among his business brethren. His work organizing first the Boston Chamber of Commerce and later the U.S. Chamber reflected that commitment.

The U.S. Chamber has long since institutionally buried the memory — and philosophy — of Edward Filene. But the Filene name does live on, as the brand name of a chain store that trumpets one of his more enduring retail innovations, the “bargain basement.”

Maybe one day we’ll remember Filene for something even more important. The life’s work of Edward Filene helped forge the egalitarian social and political consensus that beat back the plutocracy of the original Gilded Age and created the unprecedented economic equality of America’s mid 20th century. That’s a legacy worth honoring. 

And that’s the legacy our contemporary Chamber of Commerce is so venally staining.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies.

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