After his legacy to boost the working class, Ben Franklin would be shocked by today’s ‘innovation’ economy
Michael Meyer is the author of Benjamin Franklin’s Last Gamble: The Dividing Death of the Favorite Founder, the Lasting Afterlife, and the Blueprint for American Prosperity. (HarperCollins, April 12). He lives in Taipei. @meyerwriter
Shortly before his death in April 1790, Benjamin Franklin added a final stroke of inventiveness to his legacy. At a time when the demise of the United States seemed more likely than its success—the banking system was nascent and the dollar so unstable it had not yet become the official currency—Franklin bet on the working class whose continued prosperity he felt crucial to the survival of the United States.
The son of a candle maker, himself an industrious printer and inveterate handyman, believed that the “leather apron class” was the foundation of American democracy. “Good apprentices”, ailing Franklin added at the end of his will (which was a pleasure to keep, at the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia) “are the most likely to make good citizens”. He knew that the people we now call blue collar workers provided essential services while interacting daily with people of different classes and beliefs. They took the pulse of political and economic life at street level and laid the foundations for a healthy society. They also lacked economic autonomy. “Strange,” noted poor Richard, in an observation that is still topical, that he who lives on Shifts, rarely can change himself.”
The industrious Franklin would prick his fellow tradesmen to the grave. Ostensibly refusing to leave money to the gentrified university he founded – the present-day University of Pennsylvania – because it had strayed from his leveling vision of providing a practical education, our founding philanthropist instead left in Boston and Philadelphia £1,000 (equivalent to around $136,000 today, but then with the purchasing power of millions), to lend in small amounts to help skilled workers open their own businesses . Borrowers had to repay the loans within ten years, at an annual below-market interest rate of 5%. Although the term was not coined for two centuries, Franklin’s inventive program was a precursor to microfinance.
Franklin understood how a small amount of seedlings could multiply into a forest of greenery. The secret was patience: even a low rate of return, when compounded annually, would create a windfall (Warren Buffett, a modern follower of this strategy, calls it the Methuselah technique). In his will he predicted that after a hundred years his fund would reach £131,000. His twin hometowns were to spend most of the money on “public works, which may be deemed of the greatest utility to the inhabitants”.
After more than a decade of conflict, Boston used his gift to build the Franklin Union Trade School. The project only got off the ground in 1904 after Andrew Carnegie, impressed by Franklin’s far-sighted legacy, declared, “I’m going to match Ben Franklin.” He did it to the dime, sending the city $408,396.48. Later, Carnegie credited “my teacher, Franklin” as the inspiration for his philanthropic gifts. Franklin would probably have liked this result; he counted the matching grant—to fund the building of the Pennsylvania Hospital—among his favorite inventions. After rebuffing claims for money from disappointed Franklin descendants, Philadelphia eventually used its money to build the Franklin Institute science museum.
Franklin’s will stipulated that the remaining part of his fund would be loaned to merchants for another century. On the bicentennial of his death, he expected a jackpot in the tens of millions to be cashed out and spent by Americans in the 1990s. Franklin not only expected his borrowers to repay their loans, but he also ordered that the program be run free of charge, by professionals eager to help “the rising generation”. This legacy showed an unusually optimistic bent in the usually pragmatic founder. “Happy is he who expects nothing”, said poor Richard, “because he will never be disappointed.”
Surprisingly, given the fluctuations in the nation’s fortunes between the 18th and 20th centuries, Benjamin Franklin’s gamble paid off, but not in the way or with the results he predicted. Boston and Philadelphia in turn embraced and ignored Franklin’s vision amid technological revolutions, civil and world wars, defaulting borrowers, stock market crashes, political venality, the invention of investment banking and, this being an American story, of lawsuits. Although one city’s large final payout far exceeded that of the other, Franklin’s money remains remarkably in play today, funding skilled job training for young men and women. Most are minorities or, like his own family, immigrants betting that a better future awaits them in America.
In London, Franklin once opened a bottle of Madeira sent from Philadelphia and was shocked and delighted to see several little flies come out of their stupor and buzz. He wished humans could be embalmed this way, as he had “an extreme desire to see the state of America a hundred years from now”. If we uncorked a barrel and poured an embalmed Benjamin Franklin today, what would he think of the state of the country he helped found? Before allowing him to watch cable news or watch Twitter – imagine explaining everything that to him – we might relieve Franklin by recounting the result of his dying bequest.
He probably wouldn’t be surprised to see that his hometowns remain hives of commerce and learning, bustling with a mix of natives, transplants and immigrants. Would he be encouraged to hear about the rapid evolution of American philanthropy? Or would Franklin be amazed to discover that the nation’s nonprofits now employ more people than its manufacturers?
Franklin might wonder if these modern – what is the word “billionaires?” – rely on a workforce of merchants whose wages anchor them firmly in the middle class. The “new economy” would have to be explained to him, along with other additions to his friend Noah Webster’s English dictionary, including unskilled labora living wageand service sector, where 71% of Americans earn their living. Franklin loved words, and I suppose he would notice that the terms gig worker, self employedand independent contractor That sounds liberating but masks the fact that these positions — which are expected to make up half of the U.S. workforce by 2028 — free employers from having to pay benefits. I doubt her reaction to this “new normal” will be as happy as a crying laughing emoji.
Franklin would probably be shocked to learn that the United States has an abundance of four-year degree programs (and associated student debt), but an acute shortage of skilled workers. Where is the political will to reverse this trend? Franklin proudly considered himself a trader. Imagine his spitting wine when he learned that today less than 2% of members of Congress have ever held working-class jobs. As with the lessons of his life, Benjamin Franklin’s death still has much to teach us.