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Sep 03 2012

Troublesome Labor Day post

I’m sitting comfortably at home today, enjoying the Labor Day holiday, and wrestling with a post I want to write. Labor Day seems like a good day for it, because it’s about wage earners. But it’s giving me trouble.

Here’s what I want to say: I want to point out that most of the nation’s wealth is produced by wage earners—people who receive money in return for the productive work that they do in generating the goods and services that make up the nation’s wealth. But not everyone is a wage earner. There are other people who receive money, not as payment for goods/services produced, but because of their economic status.

Conservatives are famous for resenting the fact that the very poor are collecting welfare checks without working for them, but the fact is that the very rich do the same thing. It’s called “capital gains” instead of “welfare,” but no matter what you call it, it boils down to money you receive, not as wages for what you produce, but simply as a reward for being at either extreme on the financial spectrum. Investment, after all, is an alternative to acquiring money through earning wages.

That’s roughly what I want to say. I want to point out that liberals and conservatives (in the rank-and-file, at least) have shared concerns, in that wage earners are being asked to shoulder an unfair proportion of the burden of funding non-wage earners—an inequity that stems in large part from the fact that our laws are being written by people who are non-wage earners and who are stacking the deck in their own favor. That’s why taxes on wages are so much higher than the taxes on non-wages.

There’s an element of truth there that’s important and needs to be said. I’m just having trouble saying it.

The problem I’m having, of course, is that this is too simplistic. Investment is more than just using a lot of money to obtain control over even more money. Or at least it can be. To a certain extent, investors are performing a valuable, productive service by doing risk assessments, applying selective encouragement to enterprises that are likely to succeed, and absorbing the losses from the ones that fail. I don’t want to condemn all investments, because there is legitimate value there.

On the other hand, the fact that investments have legitimate value does not mean that non-wage earners never abuse their positions of power. And therein lies the rub, because with few exceptions the members of the legislature are not wage earners. How could they be? My family depends on my paycheck. I can’t quit my job just to run for Congress, and then take a chance that in 6 years or less I’ll be unemployed. My boss isn’t going to hold my position for that long. And what if I get re-elected? The financial constraints on a wage-earner make it very difficult for any of us to seriously consider running for office at the national level.

It all boils down to taxation without representation. Capital gains are taxed far less than wages because the people deciding the tax rates get most of their income from non-wages. The people who produce the wealth are not the people who control it, and the people who control it are making sure that more of it goes to non-wage earners than to wage earners. That’s not a Democrat vs. Republican issue, that’s a privileged vs unprivileged issue.

All this liberal vs. conservative sideshow is just a diversion to keep us from recognizing where the real division lies. It’s a strategy: keep the wage earners polarized and divided into liberal wage earners versus conservative wage earners, and keep them bickering with each other so that they never realize they have both a common interest and a common adversary. But turn off cable news for a while, and cool off from all the heated and irrational rhetoric, and just follow the money. When all is said and done, who ends up with the lion’s share? It’s not the wage earners, it’s not the poor, and it’s sure as hell not the multi-trillion-dollar-debt government, Democrat or Republican.

The top 20% of households in America control 93% of the wealth, leaving only 7% of the wealth for the other 80% of us. And of that 93%, almost 43% is controlled by the top 1%. They’re the ones deciding what we see on the news, and what laws the lobbyists will write, and how the flow of money will be directed. This isn’t a liberal vs. conservative issue, it’s unprivileged wage earners vs. privileged and powerful non-wage earners.

That’s what I want to say, but I want to say it clearly and accurately, without oversimplifying the issues or descending into cheap sloganeering. And it’s hard. Maybe some of you all have some suggestions?

11 comments

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  1. 1
    chewbacca-stylist

    Well, first off, anytime anyone raises such an issue, the right starts yelling “class warfare.” You might want to take a sidebar into that charge: is it? and if so, so what?

    “Class warfare” is in effect saying, “commie”. Indeed these are the very issues that Marx started from. Must the dead hand of Communism — and the equally dead hand of John Birch — continue to choke this debate? How can you hope to reframe the issue so as to escape the drag of history?

  2. 2
    chewbacca-stylist

    Oh, and — this might be relevant, or at least complementary:

    Yelling Bird says happy Labor Day!

  3. 3
    j.p.hollembaek

    to be honest, Chewbacca, I think Marx had good points when it came to the above issues.

    http://rdwolff.com/content/crisis-and-openings-introduction-marxism 90 minutes, but a good viewing.

    1. 3.1
      chewbacca-stylist

      Certainly he did. I wasn’t dissing Marx’s ideas; I was regretting how this country’s history virtually stifles any discussion, when the subject can be related at any distance to “communism” or even to “socialism.” It wasn’t just the work of the John Birch Society, although their fear-mongering was certainly central, but of several generations of politicians who found it useful or expedient to contrast “our” system to that the “reds”, and to vilify the latter.

      We still get the shadow of those years (the 50s through the 80s, roughly) in the “American Exceptionalism” so in evidence in the recent republican conventions. But it used to be not just “we are exceptional,” but “we are exceptional because we are not commies/socialists and never will be.”

      Something the Deac’ might want to take on as a smaller topic is the specific tactic used to “keep the wage earners polarized and divided” — to kill or weaken unions at every opportunity. The withering of the union movement has certainly aided the oligarchy.

  4. 4
    Bungoton

    Another point you could make is that money comes from people. The only way to get money is from your fellow human beings. Every time you receive money someone else loses some. When your boss gives you a pay check he loses that money. When you pay the grocery store for food you lose money and the store gains it. If inflation makes prices rise then we all lose a bit of buying power with the cash we have. When people make money without earning it, somebody else has to lose some of theirs.

  5. 5
    phil

    From “The Cocoanuts”

    Bellhops: We want our wages!
    Hammer: Wages? Do you want to be wage slaves? Answer me that!
    Bellhops: No.
    Hammer: No, of course not. But what makes wage slaves? Wages!

  6. 6
    Peter

    I’m surprised that some faithful follower of Rush & co hasn’t decided we need to rename Labor Day to “Rich Folks Day” or something similar. While we’re at it, why should union scum get a paid holiday? Billionaires never get a day off! If The Onion published something along those lines I bet it would be believed by many, and might even get support from some members of Congress.

  7. 7
    BethE

    Too late! Eric Cantor has already claimed Labor Day for the job creators!

    http://twitter.com/GOPLeader/statuses/242654833218293760

  8. 8
    smrnda

    Read it late. I think an issue with ‘investment’ is that investors don’t just put money in companies as if they were playing the lottery and then, depending on how a totally autonomous company does, accepting that they might gain or lose money. Investors decide how companies are run – they can vote to gut wages and benefits to increase the value of their investments, and they typically shift the risk onto workers. If a business is having a rough time, the investors will demand increased profits anyway, and will pass the losses onto workers in the form of stagnating or declining wages and benefits.

    The only solution, to me, is to pretty much prohibit people from earning money from passive ownership – workers should be setting the conditions that investors must agree to if they are to invest in the company so that it’s actually the investor and NOT the worker who takes the risk, since it so often is the other way around.

    The other problem is what investors do with the money they gain – instead of say, building a new hotel, an investor buys some existing hotels, cuts wages and benefits, demand more work from fewer people, and then comes out ahead. So in a lot of ways the rich make money not by being job creators, but by being job destroyers. After all, it’s a much safer investment to buy an existing business than open a new one.

  9. 9
    Deborah

    I don’t think the reason wage earners are under represented in Congress has anything to do with needing to earn a living – at least not after their term of office is done. Members of Congress are paid quite well, at least by wage earner standards, and they continue to make that forever. There would be no need to ever go back to one’s profession, even if you never stood another election again.

    Not being to run for office while employed – unlike a wealthy person or a politician who holds one office and runs for another – is likely a bigger issue. Funding, name recognition, and even ever having the desire to do it are other important factors.

    I am a wage earner, working class. I’m disaffected with politics but have considered volunteering for a party anyway in order to have more of a voice, at least locally. I have never considered running for any office.

    1. 9.1
      chewbacca-stylist

      > they continue to make that forever…

      They what? I don’t think this is so. And in fact, the notion they get a lifetime salary is an urban legend, here is a refutation:

      http://www.senate.gov/reference/common/faq/retirement_for_members.shtml

      Legislators who retire or are voted out are not paid (nor have their other sinecures like free postage). Since 1984 they participate in Social Security like everyone else.

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