Some thoughts on labor on Labor Day.
“The workers are the saviors of society, the redeemers of the race.” — Eugene V. Debs, 1905
There’s a divide in this country.
More than the political or ideological divides that provide the waterpower to mill the grist of outrage each day.
It’s a division over wealth.
The concept is nothing new; I remember my middle-class parents lamenting the same concept for years, complaining that “the rich get richer.”
Seneca, tutor and advisor to Nero for many years, grew in influence until he was the second most wealthy Roman of his time; he was roundly criticized for not living in a way consistent with his Stoic ideals.
And so we arrive at present-day, mired in frustrations as the economy attempts to approach a recognizable cadence: fast food drive-through windows with hand-made signs beseeching 14- and 15-year-old help; customer service hold times with airlines that last longer than transcontinental flights; and the limited impact of cutting unemployment benefits on job growth.
“The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.” — Voltaire
We seem to be at that portion of the cycle that Lewis H. Lapham recognized in 2011 (“The Servant Problem”):
“Purse-lipped and solemn, the commentators for the Financial Times and MSNBC mention the harm done to the country’s credit rating, deplore the trade and budget deficits, discuss the cutting back of pensions and public services. From the tone of the conversation, I can imagine myself at a lawn party somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, listening to the lady in the flowered hat talk about the difficulty of finding decent help.
“The framing of the country’s unemployment trouble as an unfortunate metastasis of the servant problem should come as no surprise. The country is in the hands of an affluent oligarchy content with Voltaire’s reading of its rights. ”
Increasingly in the decade since Lapham penned those timeless words, we have come to rely on Voltaire’s pithy and pitiful observation: a service economy relies on servants.
And here we are, about to enter another COVID winter where we’ll be dependent on the service industry — not to mention the legions of healthcare workers who are silently fighting the most difficult battle — and we’ve made virtually no progress in making their lives easier.
To be sure, there have been increases in starting wages, but there’s been no movement in increasing the federal minimum wage. Congress has allowed the minimum wage to plummet in real terms, neither adjusted for inflation nor any other factor.
Our GDP, where finance outstrips manufacturing by a 2-to-1 margin, is being increasingly represented by the uber-wealthy. 1
Spend some time pondering that chart. And then consider this simple recommendation:
Just a one-time tax.
On the heels of a pandemic.
The Grim Reaper has collected nearly 700,000 souls as a result of the coronavirus, although the pace has slowed since the vaccine was introduced.
The 400 grim reapers continue to gather their harvest, with no end in sight.
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1926
I’ll leave you with this bit of satire from Anna Russell, who, in lampooning local arts efforts, also skewered the rich, in “How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera.” The bit opens with a song sung by a homogenous chorus of the New York upper crust:
“We are the Great Four Hundred,
If you want to know who we are,
We put on airs ’cause our forefathers
Came over with the Mayflower.
And it’s very very snappy
If your mammy or your pappy
Is descended from the Mayflower
We’re in the Social Register,
All lower-class types we shun,
And to keep our niche we must stay very rich
’Cause we’ll be thrown out when we’ve none.
And it’s very very funny
When you’ve lots and lots of money
To be horrible to those with none.”
Something to think about on this Labor Day.
Be good to each other.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Follow-up essay for Premium subscribers:
Get access to it for free: