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Friday, August 24, 2012

Labor Day

Recently I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Americans don’t redistribute wealth, they earn it.” I find this sentiment intriguing for several reasons. One is that distributing wealth is what governments do in complex societies, and what they have done since humans began making the transition from hunting and gathering, when wealth was tied up in the earth, there was no surplus, and resources were taken from the earth on an as needed basis.

            As people became sedentary and began farming, societies began to have a surplus, and rules needed to be established for how that surplus would be distributed. As societies became increasingly complex, new classes of people developed who contributed to society in ways other than growing food. These included warriors, priests, artisans and politicians (royalty), the latter deciding who got what share of the surplus. Since that time, societies have rarely distributed wealth to those who have worked the hardest (those who have earned it), but have used complex social, economic and political criteria to determine who should get what share.

            So it is in our society. One way of looking at our history is through the lens of distribution, and the ebb and flow of biases in how the economic rules are created that determine who gets what share of national resources. For example, movements like organized labor and progressive era trust busting, sought to change the rules to prevent the redistribution of wealth from labor to capital. And over the last several decades the supply side movement (remember when George H.W. Bush criticized Reagan’s “voodoo” economics?) has pressured government to prioritize capital over labor. Over the last thirty years, those who have their wealth wrapped up in labor, in the potential for earning wages and salaries, have seen their share of the surplus dwindle compared to those whose wealth is tied up in capital.

            Growing up as a pastor’s kid in the 1970s, I remember being struck that working class members of our congregations had a higher income than my Dad. Hourly laborers were noticeably and consistently better off than my father who had a master’s degree (granted he was a pastor, not exactly a high wage profession). Those were relatively good days to have wealth wrapped up in one’s labor. And the populism of those days looked down at the lazy rich who didn’t earn their wealth, but got it from someone else’s labor. Today’s populism celebrates the rich as job creators, and looks down at those who rely on food stamps (freeloading on government assistance) because their minimum wage job at Wall Street isn’t enough to make ends meet.

            To be sure, forces like globalization and automation of production are factors in this shift. But suppression of low level wages has been a matter of government policy. I remember being shocked in the 1970s when the business pages of the mainstream media expressed anxiety at the prospect of rising wages. Oh no! Workers might make more money! What surprised me most was that this was just taken as an economic fact. Increased wages are bad for the economy.

            Labor Day is an occasion to remember those in the Labor movement who have paved the way for the masses (us) to have a decent life, to not have to work 12 hours a day 7 days a week for a pittance, to receive a just wage, and to lead a reasonable comfortable life. These are good things, just things, reflecting biblical values, shalom values. Labor Day is more than just summer’s last hoorah, but an occasion to remember our date, celebrate what we have, and commit ourselves to a just sharing of what God created for all of us.


Unknown said...

For a well documented follow up to this comment on laborers in the U.S. today, come to Sojourners class on Sept. 2, when Joann Smith, of Seniors for Peace, will make a presentation on "Labor Justice." Ervin Beck

Anonymous said...