So on this Labor Day, I’d like to call for more courage, especially by those of us, and I include myself, who are shy to the point of apologetic about what needs to change, about re-balancing labor’s power with respect to that of capital.
That framing itself — labor vs. capital — has become a “no-no” in polite company. To tee it up that way is to engage in “class warfare” or, far worse, to invoke accusations of Marxism. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argues that framing the argument this way is akin to “preying on the emotions of fear, envy and resentment” and “sowing social unrest.”
It’s a fascinating counterattack, as it explicitly states that what is actually a critically important response to the extent of today’s economic imbalances — social unrest — is a negative. Of course, such unrest is a fundamental and essential touchstone of democracies and, conversely, a forbidden act in oppressive political systems. And yet here is a top Republican legislator, a former and surely future aspirant of higher office, arguing that “social unrest” is something to be avoided.
It is not incidental that budgets written by Ryan propose to cut trillions in spending on those in need and trillions in taxes on the wealthy. And to do so at a time when the share of income going to the top 1 percent is twice what it was before inequality began inexorably climbing (households in the top 1 percent now hold 22 percent of the national income compared with 10 percent in 1979).
I reject the arguments of those bemoaning class warfare when they themselves are envoys of the winning class.
A trenchant Labor Day analysis thus requires us to ask this existential, if impolitic, question: Why is capital so strong and labor so weak in today’s America?
The fact that the private-sector unions represent only 7 percent of the workforce is both part of the explanation and a vivid sign of who’s winning the class war (public-sector unions, historically less vulnerable to outside pressure, represent a much larger 35 percent of the public workforce, but they’re under attack as well). Again, it’s no accident that the decline of unions is correlated with the increasing concentration of wealth.
I’ve argued elsewhere that “economics, as currently practiced, is part of the problem. Not the discipline itself, which historically has been flexible enough to offer wide ranging and useful tools for analyzing and solving economic problems, but the way it interacts with wealth and power today to support capital and hamstring labor.”
And here again is where courage comes in. It is incumbent upon those of us in this debate, from pundits to policymakers, to aggressively challenge the dominant arguments, the “facts” that are not facts at all, the faux “research” that’s bought and paid for by those who ordered up the phony results, from labor market policy to climate change.
You know the claims:
— We can’t have unions in a competitive global economy because that will create competitive disadvantages that will ultimately hurt, not help, the working class;
— We can’t regulate financial markets or tax our corporations because they’ll flee our borders.
— We can’t raise the minimum wage because employers will lay off the affected workers.
— We can’t tax a polluter because that will crash our GDP.
— We can’t provide a safety net benefit to someone out of work because it will just discourage them from getting a job.
When it comes to addressing the imbalances plaguing our economy, whether it’s the doubling of inequality noted above or the fact that in this five-year-old economic recovery, equity markets are up 92 percent in real terms while middle-class incomes are down 3 percent — it’s “we can’t, we can’t, we can’t.”
On the other hand, cut a high-end tax rate, whack a safety net program (as in the Ryan budget), get rid of the minimum wage, unions, financial oversight, and growth, jobs and financial liquidity will allegedly flourish.
The facts, as noted, show otherwise. Yet those of us seeking to level the playing field so working families can get at least a fair shot at claiming some of the productivity growth they’re helping to create too often act as if this is a fair, balanced and reality-based argument.
It is not, and the sooner we accept that, the greater the likelihood we might make some actual progress. Let’s not put too fine a point on it: What’s really going on here is that our historically high wealth concentration is interacting with our historically low firewalls between money and politics, providing capital with a massive weapon against labor. Those supporting the currently skewed distribution of wealth and power can buy not just the research results they want, but the policies. As political economist Suresh Naidu put it, “In a thoroughly marketized world, the wealthy can purchase educational reform …think-tanks, legislative language…”
In what way can courage make a difference here? The first step is forcefully and relentlessly calling out the reality of these power imbalances, as Franklin Roosevelt did in his 1936 reelection bid.
He spoke plainly and bravely about the class warfare of his era, noting the same “amazing paradox” (his words) I stressed above:
“The very employers and politicians and publishers who talk most loudly of class antagonism and the destruction of the American system now undermine that system by this attempt to coerce the votes of the wage earners of this country.”
He spoke of “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
“They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”
Brave words for our time. On this Labor Day, let us not stand up boldly for a mere few hours and praise labor, only to passively go back to work tomorrow in support of the broken institutions that no longer serve the majority. Let’s have the courage to tap the broad social unrest that left unaddressed just morphs into abject pessimism and hopelessness. We’ll surely ruffle some feathers and we’ll make a lot of people uncomfortable. But if no one’s uncomfortable, those of us who claim to be fighting for economic justice are not doing our jobs.