Monday, September 6, 2010

Happy Labor Day?

I publish this, my 200th post, on Labor Day 2010, which is as good a time as any to extol the virtues of work, remind us all of the value of the worker to the nation's economy, and survey a few of the threats to our nation's workers.

Thanks to the Republican Party, this is not a good time to be a worker in the United States.  Illegal immigrants contribute to our economy by doing difficult, back-breaking work the rest of us would rather not do and by paying sales tax.  In this recession, however, they have become the target of misguided laws, while the people who hire them have, for the most part, escaped the public's wrath.  While health care reform was signed into law earlier this year, Republicans are attempting to create barriers to its implementation, even though the bill that became law wasn't anything close to what the American worker really needed, i.e., a single-payer system, or perhaps a system advocated by Sen. Ron Wyden.  Democratic attempts to make the economy more fair for consumers (e.g., passing credit card reform, creating a consumer protection agency) are met with hostility from the Republican Party. Republicans and some Democrats oppose the President's proposal to make the Bush tax cuts on the middle class permanent and to allow the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy to expire.  By opposing the proposal, they also oppose a more progressive income tax, even though the Bush tax cuts shifted the income tax burden onto the middle class in the last decade.

Whenever there is debate about the income tax, you can be certain that Republicans will call for tax cuts. Since endorsing tax cuts for the wealthy only is normally politically risky, they express support for tax cuts across the board. And that is what they are doing now by saying that the Bush tax cuts should not be allowed to expire, even though the strategy of proposing tax cuts as a solution to every problem is clearly unsustainable. On occasion, however, a Republican will argue that the wealthy deserve a tax cut at the expense of the middle class. The belief is that the wealth at the top will eventually trickle down to the middle class and everyone will be better off. I'm no economist, but I think that the best evidence most Republicans have for what is otherwise an article of faith is that Ronald Reagan claimed to believe it. And it is even argued that the wealthy become wealthy through their own hard work, and to tax them is to penalize them for their hard work. The implication is that those of us in the middle class are lazy and therefore deserve to be taxed, and that we would have been better off had we only worked harder. Debates over taxes thus often descend into attacks on the character of the American worker. We have even occasionally been called "whiners."

Virtually all middle class Americans are consumers. And this era of deregulation has made it more expensive and more hazardous to be a consumer, as Bob Sullivan illustrates in Gotcha Capitalism. Corporations nickel and dime us for doing business with them by requiring that we sign contracts no consumer can reasonably be expected to understand. This creates a huge drag on the economy: according to Sulllivan, Americans are charged around $45 billion in "sneaky fees" every year. This lack of respect for contracts and contract law is what has inspired Elizabeth Warren to urge that a consumer protection agency be created to protect American consumers, many of whom are middle class.

My goal is not to attack the wealthy today. All of us play an essential role in this economy: not only the wealthy CEO, but also the middle class workers who toil at the CEO's company over 40 hours a week. In the face of Republican propaganda, it is all too easy to forget the American worker. As Howard Dean noted some years ago, Republicans have been incredibly successful in convincing American workers themselves to neglect and vote against their own interests. This needs to end.

In "Is Inheritance Justified?" * D. W. Haslett identifies three values underlying capitalism:
  • Productivity: income ought to be distributed according to productivity.  
  • Equal Opportunity: every individual ought to have an equal opportunity to “pursue, successfully, the occupation of their choice.”  
  • Freedom: we ought to do what results in greater freedom.  
The first value is what concerns me here. Here's the idea: a free society cannot compel people to be productive; it can only entice them to do so. Distributing wealth according to productivity is the most effective way of encouraging productivity. (And it is a mistake to think that those who earn more in the market also necessarily produce more, so don't even go there.) By increasing the tax burden on middle class families, and by allowing corporations to prey upon middle class families, we actually discourage productivity and reward the possession of wealth and the employment of underhanded methods of making money.

If you are a middle class worker, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Don't let the Republican Party and their various propaganda outlets convince you otherwise. And don't be intimidated by politicians and CEO's who hope to benefit from increasing your economic misery. 

* Philosophy and Public Affairs 15 (1986): 122–155.

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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson