One of the biggest problems our nation faces, is that for all of our talk about how hard we work and how much Americans love working, we don’t actually value work—not really, if we take some time to think about it.
After all, if we adjust for inflation, the average American is making about as much as they did in the 1980’s (about $33,000), even though worker productivity has increased an average of 2% a year since that time. Some economists paint an even worse picture, showing that real wages for all working age men have fallen 19% since 1970. Add to that widespread unemployment and underemployment, a minimum wage that is a pittance compared to what it was in the 1960’s, and a decline in union membership from 20.1% in 1983 to just 11.3% in 2012, and it becomes pretty clear: the U.S. economic system doesn’t value work—it’s worth less now than any time in the last 50-60 years.
Indeed, the great irony is that the party who supposedly loves work the most, the party who’s constantly insisting that most people’s problems could be solved by getting a job and supporting a family, is the same party who’s most consistent work in government has been to devalue work. Republicans oppose increasing the minimum wage. They oppose unions. They oppose safety laws. In fact, one of the only things the party of “no” has been for in the last few decades, is making sure that companies who moved their operations overseas and outsourced American manufacturing jobs, received massive tax breaks. So despite all their crowing about work being a wonderful thing, in reality, Republicans hate work—they’ve done everything in their power to make sure that work is worth as little as possible in modern America.
Worse, while Republicans undermine the value of work at every turn, they complain—at the same time—that too many Americans are “takers”, relying on some form of government assistance. Obama’s the “food-stamp President” right? But the real question is, if the GOP is opposed to the concept of a living wage, and believes that businesses will go under if they have to provide healthcare to their employees, then just what the hell are workers supposed to do? As it is, full time minimum wage workers barely earn enough to escape poverty. The truth is that the U.S. government is subsidizing any company that doesn’t pay a living wage and/or provide health insurance to its employees. Food stamps and Medicaid, in other words, aren’t necessary because people are lazy—they’re necessary because so many American jobs pay such lousy wages that their workers can’t survive without government assistance! So socialism’s OK as long as it benefits WalMart.
Meanwhile, the same people that insist these suck-ass wages are the only way their businesses can compete are collecting dividend checks while they sit on their butts sipping drinks by the pool. In fact, while the rest of us have been suffering along in a horrible economy that no one in Washington seems to care about, the top 1% have been raking it in, capturing 121% of all income gains between 2009 and 2011. In 2010, for instance, the richest Americans captured 93% of all income growth.
The gall of these people who categorize minimum wage earners as “takers”, and their masters, for lack of a better term, as “makers”, is simply extraordinary. In truth it is the complete opposite: the stock holders, the bankers, and the CEO’s who’ve seen their incomes explode in the last decade while the rest of us have been stuck in neutral, are the takers. They take the work, the labor, of their employees, turn it into profit, and then pocket everything, all while lobbying Congress incessantly to lower their taxes or subsidize their private jets. It’s absolutely disgusting, and the Republicans who continue to tell us that running our economy in this way will somehow result in the creation of more jobs or higher wages are the biggest liars the civilized world has ever tolerated.
At some point, this has to stop. If our economy is going to recover, and if our country is going a fair, decent, moral nation, all workers deserve to earn a decent wage; isn’t it reasonable to expect that anyone who works 40 hours a week—at any job—ought to be compensated to the point where they don’t have to use government food stamps to survive?
Think of it this way: southern plantation owners complained that their entire economic system depended on slavery—if we got rid of it, they argued, it would ruin their way of life. Essentially, Republicans, CEO’s, and the like, are saying something very similar about low-wage workers today—we’ll bankrupt their companies, they insist, if we make them pay higher wages. It will cost jobs, they say (it won’t, by the way). But our society decided that slavery was immoral, and we sacrificed the lives of millions of Americans to rid ourselves of an economy—a way of life—that relied on slave labor to survive. In much the same way, we need to recognize, now, that it is immoral not to pay every worker, at every job, a wage that is high enough so that they can feed themselves, clothe themselves, and house themselves, without relying on the government to support them.
How can our society possibly promote the idea of hard work as a virtue, if in the end, people who work hard can’t support themselves? How can we possibly promote the idea of hard work as a virtue, when the average salary for American workers is shrinking? How can we possibly promote the idea of hard work as a virtue, when the people who actually do the work, make a pittance compared to people who sit on their butts and manipulate the stock market?
It can’t go on. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to. We can have full employment, and in fact, there’s no reason not to. The government has already passed several acts to this effect, but here’s the basic idea: the government simply employs anyone willing to work at a fixed rate—say $9.25 an hour indexed to inflation—the rate being proposed as the national minimum wage. As the economy recovers, people would naturally move into the private job market, because they could ultimately earn much higher wages. In the meantime, however, people that currently aren’t working could be put to work doing all kinds of productive things for society, from painting the roofs of buildings white to conserve energy, to constructing new roads, improving infrastructure, etc. Additionally, with such a guarantee, we could essentially eliminate welfare and foodstamps, since no one could say that they couldn’t find work, and everyone would be able to afford to feed themselves and their families. All such workers and their families would also be automatically enrolled in Medicaid, so no one would have to worry about losing their healthcare if they lost their job. Perhaps the best thing about this kind of policy is that people would continue to work, gain skills, and be productive members of society, rather than simply sucking off government while sitting on the couch.
Why wouldn’t we do this? The answer is that if we truly value work, there’s no reason not to.