Robert Reich, Labor Sec. in the 90s, had a sobering editorial in the Times a few days ago. He spells out the reasons why our current recession is so stubborn. The problem is that labor in this country is not what it was at our height. From the article:
“Organized labor is down to about 7 percent of the private work force. Members of non-organized labor — most of the rest of us — are unemployed, underemployed or underwater.”
“The median male worker earns less today, adjusted for inflation, than he did 30 years ago.”
“By the mid-2000s, the typical male worker was putting in roughly 100 hours more each year than two decades before, and the typical female worker about 200 hours more.”
“In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income.”
The problems with our economy are systemic and have been a long time coming. Reich proposes some common sense measures that I’m sure will be ignored by Congress, pilloried by the Right, and remain the stuff of progressive fantasy. The most depressing part of this predicament is that the public is increasingly ignorant of history: how corporations control almost all our wealth and make a killing from shipping our jobs overseas, how FDR’s New Deal created the middle class and ensured its prosperity and how a modern day New Deal would carry a hefty price tag but would pay enormous dividends in the long run.
President Obama, for his part, seems to get it, at least partly. The Times reports that he will announce $50 billion over the next 6 years to address our crumbling infrastructure, with a focus on transportation. While the dollar amount is likely too small, I’m positive that is aimed at peeling off any Republican support he can in Congress. However, reading through the comments, it is clear that the public’s ignorance is still a determining factor as well. Despite spelling out how these measures would be paid for, many seem to think that this money we don’t have. The truth is, we have the money, it’s just concentrated in very, very few hands. The Right has been blathering on for almost a year now about the deficit, as if that were the most important thing to worry about. Others focus on the last stimulus, conveniently ignoring its role in saving the economy while vomiting out talking points about how it’s a failure.
If we are to return to prosperity, we have to rebuild the middle class. Reich’s suggestions, though likely impossible in today’s political environment, are a good start. So is Obama’s infrastructure package. Eliminating subsidies for oil and gas companies, allowing the tax cuts for the richest Americans to expire and focusing on manufacturing things like rail cars, solar panels, and other stuff we need could start to reverse course. I urge all of us, while we light the charcoal this Labor Day, to think back (or read on the internet) to where we were after WWII and the reasons for it. Government exists to take care of its citizens, in good times and bad. Part of that charge is making sure the middle class is protected and expanding. If we can collectively take a deep breath and examine the facts behind previous booms in our country, we would see that choking the federal government as the right-wing and the Teabaggers want, would ensure that we will never dig out of our hole. We are 30 years behind where we need to be as a nation. If we don’t start catching up, then the next Labor Day there will be even less cause for celebration.
(cross-posted on the Examiner.com)