The War on Labor

There’s a war on everything these days.  The War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War on Women, and the War on Christmas.  Now, some of those may not actually look like warfare in the slightest and may just be overblowing a real issue to play on people’s emotions, but I say we throw another war on the pile.  While it may not actually involve a war, labor in the U.S. is currently facing a number of threats.

A values shift is the first threat.  Some of you may have noticed that younger folks often don’t want to work very hard or simply aren’t accustomed to it because our culture no longer values it or promotes it.  Hard work can easily be seen as something you do if you don’t have a “good” education or much talent.  Many well-meaning parents encouraged their children to get a college degree so that the next generation wouldn’t have to do the back-breaking brutal labor that they had experienced.  How’s that working out?  Well, I have a college degree and I’m currently a roofer for the summer and planning to keep working on my second degree in the fall because finding entry-level jobs that lead to a good career is currently damn near impossible if that tells you anything.  The other part of the value shift is in the increasing importance of wealth acquisition and the decreasing importance of integrity and character, something that is especially pernicious among the elites.  The virtue of selfishness is not a virtue that lends itself to a successful society, because obviously it’s directed entirely towards self-aggrandizement and does not spend a great deal of time considering everyone else.  So the folks at the top are getting theirs and leaving labor to fend for itself, and the labor itself is of decreasing quality because of a decreasing work ethic driven by the values shift.

But wait, it gets better.  The federal government is here to help by raising the minimum wage.  Only, it really doesn’t help that much because it doesn’t address the problem of corporate greed or the decreasing value of our labor due to a lack of experience and work ethic.  One of the reasons that outsourcing is so appealing and unions are increasingly unable to maintain their significance is that the cost of labor has been increasing arbitrarily rather than keeping pace with its value after you take into account inflation.  At least we can take comfort in the fact that we’ve ensured that poor but hard-working Americans have a living wage, right?  Well, not exactly.  The attempts to artificially create a living wage via government mandate have been keeping the unemployed in place and adding to their ranks.  Well, at least we have the labor unions to ensure everyone gets a living wage, right?  Sorry, but no.  Labor unions can play a very important role in keeping companies honest in how they treat their workers, but only so long as they cooperate with achieving the success of the business and the business actually cares about having good labor.  When labor unions become an obstacle to business, whether it’s refusing to get rid of a bad employee or employees who simply aren’t needed due to decreased demand for the product, engaging in corruption, or just pricing themselves out of the labor market, it’s not good for labor any more than it is for business because business will find another way to accomplish its goals.  Also, becoming a union member often requires knowing someone with pull, which not everyone does, so it’s not as if just anyone can get a good union job any more than they can get a good job in general.

Between greedy executives, well-meaning but inept government, and new cultural values, labor is facing a serious uphill battle.  So what can we do?  Well, to begin we can recognize that the problem isn’t as simple as getting the other party (Democrats or Republicans) to let you do your thing.  We have to recognize that the problems are more complex than either party’s favored strategy can address effectively.  Once we do that, we can move on to more practical items like including more vocational courses in public education, allowing young people who want to work do so at wages that match their lack of experience and training while giving them a chance to gain those things, shifting values away from selfishness and towards cooperation and moral integrity, and a whole host of other things.

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7 Responses to The War on Labor

  1. grim_truth says:

    It’s amazing to me how many people don’t really get why our economy is so bad and why unemployment is so high.  It doesn’t take a ton of research or years of study to realize that the economies that make it big are industrial economies.  Economies that actually produce something.  Tangible products, not services or fake somethings like Facebook.  During the industrial revolution is when we really saw a middle class form.  Before then it was rich and poor.  No middle class really to speak of.  Now, we’re seeing a shrinking middle class, and we don’t produce anything, and folks can’t seem to figure it all out.  It’s unfortunate, but for an economy and a nation to survive and remain strong, there need to be folks to do the manual labor.  Once those folks are gone, or refuse to do the manual labor, you can count on it that the economy will not only stumble, but fall flat on it’s face.  I remember when it was honorable to do manual labor.  When folks almost looked up to you more if you did manual labor than if you pushed pencils.  Now, if you tell someone you are a laborer, they are likely to shun you.  Those who demand higher wages for non-skilled labor are just as selfish as the big buisinesses that ship jobs overseas.  The companies wouldn’t be inclined to do so if they didn’t ask for so much.  No one can really blame either party, as both just want more for themselves from the other.  That’s another big problem.  We want too much.  I remember when only the rich had cable, air conditioning, and computers were for the mega-rich.  Our standard of living has increased so much in just a few decades and people don’t realize how good we actually have it for what little we actually do.

  2. mtngirlsouth says:

    I agree with both the previous commenters and the post in general. I make it a point to teach my children a good work ethic, and never to expect a “free lunch” because someone has to pay for it. I see our country in a downward spiral, and when it finally crashes and burns, I think my kids will be the ones who survive because they will be willing to work hard. But when it finally does happen, I think it is going to be really bad – really hard times for a while. 

  3. QuantumStorm says:

    This was fantastic. It may be rather tunnelvisioned of me to suggest this but I think one of the biggest issues we face is the lack of serious education reform. The system we have doesn’t actually breed innovative thinkers; in fact, I’d argue that many of the innovative and creative thinkers in our society thrive IN SPITE of the education system, not because of it. Our education system is a relic of the industrial revolution, and it does a good job of raising the standard of mediocrity, not actually promoting innovation and creative thinking that is vital to our country’s continued economic and military health. We need to reform the education system, retaining all the good aspects while discarding the bad. It wouldn’t hurt to look at other countries that are doing things successfully and learning from them. And while I’m very much a libertarian in terms of how much interference I’d like the government to have in education matters, I’m not averse to adopting non-libertarian methods of handling education as long as they’ve been proven to be effective. The key to improving the state of affairs in a democratic nation is to have informed citizens. To have informed citizens, we need a top-notch education system, one that teaches them how to think critically, not just how to pull levers on a machine or type numbers into a calculator. EDIT: On the selfishness aspect… One of the problems, I think, with countries that embrace selfishness too much is that it results in “every man for himself” which means that there is never any real emergent social structures that arise which promote cooperation for a greater good. All it’ll do is help maintain the status quo; there’ll never be any actual improvement in the quality of life. Part of what made the US a world superpower is that it struck a balance between individualism and freedom of self-expression, and social duty/obligation and teamwork. 

  4. quest4god says:

    @grim_truth – the last 20 years of my working life I spent producing custom millwork and designing for people who didn’t just want copies of everyone else’s homes.   I found that even though my work was superior, people wanted to pay only by the hour – and then more or less minimum; yet they would brag on the cost of some ready-made object, inferior in quality (I guess it was because they didn’t witness the labor going into it.Your observations are very much on target in this “war.”

  5. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @grim_truth – Excellent point.  I also feel very strongly about our wanting too much in general.  The baseline for what people expect as a “normal” standard of living has gone way up while the baseline for the amount of work they expect to do for it has gone way down.  It wouldn’t be quite as bad if folks expected a high standard of living but also expected to work like hell to get it.@QuantumStorm – Thank you, good sir.  I’m right there with you on education reform, and I like your approach to reforming it.  I too am less concerned about whether its public or private and more concerned about it being effective regardless of how the money gets there.And I dig your point about the need for balance between the individualism and social obligation.  Very true.  I don’t think free markets function correctly without that balance, and correct events seem to be bearing that out.@mtngirlsouth – I see it in a downward spiral too.  Funnily enough, I’ve already written my next blog post on that very topic, and you will be mentioned in it.  I hope you find it interesting. 

  6. I think you make some good points….I do have issue with this:allowing young people who want to work do so at wages that match their lack of experience and training while giving them a chance to gain those thingsSince when did we outlaw internships? Zero is about as low as you can go pay wise no?

  7. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @tendollar4ways – I don’t recall that we’ve outlawed internships.  Or apprenticeships for that matter.  But as I recall, we do have child labor laws that make it difficult for people to gain the job experience they need at an early age.

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