9/2/2002

 

Labor Day

 

First, a note to the letter writer who thought I was unfair to Viet Nam vets; you must have missed my Memorial Day column. Itís at my website, www.tomcantlon.com. As I said then, I thank anyone who did what their conscience led them to do.

 

But today is Labor Day and Iíd like to touch on that subject before continuing next time on how conservative and liberal interests overlap.

 

Labor Day is in honor of labor in the broad sense, but Iíd like to touch on one particular aspect, the current unpopularity of all the labor support programs. By those I mean unemployment insurance, unions, minimum wage rates, welfare, etc. (Why welfare? Because a job offered at a wage less than welfare rates is not likely to be taken; sort of an indirect minimum wage.)

 

As conservative a person as columnist George Will has pointed out that a healthy free-market economy does not exist in a full laissez-faire atmosphere. There have to be some controlling factors to avoid the excesses, like a Federal Trade Commission to guard against unhealthy monopolies.

 

Adam Smith himself said that the lowest level workers would always be at subsistence level, that thatís the natural order of an unregulated free-market system. The only thing that changes that are the labor support programs. Donít believe it? Look at our own history over the last century or so.

 

In the late 1800s we had a virtually full-laissez-faire, no-holds-barred economy. What was the result? Some of the widest disparities between rich and poor in our history, not much middle-class, robber-barons, monopolies, and ďowe your soul to the company storeĒ virtual slave-labor conditions. We learned some lessons and, for one thing, restricted monopolies.

 

Out of the Depression came the New Deal and the beginnings of labor support programs. With the end of WWII and all the G.I.s who went to college on the G.I. Bill we ended up with a healthy middle-class. Unions reached a peak, and all the labor support programs played an important role in raising the lower wage earners and in turn the middle-class. The disparity between rich and poor shrank, and all those middle-class consumers fired up a healthy economy.

 

These days, unions have shrunk, minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation, companies have gotten more savvy about how to get more for less from their employees (like part time work that doesnít come with health insurance) and we have a widening disparity between rich and poor.

 

You have probably, without even realizing it, dealt with people who work for a couple dollars and hour. In some of the finest restaurants in Prescott waiters and waitresses can be paid a sub-minimum wage while earning tips. But frequently theyíre required to work an hour before or after their regular shift, cleaning the kitchen and such, still on that sub-minimum wage.It just proves that without regulation, subsistence would be the norm.

 

Itís not a matter of labor needing a handout. Itís just the normal regulation of whatís needed for a healthy economy, just like requiring your bank to keep a certain percentage of your deposits on hand.

 

Oh, and next time you dine, leave a generous tip.