Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day or Judgement Day?

A holiday honoring labor is a bittersweet form of recognition considering our current economic realities. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the sleeper of the season, but it provides cold comfort, underlying as it does the growing disparity in wealth that characterizes modern capitalist economies (and apparently hearkening back to the eponymous Das Kapital). As events in Ferguson and elsewhere indicate apartheid is still alive, but economic disparities cut an even broader swath with the rich growing exponentially richer while those on the lower end of the food chain (of all races and colors) struggling to see salary increases that cover inflation. Economic disparities in turn translate into educational ones in which a small class of students coming from affluent backgrounds are educated at a level in which their less fortunate peers can hardly compete.  “Generation Later, Poor are Still Rare at Elite Colleges,” (NYT, 8/25/14) read a recent Times headline. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,  Marx dealt with the nefarious effects of industrialization. Economy of scale created the need for division of labor that alienated the worker from the product he or she was creating. The monotony of the assembly line epitomizes this condition. But the characteristic of the our new society is the dichotomy between those who work and those who profit from other people's work, with the rewards of the latter becomingly increasingly out of sync with those who labor by the sweat of their brow. Yes it’s a free market, but how does one justify hedge fund managers and venture capitalists who make millions, even billions by hitting a button, while doctors, lawyers, accountants constitute a professional class which is increasingly hard put to pay tuitions for their children at the self-same elite colleges they once attended. As alumni their children’s applications may have been favored, but the privilege is a two-edged sword when the tuition bills arrive. In the l950’s educated professionals were still at the top of the heap, but in our current economy many highly educated people spend years paying off their college and graduate school debt only to be faced with the reality of decreased buying power and even further debt. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the problems of blue collar workers who are threatened with the potential insolvency of the safety net provided by the social security system. Retirement is increasingly becoming a luxury that fewer blue or white collar workers can readily afford.

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