Our Vanishing Middle Class Part Two

When I say we need an economy that works for people I mean that we need to put Wall Street back in the service of industry and stop it from using industry to generate more money for the wealthy. We need an economy that uses investments to put people to work at living wage jobs, and a government that understands that it has a role to play in that planning, and in employing workers to build the world we will want to live in.

Now some people will say, “Industry is business, and the goal of business is to make money. What’s wrong with that?” It's always a difficult balance to achieve: If a business does well at making a good product or providing a good service, and if they keep their employees happy, there's a strong chance their customers will be happy, their employees will be well-trained and stick with the company instead of moving on and creating high turnover, which is expensive to deal with, etc.

There’s a fair amount of history here that I don’t want to get bogged down in. The progressive movement of the last 150 years, that brought us the income tax as a means to adjust for the rapid changes in the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy so the burden of taxation was shared more equally by those who greatly benefited from the shift, exposed the dark side of predatory capitalism. A distinction (in its extreme) between industrialists and business owners who have a different purpose is that an industrialist produces something and has interest in the technology related to what he is producing. A businessman doesn't care anything about what is produced only in whether or not it can make money. You may recall Michael Moore’s test of CEOs who knew nothing about the products they made. It is rarity today that someone at the top knows how real things work. Henry Ford on the other hand built cars and from that he made the company that followed after.

Another sign of the shift in our country from a people who made things to a people who make money is in a little story about French President Francois Mitterrand, who after returning from a Grand Canyon summit with President Reagan, examined the tomahawk he purchased in the souvenir shop turning over to notice a ‘made in Taiwan’ sticker remarked to his aide, “what is it these Americans make anyway?”

During Jonathan Edward’s campaign for president he talked about our not having an economy that values work. This is another way of saying that we need an economy that works for people. But Edwards didn’t talk much about the reason this is so. Our economy as it exists now works against people because it values low wages. Why does it do this? Because predators are in charge who see short term profits in getting workers to work for less or to automate in order to increase “productivity.” It’s about how investors can get a faster return on their investment. A short-term gain for investors means a long-term loss for workers as we saw in the Enron case. It is possible to make something and make a profit without cheating someone; but it’s not easy with all the attention focused on high performance for shareholders who no longer seem interested in slow steady progress. An economy that works for people has to value the workers in the system and not just profits for shareholders and that may mean a slower return but in the long run it is what will secure us a stable middle class.

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