“What terrible sins I have working for me. I suppose it’s the wages.”
— George Spiggott, aka the Devil, “Bedazzled,” 1967
The social, economic and political upheavals of America’s past have often led to spasms of upward mobility — or, at least, mobility — as well as fits of movement toward our stated creed of equality.
Decisions during and after the Civil War set the stage for westward expansion and technological growth, with such things as Land Grant Colleges, the Homestead Act and the Transcontinental Railroad. Abraham Lincoln called upon us to honor the sacrifices of soldiers, saying it was our duty, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
The same spirit motivated us to act during and after World War II, with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower pushing for benefits for veterans, not just to heal their battle wounds but to pay their way through college and help them buy homes.
The result was a massive economic expansion, infrastructure improvements that literally reached the moon, strong labor unions and the rise of a robust middle class. All of it fueled, not impeded, by marginal tax rates on the top bracket that reached as high as 94%.
As we find our way back to the light after the long darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an opportunity to make another leap toward economic equality and security. If, that is, Utah’s Republican leaders and business class don’t succeed in stuffing the working class back into its pre-coronavirus sub-existence.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is all too eager to end the federally funded boost to weekly unemployment payments, arguing that the extra $300 a week for those on unemployment is fostering an indolent caste of workers who are not properly appreciative of the low-paid, high-effort jobs they are supposed to be flocking back to.
Cox, supported by U.S. Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, and others, are hewing to the Republican talking point that basically holds that people who aren’t lawyers, real estate developers or venture capitalists are fundamentally lazy and won’t work unless they are pushed and denied any public assistance. Because, obviously, if they weren’t lazy, they’d be lawyers, real estate developers or venture capitalists.
It is easy to wonder if a reason why Utah, and so many other places, have done so little to eliminate homelessness is that the obvious threat of being tossed out onto the street is seen as a useful inducement to keep people working at starvation-level jobs.
It is true that there are Help Wanted signs all around us. That restaurants particularly are having a hard time finding enough people to flip the burgers and bus the tables and get yelled at by customers who don’t think they should have to be vaccinated or wear masks around the peasants who should be grateful to have a job and not expect anyone to worry at all about their health.
But, really. If an extra $300 a week is such a significant boost to your income that you’d rather stick with unemployment than get back to a job, our leaders should at least consider the possibility that those jobs pay such an appallingly low wage as to be beneath contempt.
Perhaps a great many people who used to do those jobs have decided that, after a year of receiving a lot of what now seems to be empty praise for being “essential workers,” they are no longer being treated as essential and being pushed back to their previous status of expendable, beneath our notice, people who ought to know their place and keep quiet.
If they could afford it — if we had worker protections and strong unions and First World standards for all — it would become even more difficult to find workers to do all those dirty and unappreciated jobs and the market, not any law, would push wages not only to the $15 a hour Bernie Sanders has been pushing for, but even higher than that.
But that would mean that the law of supply and demand would have to apply to labor as well as to goods, and it is unlikely that our political system will ever allow that to happen.
It isn’t just wages, of course. Working people all across the nation are dealing with a stunning lack of affordable housing, affordable health care, affordable child care, affordable transportation, affordable education.
Instead of rising in revolt — or just joining together to withhold their labor from an economic system that isn’t paying them their due — working people are expected to be thankful for whatever scraps they get from the master’s table and stop expecting anything more.
Rising from the pandemic should have changed that, as rising from war did for previous generations.
The fact that it isn’t is a greater and more incurable disease than any nasty virus.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, assuages much there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I guilt by being generally a good tipper.