Labor Day? How About Labor Week?!?

Man grinding a piece of metal, 9-23-93 AP (file)

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.



Have you ever thought about how miserly Labor Day is?

I mean, we grind our tails off all year and the Gods of Holidays bestow upon us one lonely day of reward and respite. One day. Then on Tuesday morning, get the kids to school, commute for a couple hours, commit labor, make dinner, keep it up for a year and don't complain. Thanks, but they can take this holiday and shove it.

Labor Day 2006 calls for extra crankiness. This is an especially lousy time to be labor as opposed to mogul. I'm sorry to have to interrupt a perfectly good rant with factoids and statistics, but, alas, that's my job.

Put starkly, wages and income inequality are at Depression-era levels.

Wages and salaries as a share of the gross domestic product are at the lowest point since the Department of Commerce starting keeping track of such things in 1947. From the 1950s through the mid-1970s, wages as a slice of GDP were safely above 50 percent. The percentage then dropped until the mid-1990s when it crept back up through 2000. Now the number is at the record low; take home pay now makes up just 45.3 percent of GDP.

Hourly wages have fallen 2 percent since 2003, adjusting for inflation. In that same period, worker productivity has increased. Corporate profits — the fruits of labor and productivity — have also swelled. Which brings us to inequality.

There are lots of statistics about income inequality. Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez seem to be especially respected purveyors.

They report that just the top 10 percent of earners in 2004 consumed 42.9 percent of all earnings. Think about that: a tenth of those who labor account for nearly half of all earnings (not including capital gains!). The top 1 percent alone gobbles up 16.2 percent of total income.

There has not been an imbalance like this since the 1930s.

Think this will change when you get ready to cease laboring and retire? Think again. Beyond the collapse of Social Security, Medicare and all that doomsday stuff, consider this: 5 percent of baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) own 52 percent of all the financial assets owned by all baby boomers.

Happy Labor Day.

Many of those who are labor and are not moguls do have benefits that were not widely available in the Depression. And unemployment is not at Depression levels. That is why today's world doesn't look like a Depression world, despite the fact that real wages are at such a low.

But income inequality and lousy wages are changing the way the world looks, physically. Increasingly, rich people live around rich people, poor people live around poor people and middle people live around middle people.

Middle-income neighborhoods in metropolitan areas are disappearing. According to a much-cited report put out by the Brookings Institution this summer, middle-class neighborhoods as a portion of total metropolitan geography in 12 selected cities declined from 58 percent to 41 percent from 1970 to 2000.

I can't imagine that heightened economic segregation will lead to increased social generosity. Nor can I imagine it will lead somehow to a more productive and ingenious economy that will create ever bigger pies of wealth for labor to get slices of.

Labor unions helped create some of the benefit and wage growth of the 20th century. In the 21st, when unions are pretty much kaput as a major force, the effects of globalization are hugely unpredictable.

The economic behavior of baby boomers (5 percent controlling 52 percent of the financial assets, record-high levels of top corporate pay, record levels of income inequality) radically belies the kinder, gentler PC rhetoric and Starbucks aesthetic we insist on with such phoniness. Eventually, I think, we will be shown to be the Greediest Generation.

But for all that, we get Labor Day. Give me a week and maybe we can talk.



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington, D.C.


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Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.

By Dick Meyer
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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