Monday, September 06, 2010

Labour Day, 2010

Last week, as we drove into downtown Toronto, my wife spotted a fellow sleeping on a bench. He was covered with a green garbage bag. Luckily, the week had been unseasonably warm. The poignancy of his situation hit us with some force because, two hours earlier, we had watched a clip about a house which had recently come on the market in Edmonton, Alberta. It was a cavernous place, equipped with the latest technology, including a driveway complete with several drains and submerged electric cables. The owner would part with his property for a mere $5.25 million.

In Canada, there is something faintly ridiculous about owning a heated driveway. It conjures up images of pre-World War II France, sitting smugly behind the Maginot Line, certain that it could avoid invasion -- either by the Germans or the armies of Old Man Winter. In four months time, the guy on the bench will be scrambling to find whatever protection he can.

I thought of him again when we got home and I read Bob Herbert's column in Saturday's New York Times. Herbert told the story of sixteen janitors who had been laid off from their jobs at a "luxury complex" owned by J.P. Morgan Chase. The janitors had been paid the princely sum of $13.50 an hour. Herbert noted wryly that each janitor's weekly take home pay "wouldn't cover Jamie Dimon's [Morgan Chase's chief executive] dinner tab." Morgan Chase's second quarter profit was $4.8 billion.

And so, on this Labour Day -- in both Canada and the United States -- we find ourselves facing The Great Divide. The numbers of the homeless and the unemployed are growing exponentially, while the captains of the economy -- thanks to taxpayer bailouts -- continue to proper, moving from one palace to another.

In the meantime, the word "shared" -- as in "shared risk," "shared sacrifice," "shared responsibility" and (as Robert Reich has pointed out ) "shared prosperity" -- has disappeared from the public lexicon. The irony, as Reich also observes, is that the economy will never recover unless and until we rediscover a sense of shared prosperity.

Labour Day used to be about shared prosperity. Today, with only 7% of the private workforce unionized, there is little to celebrate. The fellow on the bench knows that. He is easy to ignore. But we ignore him at our peril.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.


Colette Amelia said...

great food for thought. And just how does one wrestle the riches away from the rich so our country will be more democratic? I think we are in for some interesting times.

Owen Gray said...

That is a question more of us should be "wrestling" with.

I don't have the answer; but I do know that, until many more of us focus on the problem, there will be no solution.

ChrisJ said...

It is an important social, and also very personal, question to wrestle with.

I believe that before we can really fix this, we have to ask how much we are willing to give up or do without. And I mean this in the most concrete way - is remodelling a bathroom okay? with modestly priced stuff? is the expensive tile okay? (kitchens, flooring, etc?)

I also don't know the answer, but we do have to ask the question.

Owen Gray said...

You're right, Chris. The essential question is, "How much is enough?"

We have assumed for along time that "enough" is what we want, not what we need.

But the truth is that, if we get what we want, we are often taking from those who need.

Anonymous said...

I know this probably sounds absurd but what makes you think this isn't a choice by the man sleeping on a bench? Why should you judge him or the wealthy person? What happened to keeping to yourself and not trying to induce your 'justice' on someone else. Leave the man in the park and the wealthy to themselves and let's take more care of our own weaknesses without trying to enforce your perspective on others.

Owen Gray said...

If he's there by choice -- and not by circumstance -- I'm all for leaving him alone.

I've never been very comfortable with the folks from the mission who make you listen to a sermon before you can eat.

But the evidence is that there are a lot of people who have lost their homes and their jobs. To let them languish or -- worse still -- to lay them off in a search for higher profit margins is immoral.

What really bothers me is the sophistry which some use to justify that kind of selfishness.

Anonymous said...

Dear fellow anonymous:

Undoubtably, the man on the bench has chosen to be there. I assume there were no chains. The problem is that his choices are probably far more limited than the wealthy man's.

You seem to be championing the egalitarian laws that either allow (or prohibit) "rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges."

And I suspect that, notwithstanding the wonders of wi-fi, none of us is writing from under a bridge.


Owen Gray said...

It really is about the range of choices, isn't it? It was Scott Fitzgerald who said, "The rich are not like the rest of us."

Meaning they have more options than most of us -- to the point of getting away with murder, like Daisy Buchanan.

Any nation which calls itself a democracy should be opening doors -- and options -- to its citizens.