Brief Thoughts on Labor Day


Back in 1963, I met Father Charles Dismas Clark. He was a Catholic priest who worked with ex-cons in St. Louis, trying to get them to go straight. There’d recently been a movie about him, The Hoodlum Priest, so when he had a speaking engagement at the University of Missouri, everyone knew who he was.


He was very affable, and a good raconteur. But one thing I particularly remember is that he said the greatest problem he had dealing with ex-cons was their cynicism: they thought anybody who actually worked for a living was a sucker. As far as I know, they wouldn’t be familiar with “sense of entitlement,” but that’s what they thought – that they were entitled to anything they could get from those suckers.


It’s Labor Day, and we’re supposed to be honoring those who work for a living. But ordinary workers don’t have a lot to celebrate; millions have lost their jobs in the current recession, wages are stagnant, and prospects are dim. There’s been a lot of talk about “class warfare,” mostly from those on the Right who don’t want higher taxes on the rich, but also from those on the Left who are convinced the System is deliberately out to screw the working class.


Something I haven’t seen any comment on, however, is the divide between those at all income levels who follow the work ethic and those who think, like those ex-cons in St. Louis, that anybody who works for a living is a sucker. Yet I think that the public at large senses the difference. When people rail against the rich, they aren’t thinking about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs; they’re thinking about the kind of people on Wall Street who waxed fat on peddling those notorious derivatives that took down the economy. When they rail against the unions, they aren’t thinking about construction workers, but the kind of teachers who do little but baby-sit their classes.


Understanding the difference between workers and drones is essential. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates contribute more to the economy that any plumber, bricklayer, electrician or auto mechanic. But put together, all those plumbers, bricklayers, electricians and auto mechanics contribute far more to the economy than the day traders and hedge fund managers and other parasites who infest Wall Street – if, indeed, the latter contribute anything at all. Gordon Gekko, in Wall Street, was famous for saying “Greed is Good.” But he also said “I create nothing,” and took pride in doing so.


From top to bottom in the economy, and in all walks of life, we need people who create something of value, and take pride in doing so. Without a change in our economic culture, none of the proposed fixes to be debated on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks will do a damn bit of good.


--Brantley Thompson Elkins, Sept. 5, 2011