Finally, I Understand Labor Day


I never understood Labor Day. It made no sense: there's a holiday to celebrate work? You celebrate work by taking a day off? What?

This morning I read this essay by Michael called Who are the wealth creators? in Salon.

Well, who are the wealth creators? That is one of those questions I never really had to confront growing up as the happy child of white-collar capitalists. Sure, I took a semester-long course in free enterprise in high school--you had to to graduate--but I swear we didn't really confront this question. I think we just assumed that wealth was like matter: it had always existed, or else it had existed for so long that there was no point of imagining a time when it hadn't existed. Without ever really thinking about it, I was sort of willing to operate on the assumption that one of my in-laws explicitly avows: "Wealth is limitless, not a pie. The fact that someone else has a really big piece doesn't mean that my piece necessarily has to be any smaller." And although I was sort of smart enough, even as a high school student, to know that wasn't true, I didn't care, because I didn't really know any poor people--or at least, if I knew poor people, I didn't know they were poor. Every student in my tiny school showed up each morning reasonably dressed. No one looked underfed. How bad could being poor be? It probably wasn't all that much worse than not being rich, which we weren't, but we didn't suffer particularly from want.

Of course, I've come a long way since then. I've realized that being poor can be pretty bad. But more concerned with the question of "who controls wealth?", I never stopped to ask the question, "Who creates wealth?" until I was confronted with it. Turns out different schools of thought have different answers to that question. Lind writes,

The entire basis of conservative "trickle-down" economics is the idea that the economy will grow faster if the supposed wealth creators [i.e., the rich] keep more of the profits of private enterprise, with less going to taxes and worker compensation.

If you believe this theory, then Labor Day should be a cause for national mourning. We should all pause to mourn the loss of capital that might have gone to a fifth or a sixth mansion or a private jet, but instead was conscripted against its will to pay for a public school or higher wages in a factory.

We should weep for the capital that might have given its life for high-end caterers but instead was forced by government to be spent on public hospital nurses. And we should grieve for the dollars that were wasted on public police protection, when they might have gone instead to private security guards in a gated community.

But maybe instead of mourning we should celebrate. Maybe Labor Day should be replaced by a new holiday to celebrate the tiny number of brilliant investors who, more or less single-handedly, are responsible for long-term economic progress. We should abolish Labor Day and replace it with Capital Day - a festive time when we, the majority of parasitic wealth destroyers whose income comes from wages rather than investments, can give our collective thanks to the small number of people who have most of the money.

Lind quotes some statements from Abraham Lincoln about the relation of labor to capital. These statements were interesting enough that I looked them up to find their original context and some of the bits Lind didn't quote. They're from an annual address to Congress, delivered December 3, 1861:

there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor, in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded thus far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And, further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now, there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. (emphasis added)

So that's what I'm celebrating today: the superiority of labor over capital. The ability and right to work. The time and capacity to create and/or produce useful and/or beautiful things (including but not limited to fruit orchards, socks, knitting needles, computer code, poetry, park benches, lattes with really nice designs made on the top with the foam, well designed university campuses, knowledge, safe and effective vaccines for pet diseases, toys that don't have lead in them, etc). The right to be compensated appropriately for making that useful and/or beautiful thing. And the right to reliable, comprehensive healthcare that is not contingent on your continuing to make something for a particular employer.


I would love to see how much capital would keep flowing to the swells, and for how long, if the laborers of this world stopped performing the work that really creates capital. What if the laborers just made things for themselves and each other? Oh well.

Happy Labor Day to you, too!

What if the laborers just made things for themselves and each other?

Exactly. I have never wanted to join a hippie commune so much in my entire life.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on September 7, 2009 8:11 AM.

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