This Monday marks Labor Day, a time when we transition from summer to fall, schools begin and football moves from preseason to regular season. For me, a southerner, it also is the time to store my white shoes and handbags and to pull out my fall clothes -- as soon as the temperatures drop.
The first Labor Day was celebrated on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. It had nothing to do with sales, shoes or football. Instead, it involved more than10,000 people who had taken an unpaid day from work and marched from City Hall to Union Square in a visual display of the might of the American worker.
They were marching for better working conditions. Today, we might be thinking free Keurig, beer, casual dress, telecommuting and pingpong. But the working conditions of the late 19th century were very different. Our nation was transitioning from an agrarian to an industrialized country. Industrial workers often labored 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week just to get by (72 to 84 hours per week). Young children often worked in physically dangerous industrial jobs.
Today, 125 years after Congress passed a bill declaring the first Monday of September to be Labor Day, our nation has a very different focus. We have moved from celebrating work and labor to focusing on consumption. Democratic presidential primary candidates are focusing on income inequality and promising to wipe out college debt; they are wrapping a federal jobs and health care guarantee into what is billed as an environmental program, a "Green New Deal."
It's no longer what you can do for your country, but what can your country give to you. The focus is no longer on creating through capitalism and entrepreneurship but taking through socialism and government programs. The attack on the free enterprise system is no longer closed and closeted but open and obvious. I can't imagine the reception Theodore Roosevelt's challenge to embrace "The Strenuous Life" would receive today.
Sometimes, this attack is wrapped up in disguise. As an example, last month David Montgomery wrote a piece for The Washington Post Magazine titled, "AOC's Chief of Change: Saikat Chakrabarti isn't just running her office, he's guiding a movement."
Montgomery's article covered a conversation between Chakrabarti and Sam Ricketts, the lead staffer on climate for Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., The two discussed how to move the Green New Deal forward. "The interesting thing about the Green New Deal," said Chakrabarti, "is it wasn't originally a climate thing at all ... because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing."
It would be wise for us to remember the sage advice that James Carville, Bill Clinton's campaign manager, gave then-candidate Clinton in 1992: "It's the economy, stupid." Even the environment is about the economy.
America was built on hard work and the belief that hard work brings progress and grows our economy. What has that meant to us as a country? While our country includes people at various levels of income, the average consumption of the lowest 20% of Americans is higher than the average consumption of "all people in most nations of the OECD and Europe," wrote James D. Agresti in an article posted last week on justfacts.com.
We could drive our system towards more equality, but if that means a lower level for all, would we really be better off? Historically, through hard work, innovation and entrepreneurship, we have driven our country's economy higher and higher. We've been so successful as a nation that the poorest 20% of Americans are better off than the average person in other nations.
"Socialism itself -- in all its incarnations, wherever and however it was applied -- was morally corrupting," argued former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "Socialism turned good citizens into bad ones; it turned strong nations into weak ones; it promoted vice and discouraged virtue ... transformed formerly hardworking and self-reliant men and women into whining, weak and flabby loafers."
Can you image the marchers from 125 years ago listening to today's political arguments? Possibly they would be proud of how far hard work has gotten our country, or possibly they would be sad at the attempt to undermine what has gotten us to where we are today.
America works best when Americans are working. It's not only the income that work brings, but also the accomplishment of a job well done, and knowing that your work, your effort, makes our nation better as well.