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Krugman: Inequality, dignity and freedom

  • (JACK OHMAN / Sacramento Bee)

Now that the Congressional Budget Office has explicitly denied saying that Obamacare destroys jobs, some (though by no means all) Republicans have stopped lying about that issue and turned to a different argument. OK, they concede, any reduction in working hours because of health reform will be a voluntary choice by the workers themselves — but it's still a bad thing because, as Rep. Paul Ryan puts it, they'll lose “the dignity of work.” So let's talk about what that means in 21st-century America.

It's all very well to talk in the abstract about the dignity of work, but to suggest workers can have equal dignity despite huge inequality in pay is silly. In 2012, the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders were paid a combined $16.7 billion, equivalent to the wages of 400,000 ordinary workers. Given that kind of disparity, can anyone really believe in the equal dignity of work?

In fact, the people who seem least inclined to respect the efforts of ordinary workers are the winners of the wealth lottery. Over the past few months, we've been harangued by a procession of angry billionaires, furious that they're not receiving the deference, the acknowledgment of their superiority, that they believe is their due. For example, last week the investor Sam Zell went on CNN Money to defend the 1 percent against “envy” and he asserted that “the 1 percent work harder. The 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society.” Dignity for all!

And there's another group that doesn't respect workers: Republican politicians. In 2012, Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, infamously marked Labor Day with a Twitter post celebrating ... people who start their own businesses. Perhaps Cantor was chastened by the backlash; at a recent GOP retreat, he reportedly urged his colleagues to show some respect for Americans who don't own businesses, who work for someone else. The implication was that they haven't shown that kind of respect in the past.

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