Labor Day: A Celebration of American Achievement

Workers marched from Fifth Avenue to Union Square in New York City in the first Labor Day parade in 1882

If all the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be Labor Day Weekend.

     ~Doug Larson, columnist

Americans flock to the lake or beach, attend picnics and parades or just enjoy a day off work every year on the first Monday of September. The celebration of Labor Day turns 130 years old in 2012, having originated in 1882.

History isn’t totally clear on the origins of Labor Day. The two prevailing theories are that it was either started by a machinist in New York, Matthew Maguire, while he was serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union, or our celebration of the holiday was imported from our neighbor to the North after labor leader Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor brought the idea back from Toronto.

What isn’t in dispute is that the first Labor Day parade was in September 1882 in New York City, and in 1894 President Grover Cleveland declared the first Monday in September as National Labor Day.

Yes, the American economy is in tough shape as we celebrate the achievement of American workers this Labor Day. Americans need a combination of hard work and austerity to weather our current economic situation, a New American Ethic, as I called it in a previous column.

However, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, the U.S. is still the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world. Not that they’re biased or anything.

Either way, that’s something to celebrate.

Excelling in our current economy may be no picnic, but we can recognize the value of hard work and the entrepreneurial capitalistic enterprise that built this country in the first place by celebrating with one.

What will you be doing this Labor Day?

The New American Ethic: Revaluing Hard Work and Austerity

I recently reaffirmed my contention that not only are we in a recession, but we never truly came out of one in the first place. The term “New Norm” was once tossed around a lot, and I want to re-invoke it here in order to say that the economy is going to be like this for a long time. If you ask me, at least the next 5 years.

So what does that mean for the regular person? That it’s time to find pleasure in austerity.

Changing Attitudes

Part of the economy and its effect on us is our attitude towards it. If we change our attitude towards the economy we will be better able to bear the burden of this bear market environment, and we will minimize its impact on us and our country.

Now, that’s easier said than done. I can tell you to be happy with less far more easily than I can be happy with less. I won’t pretend like this is a picnic, but we need to start thinking differently if we’re going to make this happen.

In essence, we need a return to Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. Maybe we don’t need a return to it, exactly, but we could use a secular reevaluation of its value – a New American Ethic. That is how we will change our attitude.

The Protestant Ethic Reapplied

Now, don’t balk at the notion of applying a Protestant Ethic because the religious undercurrent shocks you. An element of Weber’s reconfiguration in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism was an emphasis on wealth and its accumulation as the result of a rational means of existence. This, on its surface, is actually rather secular, but I’m not proposing that wealth is the end-goal (nor, mind you, was Weber). We’re both proposing that the reality of this rational existence is hard work. The result is wealth.

For Weber, the historical emphasis on the value of hard work was born of the Protestant Reformation circa the early 1500s (think back to 10th grade history, Martin Luther nailing his Theses and the resultant religious uproar in Europe). Protestantism, notably its Calvinist manifestation, according to Weber, emphasized the value of all work – including and particularly secular work – as being extremely important and a path to personal salvation. That is, secular work was for God, too.

Weber contended that this attitude ultimately led to the glorification of secular work and the groundswell of capitalistic enterprise that occurred in countries where Protestantism was embraced (think northern Germany, England, the Benelux countries – places where the Industrial Revolution was taking off by the 18th century). Ultimately, this ethic flowed to America’s capitalistic beginnings and Protestant predilections.

While an emphasis on the inherent value of hard work is the first step, it is an outgrowth of this Protestant Ethic that is the necessary component in transforming America’s attitude towards our challenging economic environment: austerity. Wealth was not meant to be gaudy or filled with showy pageantry, or as Protestants would describe Catholic churches, filled with Popery. Like the austere churches in which Protestants worshipped, wealth demonstrated that those with it worked hard for what they believed in. They did not have to flaunt this wealth for it to be the natural and deserved outcome of their devotion to hard work. In fact, it was considered all the more commendable to live within humble means – to embrace austerity.

The New American Ethic

Hard Work and Austerity are exactly what we need in our current economic situation.

We need to see the value in working hard for what we have. I know that unemployment is high. In fact, it’s higher than what’s reported by probably something near to 150% due to contractors never having been on employment books and people losing benefits due to the length of time they’ve been out of the workforce. But that’s nearly 15% of the population that desperately needs to embrace what I am terming the New American Ethic.

We need a return to respecting the value of hard work and the entrepreneurial capitalistic enterprise that built this country in the first place. Starting a business is not for everyone, but there is tons of work to be done and had that does not involve conventional employment at a big company. Part of our problem in finding and doing this work is our attitude, though: that the only employment worth having is that which pays a standard and acceptable salary (what we can “flaunt,” if you will, or share proudly at our Thanksgiving tables with relatives who judge us). But this is wrong. We must rethink our emphasis on valuing the money and value the hard work instead.

This is not to pretend that it doesn’t take money to feed a family, but I’m not suggesting that we quit well-paying jobs for the noble feelings that could come with hard work and having less. I’m saying that all of us – from the unemployed to the 1% – need to think differently about our values in order to do two things. The first is rethinking the ways that we’re going to get America back to work, and the second is preventing ourselves from spiraling further towards economic disaster by not depending any longer on the broken systems we have in place for pensions, social security, retirement and future benefits. People’s retirement investments are not what we thought they would be, and pension funds are failing left and right.

In 2010, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp paid $5.6 billion in benefits for people with failed pension plans. The government is paying this money, which means that we are paying to fund other people’s underfunded pensions even though we have to make personal retirement sacrifices in the meantime. This is not sustainable, and if we’re going to stop relying on these increasingly broken and failed systems we’re going to need to rethink our attitude towards work and wealth.

For the Right Reasons

Coupled with an emphasis on the pleasure and value of austerity – doing more with less and living within humble means – the New American Ethic is one that values hard work for the pleasure and sake of that hard work. If we don’t start living that way we are going to die poorer and considerably less happy about it than we otherwise could be.

Our country needs to embrace this attitude, not as a mandate from above, but as a groundswell from the bottom up – the only way such a movement can work. Every individual needs to see the value of his time, his hands and his mind, and put all three to work in whatever way he can – not for riches or glory or as the Protestant Ethic would contend, God, but for himself, his family and our collective future.

It is this kind of movement, towards a New American Ethic, that will get us through these tough years and return the American economy to its position of power and success – but more sustainably this time. It is also these values that we can share with the world in order that we may all build and work ourselves towards a better future.