If we as a society can open our minds and hearts and begin to understand the challenges and struggles of our fellow citizens, we can move forward.
Peggy Noonan, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, captured the problem well in recent columns.
Western society is disconnected, she has written. We no longer appear to share a common goal or vision, nor do the “protected” understand the challenges of everyday working people. They have become so far removed from the struggles of those we honor on Labor Day that their attempts at building a more just and equitable society fails miserably. Her definition: “The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful, those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created. The protected make public policy. The unprotected live it.”
Sadly, her observations are spot on.
The shared experience of the labor that most of society experiences each day has become far removed from the lives of “the protected.” They have never toiled in factories, fields or construction sites. They have skipped the basic building block of doing hard physical labor or tedious and monotonous chores. Instead, they played on traveling sports teams, written essays to gain admittance to the finest universities and then interned at Wall Street banks, Washington think tanks or media outlets in big cities. This is not to condemn their endeavors; it is to point out that there is not a shared experience with those Noonan calls “the unprotected.”
With these disparate life experiences, it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully understand the feeling of insecurity that a life on the edge of economic security involves.
I feel fortunate that my work life was defined in a family that honored work. I was taught that all work was honorable. A man without a job could not achieve the dignity that God had envisioned for a robust and fulfilled life. People were measured not by their station in life, but by the distance and the difficulty they overcame through a lifetime of struggle.
For me, work began as a child in school; your report card was your paycheck. It evolved to paper boy, service station attendant and eventually factory work during summer break from college.
I received my degrees in 1979 and 1980 from state universities but my education came from three summers and a fall working at Milwaukee Forge, my dad’s workplace for 44 years. During that time, I understood the sacrifice my dad had made for me and his family. This was hard physical labor in a hot, smoky, dirty and dangerous environment. I learned that working on a crew, you were only as successful and safe as the man next to you. This was teamwork like I had never experienced it before or since those long, hot summer days.
The experience changed my life, and as I have become one of “the protected,” it has given me a perspective that many of my peers in the protected class do not have. My suggestion to those of us who are fortunate to be pa
rt of “the protected” is that you begin to understand those living on the edge. Stand in the shoes of everyday working people and know that global competition, automation and yes, illegal immigration, are real fears. These fears come from real experiences, not economic ignorance or bigotry. Being close to the edge does not provide one the luxury of espousing Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction. It is only the possibility of one’s own job destruction that is relevant.
Some of my favorite days are when I’m back on the shop floor at Milwaukee Forge giving plant tours or just watching production. After 30 years, I returned in 2010, no longer a summer helper but an investor. I am honored to be involved with the men who make forgings. I stand in awe of their strength, endurance and resilience. These are men whom I met 40 years ago; they have worked hard, raised families and sent children to college. They have played by the rules and ask only that we give them the tools to win in a global market.
They represent the best in all of us, and we should heed their requests and the requests of other working men and women. Give them the tools, level the playing field, and they will win. My one regret is that my son was unable to experience a few summers of hard labor with these men. It would have completed his education and prepared him for a full life of work.
My suggestion to those in politics and government: Try to level the global playing field. Help build true open markets and a tax system that works in harmony with the objective of growing our economy. Reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and regulation that strangles the entrepreneurial spirit. These are impediments to achieving sustainable economic growth and increasing real incomes.
To the businessmen and women of America: Recognize that your only real job is that of the correct allocation of scarce resources. That is the primary function of all of us who are proud to be called capitalists.
Invest your capital in people and productive assets that pay returns over a decade, not the next year or two.
And to those in the media who shape our public discourse: Honor the men and women who show up to work every day and just do their jobs. The teachers, nurses, policemen, office, construction and factory workers. They make our civil society possible. They ask you for very little but they expect an objective view of the world they live in, not the world you live in or envision. They have earned the respect that you show them on Labor Day every day.
If we as a society can open our minds and hearts and begin to understand the challenges and struggles of our fellow citizens, we can move forward. It is life’s shared experiences, especially the difficult ones, that bind societies together.
The U.S. economic juggernaut is alive and well. We are participants in the most dynamic growth society in human history. If we provide our workers with the tools they need and level the global playing field, there is no limit to the bounty available to all.
Happy Labor Day!
James B. Kitzinger is principal and portfolio manager at KCLM Advisors Inc. in Milwaukee.