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home : opinions : opinions November 25, 2015

5/1/2012 8:14:00 PM
Column: Policy should focus on ordinary workers

Tom Cantlon
Courier Columnist

I sometimes write about how the economy needs, above all, to work well for workers, but in some of the public discourse anymore there is an attitude that devalues them. Instead, for almost any policy issue, the question should be: How is it going to affect them? A specific subset of workers at that; the middle- to lower-wage workers.

This is not a bias against any other group. It's a practical choice, a guideline that leads to good results for everyone. These are not people in the highest-skilled jobs; the top programmers, or higher level managers. These are the people with middle-of-the-road jobs on down, from broom pushers to carpenters and nurses.

The people with high incomes don't need extra help. People who are in poverty or have no income, and who can't work, need the safety net.

People who aren't working but could, judging from the evidence, pretty much all would rather work. Remember that just a few years ago, before the crash, we had an unemployment rate of just a few percent. So I'm including them in this category.

People in the upper-middle also need a good working economy, but if the economy is working for low-wage people it will help the middle, too.

What policies should be measured this way? Almost anything. Of course policies like steering some of the outsourcing back to the U.S., but far beyond that. Credit card regulations: Limit late fees so the banks don't lose money on late payments, but neither are they making a killing off of people in a downturn. Education: Ensure plenty of help with the expense for those with low incomes. Tax policy: Does it place disproportionate burden on working people? (As my column of 4/18 explains, in total state taxes, it does.) Any policy that pits a special interest against what's good for people in general. Like a clean air policy: Is it a good trade-off of expense against the benefits? Then the complaining industry shouldn't be able to lobby it away.

Often it is as much about what government doesn't do, or doesn't allow to go wrong. It could not waste money on ill-advised wars, not allow financial liars to crash the economy, not give tax breaks to industries that don't need it.

If we follow policies that get us as close as possible to an abundance of jobs, the number of people needing food stamps and Medicaid will go down. For those who do need the safety net, the burden will be spread across more taxpayers. It's important, though, that jobs pay enough. Jobs that leave a person qualifying for food stamps and Medicaid don't help much. More people would be spending more money, which helps businesses and their owners. All of this will require more managers, CPAs, professionals, creating work for the middle class.

Of course it's a good goal but hard to achieve, and there are differences about how to get there, but it seems clear there has been a shift away from putting emphasis on the state of working people. They are in the minds of any decent legislator, to be sure, but there seems to be a false philosophy that your worth to the community can be measured by your income. That if you're just making an ordinary wage you're not as deserving of being the focus of making sure things work. I don't believe that. Do you? Those nurses and would-be carpenters are at the heart of what ought to be the primary focus. As stated, that ends up working out best for the top and bottom, too.

That used to be the traditional, mainstream understanding of what was good. I may be old-fashioned in believing most people want to work, but I don't believe this current, frequent harp that there is a large chunk of the population who are just takers. I meet all kinds of people and I just don't meet people who want to sit on the couch and live off of the crumbs of food stamps. Do you? People want to learn a skill, get a job, make enough from it to take care of themselves, and get to retirement able to get by.

In this old-fashioned idea, that is the very definition of a working economy: that darn near anyone who wants to do that, can. If that's working, most other things fall into place. If that isn't working - if the economy is warped toward financial gambling and shady deals, if the deck gradually gets stacked, one little bit at a time, against people just trying to work, if the lawmakers are not doing all they can to deal with the unavoidable realities like a more global economy - if it isn't working for those people, then a whole host of other things fall apart, as we now see.

Tom Cantlon is a longtime resident, business owner and writer. Contact him at TomCantlon@TomCantlon.com.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2012
Article comment by: open book

@ Peack Nik: That's what I thought Jesus said. Thanks. Perhaps Mr. Aberdeen will enlighten me about his understanding about what Jesus said.

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2012
Article comment by: Peace Nik

To James Madison and all the other deriders of the ever-growing poor and unemployed:
Jesus said, "If a man ask for your cloak, give him your coat, also." This is not socialism or re-distribution of wealth, it is morality which the rich like to deride and shun. This country is going down because of such name-calling, greed, immorality and hatred towards our fellow man who is obviously struggling. The pious and elite would kick a man while he is down and then shun him for being "beaten up." The economic reality, no matter how you spin it, is that millions have lost their jobs, mostly through no fault of their own. Profits have become the "God" of the rich and THAT is why our country is failing. When the lowest rise, we all rise, a truth of spirituality and what Jesus came to teach. If Jesus returned today in his sandals, long hair and swarthy complexion, he would be thrown out of the rich man's temple. To claim greed as your God, deride your fellow man and put profits and riches above morality is how Rome fell and this is how we shall fall, too. This country was formed on the principle that "all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator, with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This is the bedrock of Democracy, not crony Capitalism. You can distort the facts but the principle will remain the same.

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2012
Article comment by: open book

Mr. Aberdeen: I am a little dense this morning, and would appreciate it if you would explain this phrase for me, "...God forbid we actually do what Jesus said..." What did Jesus say?

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2012
Article comment by: I believe that most people know these Comments are generated by a few people!

The courier has been asked over and over to assign an anonymous I'd to commenters. That way all would know how many different persons are sharing their opinions. Unfortunately they have taken the course of choosing false advertising numbers.

At first many watched and made decisions based on the numbers of comments. No longer. The truth is out. The comments are generated by a VERY SMALL SLIVER OF Prescott society. COMMONLY KNOWN AS EXTREME, BORED AND ANGRY.

Unfortunately the comments section are like much of PRESCOTT. Could have been so much more.

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2012
Article comment by: Richard Aberdeen

Response to "O. K. Can We"

One is left wondering how someone calling people a "peasant class" and at the same time, railing against name calling, would feel if he or she was relegated to the "peasant class". Perhaps we should elminate classes and other name calling entirely and pay everyone an equal wage, whether they sit on their fat behind in an airconditioned office, wait tables, clean motel rooms, pick strawberries or rake concrete. Or better yet, why don't we pay according to need, so that people who have five kids earn more than people with non, regardless of what "class" they are. But that of course, would be "socialism" and as we all know, God forbid we actually do what Jesus said and is obviously politically, socially, morally and otherwise correct in every way. . . right?

Posted: Thursday, May 03, 2012
Article comment by: Brian Boru

"Policy should focus on ordinary workers."

Ordinary workers do not contribute enough money to matter. Only large campaign contributors matter.

The only thing ordinary workers contribute is votes, and they can be manipulated with expensive campaigns.

Money wins elections, and more importantly, re-elections.

Posted: Thursday, May 03, 2012
Article comment by: Hokas Pokas

There are plenty of good paying jobs in North and South Dakota and Wyoming.

Wanting to work takes some effort.

Posted: Thursday, May 03, 2012
Article comment by: The Rev

Tom C lays a good course for economic change. A brittle model becomes obsolete, it is just a matter of time before failure. In economics it truly is adapt or die.

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Article comment by: Tom Cantlon

To Downtown Brown, Sorry you had a hard time with your businesses. The state of current workers is a mixed bag. There are always those of marginal usefulness or willingness. It's also that some businesses don't seem willing to train people. The ones who wouldn't work, how many of them were young? Making their first mistakes. The real world will change their mind. And then there's the free-market factors involved. Maybe it just takes offering more to get worthwhile people to apply. It's also self fulfilling. All the people, especially young people, who would be working in a full employment economy are losing skills, not getting in the routine of work as normal. That's part of the reason it's good to have plenty of jobs. Even those marginal ones can probably find someplace to work. Would we rather have them not working? And young people get accustomed to working life, get more invested in it as they own things they don't want to lose, or they're starting a family. Better they be marginal workers than dead weight. But there will always be some. To the Rev, why wouldn't capitalism be around in 25 years? It's almost as basic as the free market. Some details may change. Maybe Ron Paul will convince everybody it should operate without a central bank. Maybe more countries adopt a capitalist/social democrat hybrid that provides health care and such like some of the N European countries. Maybe we'll figure a way to have a healthy economy without full-throttle consumerism necessary to maintain it. But capitalism? It's hard to imagine how things would work without it.

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Article comment by: Michael Phillips

Anybody can claim anything under the cloak of annonimity. Witness Downtown Brown's comment about owning 3 large businesses and not beings able to find workers. I suspect his testimony is false. There is so much vilifying of the middle class by many of these posters, always without facts to support their hateful rhetoric. As anemic as the unemployment and welfare benefits are in this state,it is not credible that the overwhelming majority of people would choose that over even the most low paying of jobs. Getting rich off welfare and panhandling, ha.

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Article comment by: The Rev

@Tom C. Can Capitalism responsibly coexist with society in twenty years?

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Article comment by: open book

Dear Yukon Jack: What a brilliant description of our current situation. Thank you.

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Article comment by: O.K. Can We

agree to stop the name calling and labeling. All labeling does is to degrade someone, so they should not be taken seriously. It causes substantive coversations to be stopped in their tracks. So, if we can talk about ideas, without name calling, we might learn something. I have never met Mr. Cantlon, I have read his columns as they have come out, I agree with some points, I disagree with others. I don't believe he has espoused socialism in any column (if someone can show me where I'm wrong on this I would appreciate a link). I think in regards to this column, another way to look at it is, as the middle class goes, so goes the country. If you don't value the middle class (defined as: folks who make enough to support themselves and retire), you end up with Mexico. Mexico is a plutocracy, where business sets the rules. You end up with a large peasant class, a modest middle class, and a small but wealthy upper class. I don't want the U.S. to end up like that. Business is not evil, but given too much power, they try to set the rules to benefit themselves, which is human nature. We should be striving for a large middle class, a healthy upper class, and a small peasant class as a society. But, please lets cut the name calling.

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Article comment by: honky brujo

People let's look at the near future. Obama is reelected, and these things come to pass. In the next four years he is able to replace four Supreme Court Justices, three will be the Conservatives on the Bench. Citizens United ruling will be repealed. With the new majorities in the House and Senate we will finally get single payer or Medicare for all Health Care. By increasing taxes on the Rich and stopping oversees job losses, the budget will balanced. A Constitutional Amendment passes allowing Obama to run again in 2016, with VP Coumo waiting in the wings. The Tea Pots will have destroyed the Republican Party throughout the Country, to the point that no one will admit to ever being a Republican. It takes years but Arizona is finally dragged into the 21st Century. Gov. Brewer will be honored by naming a new sewer treatment plant after her. Not even weeds will grow over the grave of Sheriff Joe, because of so much hate radiating outward.

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Article comment by: Yukon Jack

We have an attitude problem and have had it since about the 80s.

Some people in power decided that a decent profit wasn't enough, and bigger profits were better. They tore down trade barriers that protected domestic jobs, claiming they were clearing the way for lower prices for the American consumer.

We got those lower prices alright, but we also closed factories and shipped a lot of American consumers' jobs overseas because those factories "weren't as profitable" as those in foreign countries where workers are paid pennies instead of dollars and are thrown to the curb when they get hurt or too old to do the work in those factories that aren't required to be safe. Now those factory owners make more profit and they will for awhile longer but soon there will no longer be enough consumers to buy their product. But by then they will have amassed their fortunes and they will be able to buy those imported goods even though nobody else can.

Our American lumber industry for example, sends our raw timber (which is often harvested from our public lands) off to Japan and asia, where they process it into plywood and other goods and sends it back here for us (who still have jobs) to buy at Lowes or Home Depot. They make their profit, but another town in the northwest loses its mill and people their jobs. Wanting to eat of course, they apply for food stamps and become more of "those people who don't want to work". That mill didn't close because of overregulation, it closed because the mill owner would rather make 7 cents per widget based on the labor of a foreigner than 3 cents per widget by an American worker who, in time would buy that product he made. Generally speaking, a worker should be able to afford to buy the product he makes. Even Henry Ford realized that.

Greed is a great motivator. But left unfettered it can destroy us. While too much regulation can be bad, so can a market with no regulation. A little profit for all is a lot more healthy than a lot of profit for some. A rising tide lifts all boats. That is not socialism, that is common sense.

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Article comment by: cryme ariver

And yet you never address the real issue. Just because you never meet those type does not make it a lie, they will walk past you a hundred times today, dressed just like you and dining in the same resturant as you on your dime....When was the last time you offered a bum a job? Every time I did it they declined, their reason given was, they could make plenty of money and not have to work. Panhandling plus wealfare is a profitable business....... The true problem is we leave our borders wide open, allowing an influx of illegals to fill all these "undesirable" jobs, wealfare pays more than low wage jobs, and there are many people who simpley dont care to get ahead. You can not regulate ambition or common sense........We have all seen the stories of how when the wealfare runs out, folks seem to find a job, yet we never try that appoach.

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Article comment by: James Madison

Great read, if you're into the Communist Manifesto, that is. Where do you re-distributors keep coming from?

P.S. Speaking of Food Stamps, someday I hope to afford an I-Pad, just like the one the lady with the food stamps in front of me at the checkout line has.

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Article comment by: Downtown Brown

Trickle Up Economic Theory doesn't work any better than Trickle Down Economic Theory. Tom an interesting side light, you meet lots of people and you don't see anybody that really don't want to work. Perhaps it is in the defiinition of 'don't want to work'. I have had the privilege of running 3 large businesses in my career. Since 1990, it has become very difficult to hire people with the desire or skill to work. Oh we always have a lot of resumes but when they find out what they have to do-a high percent can't pass the drug screen, another group doesn't have the skills or can't finish the apprentice programs due to attendance related issues, another group doesn't want to work hard. That leaves about 10% of the applicants who really want to work.

Not buying what you are selling today.

Posted: Tuesday, May 01, 2012
Article comment by: hon mex

Nurses, teachers, firefighters, police officers, sanitation workers, city & county staffers -- are all part of the core middle class in our communities. Sadly, more & more they are being targeted as "overpaid socialists" - hope some folks will read this column and think a bit about where things are headed.

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