Americans are not happy. And for good reason: We continue to suffer financial stress caused by decades of flat income. On top of that, every time we make the slightest suggestion that the system might be working in our favor, the rich and powerful tell us to shut up because it’s actually all our own fault.
The one percenters tell us to just work harder, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and stop bellyaching. Just get a second college degree, a second skill, a second job. Just send the spouse to work, downsize, and take a staycation instead of a real vacation. Or better yet, don’t take one at all, just work harder and longer and better.
The barrage of blaming has worked, workers believe they deserve censure, and that’s a big part of the reason so many are unhappy. If only, they think, they could work harder and longer and better, they would get ahead. They bear the shame. They don’t blame the system: the Supreme Court, the Congress, the president. And yet, it is the system, the American system, which has conspired to crush everyone who isn’t already rich and/or powerful.
Sure, unemployment is low and the stock market is up. But skyrocketing stocks benefit only the top 10 percent of Americans who own 84 percent of stocks. And while more people are employed now than during the Great Recession, the vast majority of Americans haven’t had a real raise since 1979. Forty years ago!
But if Americans would just work harder, everything would be dandy, right?
No. Not right. Americans already work really, really hard. A third of Americans work a side hustle, driving an Uber or selling crafts on Etsy. American workers take fewer vacation days. They get 14, but typically take only 10. The highest number of workers in five years report they don’t expect to take a vacation at all this year. And Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in other countries.
Americans labor 137 more hours (almost 3 ½ weeks) per year than Japanese workers, 260 (6 ½ weeks) more than Brits, and 499 more hours (12 ½ weeks!) than the French, according to the International Labor Organization.
The longer hours aren’t because American workers are laggards on the job either. They’re very productive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that the average American worker’s productivity has increased 400 percent since 1950!
If pay had kept pace with productivity, as it did in the three decades after the end of World War II, American workers would be making 400 percent more. But they’re not. Wages have flatlined for four decades when adjusted for inflation.
That means stress. Forty percent of workers say they don’t have $400 for an unexpected expense. Twenty percent can’t pay all of their monthly bills. More than a quarter of adults skipped needed medical care last year because they couldn’t afford it. A quarter of adults have no retirement savings.
Despite the right-wing’s attempts to pound that into Americans’ heads, it’s not the solution. Americans are clearly working harder and longer and better. The solution is to change the system, which is stacked against workers.
Workers are bearing on their backs tax breaks that benefit only the rich and corporations. They’re bearing overtime pay rules and minimum wage rates that haven’t been updated in more than a decade. They’re weighted down by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that hobble unionization efforts and kneecapped workers’ rights to file class-action lawsuits. They’re struggling under U.S. Department of Labor rules defining them as independent contractors instead of staff members. They live in fear as corporations threaten to offshore their jobs.
The administration, the Supreme Court, and right-wingers in Congress grovel before corporations and the rich. Look at the tax break they gave one percenters in 2017. Corporations got the biggest cut in history, their rate sledgehammered down from 35 percent to 21 percent. That doesn’t even take into account loopholes and other dodges that corporations use. Last month, it was widely reported that dozens of the largest American companies paid zero taxes on their profits.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers predicted the corporate tax cut would put an extra $4,000 in every worker’s pocket. They claimed that corporations would use their tax cut money to hand out raises and bonuses to workers. That didn’t happen. Just as many critics of the tax bill predicted. It was an easy prediction because corporate tax cuts have never led to increased wages for employees outside of the executive officer tier. Workers on average received a big fat extra $6.21 in their paychecks, for an annual total of a whopping $233. Corporations actually spent their tax breaks on stock buybacks, a record $1 trillion worth, artificially inflating their stock prices, which put more money in the pockets of rich CEOs and shareholders.