There may be some irony in the fact that we observe Labor Day by not working. Then again, Labor Day is not so much a celebration of labor itself as it is a respite to enjoy the fruits of labor, which include leisure.
For many, however, harvesting those fruits has become more difficult. According to a recent story in the New York Times, while productivity of U.S. workers has risen steadily since 2003, the median hourly wage has declined 2 percent over the same period when adjusted for inflation. Wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation's gross domestic product since the government began compiling those statistics in 1947.
The story notes that benefits had helped offset the drop in wages. But, beginning last summer, benefits, too, have failed to keep pace with inflation.
In a speech last week, Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, warned that the disparity in gains for workers vs. those at the top of the economic ladder could "threaten the livelihoods of some workers and the profits of some firms." In the most recent survey, the top 1 percent of earners received 11.2 percent of all wage income, up from 8.7 percent a decade ago.
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Despite fears of a bursting housing bubble, however, home values have helped lift the net worth of many families. So have gains in the stock market. Perhaps as a result, polls show Americans to be somewhat less dissatisfied with the economy than they were in the 1980s or early 1990s.
And the latest economic news is promising. Although consumer confidence has slumped somewhat, consumer spending rose by 0.4 percent in July, double the June increase. Also, factory orders had their highest gain in four months, including the biggest leap in orders for cars in more than four years.
As noted, though, most Americans probably won't be contemplating labor on Labor Day. Instead, they're likely to be thinking about what to put on the grill for a holiday feast and where to go to take advantage of the best sales. We'll be doing what we usually do on the weekends -- only more so.
We also may be considering that this is the unofficial beginning of the "serious" season. Summer, despite the rampant heat, is fading.
School has been in session for a week or so; football season is gearing up; Congress soon will return from its recess; autumn, soon enough, will be upon us, and more people will start to pay attention to the 2008 elections.
The politicians, local, state and national, will tell us how they plan to make our lives better, what steps they will take to improve the economy and make sure more of us are happily employed and making a living wage. For now, however, let's enjoy the three-day holiday.
We can think about labor on Tuesday.
Wages of American workers have remained stagnant for several years.
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