Tuesday, July 05, 2011


Three Pillars of American Society

The number three is important in Engineering, Religion, Music, and the social structure of our country. In Engineering, one has to anchor any physical object to three fixed points not in a straight line for stability. In Religion we see the holy trinity among Christians and the Three Pillars of Islam. Many musical compositions have three rhythmic beats in a unit, such as the waltz or the minuet. So too our social structure rests on three pillars. These pillars must be of approximately the same strength or influence. Otherwise, the society will not be stable and will be biased in favor of the strongest pillar.

The three pillars are government, organized labor, and organized business. They compete with each other. As long as each of them is strong enough to defend the interests of the group it represents, the society is stable. If one becomes too weak or another too strong, the society is skewed in such a way that the interests of the strong pillar dominate the others.

Today we see that the business pillar is very strong and has been strengthened recently by decisions of the Supreme Court. The labor pillar has been weak for many years and appears to be growing weaker. Government is not strong enough to limit the excesses of business. As an example, a recent news item revealed that the average salaries paid to executive officers of large companies have been increased again. Going back to the 1950’s or 1960’s, in those days the pay of the chief executive of a company was about twenty times that of the average worker in the company. Today it’s about four hundred times the salary of the average worker. During this same period, the labor pillar has weakened. In the 1950’s as many as fifty percent of workers belonged to labor unions. Today the ratio is around ten percent. During the same period the wealth of the nation increased greatly. However, that increase in wealth has accrued to a small segment of the population. The average worker has not benefited from the creation of the wealth. Our society is in a state of poor health.

When our society is healthy the three pillars operate to maintain a balance. Government sets the rules for the behavior of unions and of businesses in the interest of protecting the public. Labor and business compete in the dividing up of the newly created wealth. Labor and government act to limit many of the harmful practices of business. Business and government collaborate to limit many of the bad practices of labor unions. Business and labor both try to influence government and so produce government policies that are neutral between the interests of labor and of business. That’s the way it should work.

The pillar of labor is weak. Business has been able to influence many government decisions and, in particular, the selections of justices of the Supreme Court. These days the Court is putting out decision after decision that favor businesses, particularly large corporations. I think these decisions are abominable and will be overturned in the course of time, although I will not be around to celebrate when they are overturned.

Many of my liberal and progressive friends believe that the way back to fairness and sanity is through electoral politics. Elect liberals and progressives to Congress. Elect a liberal and progressive President. These are good ideas and worthy goals, but we also must work toward strengthening labor unions. Strengthening labor unions can not be done by having fund-raising parties for liberal and progressive candidates. We can help by boycotting hotels and restaurants that rely on underpaid, non-union workers. We can help by joining strikers on a picket line and being willing to be arrested by the police. We must advocate for strong labor unions.

At the same time, we must accept the fact that some unions, like some businesses, do unsavory and possibly illegal things. We must criticize these things but we must not stop supporting organized labor because of its imperfections.

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