THE BLOG
09/03/2007 12:56 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Labor Day: Why Am I Not Feeling Energized?

There he was, too pale and much too chubby to pass as an old salt but nonetheless perched proudly on the foredeck of his sparkling new Newport yacht, the aptly-named Numbers: one Daniel M. Meyers, a founder of First Marblehead Corp. and one of the leading players in the $20 billion student loan industry.

Why should I begin a Labor Day post with this sorry image from Sunday's New York Times business section? Because the piece reports casually, in the context of charting the spectacular profits of companies like Meyers', that the average debt level carried by newly-minted college graduates has more than doubled over the past decade.

The Times piece on the student loan business also reports that this lucrative racket could end up looking a lot like the subprime mortgage racket: i.e., the sharks move in, they feast themselves, and they swim away before their victims quite realize they have limbs missing and before various Congressional sock puppets (happy for now to take money from the sharks) start clearing their exquisite throats to deplore the sorry mess.

It's the borrowers I am most interested in. They are the ones who, most often with their economically-stressed parents' concurrence, take the big gamble and go deeply into hock in the expectation that their dearly-purchased degrees will allow them not only to pay off their college debt but also achieve a comfortable middle-class life within just a few years.

I don't want to bet against them, obviously, but on this Labor Day weekend I have to wonder whether it might be time to replace "Pomp and Circumstance" with Chopin's "Marche funebre" at university graduations. What real evidence is there that tomorrow's knowledge workers-those earnest and motivated college grads-will actually enjoy a middle-class standard of living as that standard has commonly been understood?

While many policymakers and commentators focus on the sorry fate of low-skilled workers with high school educations or less, fewer have had much to say much about the disturbing earnings picture facing today's college grads--especially once that picture has been properly adjusted by subtracting the handful of stars who head off from ivy-draped campuses to pursue blessed careers in investment banking, Hollywood, and the like.

Last week's comprehensive Census Bureau report contained the sobering but no longer surprising news that the only population group whose 2006 incomes exceeded their 2000 incomes were those households in the top five percent of the earnings distribution. For everyone else, incomes were lower.

Add to declining or flatlining median earnings the fact that college grads now make up a growing part of the 47 million Americans living without health insurance and also the fact that grads paying off those crushing college debts are extremely unlikely to be saving for retirement. What you will get is a really dismal sense of the American prospect.

Back in the days when Labor Day represented the start of serious presidential campaigning, candidates would routinely exalt the dignity of work itself, laud the virtues of working people, hail the importance of honoring those whose productive labors generate far-reaching prosperity, and denounce "malefactors of great wealth" and "economic royalists." (Admittedly, not many went as far as the Roosevelt cousins.)

Production was the keynote then. Today the U.S. has wandered blindly down a road where consumption is what matters and the fate of worker-producers is relegated to the tender mercies of quasi-divinized "market forces" that are never seriously challenged by those in the political class. Our politicians deal only with issues at the margins-insuring a few more children, legislating family-friendly leave policies, and raising the minimum wage so that it now can supply around half of what it actually takes to live in most major metropolitan areas. But none is willing to start a new public conversation about the kind of society we actually might want. None is willing to ask whether "market forces" is just another name for unlimited predation by the sharks or whether leaving the future of 350 million Americans to such forces is really such a good idea.

I note in passing that the absence of a real conversation also left a huge vacancy in the center of the late and not-very-great great immigration debate. Why was it that none of our so-called progressive leaders called for a serious examination of the role of NAFTA in immiserating Mexico to the point that its people must now migrate to survive? The fact is that the NAFTA signatories (sadly, not even Canada) cared or cares very much about its producers-about the people who must work for a living, as against the people who get to invest for a fabulous living. I can understand why the DLC types and the Clintonistas would not want to challenge NAFTA's premises. What I cannot understand is how leaders calling themselves politically progressive could focus only on immigrant rights without demanding the repeal of NAFTA and its replacement by serious bilateral job-creation and job-retention measures on both sides of the Rio Grande. Instead, they spent and still spend their energy excoriating those who might dare to suggest that the presence 13 million undocumented workers could possibly be holding back U.S. wage growth.

I guess the main reason I am in dirge mode this weekend is that I see no hope that any of the elites-those five percenters, including the politicians kept in their seraglios-will have any interest in starting a real conversation. The persistence of the non-conversation is the main burden of Matt Bai's The Argument; it also explains why no one takes seriously books like Robert Reich's new one critiquing turbocharged capitalism.

That leaves it to the workers-yes, the workers!-to mount a new conversation from below. But such a hope presupposes that workers will have real-time opportunities to talk to each other about what is happening in their lives. And that is not going to happen as long as these same workers are putting in ever-longer hours and spending what remains of their time consuming themselves to oblivion. Surely no one should expect our debt-ridden college grads to be the first to demand a serious rethinking of where things are headed.

As a religious leader, I still foster the hope that a radical critique of a society organized around the worship of wealth and the heedless pursuit of wealth can emerge against all odds from faith communities taking seriously their own core teachings. But that is now the only hope I see out there. Please someone: tell me that I'm just stewing in my own cynical juices. Point out to me the next Sam Gompers or Mother Jones or Gene Debs who has both the guts and the chops to get a real national conversation going. I'm waiting.