Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson is the author of the bestselling novels Home, Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and Housekeeping. She is also the author of four books of nonfiction, most recently When I Was a Child I Read Books, an essay collection. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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REASON 36: Mitt Romney plans to remove regulations on air and water quality and cut off funding for the National Labor Relations Board.

The oldest argument about the relations of employer and employed is this: What does a worker sell in exchange for a wage? Historically the answer has been, virtually everything. At the beginning of the modern period, endless hours of labor in brutal conditions, whether industrial or agricultural, were the universal experience of the majority of populations in Europe and Britain. Men, women and children worked for subsistence wages and without any hedge against starvation if they became ill or were injured, or if some cyclical economic collapse left them without work. Unemployment was shamed and criminalized as vagrancy. Any rise in the income of labor was seen as a reduction of the capacity of “job creators” to sustain or extend investment and employment. These employers were represented as great social benefactors whose cruelties were in fact a higher kindness. This is the rationale at the heart of the very respectable theory called political economy, which arose in the early eighteenth century, in a world still formed by feudalism and engaged in a burgeoning slave trade. It never really went away, and it is resurgent now.

To the degree that the United States evolved away from this paradigm it did so because of open land, a constant shortage of labor, and, presumably, notions of fundamental equality articulated by Jefferson and others. General prosperity, relatively speaking, made the majority of people a great market, so that their wealth, rather than their impoverishment, sustained economic production and development.

For years now there has been pressure on American wages and salaries and working conditions, with reference to the world market. Our workers have been thrown into competition, by the investment decisions of American corporations, with workers in other countries who can still be induced by a very modest wage to live in dormitories, to be exposed and expose their families to virulent pollution and so on. They sell health and even life to their “job creators” in exchange for slightly alleviated destitution. If their share in the wealth they create somehow drifts upward, the “job creators” simply go elsewhere. Governments derive prestige from the sham “development” that makes poverty a salable resource, so they have no interest in protecting their people.

Those who caused the crash of the American economy are capitalizing on its consequences. People who have lost investments, pensions and jobs are desperate for work and readier to accept bad bargains than they have been since the great depression. This is intensified by the remarkable fact that unemployment has been effectively stigmatized and access to relief has been made harder—on moral as well as economic grounds, disgustingly enough.

Mitt Romney plans to remove regulations on air and water quality and cut off funding for the National Labor Relations Board. That means unhealthy and dangerous working conditions for countless current and future job-holders. It means that workers, or the government in their supposed interest, would slide back toward the idea that an employer buys an employee’s health and safety along with her time and skill. At the same time they are rejecting the idea that the society has any interest in protecting the health of the community by providing care. All this comes down to the cheapening of labor and the concentration of wealth in few and notably ideological hands.

The labor and environmental policies of Romney and Ryan are of the kind that cartoonists used to represent as the work of fat men in spats. Americans have been distracted from the distinction between the truly conservative and the grossly retrograde. The fact that the collapse of a top heavy economy could be used to rationalize the surrender of even more economic weight to the top of the economy is cynical or ideological—though in the age of Ayn Rand that distinction is not really possible.

Marilynne Robinson
 Iowa City, Iowa

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