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News & Politics

Back to the Railroad Yard

While defense CEOs are reaping a post-9/11 windfall, real wages for most people stagnate.
With the false dichotomy of either cut-and-run or stay-the-course floating around the public commons like a fly in tomato soup, this week I was going to write about the various Iraq redeployment options finally being considered by policy-wonks across the political spectrum.

But I ended up making a game-time decision, issuing a self-imposed one-week cease-fire in honor of Labor Day. Tragically, there will no cease-fire in the Iraq civil war by the time I sit down to write my next column-kazi. And the anti-U.S. guerrilla insurgency and expansion of Iran's influence in the Middle East "liberated" by stay-the-course-ness will most definitely still be marching on. Still, I need to catch a breath or two. It takes a lot out of a fella, wading through all the barnyard epithets being flung around.

Let's face it: Labor Day is special. With the exception of the watered-down, feel-good "multicultural" day off from work in "honor" of Dr. King's martyrdom, every other federal holiday is an obligatory bow before the altar of militarism, commercialism, gluttonism or hedonism. (I'm not hatin'. I'm just sayin'...)

Of course, for most working folk, Labor Day has come to mean a much needed three-day weekend break from the rat race -- the recess bell sounding the end of summer vacation/keeping-your-kids-out-of-the-streets-and-productively-occupied season.

So let me take this opportunity to publicly thank George Pullman, the compassionate capitalist and president of the old railroad sleeping car company. Extra special thanks also goes out to the railroad workers who kicked off the whole Labor Day shebang, demanding lower rents and higher pay.

A debt of gratitude is owed labor leader Eugene Debs. And it just wouldn't be right to forget the contributions of President Grover Cleveland, who first declared the Pullman railroad workers' strike illegal and then grudgingly made an election-year compromise to pacify the rabble with their very own Labor Day, six days after he sent 12,000 troops to crack a few railroad worker heads.

And how do our patriotic leaders of the military-industrial-complex honor workers?

In a report released last week titled Executive Excess 2006, researchers at the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy provide the numbers to back up what many, if not most of us, suspected, and/or expected for quite some time now. (I know I declared a cease-fire, but this is not direct Iraq debate. The all-consuming "war on terror" in the Iraq theatre is just the backdrop.)

Although the report examines excessive pay among oil execs, what really caught my attention are the ridiculous salaries being paid to out-of-harms-way CEOs of military contracting companies. Since the "war on terror" began, CEOs of the top 34 military contractors are making twice as much as they made in the four years before 9/11.

In 2005, the top CEOs in the war business were "earning" 44 times more than military generals with 20 years experience, and 308 times more than Army privates.

How do the report's authors know this? They surveyed all publicly held U.S. corporations of the top 100 defense contractors who make at least 10 percent of their revenues in the state socialist economy euphemistically referred to as "the defense industry."

Conservatives and libertarians argue that CEO pay raises merely reflect rising corporate profits. "As a company's fortunes fare, so do the CEOs and other top managers and that is the way it should work in the business world," Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute told the Boston Globe last week.

To his credit, Pena did acknowledge that "the vast majority of money these people make comes from taxpayer dollars," which are "issues that need to be examined." Indeed.

Still, Pena is essentially saying that socially destructive wage-gaps are the way things "should" be. "Should" is an ethical term. Underneath those fancy mathematical models, economic decision-making is about ethics, not "objective" science.

Funny thing is: these kind of ethically-questionable polemics pose a moral dilemma for traditional conservatism. (Homo-economus arguments just aren't convincing to us godless commies).

Abraham, the father of the Big Three western faith-traditions, rejected war profiteering. Abraham went to war in Genesis 14 and after his victorious campaign he refused the spoils, telling the king of Sodom -- yeah, that Sodom -- he would not "take a thread," not even a shoe-latch.

OK, break's over. Back to the railroad yard.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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