On Labor Day, uncertainty reigns

If you work hard and play by the rules, you can do well. That's the American dream.

But more and more in recent years, we've seen how reality impinges on the dream. Textile workers who were doing a good job suddenly were jobless because foreign competitors could do the work as well at lower cost, or because technological advances created machines that could do the job better and cheaper. That's happening to workers in a wide vareity of other fields, too.

That's the way of the American economy. The economist Joseph Schumpeter called it “creative destruction” – a process of industrial mutation that is incessantly destroying old economic structures and making way for new ones.

That's good for the economy, enabling it to abandon outmoded products and processes and free capital and labor for new ventures. But it can be tough on workers.

In North Carolina and across America, workers have responded to economic shifts in many ways. They have learned new skills and moved to places where jobs are available. Sometimes, in this mobile, ambitious nation, that's easy. Often it isn't.

Many workers are losing job benefits they can't replace easily, if at all. Employer-provided health insurance is one of them.

Many are trapped by a collapse in home values, resulting not only from the bursting of the real estate bubble but also from a decline in home values in cities where jobs have vanished and there's little demand for houses.

Americans don't want handouts, they want good jobs. But there's a role for government in helping people deal with problems created by economic ups and downs they couldn't anticipate and may not survive. We want the economy to run efficiently. But we also want our nation to be humane.

As the election approaches, we should be looking for the candidates who offer the most sensible ways of responding to economic challenges in order to keep the American dream alive.