Blog, Social Issues

Scattered thoughts about minimum wage

I got into a conversation about raising the minimum wage on a friend’s FB thread, and I am reposting my comments here cleaned up a bit so that text is not wasted. 

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If you work 40 hours a week doing nothing but flipping burgers, or mopping floors, or making coffee, I see no conceivable reason why you should not make a living wage. Any argument that attempts to justify why someone working full time should be unable to support themselves is nothing but classist bullshit for “keeping the poor in their place”.

If a company can’t afford to pay its workers a living wage, that company has no business being in business. If your business is only sustainable based on labour exploitation, it’s not a business that society should be encouraging. The fact that we’ve just accepted that businesses should be allowed to maximize their profits at the cost of vast income inequality is a ludicrous artifact of capitalism. There is zero reason why McDonald’s or Wal-Mart or whatever company needs to have the GDP of a medium-sized country or why their CEOs need $30M bonuses but can’t pay its workers.

There are any number of reasons why people can’t just “find a new job” if they “don’t like their current job”. As you said yourself, finding a job is hard enough as it is – it’s not like there’s a glut of choices out there. Further, the people who are most harmed by a low wage are often the people least able to afford any sort of time without a wage. Geographic displacement is not an option for everyone, gentrification limits people’s options for living environment, opportunities are limited in small towns, there are families to support (a significant portion of people on minimum wage jobs are single parents).

The dichotomy between “low minimum wage that requires me to work three jobs to survive” and “no income at all” is a false one, and is a fine excuse for never attempting policies that actually help people. Most economists disagree that raising the minimum wage would hurt unemployment, just as most economists disagree that austerity economics actually do anything other than hurt the most disenfranchised members of society.

If you want to talk economic stimulus for businesses: people making minimum wage don’t have any disposable income to spend on consumer products. More money circulating through the economy is better than less – it helps the multiplier effect, it increases consumer confidence, it encourages additional business investment when there’s potential demand. Someone who works two jobs and is exhausted and can’t feed themselves isn’t consuming media, buying new products, participating in the economy.

You can’t look at an individual business within a vacuum and say “well this corner shop will probably not be able to afford paying a better minimum wage, therefore it’s all bad”. You also have to look at the aggregate effects of what it means to have a population that’s not exhausted all the time. What it means when you only have to work 40 hours a week to not be destitute, and how much productive creative labour – the stuff that innovation is made up of – can come from that. What it means to have parents who have the energy and time to spend with their children, and to give back into their community.

The problem is much bigger than minimum wage, of course. The problem includes degree inflation, where you now need a university degree to get a job doing work that you can do with a high school diploma or less that DOES allow you to move up in the company, but the degree comes at the cost of massive student debt that’s not dischargeable in bankruptcy run by *for-profit* loan companies. The problem includes health care, which is an exorbitant cost for small companies that should be provided federally. The problem includes the widespread gutting of public services like libraries, which is one of the few places where people can access knowledge and education affordably, where people who don’t have internet at home can actually learn those skills and access government services that are increasingly only available online. The problem includes food deserts and lack of public transportation and voter suppression and more.

But none of this affects my initial point that if someone is working a job 40 hours a week, they should have a living wage. Not everyone can be a skilled worker for the simple reason that someone has to do the jobs that no one wants to do – including fast food, cleaning, janitorial work. Why should someone standing on their feet for forty hours a week go home hungry, but me sitting in front of my computer gives me the means to eat what I want, and someone else coming up with ways to defraud investors makes millions?

For whatever it’s worth, I love my job and get paid very well doing it, and I would pay more taxes in a heartbeat if it meant better welfare, better infrastructure, better public education, and better healthcare. Hell, I support a guaranteed minimum income for all members of society. Canada and the US are super fucking rich countries, there is literally no reason why we cannot provide basic amenities for all members of our society other than greed or some toxic fucked-up protestant ethic of punishing the “undeserving”.

Why shouldn’t everyone deserve comfort? What’s the point of increasing technological efficiency if it doesn’t also come with increased quality of life? We thought computers would revolutionize the workforce and give people much more leisure time, because work that used to take a long time now happens instantaneously. Instead, we’ve just allowed computers to displace humans and we turn around and say those humans are lazy and unskilled. Why CAN’T we have 20-hour work weeks for everyone? Douglas Rushkoff had a really great op-ed a few years ago in which he argues that our economy is now no longer about producing things, but about providing ways in which people struggle to prove they deserve those things we produce in abundance. And that is a really toxic economic structure.

The fact that people have no other choice but to work 2-3 jobs to pay the bills is not a justification for why the system should continue like this. The fact that the US has decided that zero labour protection law allowing employers to fire their employees at will is not a justification for why the system should continue like this. The fact that a basic human right like health care is tied to the whims of big companies is not a justification for why the system should continue like this. These are all symptoms of a system that is already fundamentally broken.

But raising the minimum wage is a start. McDonald’s may pay $10.10 in some states, but the federal minimum wage is $7.25. Having better working conditions and pay for everyone is absolutely achievable. It’s difficult and there’s political will against it. There will always be flaws in the system. But just because a goal is difficult doesn’t mean we stop striving for it, and “we’ll never be perfect” does not mean “sorry, them’s the breaks”. A hundred years ago women couldn’t vote. We thought then that change was impossible, too.

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