The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Wages are a Moral Issue

Earlier in the day, I posted an observation that one can quickly estimate the annual salary equivalent of a wage by knowing that each $5 per hour is approximately equal to $10,000 per year in income for a full-time worker.  (Actually, knowing that $1 per hour equals approximately $2000 per year is arguably better, since it allows greater precision.  But I digress.)

The ability to equate hourly wages to annual salary has long interested me, because very few people seem to be able to do it.  I have known more than a few people who live in the D.C. metropolitan area with me who say that living on $60,000 is basically impossible, yet these same people will casually dismiss calls for a higher minimum wage with self-assurance than $8 an hour is "plenty."  If they had my handy formula, they would know that $8 an hour equates to less than $20,000 per year, or less than one-third of an amount on which they consider it impossible to live.  I assume that they do not know my formula.

In any event, having posted this handy formula and a brief comment to the effect of what I just said above, I saw as my first reply a comment that, "If there's a problem with minimum age, let congress fix it. Stop blaming the employer who is within his right to pay whatever."

This argument is seriously flawed.

It is correct that an employer is free and able to pay any wage that meets or exceeds the minimums established by law.  With that claim, I take no issue.  However, the idea that I or anyone else should not blame that person for doing so -- that I relinquish my own moral authority and judgment because of that person's legal rights -- flies in the face of individual liberty and social judgment, two things that have a long history in the United States.

This idea that things that people are allowed to do by law must be embraced as morally and socially acceptable is one that has been creeping into our society over at least the last forty years.  It began as a liberal concept -- indeed, it is foundational to liberalism, and represents a distinction between the liberal ideal and that of the progressives who came earlier -- and was denounced by conservatives.  Yet just as today's liberals find themselves talking in terms that assume market capitalism, so too do today's conservatives find themselves embracing the liberal worldview that, if someone may do something, it is therefore proper that he or she do it.
 
The business owner has the right to pay his wages; I have the right to denounce those wages.  His action is a form of speech; mine is also speech.  He may do as he likes, but he may not do so without consequence.  Should I gather large numbers of like-minded people who choose to exercise their individual liberty to denounce the business owner, perhaps boycotting his or her business as a form of protest, then this, too, is our freedom of speech.  Nothing can be more American.

Certainly, Congress can change the minimum wage.  It should, too: either the minimum wage should be raised and indexed to inflation, removing it from the dangling promises of Democrats and the Republicans whose business masters hope to gradually return workers to the status of serfs, or it should be abolished.  Why the diametrically opposed choice?  It's actually not so far apart. 

Indexed, the minimum wage guarantees a living wage; we do that for retirees, and they aren't even producing value, so it's bizarre that we don't do it for the productive people of society.  Without indexing, however, the minimum wage serves as a validation stamp that says, "I'm doing what society expects of me."  Even an altruistic person can hardly be blamed for thinking that paying a few dollars above the minimum wage is generous, when that same person, were there no minimum wage to serve as a goal post, would independently determine what a living wage is and then be as generous as he or she might choose in addition to that minimum.  Put another way, were there no minimum wage to be a benchmark, it would not occur to most business owners that paying a non-living wage was possible, nor would workers assume that it was fair.

That brings me back to my Facebook discussion.  Wages are a moral issue.  The minimum wage clouds that fact by making them seem like a regulatory concept, but paying someone wages on which he or she cannot support even him or herself -- wages whose deficits are made up by taxpayer-funded social services -- is a moral failing. We need to stop fawning over the so-called "job creators" and call them out for their bad behavior.

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