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A Just Wage

November 21, 2018 (1,912 words)

Here in the well-off suburbs where I reside, the worshippers I tend to rub elbows with on the weekend exude a quiet pride in their circumstances. They are proud of where they live, and of what they drive. Proud of the schools their children attend, or have graduated from. They are proud, too, of the careers those grown children are now pursing. Even proud of the precocious grandchildren, who are undoubtedly on the way to becoming world-beaters.

One might say pride plays a big part in the life of a typical American out here in the upwardly-mobile suburbs. Which is a far cry from the determined humility that characterized our urban, immigrant existence of a generation or two ago.

This pride is the reason we have allowed our economic status and our economic striving to override the dictates of our faith. Without fully realizing what was happening, we have placed religious belief in a little box, and effectively cordoned off that belief from what we do for a living, and from how we conduct ourselves as citizen-consumers.

… squaring our prideful behavior with the man upstairs

We figure as long as we are not having an abortion, or conducting an extra-marital affair, we’re all good with the man upstairs.

So when we hear occasional talk of a Just Wage, or a Living Wage, it strikes an odd note, as if from a distant past we have managed to leave behind. Like wanting to be a member of a labor union, worrying about being paid a living wage is not something people of our ilk need to concern ourselves with any longer.

As a result, when the subject does come up we nod in agreement with political commentary that criticizes the idea as just another government intrusion in our lives. We have bought the notion that “individual liberty” and “freedom” is a fundamental American birthright, in dire need of preservation and protection, above any other consideration.

This rugged sense of individualism is how our politics have come to define our faith, instead of the other way around, as it’s supposed to be.

… disdaining government on principle

For those who disdain government on principle, and who think everything and everyone would be better off with a smaller governmental footprint, I am not here to disagree with you.

I, too, happen to think it’s a shame we are forced to discuss raising the minimum wage via an act of Congress. But unlike my fellow suburban worshippers, I don’t for a minute accept the conventional explanation heard from business interests that raising wages is economically unviable.

According to various highbrow economists and think tank scholars, raising the minimum wage will result in a reduction of entry level jobs. That may indeed occur in certain industries, across certain sectors of the economy. But to suggest major corporations making millions in profit each quarter cannot afford to pay their no-longer-entry line workers more money is an audacious, thoroughly indefensible position.

… two primary motivators preventing the raising of wages

There are two primary motivators preventing large, wildly successful corporations from paying their low level employees better. Everyone is aware of what those motivators are, but the experts who command our attention perform a bait-and-switch act, using the specious “loss of entry level jobs” argument as a form of misdirection.

The first motivator is public. It’s the overriding imperative to show as much profit as possible on the income statement. This is to appease Wall Street, enhance return on investment, boost investor confidence, etc. In this scenario it is investors and stockholders who are keeping wages where they are, nice and low. Escaping the emotional vortex of constantly juicing up the bottom line, and replacing it with a mission statement more in tune with the common or greater good, will not be easy. But if we are to achieve any real societal progress toward a more equitable (not equal) distribution of our country’s bountiful wealth, at some point one of our international behemoths will have to take the lead on this issue, and show the way.

The second motivator is more private. It’s the lack of any objective moral restraint that would ordinarily serve to mitigate the everyday, garden-variety greed exhibited on the part of a vast army of nameless business people – to say nothing of our corporate leaders and cutting-edge entrepreneurs. Such moral restraint is what would push back against the application of self-interest that increases our earnings by withholding just remuneration from those we do business with, and withholding a just wage from those in our employ.

When you get right down to it, the standard operational procedure is simply to pay people as little as you can get away with. Regardless of how the highbrow economists and think tank scholars try to dress things up and make the penurious reality a bit more palatable.

… it’s just the bad luck of little people who lack leverage

In our version of capitalism, where everyone has the freedom to fend for him or herself in an open economic competition, it’s the bad luck of the little people whose skills and talents are not more in demand, leaving them with so little leverage at the bargaining table. This, my friends, is the fundamental immorality behind the “what the market will bear” guideline presently used to determine wages and benefits.

Since every commercial enterprise is rolling along with essentially the same business plan – keep a tight lid on wages – one can hardly expect the market to suggest anything other than maintaining the miserly status quo.

You may have caught the recent announcement that Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is going to raise the base pay of his order fulfillment people to $15.00 an hour. Because he is having trouble finding enough warm bodies to staff Amazon’s burgeoning warehouse operations.

This news may strike some suburban worshippers as a perfect example of the market at work, of allowing supply and demand to dictate what wages should be. On the contrary, this is yet another example of the stingy principle of paying as little as you can get away with. Are we to believe Amazon cannot afford to pay its warehouse workers more than $15.00 an hour? And by the way, how would you like to live on $15.00 an hour?

If an industry leader like Amazon cannot see its way clear to pay everyone in its employ a Just Wage, what hope do we have of ever getting this thing turned around?

… what constitutes a “Just Wage”?

What exactly is a Just Wage you may ask, and who gets to decide? These questions are usually posed by the well-off, who are leery of government interference in the market, and who loath the idea of establishing another bloated government bureaucracy to enforce any such mandate.

Once again, I am not here to disagree with that point of view. But why are we always put in the default position of expecting government to protect the weakest members of our society, to rein in the more exploitative tendencies of the business community?

Figuring out what a just wage should be is not the unfathomable mystery that certain political commentators make it out to be. What does housing cost in your part of the country? How about transportation? Computing a living wage can be a relatively straightforward proposition.

Yes, there are other factors that come into play, such as the availability of affordable housing, which gets into zoning issues, and “not-in-my-backyard” concerns, along with the profit margins being sought by builders of residential housing.

… taking wages into consideration is not even part of the equation

But to focus on the compensation issue for a moment, the main obstacle to overcome is how we automatically base our financial calculations on top-down considerations, rather than bottom-up. That is, first comes profit, then comes paying the owners and executives, then a return to investors, then maintaining a healthy contingency fund. Factoring in wages and benefits to line workers is really not even part of the current equation.

We may all agree that profit must come first, and that owners and executives and investors deserve a return on their investment of time or money. But the current strategy seeks to maximize that return, at the expense of having anything left to share with line workers. Owners and executives and investors are certainly important, but so are the people who actually make the product or provide the service.

Remember the young Denver tech entrepreneur who made headlines a few years ago, by deciding the base salary in his organization would be raised to $75,000.00 a year? This gentleman had his epiphany after riding the elevator at work one day with a lower-paid employee, who took the opportunity to share with his boss the challenge of trying to live on a meager $35,000.00 annual salary.

At the time Rush Limbaugh called this business owner a “socialist.” The worshipers I tend to rub elbows with all agreed.

… supporting “family killing” economic policy

Most of us here in the well-to-do suburbs believe our culture has gone astray. We support the political party that stands for “family values” – an innocuous term if ever there was one – without realizing this same party is responsible for promoting an essentially family-killing economic framework, under the guise of “individual liberty” and “freedom.”

We shun politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, because they support such culturally outré concepts as marriage equality and reproductive choice. But these are the only people who speak the truth when it comes to the economic question.

I sincerely hope that one day Senators Sanders and Warren will have a conversion of heart on the cultural issues. (Their error is also in the name of “individual liberty” and “freedom.”)

In the meantime those of us with a traditional bent must acknowledge that culture follows economics. If we want to fix the culture, we must first restore a sense of justice to the way our now extremely high-tech and impersonal economy functions.

… culture follows economics

Our movers and shakers must stop hiding behind simplistic platitudes that give cover to fallen human nature’s propensity toward greed.

Sure, it would be nice if journalists and the news media would hold these poseurs accountable and bring them to justice in the court of public opinion. But the exposes can only go so far before risking the ire of corporate overlords who hold the purse strings and control all discourse. It’s the law of self-preservation in action. Our intrepid reporters cannot afford to bite the hand that feeds them.

There is a lot of talk these days of encroaching tyranny, and of the need to defend our liberal democratic order. But it is “enlightened self-interest” – seen as the beating heart of that order – that has already ripped the social fabric to shreds.

While we worry about resurgent tyrants, we miss the forest for the trees. It really is the economy, stupid, as a charismatic politician once preached to a fawning audience.

Specifically, it is the way our free market has evolved, guided by clever and advantaged mercenaries who present themselves as exemplars of “individual liberty” and “freedom,” that has put the lie to “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and turned that lofty ideal into a dead letter.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
November 21, 2018

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