Raise The Minimum Wage – Part 2

By Harold DeRienzo

Why should the minimum wage be raised?  Chris Hayes, on his August 29th MSNBC show, asked this question in a rather pointed way.  Interviewing Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky he asked why this is not just a private issue between, for example, McDonald’s management and McDonald’s workers.

That is a good question.  Congresswoman Schakowsky responded mostly on moral grounds, citing basic unfairness, stating that $31,000 resulting from $15 hourly compensation represents a relatively modest income, and contrasting average fast food worker compensation with that of executives, particularly CEOs.  But is a moral argument sufficient to rally citizens around increasing a minimum wage that, in inflation-adjusted terms, is 32% lower than it was in 1968?  More may be necessary.

Citizenship Argument:  We live in a democratic system that is framed by lawful relations.  Absent the powers necessary to enforce these relations we would live in a society defined by Hobbes as a “warre of every man against every man.”  Where there is no lawful order, the only order is that which is maintained by those with superior force – one individual against another; one group of individuals against all others.  In return for a system of laws, in return for delegated power to government bodies, we give up some of our freedoms, particularly those that would allow us to indiscriminately or discriminately force our wills on, or exploit, enslave, or violate the covenanted rights of others.  In other words, we establish rules (laws) that regulate our public relations with others.  One such rule – minimum wage law – could be viewed as standing for the proposition that no person or group of persons should be entitled to profit in industry or commerce without paying workers sufficient compensation that permits them to survive within any particular political economy, which is often referred to by many as requiring payment of a “living wage.”  Such an intrusion by government into the affairs of commerce and industry is well-settled and extends to anti-trust, bank reserve requirements, export rules, contract law, consumer laws, and other manifestations of government as regulator of relations between and among its citizens.

Public Welfare/Tax Argument:  History has taught us that free markets lead to certain benefits, but also to problems that the public (the taxpayer) pays for in one form or another.  To provide just a few examples, we have zoning laws that preclude development of housing that causes health problems, such as cholera and tuberculosis.  We have FDA laws and rules that attempt to prevent diseases from spreading through the food distribution system.  We have inspectors that work to ensure that airplanes are well maintained.  We have traffic rules that attempt to limit accidents, and so on.  These regulations are intended to minimize public/taxpayer expenditures and general public harm emanating from private behavior that causes public response and cost.

When a family earns insufficient compensation for work, that family looks to the public for support, in the form of EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfers), public assistance, uncompensated health costs, relief from taxes, housing subsides, and more.  Insufficient compensation also deprives the government of resources.  For example, if we believe that seniors who have worked all their lives should not live their final years in a state of destitution, then we should be looking for ways to preserve the system, as opposed to dismantling it.  Paying substandard wages undermines the system in that if workers received living wages, contributions to the system would increase and this would make the system solvent for generations to come.  Living wages would also decrease reliance on public supports, thus shifting these costs back to the private sector, where they belong.

Proscription by Analogy Argument:  Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  We fought a Civil War over it.  But as evil as slavery as an institution was, how much better is a political/economic system that provides less than subsistence wages, induces oppressive debt, and produces the highest incarceration rates, particularly of young men of color, in the world?  It would seem that replacing slavery with debt peonage or indentured servitude with excessive imprisonment (where many are hired out as cheap labor) should hardly be the preferred legacy of the richest and most powerful country in history. By analogy, our free citizens should be permitted the dignity that is afforded to all free peoples, namely that dignity comes from being able to provide for themselves and their families.

Economic Argument:  I am not an economist, but it seems intuitive that any economy, such as ours, that is nearly 70% based upon consumption must establish rules so that its citizens can adequately function as consumers.  Promoting laws and regulations that permit such wealth concentration, productivity capture, and income equality as we have at this time, deprives the economy of demand, resulting either in an economic downturn or required government intervention and stimulus – at taxpayer expense.

Of course, these are difficult arguments to make in an interview, but these and other arguments should be the subject of more rigorous and open public debate.

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