Close window  |  View original article

Life, Liberty and the Living Wage

Do fast-food workers deserve a legislated raise?

By Petrarch  |  August 22, 2013

While the Obama depression grinds on with no end in sight, the streets of our major cities have seen a startling sight: groups of fast-food workers going out on strike for a "living wage" of $15 per hour.

As all American teenagers once knew, fast food joints generally pay the minimum wage and little, if any, more.  Being run predominantly by liberals, American cities often have higher minimum wages than the federal rate of $7.25/hr, but nothing close to $15.

Which is no surprise: flipping fries is the ultimate stereotype of a zero-skill, zero-respect, zero-potential job that can be done by anyone with a pulse and is done only by those with absolutely no intelligence or motivation to better themselves.  What makes these workers think they're worth one cent more than the bare minimum, given that they could all be sacked and replaced tomorrow and the food would still be as cheap and crummy as before?

The original design for fast-food employment made sense: teenagers don't intend to live on their earnings nor to work there for very long.  A fast-food job was a high-school rite of passage and a way for kids to learn the practices and policies of employment in general: show up on time, do as you're told, don't dress like a freak, and so on.  Burger joints got cheap labor and kids got an internship in the Adult World of Work.

When was the last time you saw a teenager selling you a burger?  At least in urban areas, it's all immigrants with poor language skills and no educational credentials; American youth gravitates to being baristas at Starbucks, that being viewed as more classy.  Many of these modern-day fry-flippers seem to intend to make a career of unintelligibly asking "Would you like fries with that?" for years if not decades on end.

But People Do Have To Live... Don't They?

So the striking workers have something of a point: $7.25/hr is not even remotely enough to raise a family on.  It might be enough for a single person to live on with a very Spartan lifestyle in, say, Des Moines - but in Manhattan or downtown Chicago?  Not a chance.  And with any children, there's just no hope.

Pundits on the left often condemn low-wage big businesses as fraudulently benefiting from government welfare programs that their low-paid employees are forced to use.  Wal-Mart, for instance, doesn't provide health insurance benefits and pays its employees so little that they qualify for Medicaid.  Thus, goes this argument, state welfare benefits are providing an unjustified subsidy to Wal-Mart which otherwise would be forced to provide healthcare for its employees if the state didn't.

We've argued that this view is the wrong way around: Minimum-wage jobs are, by definition, the worst of the worst.  If a person can get a better job, they will; so the very fact that they're working for minimum wage proves they aren't worth anything better.  If they didn't have that job, they'd be subsisting entirely on welfare at taxpayer expense.

Thus, to the extent that the lowliest people work at all, their wages reduce what taxpayers would otherwise be paying to keep them alive.  The state isn't subsidizing Wal-Mart; Wal-Mart is subsidizing the state!

However, it does seem like businesses ought to be paying the costs of getting their work done.  It takes a certain amount for a human being to live, and if a job isn't able to generate enough economic income as to be able to pay a worker that minimum, then maybe that job isn't worth doing.  A thought-provoking lefty article recently made just this point:

The idea that we have to choose between paying workers well and having successful businesses is just false. That choice only exists when the owners insist on squeezing billions out of their workers.

A living wage isn’t just something corporations owe their workers, it’s something corporations owe America.

If a corporation won’t pay a living wage, then it shouldn’t have the right to exist. Period. End of story.

The article compares Costco to Wal-Mart - two giant retail corporations selling billions of dollars' worth of goods and with tens of thousands of employees.  However, Costco its employees pays a "living wage" that's maybe twice what Wal-Mart does, and provides health and other benefits to boot.  Where does Costco get the money to do this?

Costco’s founders, Jeffrey Brotman and James Sinegal, aren’t among the world’s super rich like the Walton family. The Walton billionaires bleed their workers dry and it makes them one of the richest families in the world. The guys who started and the executives who run Costco are merely multi-millionaires.

In other words: the economy is a zero-sum game.  Whatever is paid to the capitalists is taken directly from the mouths of the workers.  If you don't recognize this philosophy, let's be plain: this is classical Marxism at its finest.

Only In America - And Everywhere Else

Strictly speaking, the Left is right: companies do have to pay their employees enough to live, or else they won't exist.  American slavery was a social experiment in the absolute minimum required for the sustenance of "employees" - even the stingiest slaveowner had to feed his slaves enough so that they didn't starve to death and stop working no matter how hard he continued to beat them.

A funny thing happened in slavery days, though: the South lost the Civil War.  It turns out that slavery cannot sustain a modern economy, because while you can force a person to do unskilled physical labor, it's far more difficult to force him to use his brain.  It was the brains of the North that built the factories that supplied the Union Army, powered by the brains of the people employed in them of their own free will.

We see this all throughout the economy.  Where a certain type of work absolutely requires a given level of skill, knowledge, or experience, it's paid far more than minimum wage.  Even the minimum-wage fast-food jobs pay a whole lot more than is absolutely needed in order to not die of starvation; the question, really, is how comfortable (or not-too-uncomfortable) a lifestyle we think is acceptable for people living in America.

But why restrict this only to America?  We've all read about the poverty wages paid in sweatshops around the world, and the unsafe working conditions that led to the recent disaster in Bangladesh where over a thousand workers were killed when their factory collapsed.  Are they worth less as human beings than Americans?

They themselves wouldn't think so - but then, they also freely chose to work in the sweatshop, considering it to be a better job than the backbreaking farm labor their parents spent their short, painful lives engaged in.  The sweatshop offers a step up and hope for the future, just as many of our own great-great-grandparents worked in sweatshops in the mills of Manchester and elsewhere, under conditions that would be completely familiar to the residents of Bangladesh.

The problem with fast-food jobs isn't the low pay.  It isn't even the unpleasant working conditions.  As long as the left seeks to "solve" those problems, they'll get exactly nowhere and make things worse.

The real problem is this: why are people in the modern, developed United States attempting to make a lifelong career of zero-skill jobs that were never intended to be a career for anybody?  Why would a McDonald's of 1970 be staffed by teenagers who worked there for a couple of years at the very beginning of their working lives, whereas a modern McDonald's has more middle-aged people of foreign background who seem to have every intention of staying there in the same place until they die?  Why, in other words, are individual people having such a hard time moving up the American ladder of success in employment - or put another way, why is American now overflowing with individual people who completely lack the ability to move themselves up from the very bottom?

But if they asked those questions, the Left would have to start asking hard questions about why our economy has so completely stalled and just why we find it acceptable to invite in the entire Third World, which would reflect poorly on their god in the White House.  So we're stuck with fatuous protests demanding far more money than fry-flipping deserves, and regulations that will only eliminate what jobs there are.