"Wage War" Reverberations
In his report "Wage War" (May 2006), David Fryxell digs deep and brings up a treasure of useful information. But one can hope readers are not concluding that the minimum wage does more harm than good, even for workers, and is something we can do without.
Are "moral" considerations beside the point—as to a living wage? Must we look simply at what Fryxell terms the "economic realities" and the pain that business would suffer? Should we, in that case, revise our views about another system of very cheap labor, the institution of slavery? Surely not, but are moral considerations not quite to the point even there? Would we have decided years ago, if we had studied better the economic realities of the time, that abolishing slavery would inflict too much "pain" on Southern plantation business?
Perhaps Marx had a point when he said that the untrammeled free market can be a Dracula which feeds on the living blood of labor.
"Wage War" opens with a note on Joan Holden's play Nickel and Dimed, based on the book by Barbara Ehrenreich, who worked for a time, in disguise, among workers living in poverty. Holden is a well-known playwright in California, and Nickel and Dimed has been popular in theaters there for several years. Her script is worth reading. She shows us scenes from the lives of American workers toiling in places like "Mallmart"—to use the lingo of the play—and the cleaning company called the "Magic Maids." Things are so bad they're funny. Nickel and Dimed is a laughing comedy of a high order and yet deadly serious too, in the tradition of Brecht and Shaw and John Steinbeck.
We are shown, for instance, a woman stealing time from the job to make sad, anxious calls home to her children, where the older child is tending the younger one; we know there's no way she can afford to pay for child-care on her $6.75 an hour. In a related scene, a cleaner supervising other women is pregnant, falls downstairs and is hurt, but won't tell the boss or ask for the afternoon off for fear she will lose her $7 an hour as team leader.
We need all kinds of protections of the rights of working people, but surely a living wage should be at the top of our attention. David Fryxell helps us, though, to remember that we would not want to damage the small businesses around us and fall under the total control of the Mallmarts and McDonaldses and their kind. Surely the giant corporations—for which most people work and which have fabulous wealth—should be paying a living wage, while small business enjoys a degree of protection.
What small business needs most, perhaps, along with all workers and citizens, is a national health service paid for by all. What that would mean, for families and for small enterprises around the country, is wonderful to contemplate.
Surely we don't have to have the enormous wealth gap that now looms over our lives, and watch helplessly while desperate poverty comes down on more and more Americans.
The May feature on the minimum wage in New Mexico was generally well done and thorough. Three additional aspects of the minimum wage may be worth considering. First is productivity. Small and not so small businesses relying on low wages for competitiveness in this country are betting on the wrong horse. Productivity is the key to success in the global economy. Small minimum-wage increases tend of necessity to stimulate management and productivity improvements. Lacking this stimulation, many in this state would simply not pay sufficient attention to human productivity and go on relying on low wages. For this reason alone I favor small minimum-wage increases.
Second, relatively large minimum-wage increases can severely disrupt small local economies. Border Foods and Proper Foods in Luna County were seriously considering the relocation of nearly 2,000 jobs had the minimum-wage increase passed and applied to them. Relocations were apparently being considered to adjacent states that had not raised the federal minimum wage or to Mexico.
Third, for a minimum-wage increase to do more good than harm, some considerable attention needs to be paid to transitioning the attitudes of managers and workers alike for greater productivity and for investments that might be required to make necessary productivity improvements.
I read with considerable interest your article on "Wage Wars"—surely destined to take longer than the 100 years' war. I graduated with a major in economics over half a century ago—which accounts for my extreme doubt of anything "proved" by an "economist." Even if Truman had gotten a crew of "one-handed" economists, what they insisted as correct would not agree. Economic proof is an oxymoron of high degree. In their case, it is clear why "proof" and "spoof" rhyme. I am sure the last one—the guy who turns out the light—will say, "We could have saved the world if we had only had cheaper wages."
And along that line, we could have been "saved" from the Civil War if the Planter Class had figured out sooner that "free" (that is free to be exploited) labor is cheaper and more efficient than slavery. Our history would have been different. Maybe even better. They did learn in the post-war perfection of share cropping, abject discrimination and legalized exploitation.
I grew up in the Depression. Rock Bottom was then the minimum wage. And did this irrefutable fact of wages too low to be reduced pull the nation out of depression? That was then-established economic doctrine. No. No wages; no demand. No demand; no recovery. No sense; suffered anyway.
Is a "mandated" minimum wage the path to perfection? You explained the strength and weakness of that. Is an earned income credit? Yeah, better but then that is an element of that awful thing called "Welfare," which is good only for the powerful who are accustomed to subsidy and special treatment.
All said and re-said, my thought has been and is that any operation which cannot or does not pay its help a living wage (no matter how many or how few in a family or economic unit work) ought not to be in business. How's that for economics? Might be a shock, but what the heck, we are an adaptable society. We could learn even if we had to eat at home, plant gardens and wear second-hand clothes. I did all that. Won't happen until the tramped-upon recognize that they have the numbers to overcome the power of a ruling class enamored of cheap wages.
What a good "Continental Divide" article (May 2006), as usual. I hope that you're thinking of publishing a book made out of all these articles. That would be really fabulous to read!
Keep up the good work! Looking forward to the next one.
Editor's note: Thanks for the kind words—and the suggestion. When we have a few more columns completed to collect, we'll certainly consider it.
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