Wednesday, December 11, 2013

An Increase to the Minimum Wage is Inevitable

Typical answers as to why we should increase the minimum wage include boosting the economy and reducing the overall poverty level. Raising the minimum wage is even popular with a majority of Americans, regardless of political affiliation. Those reasons should be enough justification to make it happen...

...But they aren't enough, are they? Despite some victories here and there, we see slow or no change because there are certain interests who, for fiscal and/or ideological reasons, will never accept evidence contradicting what they think they already know. They will not believe that paying people a livable wage is a good thing for everyone and does not impact employment or the economy in a greatly negative manner.

Combine that with the reality of our political system; too divided and dysfunctional, unable to do anything that's considered controversial, even if said controversy is mostly imagined or fabricated to push back against necessary and good changes in policy....and we don't have a single shared source of truth in our media who either can or is willing to judge the veracity of an argument and no mutually-respected leaders who can give the nation the 'come to Jesus' talk we need in order to get our collective head on straight.

That's all a recipe for minor or no action and a means to preserve the status quo just a little while longer so the quarterly earnings report is positive and executive management can make their bonuses larger and stock more valuable before cashing out. Such inaction satisfies the small-c conservative impulse to both preserve wealth and hinder change until reality's ticking clock dictates otherwise.

So, given that tendency toward inertia, what makes an increase to the minimum wage inevitable?

I'll explain below the fold.

I think that there are two answers to that question.

The ugly answer is that a minimum wage increase acts as a short-term pallative* for the economically disadvantaged. An easing of pain, but not a cure. In order to maintain control over a non-affluent underclass who has grown increasingly frustrated with their economic circumstances, bones will inevitably be thrown...and a raise in the minimum wage to $9 or $10 an hour is, ultimately, a small bone to throw. It's small because the also-inevitable-and-subsequent price increases can be blamed on said raising of the minimum wage. It weakens other calls to action regarding economic fairness and reinforces class distinctions (and disunity) already in place.

We've all seen the right's reactions to the Affordable Care Act; it's considered crazy to discuss expanding Medicare or Social Security and Obamacare is just a handout to 'the 47% of takers' that are a drag on society. Ugly, dismissive sentiments about what is the lesser of the available options for necessary change. Better to make a mild concession and then throw distractions around than risk a wider, unified revolution in thought and deed that changes the way Americans do business and affects personal and corporate profitability. The bank bailout or the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act can be viewed along similar lines.

Just enough gets done to placate the general public and get things limping along again before continuing business as usual. The granting of these sort of mild concessions to prevent disruption to the economic or social status quo isn't a new concept, mind you. It's as American as apple pie:

Those upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, at the expense of slaves, Indians, and poor whites. This bought loyalty. And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful even than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760s and 1770s, a wonderfully useful device. That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality.
Simply put, a raise to the minimum wage is inevitable because it is an effective tool for manipulating the public. Raising the minimum wage alone* isn't enough to fix poverty in America, even if it will ease the pain for a while.

The not-ugly reason is that we are being slowly driven towards making a serious change in our approach to economic fairness. As income disparity rises and economic security shrinks for most Americans, it serves as a driver of change. That ticking clock becomes louder and more insistent. More inevitable.

There are historical precedents for this type of movement-style change. The labor and suffrage movements of the first part of the previous century and push for civil rights in the middle part where radical - for their time - changes resulted from widespread demonstrations of public unrest...only with those sustained movements, doing the minimum was no longer possible and there was no bone small enough to throw. The downside is that these progressive gains were sometimes centuries in the making. You can even argue that the unrest occurring now is a continuation of the workers' strikes of the 1930's. The subjects of that unrest, economic fairness and civil rights, are not much different today. Movement-style change is usually a very long effort that can experience multiple setbacks .

Call it the 'Arc of the Moral Universe' argument. The day will come, justice is inevitable, don't give up.

So keep pushing for that minimum wage increase. Make it inevitable sooner...but don't accept that as the end goal, only as one of the many things we need to do to change how we define what makes our national economy healthy and inclusive of all citizens.

* To me, the only argument that counters raising the minimum wage is that any increase will be likely absorbed into the generally rising cost of things by the time it's adopted, much like easier credit contributed to the housing bubble and federal subsidization contributes to the high cost of education. Note that this is not an argument against raising the minimum wage generally, only against raising the minimum wage without other, greater reforms.

An idea would be to have a cost-of-living-indexed minimum wage and a revision of business tax regulations to increase taxation on employees paid the minimum with declining rates for paying more than the minimum. The rate decline would be the inverse of the amount paid the wages go up, the amount in tax goes down. The justification for the increase in taxation would be that low-pay employees lean more heavily on public services funded by public monies, so employers unwilling to pay livable wages should be contributing more to the public coffers.

And no, I haven't worked out the detail on this. I can see a move to fewer, higher-paid employees which would have the undesirable effect of increasing unemployment...but there are ways to deal with that as well. As I'm saying, this would be just once piece of an larger effort.

No comments:

Post a Comment