America Needs a Raise

Sign mocking Walmart's low wages
For me at least, the most interesting story over the holiday weekend was Black Friday mayhem. Running the search term "Walmart Police" through Google News gained me this little screenshot, which I think sums up the spirit of the day pretty well -- people shot, stabbed, and beaten over prices that are really no better than those in any other sale throughout the year. False scarcity and media hype about "can't-miss" deals can drive people to do things they may not be very proud of in the sober light of Cyber Monday. Our consumerist culture is by nature predatory, with the corporate predators tricking the prey into thinking they're predators too -- which leads to predictable outcomes as consumers compete to "hunt bargains."

Another type of corporate predation was also in the news, as Walmart workers staged Black Friday demonstrations to protest low wages. They're starvation wages, really, which have Walmart employees running food drives for each other and relying on food stamps to survive. What's surprising to me is how little bleed-over there is from one story to the other, despite the fact that they're clearly related. Not only do Walmart workers earn far, far too little for their labor, but the Black Friday chaos stories demonstrate just how lousy a working environment the company's willing to tolerate in order to sell someone a toaster oven. Anyone who can read about the Black Friday frenzies across the nation and think that people who have to deal with that don't deserve a raise... Well, they've got a real interesting definition of "deserve."

And of course, the myth that low wage workers have undemanding, cushy jobs is exposed as BS.

All of which brings us to Paul Krugman's call to raise the minimum wage -- and more.

The last few decades have been tough for many American workers, but especially hard on those employed in retail trade — a category that includes both the sales clerks at your local Walmart and the staff at your local McDonald’s. Despite the lingering effects of the financial crisis, America is a much richer country than it was 40 years ago. But the inflation-adjusted wages of nonsupervisory workers in retail trade — who weren’t particularly well paid to begin with — have fallen almost 30 percent since 1973.<

So can anything be done to help these workers, many of whom depend on food stamps — if they can get them — to feed their families, and who depend on Medicaid — again, if they can get it — to provide essential health care? Yes. We can preserve and expand food stamps, not slash the program the way Republicans want. We can make health reform work, despite right-wing efforts to undermine the program.

And we can raise the minimum wage.

A realistic minimum wage and a working social safety net. What a shocking idea. Conservatives love bootstrap stories, but the math -- like all rightwing math -- simply doesn't work. Sure, a worker can work hard and become a supervisor, manager, or more, but how many middle management employees do conservatives think a company needs? Not everyone can follow that path -- even if everyone at a particular store is deserving. People are going to remain in low wage positions by necessity. It's simply unavoidable. Every employee at any given Walmart can't be a floor manager. Someone has to be on the operating end of a mop. In any case, living on the minimum wage shouldn't be a punishment for failing to live up to Republican expectations.

And raising the minimum wage is good for everyone.

When it comes to the minimum wage, however, we have a number of cases in which a state raised its own minimum wage while a neighboring state did not. If there were anything to the notion that minimum wage increases have big negative effects on employment, that result should show up in state-to-state comparisons. It doesn’t.

So a minimum-wage increase would help low-paid workers, with few adverse side effects. And we’re talking about a lot of people. Early this year the Economic Policy Institute estimated that an increase in the national minimum wage to $10.10 from its current $7.25 would benefit 30 million workers. Most would benefit directly, because they are currently earning less than $10.10 an hour, but others would benefit indirectly, because their pay is in effect pegged to the minimum — for example, fast-food store managers who are paid slightly (but only slightly) more than the workers they manage.

This is the principle of "everybody does better when everybody does better" -- something obvious to most people, but shocking and anti-intuitive to conservatives. And that get's back to the idea of punishment. Conservatives, at heart, believe that everyone is evil. Therefore conservative ideas are always about punishment. If you punish women for having sex by calling them "sluts," they won't have abortions. If you punish schools for underperforming by pulling funding. If you punish the poor for their poverty by saddling them with an unlivable minimum wage, while cutting programs that would help them -- like food stamps, Medicaid, and welfare -- then they'll just decide it's too hard to be poor and stop it.

This doesn't work at all and why should it? It's what the status quo was before the minimum wage or support programs were put in place. Want a glimpse of how well the Republican approach to poverty works? Pick up a Dickens novel. All those crazy, big gummint ideas exist to fix the failures of a society that lived by what would be modern conservative social Darwinist rules. That's how we know that conservative economic principles would fail -- we've already tried it. For centuries. The poor had plenty of time to get sick of poverty and knock it off. Somehow, they never really managed. Poverty was rampant, income levels were pretty much fixed, and the phrase "middle class" was incomprehensible babble.

People are being underpaid to work in terrible conditions. History proves that doing something about that helps everyone. And that doing nothing will just make things progressively worse.


[photo by Brave New Films]

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