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Posted by on Mar 9, 2015 in Economy, Featured | 21 comments

Why a Higher Minimum Wage Is a Matter of Human Dignity

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Let me suggest something radical: The purpose of the Federal government is to safeguard the safety and dignity of its citizens. Surely this is something that both of our major political parties can agree on?

Once upon a time I’d have said that it’s only our approach to this issue that differs from party to party, but I’m not convinced of that anymore. Frankly, our leaders no longer seem to believe that each human being is entitled to a minimum level of dignity. If they did, our national minimum wage would provide more than a starvation-level existence.

Since politicians owe their jobs, in large part, to saying the right things at the right time, they’re fond of spouting the same tired clichés about “freedom” and “self-determination.” But the problem is how few of them actually seem to believe what they’re saying, or—and this is the larger problem—actually use their positions of power to actually forward the causes of human dignity.

What they fail to recognize is that, right or wrong, money has become the standard by which we measure equality. They prefer to divorce fiscal policy from the more nebulous idea of “freedom,” which is a little like taking the steering wheel out of your car and hoping for the best.

Quite a way back in human history we decided that money would serve as a way to measure the value of a human life. That’s all kinds of wrong on its own, but when you couple it with the fact that many of the same people who claim to love and support freedom are also committed to maintaining caste systems in our purportedly civilized society, it makes our entire country look, well, un-American.

I’ve written before about the many ways that the Nordic countries are schooling us with quality and longevity of life, equality, and forward progress. Their workers are better paid, happier, and healthier. And yet, here in the Global Capital of Freedom, much of our working class pulls in an income that’s barely at subsistence-level. For Christ’s sake—even Walmart, which leans on corporate welfare to subsidize their spectacularly poor wages, is coming out in support of (slightly) higher wages. I have plenty of reasons to doubt their motives—not the least of which is the fact that many of their workers are so poor that they need to take second or third jobs to pay their bills—but it’s still a long overdue step in the right direction.

Now, while Walmart might be taking baby steps into the future—not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the right thing for Walmart—our once-great country, in m any other ways, continues its downward spiral. Consider, for example, the actions taken by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker recently. He’s been all over the news lately, so I won’t give a full recap here. But probably the most telling summary of his actions was provided by the Green Bay Press Gazette, which rightfully claims that Walker’s hopelessly misguided attack on the state’s unions will take “decades to recover” from. Some say as many as 25-40 years. He’s single-handedly turned back the clock on collective bargaining by a matter of generations.

Walker, in leading the charge to pass this “right-to-work” legislation in late in February, ignores the fact that this phrase, which is almost 70 years old, is as much a misnomer today as it was when it was instituted back in 1947. The problem, of course, is that the legislation has nothing at all to do with safeguarding workers’ rights, but is instead about stripping away their rights. Walker’s legislation, as you may know, says that private-sector workers can no longer be compelled to pay union dues, even though they may still receive benefits under the terms of their membership. It’s an underhanded attempt at killing off unions entirely—and, tragically, the people most affected by it seem to be the only ones who care.

Because in Washington, D.C., it’s the same old story—with just a few exceptions. During his State of the Union Address, which sadly seems to have fallen on the deaf (and dumb) ears of our spectacularly incompetent Congress, voiced his support for a wide-ranging grab bag of human dignity issues including gender equality, higher wages, and even childcare assistance for working families.

For the most part, his deeds have matched his words. Back in September, the President signed executive order 13658, which established a higher minimum wage for federal contractors. He’d be run out of D.C. on a rail if he tried to force the private sector’s hand, so he did the next best thing: he made sure the Federal government will lead by example. He also proposed tax hikes on investments and inherited wealth (an entire branch of law unto itself)—two factors that also play a significant role in the preservation of income inequalities.

It’s too early to tell if his words and actions will carry over into Corporate American in any significant way. I’d like to believe that Walmart’s latest wage hikes were at least in part inspired by the president’s example—all evidence to the contrary—but it’s going to take more than that to make serious progress on this issue.

Economists have reached an overall consensus that raising the minimum wage would have little or no negative impact on employment. Sure, change might feel weird after so many long decades of failed trickle-down policies, but change of any kind will always feel disruptive. The bottom line here is that a strong minimum wage—one that support millions of workers all across America, and one that empowers them to become more involved, invested, and productive citizens—should be an issue favored by all.

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  • Since I know a small business owner very well, down to seeing their financials, I can honestly say they don’t share that enthusiasm for a higher minimum wage. Of course, larger corporations can absorb the added cost (maybe passing the cost off consumers), but a small business may have shutter the business or severely limit operations.

    The money has to come from somewhere. The small business owners I know pay bonuses to reward employees. But they are scared to death of a minimum wage hike due to the tighter margins.

    • StockboyLA

      If larger corporations can pass increased costs to consumers, why couldn’t the small business do the same?

      • PJBFan

        Small businesses tend to have a much higher per-customer overhead cost, among other things, plus generally higher costs for small purchasers. As such, their corresponding price increases are much likelier to be high, and thus passing them off to consumers often fails to work because the prices go up more significantly than with larger businesses.

        Furthermore, especially in smaller towns, price sensitivity tends to be higher, while in big cities, price elasticity tends to be much lower. Small businesses in small towns will see a corresponding drop in revenues, most likely, given the fact that consumers can go to larger businesses to get items more cheaply, if price goes up beyond what is expected. In cities, however, the corresponding variety means that less-expensive substitutes can be found as needed.

      • In one particular small business’ case, it’s there lower prices (restaurant business) and high quality makes them attractive. And they aren’t in an affluent area so passing the cost would be a deal breaker. They are seriously worried that they will have to sacrifice the quality of food to pay the new wages. They want to pay more to employees but just can’t afford it. And their clientele can’t really afford it.

        It’s a touchy situation with small businesses who have thinner margins. They can only absorb so much.

    • Slamfu

      I am a small business owner, and sadly I don’t have a whole lot of data to back this up, but it does seem to me that “business owners” is a pretty broad category, they always seem to rail against this thing, but in the end it usually works out. Typically the folks that scream the loudest about it can weather it the most, or at least do when it comes time to put up. Many states already have higher minimum wage laws that others, and while no doubt some examples can be found of increased wages driving someone out of business, those are rare. CA and WA still have dollar value menus, Walmart still exists, etc….. Essentially despite warning to the contrary, the sky never seems to really fall as predicted by business owners when the minimum wage changes. It’s not like we don’t have some history on this topic to refer too.

      Here’s what it says the most to me, and I’m sorry if this insults your friend who owns a business. If you run a business, and your success or failure depends on paying a good chunk of your people minimum wage, such that a raise in minimum wage screws up your business model, you have a weak ass business model. Seriously. You know the #1 cause of small business failure? It’s that many small business owners make horrific mistakes in running their business. Usually in terms of accounting, tracking their money. You’d be shocked how many small business owners have almost no idea about where their money is going and where its coming from. Or they never gave any serious thoughts about what happens if they start doing well, or making sure they have the right talent. If you guys want some stories I’ve got em, but I think it would make this post a bit long winded, which it already is. Just don’t get me started on restaurant owners who kick and scream about wages when they’ve been getting wages at like $3/hour for waitstaff or whatever it is, which is practically free labor.

      Long story short, minimum wage increases seems to be good overall. Small business owner here who is all for raising them.

      • I get what you’re saying Slamfu. And they may have a “weak ass business model”. But that doesn’t change them being in business since 1990, haven’t lost an employee since 1992 (same folks there), and are loved by their employees and the community. They are one of those maybe inefficiently ran small businesses that are a community pillar that when something changes, really doesn’t adjust well.

        • Slamfu

          To be fair, I live and work in the SF Bay area which is a pretty high end section of the nation. What works here is almost certain to be different than a good portion of this country so I realize some of my experiences either don’t apply or should be taken with a grain of salt. But if your friend can have non existent turnover and good morale while paying minimum wage, he/she must be pretty damn good at what they do.

  • PJBFan

    I would disagree with your initial premise that the purpose of government is to protect human dignity. At least at the federal level, that is not the social contract we have. At the federal level, the social contract is between the states, and the feds to ensure the survival of commerce and provide common defense. As such, human dignity is nowhere to be found in the Constitution.

    Moreover, at the small business level, a minimum wage hike is likely to kill jobs, despite what economists think. I have a background in economics, and my experience is that economic prediction is about as accurate as horoscope preparation. At the small business level, you cannot always pass the increased costs along to the consumer. Given the fact that I’ve seen numerous small businesses’ financials, I can say honestly that an increase in the minimum wage would likely lead to job cuts, or hour reduction.

    • tidbits

      “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…”

      That’s from the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, as I’m sure you are aware. Notice that it mentions much more than ensuring the survival of commerce and providing a common defense. Just my view, but I’d say things like establishing justice, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty do form a kind of social contract that could be said to be rooted in protecting human dignity. All of this would, of course, be a consistent follow up to the Declaration of Independence, out of which we as a nation were born, and which referred to such social contract concepts as mutual equality and rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…all arguably elements of human dignity.

      FWIW, I agree that the minimum wage is not the best way of achieving much of anything, other than inflationary pressure on the economy.

      Best regards,

      • PJBFan


        I stand, partially, corrected. There are elements of human dignity in the Federal Constitution, if one looks only at the text, without looking at the structure and intent thereof. However, the areas that are commonly cited as promoting human dignity carry no force or effect of law. Neither the Preamble of the Constitution nor the General Welfare clause has any meaning other than mindless platitude, as one will note if one looks at the interpretations of the same sections by the earliest courts. The Preamble is literally meaningless. It is without worth or value in interpreting the Constitution. As to the General Welfare clause, the earliest courts told Congress that it lacked any sort of plenary power under the General Welfare clause; it was, and is, indeed, without meaning other than as a platitude.

        Given these facts, I must, respectfully, disagree that there is any intent to protect human dignity actually in the Constitution.


        • tidbits

          The Preamble is presage to what is written to follow. My point is simply that the intent, presaged by the Preamble, far exceeds simply commerce and defense. The Constitution is not that narrow.

          The Constitution includes its amendments with such concepts of human dignity as: free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of peaceable assembly, the right to petition the government on one’s grievances, the right to bear arms (interpreted to be individual, not merely for defense), the right to be free of having soldiers quartered in one’s dwelling, the right to be secure in one’s person, home, papers and effects, the right to trial by jury (speedy and public), the abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude, the right to be free from the deprivation of life, liberty or property without due process of law, equal protection of the laws (by the way, the Fourteenth specifically refers to “No State” and therefore does not limit itself to federal law), women’s suffrage, the right to consume alcohol (within certain regulatory restrictions).

          If one does not like the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, the body of the Constitution includes such references as full faith and credit in Article IV, and the Privileges and Immunities clause of Article IV. In Article I, section 8, Congress is charged with responsibilities that include promoting the progress of science, and arts, and rules of naturalization.

          My point is that there are a multitude of examples within the walls of the Constitution that extend the federal power beyond the narrow confines of commerce and defense.

          At least that’s how I read what I see before my eyes. Interpretations do differ though, as we know.


      • dduck12

        Did these wishes/goals include the many slaves the founders owned? Just saying.
        Earn your daily salt, don’t expect it- Unknown

        • tidbits

          Your daily salt, whether earned or expected, may cause cardio-vascular problems – my doctor.

          The Founding “Fathers” were men – all men – they were not gods. But they did have the presence to provide a provision to amend their attempt, and ultimately those amendments did begin to include people of color and women in the “wishes/goals” they had proposed, originally available only to landed white men.

          Happy Daylight Savings Time.

          • dduck12

            The amazingly brave civil rights people “earned” their salt, Without them, the Constitution was just
            a piece of paper. But, hey, I still think it was a great start for our country, I hope that makes up for my most ant-American remark on TMV.

            By any chance did that same doctor tell you to lay off the bacon and eggs. Just joshing, tidbits, I respect your viewpoint..

  • JSpencer

    Anyone who works hard for anything remotely close to the current minimum wage has a clear understanding of why it’s a cruel joke. This isn’t rocket science folks.

    • I agree but not every company can afford it. Of course the Walmarts, the JCPenneys, and other larger companies can. But I can tell you from experience, it would really hurt the rural area I’m in. Lots of small businesses with tight margins. Would really hurt them.

  • Greg

    While this site is for moderates and thus I hesitate to be too bold, I fear this article is more rant than enlightened analysis.

    • Slamfu

      Feel free to be as bold as you want. People can loudly disagree and still keep the discussion “Moderate”, as long as they back up their points. Calling names and going ad hominem(ex culo as well while we’re at it) is to be avoided, but being passionate about what you believe in isn’t. Neither do posters have to walk some imaginary line between ideological labels like Right, Left, Conservative, Liberal. If you can discuss things like an adult, back up your points with facts and not just gut instincts or regurgitated talking points based on fantasy, then its a “Moderate” discussion as far as I am concerned.

      And if I may be bold, I imagine most people on this site feel the same way.

      P.S. – Nothing wrong with a good rant now and then either if you ask me. As long as its a GOOD rant. Not everyone can pull them off.

    • dduck12

      Half thumb up.

  • DdW

    Good piece, Daniel.

    As you can see, it has provoked a lot of comments and even thought and introspection — in some.


  • Momzworld

    I was interested in the part of the article addressing Scott Walker’s attack on unions by way of a “right to work” bill. I’ve lived in Florida for 48 years; it is a “right to work” state. That has not meant that unions are not present here and negotiating wage and benefit issues. It has simply meant that those employee groups represented by SEIU, for instance, cannot be forced to join the union and pay dues. This isn’t to say that unions won’t be run out of Florida, but they have been here for a long time in this right to work state.

    Florida’s minimum wage is 8.05 which is still pretty low, but it is higher than what is posted as the Federal minimum. It seems that some states and some businesses are raising starting wages as they feel able. The school district I worked for for 30 years has long had a higher starting wage for cafeteria workers, custodial staff, bus drivers and classroom assistants than the Federal minimum during my 30 years.

    The cost of living here may not be the highest in the land, but even someone making 12.00 an hour who has health insurance and taxes deducted will not have anything extra if they are trying to support children as a single parent. Rents for adequate, safe living space are high here. I’ve watched this with one of my children. At the same time, while operating a day care center years ago with 20 on staff, I surely do know what even a small raise does to the bottom line. It is a complex issue.

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