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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.

Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons License)

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