Time For a Maximum Wage

During a February 1934 radio address, when unemployment and economic inequality were both rampant, Louisiana US Senator Huey Long said,

We do not propose to say that there shall be no rich men. We do not ask to divide the wealth. We only propose that, when one man gets more than he and his children and his children's children can spend or use in their lifetimes, then we shall say that such person has his share.

There is no state in the union where someone working a minimum-wage job for 40 hours a week, or $15,080 a year, can afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market value.

At the opposite end of the financial spectrum, Mitt Romney made $15,080 every 6 hours in 2010, a year in which he grossed more than $21 million in income. It would take a minimum wage worker 1,436 years and 10 months to make what Mitt Romney made in 2010.

If that hasn't sunk in yet, I'll say it differently. To make as much as Mitt Romney made in one year, a minimum wage worker working 40 hours a week for $7.25 an hour would have to start work during the Liang Dynasty and work all the way to the present day. Assuming an average life expectancy of 65 years, since minimum wage workers can't get the same nutrition and health care that everyone else can, that's 22 entire lifetimes of nonstop minimum wage work, from infancy to death, just to make what one man made in one year.

Guys as rich as Mitt Romney make money for having money. He doesn't simply work for a living, but rather acquires wealth from investments already made with previously accumulated wealth. While a minimum wage worker pays a third of his or her income in sales, property, payroll and excise taxes, Mitt Romney pays just a 13.9% tax rate on more than half of his income, because it comes from capital gains, instead of good old-fashioned hard work.

Congress is debating a bill to raise the minimum wage from a woefully inadequate $7.25 an hour to a slightly less inadequate $10 an hour, over a two-year period, and indexing it to the consumer price index so it rises annually as the cost of living goes up. It's a good bill that puts a little more money in the pockets of hard workers just trying to stay above water, which mean more demand for local small businesses in the neighborhoods where these workers live, which means economic expansion and steady job growth in communities that need it the most.

But debating wouldn't be the right word to use. Since the Republican-controlled House refuses to even bring any bill up for debate that doesn't exclusively benefit their millionaire campaign donors in the financial, pharmaceutical, insurance and fossil fuel industries, the minimum wage bill is predicted to sink like a stone in a lake. House Republicans' attitude toward the bill can best be summed up by Republican Bill Young of Florida, who told someone to "get a job" after he asked whether the Congressman would support an increase in the minimum wage.

Getting by in America isn't done by just having a job; I've personally held four part-time jobs at one point just to pay $450 a month in rent, keep food in my fridge and gas in the tank. Twenty percent of those on food stamps have jobs, but just don't make enough to feed their families without government assistance. It isn't that those with minimum wage jobs on food stamps aren't working hard enough, they're just not being paid more than enough to stay alive through the next week.

On the other hand, corporate profits are at an all-time high, while wages are at an all-time low. The gap between the average pay of a CEO and the average worker is more than 231 to 1. While more and more Americans are struggling just to meet basic needs, the compensation of corporate executives has never been higher, nor have their lifestyles been any more extravagant. While a worker laid off from a company that Bain Capital shackled with debt and outsourced pays taxes on their unemployment compensation, Mitt Romney gets a $77,000 tax break from his dressage horse. It's likely that a Mitt Romney presidency would mean a continuation of excessive wealth inequality and tax loopholes for the richest 1%, and the struggle of the average worker to get by would worsen.

The concept of a maximum wage is in the style of Huey Long's "Share the Wealth" radio addresses from the Great Depression. It won't make rich Americans poor, nor will it call for an equal distribution of wealth. A maximum wage would simply be legislation that states an executive shouldn't make more than 10 times what their average worker makes. A CEO can still make $5 million dollars a year if they wish. It just means their average worker has to make at least $500,000 a year.

It's more likely that if a maximum wage law was in place, it would simply mean CEOs would have to make do with a slightly lesser compensation package that would still be more than enough to live a luxurious lifestyle. And the average worker would be paid a comfortable living wage that would be enough to afford a home big enough for their family, enough to have plenty of food on the table, and enough to put away for their children's college education, retirement, vacations, and the like.

America used to be a country where one income could support a family with multiple children, and still be enough to live comfortably. It's time to treat workers with a decent wage that allows for families to sustain themselves and live with dignity. And if that means a few CEOs have to make do with a few million less, that's a sacrifice 99% of us are okay with.