The Minimum Wage and Our Tolerance for Economic Misery

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 22:  Labor leaders, workers and activists attend  a rally for a $15 minimum hourly wage on July 22, 2015
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 22: Labor leaders, workers and activists attend a rally for a $15 minimum hourly wage on July 22, 2015 in New York City. A panel appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo recommended on Wednesday that the minimum wage be raised for employees of fast-food chain restaurants throughout the state. The panel recommended that the $15 rate be phased in by December 31, 2018 for New York City and by July 1, 2021 for the rest of the state. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Cities across the country are being roiled by the insubordination of low-wage workers. Their scandalous offense? Launching popular campaigns aimed at modest pay hikes under local, state and federal minimum-wage laws. In other words, it's a drive to raise the floor on acceptable levels of socially engineered misery.

Almost to a person, opponents' attacks have been totally evacuated of substance--sliding from cunning fictions into outright self-delusions. This isn't surprising. The body of American labor history is scarred by the ugly tradition of panning workers' demands for more humane treatment as deeply villainous. It's an old, lifeless tune, but one that's never had need for resurrection. Today's performers have merely joined the chorus of an earsplitting heritage--one that echoes down through the present moment.

That heritage spans much of the American project, but our (greatly abbreviated) story begins with the ravages of the Great Depression. At this crucible moment in American history, we decided to confront the defects of an imploding market system with direct government intervention on behalf of those the market had so spectacularly failed. Along with other New Deal legislation, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was designed to lift millions of America's poor--with the vile exclusion of the vast majority of black workers--into the country's rising middle-class. It did so by ushering in an era of new labor protections, including a nationally guaranteed minimum-wage.

The era's corporate class howled with doomsday paranoia. Guy L. Harrington of the National Publishers' Association spoke of the untold horrors: "We, however, know what has always happened when governments have tried to superintend the industry of private persons. The final result has always been distress, misery, and despair." The claim was pathetically baseless then and we've no reason to take them at their sacred word now. But it does clarify something for our own time: there is nothing new about a country that earnestly demands the work of some in one breath and then scorns them as undeserving in the next. The trails we walk were blazed long ago.

The arguments against increasing the federal minimum-wage--a hideously meager $7.25 --all carry the weight of the past's ruinous baggage. Even the most gripping among them are sand castles--passionately defended, but swept away by the gentle tides of history.

We know, for instance, that the portrayal of the minimum-wage as a job-slaying assassin is sheer fantasy. When an economy is operating under capacity, as ours is, the truth is the exact opposite: low-wage workers have a much higher propensity to spend each additional dollar, thus encouraging businesses to hire more workers. At a minimum, such hikes have a neutral effect on job growth. This is confirmed by the data--infinitely more reliable than the army of orthodox economists desperate to prove themselves really true scientists. But the anti-increase crowd is descendent from a proud line of market fundamentalists who worship their god with a furious devotion, no matter the carnage involved.

Another laughable myth is that demands for greater pay violate the sacred conservative principle of just deserts. This is the idea that workers should be compensated based on the value they add to the economy. While it fails as an economic principle for a host for reasons, when used against minimum-wage hikes, it ultimately fans the flames of its own immolation. That is, the proposed hikes square perfectly with desert theory. This is painfully obvious: if the minimum-wage had kept pace with worker productivity from 1969 onwards, as it did in the twenty years prior, it'd be crossing the $20 threshold today. There's no way to project the economic consequences of such an unprecedented move, but the basic point remains: if workers should be compensated according to value, they've suffered nearly a half century of democratic plunder. Modest minimum-wage hikes of the $10, $12, or $15 variety are inherently conservative proposals to pay low-wage workers what they're owed today--to say nothing of plundered past wages. We should do so, all cash money.

Their last reservoir of hope is the most honest and monstrous one available: that low-wage workers are simply undeserving of a wage increase. This is usually justified by hinting that low-wage workers have abandoned any struggle for self-improvement, thereby disqualifying them from a minimally decent standard of living.

This is, mildly put, a flaming pile of intellectual shit masquerading as deep, illuminating truth. In my experience, it's the last resort for those who can barely veil their contempt for the poor.

And it comes from mostly disgruntled college-educated types furious that their degrees haven't thrust them to the heights of a system that arbitrarily slots people into hierarchies. You've seen it on your timeline: "I spent four years in college and barely make $15 an hour, so why should they?" What's bizarre is that this justifiable outrage at a viciously stupid economic system is aimed not at the system itself, but at those who suffer the worst of its blows. This puts you in the awkward position of obeying the laws of the very thing you wish to attack. That it goes unnoticed speaks to the horrifying power of an intellectual class whose mouths are hard at work, but minds are plainly busy elsewhere.

They have that right, but we can never allow ourselves to be enrolled in the myth. And in lifting the veil on these delusions, we shouldn't suffer any of our own. Data and basic history have failed time and again to breach the tapestry of deliberate lies and self-deceptions minimum-wage opponents have weaved together. At root, we're left with an elementary moral dilemma: what level of human suffering will we allow to pass from the ether of policy? Our answer will have earthquaking ramifications for those we've violently split the ground beneath.