Wednesday, February 5, 2014

JennofArk on The Moral Case For A Living Wage

  • From a Commenter at Alicublog Nymmed JennofArk. Emphasis mine.  I've had this conversation with so many people, but I've never seen the issues put so succinctly:

    I think some part of the problem is the left's failure to articulate the moral case for less income inequality. I'm amazed at how often I'm talking with demonstrably poor people who bitch about "all those layabouts on welfare," completely missing that their issue with it is envy - those "layabouts on welfare" are doing as well as the working poor bitching about them. It's pecking order, "yeah, well, I may be as poor as you are, but at least I'm not a mooch!" Society has let them know they suck because they are poor, so there's a real incentive for them to place someone lower on the totem pole Just a few days ago, I was talking to a poor woman was applauding the food stamp cuts. I couldn't hold back and told her I thought it was a horrible thing. I noted that most of the people on food stamps work but just don't make enough money to feed themselves. "And now," I said, "they'll be going to work hungry. That's not a good thing."
    The moral case for living wages is pretty simple: the great mass of humanity, usually through accident of birth, has no capital. They have only their labor with which to barter for the necessities of life. It's accepted that people like doctors, engineers, CEOs will make more money because of the investment of their time in education. But all of us have a finite amount of time on this earth, and none of us knows how much time we've got. So for each individual, time is a valuable, precious commodity.
    The moral formula is pretty simple: any day of work has got to provide compensation enough to support the individual who performed it (food, clothing, shelter) for a day. Otherwise you're expecting people to dig into the only capital they have - their life - and trade it away for nothing. It's immoral to ask someone to sacrifice their life - any portion of it - in the service of generating profit for someone else, without paying at least the amount that person needs for living during that period of employment. An individual wouldn't open a burger joint knowing that his return would be $7.35 per hour and that for each hour he was open, he would be falling further behind in terms of making a living; that his work would not just waste his limited time but actually buy him hunger. But turn that burger joint into a multinational corporation with rich people skimming profit off the top, and it's "just the way things are."

    It's theft, pure and simple. People need to understand that wealthy corporations - specifically the wealthy people who own them - are stealing their lives.
    *edit: I should add to this that what I've outlined is the answer to the "some people aren't worth more than minimum wage" argument. If a business can't run without them, or someone else in their job, they are essential and there is no business and no profit without them. If a business can't generate enough income to at base pay the people required to run it enough to live, then it is a business that should not exist, because no individual would undertake it on his own, knowing that it would do nothing but put him in an ever-deepening hole.

    JennOfArk      3 days ago 


  1. That really IS well said.

    I especially like the emphasis on the thing that wage-earners bring by way of value: their very lives. JennOfArk is right; that's what most people have to barter with.

    And when it comes right down to it, that's where wealth come from. Labor creates wealth, and I wish more workers realized this simple truth. Too many people seem to think that wealth and all good things in life spring from the foreheads of their "betters" in society, and that they should be continuously grateful for it.

    Anyone who works for a living have nothing to be ashamed of; it's the people who own things for a living who are the real "moochers."

  2. It is a very powerful and emotionally rich comment. It reminds me of the prayer we say at the Workman's Circle Rosh Hashona/Yom Kippur ceremonies. I've got to paraphrase it because I can't remember it in detail but, basically, it asks you to reflect on the year that has passed and on the fact that you gave a year of your life to whatever you were doing. Was it worth it to you? Was it the best and highest use of your life? Because that is what has passed--you've made it to the end of the year and the start of the next one--not everyone has that privilige, or that torment, so reflect on it. Was it worth it? Would you--will you--do it again?

    Thats why it resonates for me so strongly because people ought to have the opportunity, as a right, to have time and energy and food and shelter so that they can choose how to spend their time. Lots of people don't have a chance to pause and reflect on their struggle to survive--its a struggle. There's neither time nor money or choice about how that time was spent. The top of the country can choose to earn more money, or to slack off and spend more time with family and friends and art or health. But the vast majority of the country and the world just doesn't have that luxury.

    1. I like that prayer you describe.

      That sounds really beautiful and meaningful. There should be more things like that in life.

  3. Hey Jen. There's so much to be said about your comment. It puts a human, even a sacred, face on Marx's theory of the replacement value of the worker. Going by my now...uh...thirty year old memories of reading Marx as an undergrad Marx argued that the minimum that the capitalist employer needs to pay for his workers has to guarantee the replacement of the worker, as a worker. But no more. And in a situation of labor surplus and unregulated industry the costs are pretty much going to keep going down as replacing an injured or dead worker is low, and the workers are willing to accept low wages given that the alternative is no wages. That's a pretty garbled account but its what sticks with me all these years later.

    Your comment is a different way of making the argument of the Worker's Song: Bread and Roses:

    As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
    A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
    Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
    For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"
    As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
    For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
    Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
    Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
    As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
    Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
    Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
    Yes, it is bread we fight for -- but we fight for roses, too!
    As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
    The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
    No more the drudge and idler -- ten that toil where one reposes,
    But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

  4. This is an excellent comment and gets at the shift in the Right's rhetoric with their emphasis on creating jobs and protecting that nebulous class of people known as "Job Creators."

    The Right Wing wants there to be a disconnect between the need to work and why we need to work. Having a job, any job is the only thing that matters, because a job is all that keeps you out of the untouchable masses of Those Who Mooch.

    Or at least Those Who Only Mooch since many people who work full time must also rely on food stamps or some other form of welfare just to survive.

    So the Right wants employment to be a status symbol, even if it is a particularly empty one for millions of people. While those who create (or might create) the desired objects, the most important members of society.

    This might be clever, if humans didn't have this annoying habit of needing to eat and sleep and maintain a core body temperature of 98.6 degrees. So while the Job Givers and their defenders yell "Get to work you moochers!" until they're blue in the face, history suggests this isn't a long-term or healthy strategy.