Gary Anderson

Gary Anderson

What should the minimum wage be? What should the lowest acceptable amount per hour of labor come to? To whatever someone desperate enough will agree to, set by whatever the marketplace will bear? Pure laissez-faire supply and demand?

That’s the way it was until FDR implemented another Democratic legacy of fairness. Before that, a minimum wage was considered an unconstitutional infringement upon the marketplace and was non-compulsory in those states that had established one. It remains the federal government, dreaded Big Government, that provides any consistent safety net against American workers being pitted against each other for a race to the bottom.

American capitalism has never gotten completely over the lost boon of indentured servitude or outright slavery. If corporations could pay their American workers the same as those now outsourced, just imagine how quickly manufacturing would return home, instead of waiting for now rising Chinese labor costs to turn back the tide.

Walmart, America’s largest retailer, touts its new championing of a return to American manufacturing. That it was a principal agent in precipitating manufacturing’s outsourcing isn’t mentioned, nor its own regressive labor practices. Capitalism’s allegiance to the bottom line dovetailed perfectly with Walmart’s “Always Low Prices” consumer loyalty. American jobs left because paying labor anything close to fair wages was deemed “irresponsible to stockholders.” American workers soon learned that “you get what you pay for.”

Despite recent raises in 21 states, and 29 being above the federal standard of $7.25, left to themselves, the value of “minimum” varies greatly. Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, S. Carolina, and Tennessee still have no minimum wage. Georgia’s stands at $5.15 while D.C. has the highest at $9.50. Seattle has mandated theirs to $15, phased in over 7 years. Vermont’s will be $10.50 effective January 2018.

Much is being made of readdressing the federal minimum. It would almost seem the most important economic issue of the day. Yet, only 4.3 percent of Americans work at or below the federal standard. In 1979 that figure was 13.4 percent. Still, 4.3 percent is about 3.3 million workers.

However manipulated, some facts are less disputable than others. Amid it all, economic reality is there somewhere, hiding in plain sight.

President Obama wants to raise the federal rate to $10.10. Measured by today’s dollar, that would be below the minimum wage set in 1968. This figure is repeatedly referenced, chiefly because it is the figure Google most readily provides, though some calculate that the 1968 minimum would today be $16.50. Sobering by any assessment: 40 percent of Americans today don’t make that much an hour.

This political hot potato is tossed back and forth across the great political divide, while the bipartisan elephant in the room remains that wages at the top of the food chain eclipse all the lower 99 percent. Walmart’s CEO reportedly makes 16 thousand bucks an hour, more than many employees make in a year. For many CEO’s that is a familiar wage difference.

At least Walmart employees earn something. As the refrain goes, “They should be glad they have a job.”

Elsewhere in our marketplace, some desired positions are so sought after that no money for work actually exchanges hands. If one wants a shot at certain work, you provide your services for nothing, as an intern, or volunteer, for a unspecified period in hopes of an eventual paid position. As with minimum wage employment, this used to be a temporary rite in obtaining necessary experience. The trouble today is that these “interns” are often fully skilled older workers hoping to regain entry into a field they were recently “laid off ” from. The New School of Hard Knocks. Graduate level. At least there’s no tuition. Yet.

All too commonly, older workers are now faced with accepting entry level positions after earning top dollar and nearing retirement. In discrimination, age is the new black.

For those fortunate enough to still have their pre-recession job, even cost of living raises, that quaint euphemism for the lowest raise possible, are now a once competitive exercise most employers have stopped altogether. The minimum wage, for many, is becoming a permanent wage.

Nationwide, a clear majority of voters, left and right, approve of raising the minimum wage. So do many employers, leading by example. Yet, with conservatives now controlling Congress, increasing the federal minimum is unlikely. State politics, where different legislative dynamics might exist, or where referendums can be employed, can address the matter individually.

Some states believe that in attracting business investment a low minimum wage sweetens the deal, but low wages produce lower tax revenue, whether income or sales derived, especially relevant if incoming businesses are given enormous tax incentives. Property taxes then have to work overtime.

Others hold that a minimum wage approaching a living wage lifts all boats, reduces government’s burden and stimulates the fundamental workings of a free marketplace. Higher paid workers at the low end of the food chain spur spending, creating more jobs and lifting the economy from the bottom up.

The minimum definition of earning a living should be a “living wage.”


Gary Anderson lives in Bath.

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