Progressivism and the Minimum Wage (a little long-winded but makes some good points)

minimum mcdonlds

by Reid Fitzsimons

A retired friend of mine, a conservative, expressed his frustration in discussing the drawbacks of raising the minimum wage with his liberal/progressive friends. He felt his arguments were solid but perhaps he was presenting them ineffectually. For whatever reason he has confidence in my abilities of articulation and asked if I would write some basic points that would win over his progressive friends. I have to admit I fully lack economic credentials. I have certainly worked for minimum wage and at times for much less and, along with my wife, have paid the wages of local workers in our Central American charity project, but I never even took Economics 101.

My friend, however, joined by essentially all conservatives, is completely clueless in his rationale: that a reasoned, thoughtful, and logical argument can sway a person engulfed by the progressive mindset. For better or worse, my life experience has afforded me an opportunity to know the progressive mind close-up, and it is indeed hermetically sealed. Trying to describe this is not unlike attempting to describe an odor or color without similes. We’re essentially talking about people with addictions to a worldview that cannot be challenged, and not the kind of addicts who have some degree of insight or even awareness a problem exists. We’re talking about rock-bottom addicts who have permanently scarred their loved ones and otherwise lost everything they ever had and will angrily protest that just a little more scotch or cocaine will be their redemption. We are talking about minds so closed that undeniable direct evidence is dismissed with contempt, suspicion, and hostility.

Clearly it is normal for people to only reluctantly give up beliefs, be they deep-rooted or even just transient ones. Recently I was heading into Binghamton, NY with the Barnes and Noble store as my destination. I was convinced I could find it intuitively, but as urbanization gave way to rolling hills, I finally admitted it was time to turn on the GPS. I probably drove 20 excess miles and lost 40 minutes by my determination to be right. A progressive, however, is not just unwilling to realize they are lost and turn on the GPS, but they are actually unable to do so, and will keep driving to nowhere, oblivious to every indication they should rethink their direction.

Why is this? Ultimately the answer is pretty much the same as in the case of a gambling addict willing to give up their savings, car, house, job, family, and dignity- they cannot fathom that affirmation of their correct course is not just another bet away. The dinging sounds and flashing lights of the casino are neurologically transfixing; they are filled with soul-satisfying hope and a belief that blissful change is coming with the next spin of a wheel.

I think 21st century progressivism in particular is largely the result of wealth, and our wealth by any current or historic standard approaches obscene. I can support this observation by noting I have spent several years living and volunteering in some of the poorest areas of the world. I don’t want to get autobiographical here, but in the early 2000s I was the volunteer director of an outpatient clinic in rural Kenya, East Africa- I lasted almost a year. One of our Kenyan nurse clinicians in his early 30s estimated two-thirds of those he grew up with had died of malaria, AIDS, or the innumerable other available diseases. A commonly advertised service was for cold rooms- a place to store the body of a loved one so they wouldn’t rot before the funeral (only for the wealthy one-percenters with the cost being between $3 and $6 a day, reduced rates for dead children under 10!). One young woman died in our clinic from rabies, the 6th or 7th person to die from the bite of the same dog. We didn’t have a cold room so her body was stuffed into the trunk of a Toyota Corolla with 300,000 miles and taken God-knows where. One family tried to deter another rabid dog in our area by stuffing organophosphate pesticides in rotten fish. Their children, thinking they had stumbled upon good fortune, ate the rotten fish. Two died horrific deaths (this is essentially nerve-gas poisoning) before we located them. Need I go on?

So what challenges do we face as Westerners and perpetual victims? The agony of knowing our neighbor has a 60-inch TV and ours is only 40? Our I-Phone has been replaced by a newer model? Someone screwed us because we can’t afford a 4,000 square-foot house and our pool is the above ground type? The poorest people in the US are, to use this ridiculous term, one-percenters in most of the rest of the world, and we are clueless. What are we to do when the challenges in our lives are comparatively and absolutely trivial and the greatest meaning in life is found in materialism? Many of us try to find meaning but it is the progressive who, more than any other, finds it in fantasy and self-delusion. These are not happy people these modern progressives, but people who seek out and even yearn for a sense of being offended and feeling victimized. A progressive derives his or her self worth from their world-view, and any challenge to it is to be rejected at all costs. If given the opportunity, those who are in misalignment with the progressive orthodoxy would be dealt with in the manner of John Calvin in regards to Michael Servetus. I will leave you to look that up, but closed-minded and fatal religious fervor was involved.

To use a word often abused by Barak Obama, our wealth is unprecedented. Like Homer Simpson, in the great Grimey episode, had no idea where his wealth came from (“Don’t ask me how the economy works!”), our excessive wealth just kind of exists. Or more to the point is the feculent debris seeping up from our 17 trillion dollar cesspool of debt. Too few people floating in an ocean of wealth can find true worth and meaning; rather they live this aspect of their lives vicariously. Compassion and caring become just words eructating out of one's mouth when the occasion seems appropriate. Why would a progressive alight from their material comfort for even a moment when they simply can demand compassion from others? Sure, they might write a check to PBS and perhaps watch as This Old House builds a $50,000 wine cellar in a million dollar house outside of Boston. Or support NPR to keep The Splendid Table enthralling us in the afternoon lineup. Or give to their local theater group so the small town upper middle class can buy subsidized tickets to view performance art and feel oh so sophisticated. But ultimately it comes down to simply how they feel. Progressives believe real compassion somehow exists in them simply because they feel they are compassionate, and because they demand it of others. Ultimately there is no difference between a progressive and the wealthy televangelist who sucks up money and hope from the less fortunate and uses it for his or her own gratification, be it emotional or material, or both.

What conservatives don’t comprehend in regards to progressives, whether the issue is a minimum wage increase or any other great topic de jour, is that everything is directed at making them feel good about themselves. We are not talking about a fleeting sensation of happiness but a life-defining existentialism. If a progressive is wrong about anything, their very being is in jeopardy. A conservative can list point after point, cite statistic after statistic, show the many follies of prior “social justice” endeavors, but they can’t overcome the total, visceral need a progressive has to justify themselves in our world of greed and selfishness. It is not the ends but the means, and no appeal to reason, logic, or especially true compassion will make a difference. When reality confronts them, their defenses and reactions are several but predictable- deny, withdraw, ridicule, and lash out, with the latter being increasingly common. The fantasy must be maintained at all costs, whatever the cost to others.

Well enough of that. For my retired conservative friend in Southwest Florida, here are a few talking points in regards to the minimum wage. First, think about 16 year-old with acne and pierced nose working the counter at McDonalds. He lives with his parents and couldn’t care less about a “living wage-” he just wants enough money to get that radical new tattoo. Then think of McDonalds in general, which seems to lead pretty much any discussion of the minimum wage. Their whole thing is ostensibly fast food at low prices. Assuming that personnel costs are a significant portion of their expenditures, raising them would be kind of contradictory to their existence. I’m a vegetarian and don’t have much use for McDonalds other than the McCafe, but if I’m paying $3 for a cup of coffee I’d rather get it at Panera.

When I was 19 or so in 1977-1978 I worked for minimum wage ($2.33) a backbreaking job as a nursing home orderly, in Laramie, Wyoming in case anyone cares. I had other low-end jobs as well and didn’t realize I wasn’t making a “living wage;” I thought I was doing okay, bought a 10x40 foot house trailer, and even saved some money. I was also attending practical nursing school at a hospital based community college program. After that I was earning over $5 an hour as an LPN and living large. It never occurred to me the orderly job was the end of the line; it was a way to support myself as I went to school. Is it too harsh to think we are not simply hapless victims of extrinsic circumstances but rather decisions we make at various points in our lives lead us to where we go?

While working as an LPN, now living in the DC suburbs, I also had a job as a janitor at the landmark known as the White Flint Mall (Lord and Taylor, in charge of vacuuming men’s suits and lady’s underwear), minimum wage, of course. What can I say, I was proud to always be on time and do my job, but my services didn’t require any skill and I could have been easily and quickly replaced if I didn’t. I’m no economist, but I’m pretty sure there are fundamental laws of economics, not unlike gravity, which include supply and demand and relative and absolute value for goods and services. I’m not opposed to government softening the blow to some extent for harsh natural laws, so to speak, but governmental intervention should be a fallback and not the first item to enter our societal consciousness.

Later in life I found myself in the unlikely position as the president of a public employees union local. Although the rank and file didn’t unanimously feel oppressed, up at the state level the attitude was consistently, “We Deserve More!” Could anyone imagine a government employees union saying, “Thanks, taxpayers and fellow citizens, we’re doing okay?” It was never specifically clear to me why we deserved more, but in the progressive mind a statement or slogan assumes reality if it feels good.

In an ideal world, free market forces would ensure fair wages all around, but I’m not naïve enough to believe private sector businesses are any less inclined to exploit people than government (BTW, there is plenty of less than altruistic behavior in our cherished “non-profit” organizations as well). Hence I am not against a minimum wage per se- such standards are a protection against exploitation. But in considering an increase, wouldn’t it be possible to implement it responsibly. How about this for an analogy- lets say a typically rich American (pretty much all of us) wants something new, perhaps a shiny BMW or that $3,000 sub-zero fridge that will enhance their lives so much. Unfortunately that annoying credit card debt, etc is putting a damper on their dream of even greater materialism. Perhaps instead of buying their latest absolute necessity right now on credit, they could spend a year of slightly contracted spending and paying down their VISA, you know, that foreign concept of delayed gratification.

How about society enacts a minimum wage increase thoughtfully, for example only when certain conditions are met. I reiterate I’m no economist, but perhaps factors of unemployment rates/work force participation rates, deficit as percentage of GDP, a certain percentage reduction in the debt, etc. can be entertained. With a minimum wage increase, how much is enough? Do we decide on a particular amount because it sounds good or fits well on a bumper sticker? Does replacing the word “minimum” with “living” somehow alter fundamental laws of economics?

Deliberative and thoughtful decision-making requires rationality, reasonableness, consideration of unanticipated consequences, and often that concept so anathema to Americans- delayed gratification. But these qualities no longer exist in American political and social reality so, needless to say, the minimum wage is going to be increased, entry level jobs will be lost or not added, small businesses on the margin will go under, etc, and in another few years the demand for a new “living wage” will again resonate. Sorry fellow conservatives, but well reasoned and even truly compassionate arguments backed up by experience and facts are for suckers.

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