Thursday, January 07, 2016

Minimum Wage and Responsibility

You may have noticed the memes out there lately, the ones showing McDonald's new automated ordering system and claiming it's somehow a response to rising minimum wages around the country. It bothers me a little. I'm not bothered by arguments about economics - those discussions are important - it bothers me when anyone from any position intentionally manipulates reality to bolster their point. It just seems dishonest and, frankly, an admission that their point isn't all that strong to begin with.

In this particular case, though, where we're talking about minimum wage and poor workers, there's a larger issue at play in the discussion. There're a couple underlying assumptions in that meme that trouble me. The first is that society has no responsibility for quality of life. If we're committed to providing people with the basics in life, it makes sense, at least to me, to provide them with a living wage, so they can afford basic necessities. We're paying for them either way, if we really believe we have a responsibility to each other (and guess what, I do).

The second assumption, though, is more pressing to me - and it's really a secondary assumption, something underlies our entire economic framework. It's simply that people are worth what their skills and abilities are worth on the open market. A surgeon might say, "I'm worth half a million dollars, because that's how much people are willing to pay me." I get the economic argument about your work being worth what someone will pay, but we are not our work. At the same time, we cannot be entirely separated from our work. Work is essential to life - as much as food and shelter and basic health care - we need it to be truly human. We can't reduce people to their work, but neither can we separate them from it.

This is the whole principle of taxation, right? People who's work is worth a lot sacrifice some of that wealth to support people whose work isn't worth as much.* If it were a pure math game, we wouldn't need taxes - that's the ultimate social darwinian experiment - but everybody needs something basic. There is a floor on what people need to survive as human beings and we, as a society, have the responsibility to provide it. So when someone argues for $15 an hour for McDonalds employees, the argument is not that their work is somehow "worth" $15/hr, but that the workers themselves are worth that much.

The number can be debated and changed and there's myriad other ways to construct a society that cares for itself well - it's not really about minimum wage. I'm more concerned that we're thinking about the underlying assumptions behind even a simple meme that we throw around.

Yes, we should automate the McDonalds, because it's efficient and it makes sense. Life would be easier for everyone involved. Locally here, Wawa has been doing this for years - and has some of the best employee relations in the industry. It's not an either/or kind of thing. At the same time, we should also support a living wage, so people can enjoy the basic human right of work and also be able to live a balanced life. We should care about the quality of education our lowest performing students receive, because these are the kids most likely to rely on societal support later in life. We should have a broad view of our economic and social responsibility to each other and stop trying to find the easiest way to salve our consciences.

The absolute worst that can happen is we end up with a society so remarkably efficient that there isn't enough economically productive work to go around. That could be a disaster if we're operating on the mindset of individuality - but if we're really committed to responsible society, it might just leave room for people to explore art and invention, science and sport - things that are valuable on a human scale, but lag behind on the purely economic spectrum.

Humans are economic beings, but we are not purely economic beings. We're more than just what someone will pay us and we have to work hard to remember that and to live differently in a society that often, either implicitly or explicitly, says different.

*Now there are broader political arguments about whether our current society really wants people to work and I do believe we are pretty terrible at matching people with fulfilling work. It's extremely inefficient, but that's a different argument and such discussion here misses the point.

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