Minimum Wage Hikes Ask One Question: What Does Our Toil Owe Us?

The argument for or against the minimum wage increases is not one easily proven by numbers. A $15 minimum wage in some states would be outrageous given local economies and cost of living adjustments. We all know the obvious difference between the cost of living in Branson, MO; and Los Angeles, CA.

As cities have made the change in part or in full from Seattle to LA, the affects of the change won’t be felt for some time. The models we often rely on prove inconclusive  as to what that cost to businesses and the influx of income for the worker may end up truly costing us.

The factors less mentioned are the strain on the local, small business. Will this lead to fewer jobs? Will it lead to fewer hours for employees? If I’m getting paid as minimum wage employee twice as much, but the business cuts my hours in half, what have i gained? More free time to find another job, one that may be hard to find in a community reeling from wage hikes.

That same future for some is a brighter one. More pay means more discretionary spending, and that money goes back into the community further bumping up the local economy. A worker with more money, spends more money, and they spend in those businesses that were saddled with higher labor expenses. Economies adjust with market changes.

Minimum wage is seen one of two ways. It is either the legally binding least amount of money an employer can pay a person for their time and service, or it is the minimum wage needed to make a living; the living wage.

These have forever been different numbers depending in which study you read. Don’t get bogged down in the numbers, the theories, or the impact before you ask yourself if the minimum wage should ensure a comfortable life or simply protect the least skilled of our workforce from being being paid competitively less than the next guy; a race to the bottom.

Fifteen bucks an hours sounds good. It fits in a headline, makes for a decent chant, a great soundbite, and best of all makes for a solid picket sign, but it is a made-up number, an unproven threshold. I can find 100 different wages we should get paid from state to state, city to city, and based on some arbitrary number that presents the minimum life a person should be allowed to live.

Why aren’t we demanding paid vacation for all employees? Aren’t family vacations and trips of a lifetime something inherently promised in a pursuit of happiness? Why should I need to forego two weeks of paid time off because a business “can’t afford it”? Legally mandate that instead of a wage hike.

What about medical insurance provided by the employer even for part-time employees? The understood rule for avoiding medical and vacation for employees (if it is a company benefit at all) is simply hire them and work them slightly less than the threshold for full-time employment. Hire more part-timers, save more money. Close the loophole and keep our workers healthier; a well employee is a better employee.

We want a better life for minimum wage workers? A bright future is one where work is optional. Mandate retirement planning for all employees, matching their contribution to company 401K’s up to 15% of their pay. Maybe offer high school students or person under 25 that same financial matching for college funding instead. Get creative with wages now for a brighter tomorrow.

From there maybe you require promotion from within companies for 30% of all position changes. Make the minimum wage job a temporary one by definition and educate your workforce to create better employees who are qualified for jobs above minimum wage. Maybe we simply require all minimum wage jobs to include work incentives for bonuses, incremental raises after employment periods for the first few years every six months. Maybe we require profit sharing within a company, a small piece of the net profits of a company you worked so hard for based on your hours and performance reviews.

Has anyone looked into the possibility of these choices or a combination of them? You may argue that minimum wage workers need more pay for their toils, but I argue that the minimum wage doesn’t guarantee a livable wage, it was never intended to do that. It protected the worker from exploitation the same as child labor laws kept children from being worked 16 hours a day.

As with most problems, we are looking for the silver bullet. We are looking for the simple solution that will solve all of the issues surrounding a cause; we don’t make enough money in our lowest paying jobs, pay them more money so that there is less struggle. A novel approach may be to not increase wages, but ease burdens and empower the worker. It is no wonder a company will pay unskilled labor a minimum wage, business is about profit. Instead of changing the minimum wage, lets look at the whole picture, the plight of the minimum wage worker and get them out of that job eventually, or make that job better in a lot of small ways, not just one.

No one can tell you exactly what a minimum wage increase of this magnitude would do, it is be definition unprecedented. Are we making less money than we did fifty years ago? Relatively, yes, but what also hasn’t changed is the rights minimum wage workers have to certain benefits. If we can’t agree that minimum wage should guarantee a livable wage, let’s at least agree that steps can be taken to ensure that the worker is provided the chance for a livable life, some liberties, and a pursuit of happiness for those equipped with the work ethic to go and get it.

These are simply a few hair-brained, unfounded, ideas that represent “anything but a minimum wage hike.” This is an entry in our ongoing series, half-cocked concepts. I have no sources I can or will reference. This is a whiteboard brainstorming session, a drunken debate at a dive bar, and an argument amongst the ill-informed, but that’s where ideas get jotted on to napkins or where a conversation begins. If you’ve got a better idea, we’d love to hear it. If you are just going to send a link to someone else’s idea, stats, or some study, you can keep those. Original ideas to solve an issue, or your personal philosophy for this and other issues are much appreciated though. None of us are scholars or experts, so let’s just speak frankly and see if we can’t find one good idea amongst the garbage ones.

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there are sharing economies, and then there are “sharing” economies

The factories are empty or outsourced! Automation and globalization have lifted our economy from the fetters of industry decades ago; but what will production consist of, if not in “making things” (or at least material things).

Indeed! The tautology is unraveled! America is no longer “a nation of makers” (the insistence of Jack Donaghy and various car commercials notwithstanding); yet our GDP indicates that things of value are, nonetheless, made.

Cue the dawn of the virtual economy! Cue the dawn of the sharing economy! Cue the dawn of the bubble economy!

We have Airbnb, the Uber of the hospitality industry; we have iCracked, the Uber of the iphone repair industry; we have Uber…the, well, Uber of the transportation services industry. Truly– cyberspace is so dense with innovation, one can hardly remember what it was like ten years ago. Seriously, our sense of time and place in relation to the science fictional world we occupy now is all but lost. Silicon Valley has comfortingly stepped in to actualize the thrill and possibility of our new economic frontier as marginally more convenient access to servants. It makes one stop and wonder: What was cyberspace like ten years ago?

Couchsurfing and Craigslist; Linux and Wikipedia; possibly BitTorrent and its predecessors; youtube, Facebook, and Reddit–I guess it already was a sharing economy. You didn’t pay for these, but isn’t that what “sharing” means?

Despite Uber’s absence in Portland, the sharing economy here is giving way to the “sharing” economy with marked enthusiasm. And certainly, snark notwithstanding, there is nothing wrong with that! As anyone acquainted with the Principles of Basic Economics knows, one drives for Uber because it is better than available alternatives. The destitute choose servitude over starvation, or some such maxim. One does not blame the precondition on the result.

But what if the result cements the precondition? What if innovation becomes mimicry; sharing becomes serving; efficiency becomes sabotage; freedom becomes coercion; ignorance becomes strength (oops!) and the resulting hodge-podge of language sans language is too sticky and amorphous to allow us any further movement?

As Adam Smith cautioned us: “[Businessmen] have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public.” That Smith himself has become such an oft-wielded instrument of the deceit he cautioned against is one of the sad ironies of history. Yet here we stand, deceived as to basic implements of language! The innovative early outcroppings of the internet are monetized and mimicked, and then resold to the public as “innovative.” The polarization of wealth on which the “sharing” economy rests is at odds with actual sharing: low-rent venues that facilitate virtual or IRL sharing economies (net-neutrality, free boxes, community warehouses) are pushed out by the simultaneous breakthroughs of the innovative class. Tech workers with “more money than [they] know what to do with” are less likely to peruse the craigslist rideshare section, and more likely to hire would-be companions as servants who will not share their destination. Fortuitous encounters with prospective friends becomes sycophantism calculated to safeguard a precarious position.

Though, once again, this is all non-judgmental sardonicism. Keep on “sharing”! After all, sometimes we don’t want to meet someone new. Sometimes the institutional anonymity of a Marriott or whatever is far more relaxing than a new set of social possibilities. Sometimes the use of money to subordinate strangers is far more fun than sharing with them. I am not being facetious.

So what’s all the fuss about? It’s because Uber and its equivalents sell more than a simple product or service–they offer a brand. It’s the latest development in a long trend of market dematerialization: as economic activity moves from the circulation of basic commodities, products are less themselves and more the attitude they represent. Is Uber really so convenient that it warrants all its hype? Or does it signal a subscription to a broader worldview–where single-unit enterprises, liberated into the free market by their technocratic overlords, herald a utopic world to come? The conception of this organization as a “sharing economy” allows us to imagine that we really are operating at a new sphere of human existence, one defined by caring and sociality, but which is not limiting to the individual.

In this time of economic desperation–when pundits point to relative US wage gains decreasing to the point where domestic industry can compete with China again as something to celebrate–the entrapment and decline of the greater portion of our nation is interpreted as a sign of possibility and hope. The US is plunging into a servant economy, but the reality of desperation is reimagined as a fantasy of liberation. The technologies that have freed such swaths of our economic activity from mere material production have not been paired with commensurate social and political innovations. With wondrous economic means, but a ridiculous economic organization, the possibility of liberation becomes the reality of subordination, and in stubbornness or loyalty, we confuse these categories until sharing becomes “sharing,” and our world seems to make sense once again.

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