I watched the movie 9 to 5 the other day and there was an image which stayed with me: The image of an entire room with forty desks devoted to nothing but typists. Thanks to the miracle of automation, works are so productive now that that you might, might see a single administrator whose primary job is typing in an office today. Who benefits from that increase in productivity. Does the single, surviving typist get 40x as much salary? Do they get any more money for doing the work of 40 people? No, they get less, as now there are 40 people competing for that single job. The worker increases their productivity, but the company derives 100% of the benefit. Yes, I understand that this is not the complete picture, that new jobs are created, and we shouldn’t subsidize unneeded worker, etc., but the key point, I think, is valid: Workers don’t benefit from increased productivity; their employers do.
Speaking of “9 to 5,” anyone else remember when that was what a work day looked like? 9 AM to 5 PM with a one hour lunch. Oh, and there were no cell phones or VPN’s, so when you left the office at 5, that was it. Oh, and if you did have to work outside of those hours, odds are you got overtime for it since most jobs weren’t exempt from overtime.
Remember when the offshoring of jobs started to kick in? The trade-off was supposed to be that, while backbreaking manufacturing jobs were going overseas, Americans would be doing service jobs for the same wages, so there would be an improvement in the quality of life for low income workers. It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way, does it? We’ve reduced the number of jobs available without decreasing the need for work, so of course, wages are moving in the wrong direction (at least, the wrong direction for people making wages. The folks paying them seem pretty happy with the situation.) Now we’re complaining about “burger flippers” wanting to make a living wage for full time employment.
While we’re on the subject of a living wage, there’s a popular meme going around with a quote from FDR. The quote isn’t directly about minimum wage; it’s taken from his signing statement from the National Recovery Act:
In my Inaugural I laid down the simple proposition that nobody is going to starve in this country. It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level-I mean the wages of decent living.
(emphasis mine, of course)
This is an extended version of what you see on the meme and I think this makes it even more clear that Roosevelt meant for this concept to apply to all workings, including burger flippers.
Of course, there are plenty of jobs which don’t play a living wage and yet their workers don’t starve to death, so how does that work? In short, the answer is: Socialism! Businesses which pay less than a living wage are able to do so because your tax dollars pick up the slack. I don’t like to pick on Wal-Mart, but…wait a second, yes, I totally like picking on Wal-Mart, which is good, because I’m about to do so again. Wal-Mart employees are the largest users of food stamps in the U.S. of A. They don’t starve because American taxpayers are picking up the tab. Companies which don’t want to pay minimum wage are asking for a handout. It’s that simple. They don’t want to pay $15/hour; they want YOU to pay that wage for them.
I’ll finish with another shout-out to Franklin D. I think one good answer to the current job loss would to make more jobs non-exempt and unionize the crap out of every company. That’s not likely to happen, so instead, how about a new Works Progress Administration? If the government is already paying a significant portion of the effective compensation for a lot of low-income workers, let’s get some public benefit out of it. Employee workers to fix our damn bridges, our highways, build public buildings. But don’t just include laborers: Hire designers and architects and engineers and make the infrastructure beautiful, just like in the days of the WPA. Subsidize higher education so there are fewer workers competing for jobs. All of this would provide a public benefit, it would reduce the number of workers competing for jobs, and increase wages. Sure, it might make corporate profits suffer in the short run, but in the long run, things like infrastructure and education are important. I realize America doesn’t “do” long term anymore, but maybe it’s time to start. And, as for those short-term corporate profits, you can probably guess how many tears I’ll cry for those.
Happy Labor Day everyone. If you’re interested in reading more, I suggest P.Z. Myer’s Labor Day post on just what the labor movement sacrificed and what was gained by their efforts. Today’s a “Thanksgiving” for labor. Don’t forget to give thanks.