Minimum Change

I always hate slippery slope arguments because the simple fact of the matter is you were never, ever at the top of the hill, even in the good old days. The tertiary phase of the government’s COVID-19 stimulus package includes a measure to raise the minimum wage to 15 dollars per hour by 2025. As of this writing, the measure has been turned down. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25, with many states leaving the big 1-0 in the dust. In fact, it’s already the bigger 1-5 in the District of Columbia. I’m not about to disclose my state’s minimum or my personal income because this is still a polite society where discussing money in public is still somewhat of a faux pas. It shouldn’t be, and that’s the problem. I suppose leaving it at something like, “There are things I want that I cannot afford” is too vague and likely the situation for all of us, even the billionaires still holding onto their childhood doodles of castles in the sky or villas on the moon. No judging, mind, only trying to keep matters in perspective. We’re all people at the end of the day, even if it seems more and more of us venture ever closer and closer to the uncanny valley.

Quality of life is often front and center in any and all discussions regarding the raising of the minimum wage, with virtually all other perfectly reasonable participants talking past one another. It really is a matter of head vs. heart, where the fine line between building character and informing you that urine you’re feeling on your leg is rain is so thin it can barely be said to have existed at all. There’s nothing wrong with instilling a work ethic in people, especially young people. Unfortunately, our binary bimbo bonobo brains like to bisect and bifurcate, said dynamic duos including the likes of “all or nothing” or “with us or against us” or most especially “have and have not.” As for the part of our pontification parcels we primates inherited from iguanas, that has its own cleverly clockwork coping contrivance, that of survival at all costs, especially sanity. After all, seeing in terms of for/against is easier to process when you’ve convinced yourself your side of the line drawn in the sand is only part of the beach that’s worth standing on and everyone else is a foolish fool foolishly fabricating houses on… sand.

Imagine a fish trying for the first time in its fishy, flowing, flipper-flapping existence to work out what water tastes like. This is more or less a perfect metaphor for the human condition when it comes to trying to decode and deradicalize our default means of reasoning through the world as observe it. It’s so core and key to our existence, and it certainly did a good enough job keeping us out of the mouths of other animals that wanted nothing more than to turn us into poo, but it is no longer the catchall onesie solution to all that may ail us, predatory poo-production potwithstanding… Notwithstanding.

The New Yorker posted an article about the proposed raising of the minimum wage, and when it was posted to Instagram, the comments featured the usual suspects, talking past one another and all. When this happens, it’s always important to establish each other’s positions, see where we’re each coming from. Cue a gentleman who says all these people asking for the minimum wage to be raised don’t know a damn thing about economics, a topic he’s had years of personal experience in as the manager of a franchised fast food chain. Naturally, I had to plumb the depths of some doubtlessly deep wisdom. I mean, maybe he had a point, but this opening statement does not inspire confidence.

Take note of how he’s talking about the people taking orders while also referring to Fast Food in general as being “unskilled.” Remember, we need to establish where exactly we all stand on this matter.

The exchange which followed was a classic case of letting someone talk just long enough to see them produce the right amount of rope with which to hang themselves.

Unlike so many of my other entries, I’m not going to disclose this person’s name or any other identifying information despite this being a public interaction where the expectation of privacy is beyond naive. To his credit, he answered all my questions to the best of his ability (though I wonder if he got wise towards the end, as you may see) all the while remaining polite and civil. He never made assumptions nor put words in my mouth. There wasn’t a straw man for miles and ad hominem stayed in his cave. We’ll call him McDowell for no particular reason. Before we get to where I jumped in, there’s technically more to the statement above. Another user took him to task on the minimum wage in D.C. being $15.00/hr. As far as anyone knows, none of the dozen-plus locations in that vicinity charge $11.99 for a Big Mac. Checkmate?

I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

So, “great” is all you’ve got to say about that, McDowell? I mean, you made a claim that raising the minimum wage to 15 would bring the price of meals up, and here’s a location where no such thing has taken place despite said minimum wage being 15/hr for some time. I know you’re not saying it’s great you’ve been proven wrong because you carry on in making your case for how… well, it’s not too clear exactly who within the confines of your particular bubble of experience is skilled or unskilled. There’s also the matter of age, which I asked about to try and glean some more insight into what does or does not qualify as skilled labor in a fast food franchise.

Everything you say in that response beyond that first word does not speak to an in-depth knowledge of economics. Rather, it demonstrates that you clearly weren’t very good at maintaining your business if all McDonald’s in the DC area are able to afford paying that 15/hr minimum wage where you clearly couldn’t make it work. When someone else succeeds where you fail, you saying that success is impossible, impractical, or unsustainable is going to ring a bit hollow, and taste of sour grapes.

To your last point, why exactly do you think the raising the minimum wage would only be for the food service? Where are you getting the impression that those college educated tech industry professionals would still be scraping by at less than what a McDonald‘s employee would? Don’t you think those tech companies would have to then step up their game than risk losing their highly-valued skilled workers to burger joints? Suppose those college educated tech industry professionals made the exact same amount as a short order cook or the wait staff at said restaurant. Would that be some massive blow to their sense of self worth? Would they become so disillusioned with their chosen career path knowing that someone makes the same amount of money for doing a different job with its own set of requirements some people may or may not be able to meet in the first place?

This is another point that gets brought up when discussing careers and wages, the idea of choosing a career based on the income that’s possible with it. It’s true not every job provides a valuable service, and some career paths are definitely more lucrative than others, but since when has our economy been based on what does or does not provide a valuable service? Were that the case, there would be no film industry or professional athletes or fashion designers. Teachers would make as much as brain surgeons and firefighters would park their own personal fire engines outside their mansions. When the people who tell you to just get a different job if you don’t like the one you’ve got are the same people telling you to choose a job based on the potential income, something’s very wrong here. Call me an idealist or even naive if it helps you sleep better at night, but whatever happened to doing what you love doing? Why is it wrong to pursue a career path because “richer” alternatives exist?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: If all jobs paid the same, what would you do? If the very thought of that level of economic equality upsets you before you even get around to answering the question, I feel very sorry for you. I mean, I’m a capitalist, and I’ll admit the idea of a brain surgeon making the same money as an auto mechanic is a little upsetting at first, but if that means the person poking around in my brain pan is there because he wants to be and not because of how much money he’ll make, I can live with that.

Let me take a moment to make my stance on the minimum wage crystal clear: Anything that puts more money in the hands of consumers is a good thing. Anything that opens up options for consumers is a good thing. You can teach fiscal responsibility and life skills just as well with 15/hr as you can with 7.25/hr as people in 1938 likely did at 0.25/hr. Anyway, back to McDowell‘s:

Parent company? You mean the owners of the restaurant, the ones who, like you, take all the risk? Were you on an equal financial footing as the owners in that parent company?

The question that led to this response was simply how many employees were of high school age. Keep in mind the parent company of this restaurant wanted him to employ 50 people per store, meaning he was directly responsible for the hires at his restaurant. Given that, I probably should have asked him about the other applicants, if he had to turn anybody away because they were too old and therefore were overqualified for the maximum pay that could be offered.

I asked how much that handful of adults (18 and up? 30-somethings and up? Seniors?) made compared to those high school students.

So, the cooks also had more responsibilities and therefore made more than minimum wage? Alright, would you still call what you paid them a living wage capable of supporting a family, or was it still transitional work to build towards something else?

Call me delusional or whatever else gets you to go nighty-night in the darker part of the PM, but I can’t help but feel like McDowell is hearing for the first time how far his incredulity does not get him in trying to make a case for keeping the minimum wage low. Yes, the answer is brief and to the point, but given the diatribe that fundamentally failed to rebut the demonstration of a 15/hr minimum wage having no adverse effects on menu prices, I can’t help but see this response as someone not expecting to be asked simple questions about what he believes in regards to labor and wages.

More importantly, we’re approaching the point where the “good ol’ days” argument he’s ultimately making has to be faced with the fact that, like what we established about slippery slopes, things have moved on between then and now, and the world is (un)surprisingly not poorer for it. I have no idea how old McDowell is. I certainly don’t know how old he was when he took up this task of restaurant ownership (under a parent company mandating a total number of employees he had sole discretion over hiring), to say nothing of how much he made compared to his highest paid employee. For perspective, the minimum wage in 1991 was 4.25/hr. If he’s 50, that would mean he was 20 in 1991, which is pretty young for a management position, which almost makes me think he’s closer to 60, but likely not older than 70. Bear in mind, the minimum wage has been set at 7.25/hr since 2009, around the same time we had that great big financial crisis when a bunch of bankers who make more than any McDonald‘s manager ever would were criminally irresponsible not only with the money they made but with other people’s money they borrowed and loaned out to people they were literally betting on not paying them back.

Anyway, this 8 or 9 dollars per hour for more skilled/more aged employees didn’t give me much perspective, so I asked what the minimum wage was when he was running this restaurant with at least 45 high school students on the staff and 5 or fewer adults.

When you have enough rope to hang yourself AND no leg to stand on…

My last question to him went unanswered. If he couldn’t recall how much he was paying his lowest paid workers, surely he could recall when about this was going on. It’s easy enough to look up what the minimum wage was in a certain year, so I asked for a general timeline of his tenure in the restaurant business. Again, it may well be wishful thinking on my part, but I can’t help but see this answer as a tacit admission to a lack of perspective.

The fact is the circulation of wealth in a consumer-based economy is a team sport, but consumers have lost sight of the fact that they are the other team, not the ball. The wealthy don’t want to give consumers more money because that will give them options, including the option to spend their money elsewhere apart from where they may well be forced to by various circumstances beyond their control but well within the grasp of said other team.

As a wise man once said, “It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.”

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