Living Wage Debate

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Letters to the Editor: David Swanson Responds to Steven Stern on the Imposition of a ‘Living Wage’


Professor Stern, like most opponents of wage standards, believes the answers can all be found in an intro to economics course. And, like most opponents of wage standards, he believes proponents have their hearts in the right place but are just remarkably ignorant.

When great numbers of people of all levels of academic achievement hold a view that is opposed to the teachings of an introductory course, it is often profitable to stretch your capacities for humility and wonder why. When Business Week, Craine’s, and the New York Times print articles on the benefits to business of living wages, surely a little rethinking is in order.

Most minimum wage workers are adults, not teenagers.

What studies exist of living wage laws suggest that they do not cause job loss.

Most of the proponents of a living wage are not acting out of the goodness of their hearts (misguided or otherwise), but out of self-interest — they want to be paid more money. Prof. Stern paternalistically wants to deny people decent wages for their own good. But this is a democracy, and when living wage bills are put to a public referendum, they tend to pass.

Is it unfair to pay less than a living wage? You’re damn right it is. Productivity has skyrocketed, but the work week has not shrunk and wages have not increased. The minimum wage is worth less and less in real terms with every passing year. The wealth in this country has exploded, but it has become ever more concentrated. This is unfair; there’s no other word for it.

Are companies that refuse to pay a living wage greedy? They are when they’re rolling around in record profits or — in the case of universities — record endowments. Big and flush employers have no excuse for holding wages down in their communities. And, when they do, appealing to the low wages of the smaller businesses effected is too cynical to merit a reply.

Prof. Stern knows somebody who supports a family on $3 per hour. Are benefits included? Can Stern relate to what life is like for the working classes enough to know the absurdity of omitting this detail? Where does this family live? Are they provided with free housing? If not, I know a lot of people who would love to get a similar housing deal. Do they need transportation to get to work? They must not, but most people do, and it’s expensive.

According to Stern no one has the right to a job. What is his alternative, increasing unemployment? But we all know from the first line of his diatribe that his erroneous criticism of living wage laws is going to be that they increase unemployment. Fortunately, rights aren’t handed out by economics professors; they’re seized by political movements.

Stern complains that people earning poverty wages just aren’t performing their jobs well. As anyone who’s taken an intro to economics should know, if they weren’t performing their jobs well, they wouldn’t have jobs. They are performing very well at very essential jobs. Stern would like everyone to acquire higher skills, but once they have, who is going to care for our elderly, cook our food, empty our recycling, write for our newspapers?

“Have your spouse work!” is another offhand solution Stern throws out for a family with kids. But childcare costs more than your spouse may be able to earn. Should the children pull themselves up by the bootstraps and raise themselves? Oh, but people don’t have the right to have children — I forgot. Can we send them back wherever they came from?

Like most people with their heart allegedly in the right place but their policies opposed to the needs of humanity, Stern throws out another good idea that does not at all conflict with the one he opposes. He suggests subsidizing training for workers. By all means! Let’s have an article on that instead of a single sentence! Let’s work together on subsidizing worker training. I look forward to being able to comment favorably on a detailed proposal for this from Prof. Stern.

David Swanson (electronic mail, July 5, 2001).

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