Opinion: ‘I do not support a livable wage’

(AP)

“I do not support a livable wage,” Karen Handel said Tuesday night in her televised debate with Jon Ossoff, her opponent in the hotly contested 6th Congressional District race. The statement quickly became the biggest sound bite of the evening, and understandably so.

Yes, it was a bit unfair. In an awkward night for Handel, she had made a debater’s basic blunder by adopting the phrasing of her opponent. If she had put it differently, saying simply that “I don’t support raising the minimum wage,” it would not have caught much attention. But she didn’t.

What Handel did was commit honest truth: She really doesn’t support a livable wage. She supports an unlivable wage, in the sense that she does not believe that a person who works 40 hours a week ought to be able to live on that labor. Yet from its inception almost 80 years ago, that has been the entire purpose of the minimum wage.

In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt made adoption of a 25-cent-an-hour minimum wage one of his top priorities. “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country,”  he said at the time, and it remains true today.

It would take FDR another five years to get a minimum wage law through Congress and approved by the courts, and while some business leaders supported the law, others fought it bitterly. As Roosevelt said in a fireside chat in 1938, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the government relief rolls in order to preserve his company’s undistributed reserves, tell you …. that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

We are still having that same basic argument today, with companies paying less than a living wage still relying on government to make up the difference and keep its workforce fed, healthy and housed. And it’s an argument that can be broken down into two fundamental philosophical disagreements.

The first is about fairness and who gets to decide it. Conservatives believe that what’s “fair” is a judgment best made by the inanimate market. If the market decides that your labor is not worth a livable wage, then you should not get a livable wage. Tough luck. That’s essentially Handel’s argument.

Others believe that fairness is an inherently human judgment, reflecting our values as a people and as a society. It’s a judgment that says that the person cooking your dinner or trimming your hedges has an inherent worth beyond that dictated by the market. It also says that labor itself has a dignity that ought to be protected, that someone willing to put in a full day’s work deserves to make a living.

That latter approach is not by any means a rejection of capitalism, as some might argue. Capitalism is the most productive economic system known to man, but we also know that left to its own devices, it will treat human beings as just another economic input, like a ton of coal or a bushel of wheat. Well, human beings are not just another economic input. They are human beings, and deserve special consideration.

The second basic disagreement is about the degree of faith that you place in the market’s workings. Those who oppose a livable wage, and who would eliminate the minimum wage altogether if given the chance, believe that the market should decide such things, that government should not put its thumb on the scale on behalf of anyone.

That’s nice in theory, but those who support a livable wage recognize that government already places its thumb on the scale, and that it does so mainly for the benefit of those able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars attempting to influence that government. They also recognize that government aside, the market is strongly tilted in favor of those who control it.

Take the example of Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo. By almost all accounts, she has been a poor leader and executive. Her five-year tenure has been marked by bad acquisitions, privacy malfunctions, plummeting revenues and web traffic, and layoffs that have reduced the payroll at Yahoo by almost half. Yet under the terms of her contract, Mayer will walk away with almost a quarter of a billion dollars after Yahoo’s core investments — investments that she did nothing to develop — are sold to Verizon.

The market tells me that outcome is fair. The market tells me that Mayer’s poor performance was more valuable to the economy than the work of almost 16,000 minimum-wage employees, working full 40-hour weeks, for an entire year. Well, the market is wrong.

These arguments about fairness and the supposed sanctity of the market are not archaic or theoretical. They are just as central today as they were back in Roosevelt’s day, and probably more so.  CEOs and investors may not have to worry that some robot is going to take their livelihood, or that their job is going to be shipped overseas so that Chinese or Vietnamese CEOs can do it for pennies on the dollar. They look at those trends and see factors that enrich rather than endanger them.

But for millions of other people, the experience is very different. Before our very eyes, within our lifetimes, we have watched as the supposedly unbiased market concentrates wealth in a relative few hands while making life in the working and middle class increasingly precarious. And that trend shows every sign of continuing and even accelerating.

In that sense, then, the argument over the livable wage is actually a substitute argument about a much bigger question:  Should we allow these trends to play themselves out, regardless of consequences, because that’s what the market seems to dictate? Or is it within our power to adjust the system to produce an outcome that is fair not in market terms but in human terms, that recognizes the dignity of both labor and laborer?

When we debate a livable wage, that’s really what we’re talking about.

Reader Comments 0

2667 comments
MikeDecatur
MikeDecatur

Perhaps commentary below was a monumental waste of time?

John Totten
John Totten

Maybe if she worked in a think tank she might find her value is a lot less that she thinks...

Harrold Preston Roberts
Harrold Preston Roberts

Somebody has to be the poor. Somebody has to be the working poor. Somebody has to be middle class. Somebody has to be upper middle class. Somebody has to be wealthy. Somebody has to rich. So in a sense, what we have is a Class War because the top 10% income and equity owners don't wan't to share or allow laws to pass that make it easier (better) for everyone to increase in income and gain access to assets and grow equity.

Kevin C Hall
Kevin C Hall

As a business owner I have found that I get a better return on giving than hoarding. If my company is successful, my staff should share in that success. It's a great motivator and its the right thing to do. At the end of the day what's most important are the people you share your life with, not more or better stuff.

Stuart Hatcher
Stuart Hatcher

Just rewatched the recording of the debate..these word s did not come out of her mouth...next time quote the entire statement rathers than what your dumbass liberal paper whats to make sound good..lies for oscoff will get you nowhere..

Teacher
Teacher

That's exactly what I heard her say.


Dan Waldis
Dan Waldis

Stuart Hatcher, that is exactly what she said.  Have you had your attention span checked lately?

Larry1325
Larry1325

A living wage is so different depending on where you live. MIT has a calculator to show what the living wage would be in very granular detail across the country. http://livingwage.mit.edu/ In the sixth district and much of the Metro area the living wage is $12.01/hr. In my home city of Chattanooga, just a short distance to the north, it is listed as $9.96/hr. How can any federal minimum wage law accurately and fairly mandate any one specific minimum wage?

Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor

No one is forcing the the employees to work there. If they don't like the pay, they should either quit or not have joined the business to begin with. Applicants know what their wages will be before they accept employment.

Dan Waldis
Dan Waldis

You bet!  Run out and find another job!  It sounds like you have never been in the position of being afraid to quit because you'll lose what little you have.

vjlocke
vjlocke

So who do you propose should fill all those jobs?

Maxx Pass
Maxx Pass

Rent, food, gas, hell living in general is going up anyways so stop trying to blame a minimum wage increase for that. Businesses in other countries have minimum wage laws far exceeding ours and it hasn't stopped their economy. But how does paying someone a poverty wage help the economy IF NO ONE HAS ANY MONEY TO SPEND. Henry Ford even understood this simple fact, pay ppl a livable wage and they'll have money to buy things and stimulate the economy. The minimum wage was indeed ment to lived on, gain skills and then move on to a better job and to ensure ppl who didn't start in the middle or on top don't get taken advantage of. Im not saying $15 an hour, but no less than $10.10....plus depending on your business size, there could be provisions in the law to adequately adjust to your business size

Ellis Foodielover
Ellis Foodielover

No one is paying attention to you..you have a positive message..perhaps you could throw something offensive into the next post.✌

Mike Halterman
Mike Halterman

That should have ended her campaign right there. But hey, it's a new world, one where you can grab...you know...and brag about it without any consequences.

DerekGator
DerekGator

There would be no need for a minimum wage if all employers were required to use e-verify.  Illegal labor has driven down the wages of low skill workers and allowed employers to continue to pay low wages.  If you remove 10 million illegal workers, low skill wages go up drastically. 

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@rimsky  I saw a NatGeo special on the Scablands a few years ago - absolutely fascinating stuff.  The cycle of glacier - dam on the river - huge lake - failure - flood happened many times.

Paul42
Paul42

@PaulinNH I'm sure the FBI investigators will get to him in due course.

Paul42
Paul42

A question none of our cons has ever addressed:

IF Trump knows he's not guilty of any wrongdoing, financially or in dealing with foreign entities, and if he knows none of his associates are guilty of any wrongdoing, financially or with foreign entities,

then why his constant attempts to stop investigations into these matters?

td1234
td1234

@Paul42 He wanted the Flynn investigation stopped not the Russian investigation (per the letter written by Comey). He wanted the FBI director to go public and tell the country HE (Trump) was not under investigation. 

Paul42
Paul42

@td1234

You did not answer the question.  

IF Trump knows he's not guilty of any wrongdoing, financially or in dealing with foreign entities, and if he knows none of his associates are guilty of any wrongdoing, financially or with foreign entities,

then why his constant attempts to stop investigations into these matters? 

Why did he also want the Flynn investigation stopped (which falls under the umbrella of 'wrongdoing financially or with foreign entities'?

DownInAlbany
DownInAlbany

Brocephus, just curious, where did YOU get your law degree?

Brosephus
Brosephus

@DownInAlbany

I don't have a law degree.  I do, however, maintain a collection of the US Code to help me with my job.  I have to be able to interpret federal and state laws to determine whether or not permanent residents are removable by an Immigration Judge.


As law constantly changes, I have to keep up with what charges are felonies or misdemeanors along with the sentencing structure for those convictions.  That's information I have to use every day.

td1234
td1234

@Brosephus Is the President of the US under the exact same legal obligations as you and I? 

Paul42
Paul42

@td1234

You sure are comfortable trumpeting your lack of knowledge and inability to figure things out on your own.

td1234
td1234

@Brosephus And those powers explicitly provided to the POTUS is different than the power we have.  

Fly-On-The-Wall
Fly-On-The-Wall

@td1234 @Brosephus Yes, that is true but that doesn't allow the President to be above the law. 

You are mixing powers provided by the Constitution and being behold to the laws of the nation.

Very different.

rimsky
rimsky

Folks lets not forget about the election in UK.  BBC.com has live update throughout their night.

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@rimsky  UK is 5 hours ahead - first results will start coming in around 7 PM EDT

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

Let me see if I have the RWers points.  But but but Obama.  But but but GHWB.  But but but Ford..  President can do anything that a specific law doesn't prevent him from doing. 

They aren't defending Trump's ethics, behavior, etc. - just saying there is no proof of a law being broken. 

My - how things have changed in the last 5 months.

td1234
td1234

@PaulinNH So you are disputing that the President does not have this authority per the Constitution? Just because you do not like it does not mean the authority does not exist.

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@td1234 @PaulinNH  Do you always imagine things are written down when they are not?   Care to show where I made any comment about the President's authority, constitution, etc?  You appear to be losing all grip on reality.

BuckeyeGa
BuckeyeGa

They aren't defending Trump's ethics, behavior, etc. - just saying there is no proof of a law being broken.

This is it..

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@BuckeyeGa  Exactly!  They are also tacitly admitting that Trump has been lying his head off about his conversations with Comey

BuckeyeGa
BuckeyeGa

yep. those mores went right out the window .

TBS
TBS

I'm sure you have noticed that the "mores, ethics and values" shtick is very situational and is more talking points than substance