“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.