Last night over a beer I had a partial conversation with a friend about the minimum wage increase. It was a partial conversation because it was being discussed in the larger context of the busy day. About how much we love cheese sticks. About how steep a price the Philadelphia Eagles paid to move up to #2. In short, we touched the bare surface of the debate.
But my short response to the $15 minimum wage was this: I’m for it.
My friend brought it up because there is some early evidence that Seattle’s job force has been affected detrimentally by the increase they passed last year. There is some evidence, as well, that jobs will be lost in the clothing and food sector in California as the wage increase goes into effect. UC Berkeley has reportedly cut some 500 jobs already, in response to the bill. Hard to know how much of that is connected to minimum wage increases, but it is something to consider.
Here’s what we do know: we know that over the course of the last 40 years or so the minimum wage, and the wages of all lower and middle class workers, has stalled. In many cases and in many industries real wages have actually fallen. Fallen.
“Real wages,” by the way, is an economic term that essentially means wages in comparison to inflation. It reflects on how much buying power you have with the wages you receive. $4 an hour, for example, had the same buying power in 1973 as about $22.50 an hour would buy today.
The conversation, as brief as it was last night, prompted me to wake up, pour coffee, and research the heck out of the topic. I learned some things. I learned that minimum wage in 1973 was about a buck-sixty and would be about $10.50 today if tied to inflation. It would be the rare bird that would argue with at least a $10.50 minimum wage today. But inflation is hardly the only index to tie wages to. If tied to worker productivity – the amount of output a worker can produce in one hour, comparatively – the minimum wage today would be around $22 an hour.
In other words, the minimum value of the American worker has increased at more than twice the pace of their salary.
Look, we all know where all the money goes by now. As American productivity has increased the wages for top earners have reached astronomical levels. Meanwhile, the wages for average Americans have stagnated or decreased. Corporate profits have soared, at far past the adjusted levels of both inflation and productivity. The American elite took your gains. Thank you for all your hard work.
So, yeah, I’m for an increase in the minimum wage. It’s the least we can do for the least among us. Give some back. But that is not the solution. It’s a strike against the establishment, but it is not the solution.
Had my conversation continued with my friend I would have laid some of this down, and more. I would have talked about the living wage and the inequality in America. About the automation of basic services. About a basic income for everyone. I would have talked about the leisure life that is, or should be, coming for all Americans, and for all people in the democratic world.
My friend told me that companies in Seattle are replacing human workers with machines. I’ve been hearing how this is coming for years, and there is evidence that half of all American workers will be replaced by automatons in the coming decades. There is even evidence that nearly half the workforce could be replaced by robots now. My answer to the automated services in Seattle was … “good.”
We need to move beyond the work-for-pay epoch of American life, anyway. We need to end wage slavery.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get that far in the conversation, we were distracted by group texts, refills, salad dressings and those belly laughs that make midweek beer-stops in local taverns so worthwhile. I didn’t mind that. I never do.
But I’m grateful for the conversation, however brief, because it got me to think. It got me to pull up facts, to read more from both sides, and to burst through once again to the larger truth. I’ve been telling everyone who will listen that a $15 minimum wage is good. But I always forget to finish the sentence. It’s good, but it is not good enough. It won’t level the playing field. It won’t end the horror of abusive inequality. We know it won’t end the reign of the almighty dollar. It won’t even come close.
But do it anyway. At best, it gives some form of living wage to the slaves of society. At worst, it reveals the flaws that remain in the system and we’ll have to rise up even bolder to fix them.
A $15 minimum wage is just a band-aid. But when you’re bleeding and you have to do something to stop it, sometimes a band-aid will do. Let’s put a band-aid on the problem, order another round, and talk about real solutions to all of society’s ills.
And while you’re at it pass the cheese sticks. I love cheese sticks.