Minimum Wage: The Debate Begins

minimum wage - not enough

The debate about raising the minimum wage begins. It’s now percolating in the halls of Congress. In all likelihood the issue would have been joined this year if Congress were not about to quit D.C. for the holiday recess.

On Friday the Representatives and Senators will board planes, trains and automobiles and say “good-bye for now” to Washington and the issues left on any number of desks throughout the nation’s capital.   Congress leaves town with approval ratings in the single digits, a remarkable measure of generalized failure, though their collective failure will only concern each Representative to the same degree general disfavor takes hold in each Representative’s particular district.

For two reasons moderate Republicans, who’ve tried to stride the middle ground of bipartisanship, will be forced to look to the far right where people like Mr. Cruz and Ms. Palin and any number of nameless radio talk-show hosts have dragged them through the ineffectual and ill-conceived emotional slog of fanaticism: First, the few have damaged the many; and, second, the moderates will feel the pressure to move to the right in order to ward off primary attacks from any number of moderately financed Tea Party soldiers.

This weekend when the planes land, the trains arrive, the cars pull into the local malls and the Congressmen reach out to shake the hands of constituents, they will probably hear an overworked and underpaid employee from McDonald’s or Walmart ask: Mr. or Ms. Congressperson, just what are you going to do about raising the minimum wage?

The debate, which began last week with demonstrations and marches, will begin again on the home front over the Christmas holidays. Workers who work hard every day, forty hours a week, for very wealthy companies, and who make the current minimum wage, will tell their representatives that minimum compensation is not enough to make ends meet.

This is a matter of basic needs, of food, shelter and clothing. It’s not about luxuries, frills or undue profit. It’s not about welfare or food stamps, areas in which the Republicans have not acquitted themselves with statesmen-like debate; it’s about the debate concerning the minimum wage and what it takes for a person and their family to get by in 2013.

It’s appropriate the debate should start in earnest at this time of the year. It’s Christmas, after all, and if this is Christmas, can Scrooge be far behind? Prior to his dramatic conversion, Scrooge was not paying Bob Cratchit a ha-penny more than he had to in order to keep the good man working, quiet, loyal and obedient, all in accord with ideals peddled by an ostensibly Judaeo-Christian heritage in an apparently enlightened culture. Cratchit conformed to what was expected of him, because he believed what he’d been taught since childhood, that the poor are especially blessed, not just because they’re poor, but because they have the good sense and good manners not to go around asking for “a little more.” Bob Cratchit’s mild manner, his love for Tiny Tim and family, his tears being the tears of a loveable victim, all touch the heart-strings and, as an unintended consequence, do a disservice to the letter and the spirit of scripture, so misinterpreted and misunderstood.

The Sermon on the Mount blessed the poor, but it did not instruct them to stay poor, like good little poor people. No interpretation of scripture can turn Jesus into a robber-baron and the poor into grateful slaves who’ll get their just rewards after they’re dead and buried. No worker need be satisfied with the hollow prize of being patronized in exchange for his or her silence. Those who marched in the streets last week calling for a raise in the minimum wage were neither quiet nor victims. They raised their voices in the reasonable, lawful, eloquent act of saying: This is wrong, and we mean to make it right. All people need enough of the bounty so as to take care of their most basic needs, and without a raise in the current minimum wage, those needs will go begging.

The underpaid workers should disturb, will disturb and must disturb the relative quiet that hangs over the recovering patient (the US economy) as it tries to rally in a hospital room down the hall from the ICU. The missteps and mistakes that brought the US to the brink in 2008 and generated a multi-trillion dollar national debt should not now be settled on the backs of those who work so hard for so little.

Underpaid workers can’t be expected to wait on the kind of paranormal intervention that shocked Scrooge into a new world view, even though the unfolding plot would prove harrowing for the powers that be. One scenario follows: As the due date on unpayable debt approaches, China and the Saudis refuse to recognize the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The dollar becomes worthless and the fragile infra structures of cities like Detroit collapse. The grid goes down. The states go begging, and the Feds tell the states to “drop dead,” as they then try to govern a  bankrupt nation, thrown into chaos.

The underpaid workers can’t wait on the Ghost of Christmas Future’s visit, but they can become something like the Ghost of Christmas Future and force themselves on the collective conscience of their representatives and fellow workers.

Of course big business, small business and their well-paid elected officials will scream. They’ll hire more lawyers and lobbyists and producers to hide the face of plenty and to put on a face of lack, need and the impossibility of sharing a little more. No one should be fooled. Indeed, the only people who’ll believe the well-crafted, professionally produced ad campaign will be the people who’ll benefit therefrom.

The essence of democracy is not just the freedoms enjoyed and shared, but the manner in which the society helps those in need, the minorities who need a voice, the oppressed who need a helping hand, the disenfranchised who seek a place at the table. Since the profligate spending of the Bush Administration on a war based on a lie, coupled with all those tax cuts for the wealthy, America is coming to realize that it was taken for a ride to fatten the coffers of companies like Dick Cheney’s Haliburton and others known well to Cheney and Rumsfeld. The people of America are coming to realize that they’ve been placed in the untenable position of having to answer for a sixteen trillion dollar debt, a debt their government incurred on their behalf on the basis of lies their government told.

The consequent stress, latent, sub-surface, potentially devastating, now urges the people to pull into themselves, to keep it in the pocket, to huddle about the table with shades drawn. It’s a kind of national low level albeit functioning depression. All of it is understandable, but none of it will solve the problem.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s Boomers talked a good game about revolution and bringing down the house. It was all nonsense. Revolutions follow in the wake of empty stomachs, and the radicals back then had pretty full stomachs. Back then the country was rich and supported the very demographic that sought to tear it down.  Nonetheless, revolutions can and do occur, and their benefits are only sometimes worth their costs. However, for there to be a revoltioun there first must be too many hungry people wiling to do things they never dreamed of doing. Revolutions only occur when the powers that be threaten the people’s most basic needs – food, shelter and clothing.

Hunger is a base and powerful motivator. It can make people move and march and do things they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing when the pantry was full. This Christmas when all the Congressmen are in their homes or places of choice, about to fill their plates with slices of the Christmas goose, cranberries, stuffing, mashed potatoes, warm buttered bread and the rest, perhaps they can think on the minimum wage debate that awaits them when they return to D.C.. Perhaps then they’ll also think on the hunger of those who’ve been burdened with the responsibility to work while being denied the means to survive.

 

By Mike Hogan

CSM

raisetheminimumwage

becker-posner

WashingtonPost

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