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August 2, 2017


The federal minimum wage these days is a cruel joke on working people in America, especially those single women with a child or children who can work only part-time because of sky-high childcare costs which makes the Hunger Game metaphor real. Likewise, the minimum wage set for those in tipping jobs (primarily waiters and waitresses) is so low as to invite a similar comparison since tips are gifts and not income and may not be forthcoming on slow days and nights or even less so during recessions. Result? Structural poverty for people who are trying to keep body and soul together for themselves and their families. The winners? Employers’ bottom lines and stock portfolios.

There is a large gap between minimum wages and living wages and there is no good reason why they should not be the same. People work for “a living,” not a slave wage, but the rich and corporate class is plainly focused on its bottom line and not the mounting bankruptcy petitions of its employees.

Fortunately, state and municipal jurisdictions are increasingly taking on the obligation of seeing to it that people employed within their borders are guaranteed a minimum wage well beyond that federally set since it is obvious that the Republican Congress is going to do nothing to alleviate the massive pain of working people trying to make a living.

The Congress is apparently too busy handing out tax cuts and less regulation to the superrich to notice that millions of Americans who are trying to survive are falling into poverty status in a classic case of helping those who don’t need help while refusing to help those who do. Aside from assuring that the poor become poorer and those in the lower middle class fall into poverty, there are those in the Congress who want to pass a national right to work bill to further blunt already waning union representation. Apparently the plantation owners and their legislative toadies not only want to pay slave wages but also make sure that the slaves have no future recourse in a “let them eat cake” response to the pleas of the working class, using global competition, “high” corporate taxes and other phony excuses for their theft of their workers’ wages and even their workers’ increased productivity.

Since we live in a large country with differing costs of living here and there, as Stan Greenberg suggests in his 2015 book, America Ascendant, perhaps the best place to address this minimum wage problem is at the metropolitan level. Thus costs of living to working people in San Francisco, New York and similarly high-cost areas vary considerably from the cost of living in small towns in rural America, for instance. Cities, after all, are attracting the most educated and most affluent (see San Jose and Silicon Valley, New York and its financial district et al.), though they are drawing in more service workers and immigrant workers as well. This essay is not about the affluent but the service and immigrant workers. (Computer whizzes and bankers are doing well and are involved in maximum rather than minimum wage brawls.)

Thus Greenberg in his 2015 tome notes that the District of Columbia raised their minimum wage in 2014 starting in 2015 and that states such as California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Mexico and New York followed suit while indexing the new level to inflation to keep up with rising costs. The minimum wage is already higher than the federal level in nearly half of the states, though tellingly, only one of them, Montana, is in the Republican lineup. As a measure of its popularity, five states had minimum wage increases on the ballot in 2014 and all of them passed. It is clear that people are ahead of the congressional curve on this issue, which will not be a federal issue if all fifty states do what the Congress will not, to wit: raise the minimum wage to a living wage indexed for inflation.

It is not just states that are making waves in trying to rid our country of wage inequality and its pernicious effects not only on our working people but also on aggregate demand in our economy; cities are in the mix as well. Municipal minimum wage-setting began in 2003 in San Francisco and Santa Fe. Seattle passed a law increasing the minimum wage from $9.32 to $15.00 by 2018, more than twice as much the current federal minimum wage and approaching a living wage. San Jose raised its minimum wage to $10.66 an hour; Santa Fe to $10.84; San Diego to $11.50; Oakland to $13.19.

Such state and local reaction to the federal slave wage minimum is a step in the right direction, but even such increases do not bring us up to a living wage standard. Thus in Germany factory workers make $35-$40 dollars an hour, have childcare programs, single payer healthcare and even have a law requiring that unions have representatives on corporate boards. The Germans have the same international competition we do but have a massive trade surplus, a modern infrastructure, a solid middle class and, predictably, strong aggregate demand in their economy.

Here we guarantee $7.25 an hour, have no childcare program, healthcare run by for-profit corporations, tepid demand in our economy, a crumbling infrastructure, the world’s largest trade deficit for many years running, and union suppression. However, we have the planet’s largest concentration of wealth and New York’s Wall Street is the financial center of the world.

It is plain by any rational standard that we have decided to invest in the financial sector rather than invest in our people, and I say that is an egregious mistake in policy with scary implications. Look around. How many union representatives are on the boards of GM? Boeing? GE? Try zero.

What to do? Change policymakers and be quick about it before our internal rot and corruption favoring the few sends us the way of Rome. We know that investment in our people brings prosperity to all as evidenced by the some forty years following WW II, so why (other than greed, avarice, and corruption) are we pursuing policies that countermand experience? Let’s change horses in this race as soon as possible, starting in November, 2018.       GERALD       E


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