Life, Liberty and the Living Wage

Do fast-food workers deserve a legislated raise?

While the Obama depression grinds on with no end in sight, the streets of our major cities have seen a startling sight: groups of fast-food workers going out on strike for a "living wage" of $15 per hour.

As all American teenagers once knew, fast food joints generally pay the minimum wage and little, if any, more.  Being run predominantly by liberals, American cities often have higher minimum wages than the federal rate of $7.25/hr, but nothing close to $15.

Which is no surprise: flipping fries is the ultimate stereotype of a zero-skill, zero-respect, zero-potential job that can be done by anyone with a pulse and is done only by those with absolutely no intelligence or motivation to better themselves.  What makes these workers think they're worth one cent more than the bare minimum, given that they could all be sacked and replaced tomorrow and the food would still be as cheap and crummy as before?

The original design for fast-food employment made sense: teenagers don't intend to live on their earnings nor to work there for very long.  A fast-food job was a high-school rite of passage and a way for kids to learn the practices and policies of employment in general: show up on time, do as you're told, don't dress like a freak, and so on.  Burger joints got cheap labor and kids got an internship in the Adult World of Work.

When was the last time you saw a teenager selling you a burger?  At least in urban areas, it's all immigrants with poor language skills and no educational credentials; American youth gravitates to being baristas at Starbucks, that being viewed as more classy.  Many of these modern-day fry-flippers seem to intend to make a career of unintelligibly asking "Would you like fries with that?" for years if not decades on end.

But People Do Have To Live... Don't They?

So the striking workers have something of a point: $7.25/hr is not even remotely enough to raise a family on.  It might be enough for a single person to live on with a very Spartan lifestyle in, say, Des Moines - but in Manhattan or downtown Chicago?  Not a chance.  And with any children, there's just no hope.

Pundits on the left often condemn low-wage big businesses as fraudulently benefiting from government welfare programs that their low-paid employees are forced to use.  Wal-Mart, for instance, doesn't provide health insurance benefits and pays its employees so little that they qualify for Medicaid.  Thus, goes this argument, state welfare benefits are providing an unjustified subsidy to Wal-Mart which otherwise would be forced to provide healthcare for its employees if the state didn't.

We've argued that this view is the wrong way around: Minimum-wage jobs are, by definition, the worst of the worst.  If a person can get a better job, they will; so the very fact that they're working for minimum wage proves they aren't worth anything better.  If they didn't have that job, they'd be subsisting entirely on welfare at taxpayer expense.

Thus, to the extent that the lowliest people work at all, their wages reduce what taxpayers would otherwise be paying to keep them alive.  The state isn't subsidizing Wal-Mart; Wal-Mart is subsidizing the state!

However, it does seem like businesses ought to be paying the costs of getting their work done.  It takes a certain amount for a human being to live, and if a job isn't able to generate enough economic income as to be able to pay a worker that minimum, then maybe that job isn't worth doing.  A thought-provoking lefty article recently made just this point:

The idea that we have to choose between paying workers well and having successful businesses is just false. That choice only exists when the owners insist on squeezing billions out of their workers.

A living wage isn’t just something corporations owe their workers, it’s something corporations owe America.

If a corporation won’t pay a living wage, then it shouldn’t have the right to exist. Period. End of story.

The article compares Costco to Wal-Mart - two giant retail corporations selling billions of dollars' worth of goods and with tens of thousands of employees.  However, Costco its employees pays a "living wage" that's maybe twice what Wal-Mart does, and provides health and other benefits to boot.  Where does Costco get the money to do this?

Costco’s founders, Jeffrey Brotman and James Sinegal, aren’t among the world’s super rich like the Walton family. The Walton billionaires bleed their workers dry and it makes them one of the richest families in the world. The guys who started and the executives who run Costco are merely multi-millionaires.

In other words: the economy is a zero-sum game.  Whatever is paid to the capitalists is taken directly from the mouths of the workers.  If you don't recognize this philosophy, let's be plain: this is classical Marxism at its finest.

Only In America - And Everywhere Else

Strictly speaking, the Left is right: companies do have to pay their employees enough to live, or else they won't exist.  American slavery was a social experiment in the absolute minimum required for the sustenance of "employees" - even the stingiest slaveowner had to feed his slaves enough so that they didn't starve to death and stop working no matter how hard he continued to beat them.

A funny thing happened in slavery days, though: the South lost the Civil War.  It turns out that slavery cannot sustain a modern economy, because while you can force a person to do unskilled physical labor, it's far more difficult to force him to use his brain.  It was the brains of the North that built the factories that supplied the Union Army, powered by the brains of the people employed in them of their own free will.

We see this all throughout the economy.  Where a certain type of work absolutely requires a given level of skill, knowledge, or experience, it's paid far more than minimum wage.  Even the minimum-wage fast-food jobs pay a whole lot more than is absolutely needed in order to not die of starvation; the question, really, is how comfortable (or not-too-uncomfortable) a lifestyle we think is acceptable for people living in America.

But why restrict this only to America?  We've all read about the poverty wages paid in sweatshops around the world, and the unsafe working conditions that led to the recent disaster in Bangladesh where over a thousand workers were killed when their factory collapsed.  Are they worth less as human beings than Americans?

They themselves wouldn't think so - but then, they also freely chose to work in the sweatshop, considering it to be a better job than the backbreaking farm labor their parents spent their short, painful lives engaged in.  The sweatshop offers a step up and hope for the future, just as many of our own great-great-grandparents worked in sweatshops in the mills of Manchester and elsewhere, under conditions that would be completely familiar to the residents of Bangladesh.

The problem with fast-food jobs isn't the low pay.  It isn't even the unpleasant working conditions.  As long as the left seeks to "solve" those problems, they'll get exactly nowhere and make things worse.

The real problem is this: why are people in the modern, developed United States attempting to make a lifelong career of zero-skill jobs that were never intended to be a career for anybody?  Why would a McDonald's of 1970 be staffed by teenagers who worked there for a couple of years at the very beginning of their working lives, whereas a modern McDonald's has more middle-aged people of foreign background who seem to have every intention of staying there in the same place until they die?  Why, in other words, are individual people having such a hard time moving up the American ladder of success in employment - or put another way, why is American now overflowing with individual people who completely lack the ability to move themselves up from the very bottom?

But if they asked those questions, the Left would have to start asking hard questions about why our economy has so completely stalled and just why we find it acceptable to invite in the entire Third World, which would reflect poorly on their god in the White House.  So we're stuck with fatuous protests demanding far more money than fry-flipping deserves, and regulations that will only eliminate what jobs there are.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments

Free economics cannot be forced or contained. Low paying jobs are there to adsorb those who have little skills but want to learn. No one flips burgers all their life at minimum wages.

If tomorrow, McDonald's had to pay $15 per hour it would take less than a year to build machines to automatically produce the burgers and replace the workers. Walk up to the counter, punch what you want on the touch screen, swipe your card, and here comes your meal. The one worker is in the back watching porn. It is a brave new world...

August 22, 2013 11:57 AM

Clearly we've chosen the wrong road for humanity. But, it's been like this since the beginning. It's dog eat dog and I'm wearing Milk Bone underwear. I have never worked fast food, joined the military at 18 and never worked for less than $20/hr. (except whilst in the military!) Too many immigrants and too many handouts. If we want things to be 'normal' again, we need to decrease the population.

August 22, 2013 12:31 PM

Looks like the usual suspects are calling for a nationwide fast-food strike next week:

Lotsa luck! No shortage of other illiterate, otherwise-useless incompetents to take their place.

August 22, 2013 12:39 PM

Jalan Noah, World War II handled the surplus population pretty well and that played a massive role in pulling us out of the Great Depression. Unfortunately, today's wars are fought by technology, and fail to wipe the slate clean of surplus humanity.

The article hints at the good that could be done by stemming the flow of immigrants, but unfortunately that isn't going to happen because liberals are liberals, and the money-muscle behind conservatives sees the benefit to its own bank account that increased immigration provides in the form of cheap-cheap labor. Good luck with that.

How, then, to liquidate the surplus population? That is the question!

August 22, 2013 12:39 PM

As a first thought -- clearly, the US needs to fight (and then win) a war that presents a real existential threat from a force intent on invading American soil, that cannot be deterred by our technology. It would have to be an existential threat in order to justify use of the draft, which is key when it comes to expunging the expendable portion of the citizenry that creates a drag on the economy and in other areas.

I don't see this happening any time soon, although if our economy is weakened enough it may in turn weaken the military to the point where, say, China might feel emboldened enough to try something. That would be a mistake, though, as unlike WWII both sides in any such conflict involving the US would be likely to be armed with nuclear weapons. A nuclear exchange would work wonders, of course, at clearing out the "dead wood" -- but it would also damage our resources and infrastructure.

It may be that the time must come for us to grow up as a society and turn to the obvious solution of euthanasia. There will be many mewling liberal objections to this, of course, but the most insidious would probably come from conservatives themselves based on religious grounds. I am confident, however, that a careful perusal of the Bible should reveal numerous loopholes making allowances for doing what must be done.

The simplest sorting method, of course, would be to require that every citizen have a certain amount of money in the bank when if came to a yearly polling time, or have citizenry revoked. We wouldn't even really have to euthanize -- once citizenry has been revoked, we could be justified in shipping non-citizens back to their nations of origin, or dumping them anywhere else (perhaps in developing nations that might even pay US for donating our "refugees" to serve as fodder for their own national labor programs).

Some will object to this because the tendency will be for citizens to keep money in the bank rather than invest it -- but this would serve to keep the banks especially solvent, strengthening the dollar and ultimately serving to boost investment by increasing the amount of money available for the banks to loan.

August 22, 2013 12:55 PM

It is not the government's job to tell companies how much they must pay their employees. The role of the government is to secure our liberties, according to Thomas Jefferson.
Werebat evidently has a Phd in something.
The real question is: Who will determine what segment of the population is surplus? The only real surplus seems to be in the government. Members of Congress can easily be done without, as well as members of the Dept. Of Injustice. Peace, Robert Walker

August 23, 2013 7:59 AM

Jalan Noah stated specifically, "If we want things to be 'normal' again, we need to decrease the population."

As no one countered this, I merely offered a reasonable, logical manner by which the population might be decreased with minimum damage to our resources (human and otherwise) and infrastructure.

I note that you have not presented a better argument.

August 23, 2013 9:57 AM

Depopulating the world of humans, or a portion of them is not something I have considered. I may be wrong, but those who think the world is overpopulated are buying into the New World Order of capping the human population so that the guppies won't die.

For those of you who believe the lie here's a very important statistic: Rhode Island is the most densely populated State in the Union, and 2/3 of the land mass is either farmland or wildland.

New York and California both are less densely populated than Rhode Island. We are convinced that we are overcrowded by the media.

If every human being were placed in Texas, your nearest neighbor would be about 20 feet away. All the rest of the world would be devoid of human population.

Rather than jump on the bandwagon of solving a problem that doesn't exist to prove your erudition, why not point out the fallacy of the thinking? that would be a help to solving the problem of the lies being spewed by the governments of the world, and published by its propaganda arm the main stream media. Peace, Robert Walker

August 23, 2013 11:17 AM

I agree 100% with Robert on this one. The over-populated argument has always been and continues to be absurd. We could double or triple the earth's population and we still wouldn't come close to being over-populated.

August 23, 2013 11:33 AM

So, you think Jalan Noah was WRONG, then?

August 23, 2013 12:06 PM

Overpopulation? A joke! You can put the world's population inside of Rhode Island and the eastern 1/3 of Connecticut if you gave them 2' X 2' area. Just more lefty stupidity.

August 23, 2013 12:21 PM

I see the economic purists are out in force today.

There is one thing that free market economists have a difficult time factoring into their formulae:

Burger flipping, lawn mowing, pool cleaning teenagers cannot (for the most part) vote. Shortly we will have somewhere between 11 and 30 million new hispanic "Americans" that can and will vote.

If you look at the countries where these people come from. The only reason they do not have more socialism is that the country itself is too poor to provide any more services and benefits than what it does already.

How do you think these new "americans" will vote then when the they see a large pool of wealth concentrated in old, white, americans?

Walmart is no different to the 17th century slave owners. We, as a society are already paying and will continue to pay for their dubious employment practices.

August 29, 2013 8:44 AM

FredAG, the laws were written so that corporations like Walmart would have an advantage over the Mom and Pop operations. If the governments would get out of the way, there would really be a shortage of employees.
It is nearly impossible to start a business in this country today because of the onerous burdens placed on getting "permission" from a government that purports to take care of the population.
What is the purpose of a government? The answer to that question is clearly and succinctly explained in 10 words by Thomas Jefferson.
If you are truly interested in learning the purpose of a government, read carefully the Declaration of Independence, a document of equal or greater importance than the Constitution for the United States of America.
Access for more information. Peace, Robert Walker

August 29, 2013 9:29 AM

FredAG, What pray tell should we do with WalMart? I look forward to your answer.

August 29, 2013 7:11 PM

That's a difficult question BassBoat. I'm pretty sure I have the diagnosis, but I can't say that I'm sure what the cure is.

I will say that some smart economist out there should be able to calculate exactly how much extra the government has to top up the salary of a Walmart employee and that should somehow be factored into their business model.

September 10, 2013 7:42 AM

The point about WalMart is that we don't need smart economists who theorize what a salary should be for a particular company. The free market will nail that figure. WalMart pays different levels of pay according to the area of the country. The free market figures this in for free. If WalMart doesn't pay enough they will not get the quality of worker that they need for the task that they need to fulfill. For government to interfere with a private company and tell them what to pay for a service is a slippery slope to disaster. The minimum wage is a great example of how to keep teens on the streets and out of the workplace by overpricing their services. As a result the teens that could be working, learning different skill sets such as showing up for work and having discipline about themselves are left to roam the streets in many cases. These entry level jobs are better than Harvard education, it's the school of H&K, the school of Hard Knocks and those lessons are the best education that we all have had in our lives.

September 10, 2013 10:11 AM

Walmart is interesting. Like most successful companies, it had a brilliant mind behind it in Sam Walton. Sam is now dead, and the Walmart of today is not the Walmart of Sam Walton. It is run by bureaucrats with penny pinching on their minds. Sam pushed made in America. Those signs have been discarded for the "cost savings" signs that mean "made in China". People were excited to work at Walmart and often owned a part of the company. That is no longer so. Walmart is currently advertising their food on MasterChef to hitch up their reputation. Personally I dislike their watered down meats that they chemically treat to look red and adsorb water. I think the Costco model is much better and is hurting Walmart in the marketplace. Starting wages in the $16-$18 range, benefits, and most important, an in store butcher with fresh meat. Walmart has reached it's limit here in the USA. Their only expansion market is now in other countries. Here they are slipping.

September 10, 2013 10:37 AM


I agree with you on your post. WalMart is a shadow of its former self. People look at me like I am crazy when I say that WalMart will be replaced by a faster gun, they will become either not relevant or out of business. The Free market will see to that. I then give them the example of Sears. Who would have thought 40 years ago that Sears could even be challenged in the marketplace much less beaten? Cosco certainly has a better model but they too will implode when the next faster gun comes along. What is it they use to describe this, destructive capitalism? The consumer wins in the long run as long as government stays out of the way.

September 10, 2013 10:54 AM
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