By Marc Jampole
You can almost hear Chubby Checker intoning “How low can you go?” in the lowest register he could hit.
What made me think of Chubby’s hit, “Limbo Rock” is the limbo dancing that conservatives are doing with the minimum wage. It seems as if right-wingers are falling over themselves in advocating for a new minimum wage—that’s lower than the current paltry $7.25 an hour. They want to reduce the incomes of our poorest workers as if the hourly wage were a Limbo bar and the object of the game was to lower it as much as possible.
In all cases, the right-wing Limbo-ists (or perhaps I should call them Limbaugh-ists) fervently declare that the lower minimum wage will benefit workers because it will enable businesses to hire more employees. The assumption—which common sense tells us is completely false—is that an employer will hire people they don’t need just because they can get them cheaply and that when wages rise, employers will fire workers whom they still need to operate their business.
How low can you go?
How about $5.00 an hour, which is what retired public relations executive Robert G. Stayton thinks the minimum wage should be. His expertise, which he touts in an article titled “A Minimum Wage that Can Work” in the Wall Street Journal, is as a volunteer interviewer of the poor at a religious charitable organization in southwest Florida. Strayton pulls the $5 an hour number out of the air, just as he pulls out $3 as the future price of the McDonald’s $1 menu if the nation adopted the modest $10.10 an hour minimum wage that President Obama has imposed on government contractors for future contracts. Strayton’s math is shoddy: wages are one part of McDonald’s costs, which also include rent, utilities, raw materials and marketing. By increasing this one factor by 40% ($7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour), he thinks the final cost will triple. I hope Strayton gets help with his taxes. If labor accounted for 75% of the cost of a $1 item (it doesn’t) and McDonald’s raised salaries 40%, then to maintain the same profit (not profit margin) would require Mickey D to sell the items for $1.30.
Strayton provides no basis for his economic argument except a tired old theory that was disproven years ago. He does give an ethical basis for lowering the minimum wage, which is as insultingly condescending to the poor as it is self-serving for employers: “You'd think no one can value making $5 an hour. But for those in poverty, a primal need is immediate and reliable access to an income of one’s own. When one has nothing, anything becomes priceless. Watch the expression on the face of a poor person when you provide him or her with $2, $3 or $5 to put gas in a neighbor's borrowed car so he can bring free groceries, clothing, linens, housewares or furnishings from our organization back home. You'll see then the value of such a ‘trivial’ wage.” That smile of a grateful poor person must make Strayton feel warm and fuzzy inside as he pours French Bordeaux into Baccarat glasses while enjoying the sunset from the deck of his yacht.
How low can you go?
How about $4 an hour, which is what Michael R. Strain is proposing in an article titled “A $4 Minimum Wage Can Get People Back to Work” published by Bloomberg News.” Strain, a researcher at the notoriously anti-labor American Enterprise Institute, begins by bemoaning how little is being done by “our leaders in Washington” to address long-term unemployment in the United States, what he calls “the most immediate social and economic challenge facing the U.S. today.”
Strain strains to show how much he cares about the unemployed. “Society owes these workers better -- creative public policies to help increase their chance of staying in the labor force. They want to work; they want to earn their own successes, to help the economy grow, and to support themselves and their families. But they can’t, in large part because they happen to be alive and working during a once-in-a-generation economic downturn.”
His answer is to reduce the risk to employers of spending $7.25 an hour for someone who has been out of a job for months or years, thus making employers more likely to hire the long-term unemployed. Strain couples this lower minimum wage with expanded earned-income tax credit or wage subsidies—federal transfer programs that supplement a worker’s wages with tax dollars.
In other words, Strain wants the government to subsidize businesses by allowing them to pay their workers even less than they do now. Strain is certain that employers will increase hiring, but why would they? If a company didn’t need the additional workers before, why would they need them now? What is more likely is that wages will go down and more employees of Wal-Mart, MacDonald’s and other low-wage companies will receive government assistance. Right now 52% of fast food workers are using Medicaid, food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit programs. Do what Strain wants and that number will increase.
Strain calls it public policy, but I call it welfare for the wealthy, the only kind of economic stimulus program that conservatives like.
Shoddy math, false assumptions and a smug, self-serving moral tone always characterize these arguments against the minimum wage, extended unemployment benefits and food stamps. All of it so they can steal more money from the poor. It’s pretty low, if you ask me. And just when you think that a right-winger has debased logic, reasoning and common sense as much as possible, another one emerges to lower the bar even more.
How low can they go?