The Conversation

Getting past the minimum wage

The latest manifestation of the "living wage" movement is a union-funded (and taxpayer-subsidized) group that uses Occupy Wall Street-style tactics to pressure restaurants into paying higher wages.  It's basically organized labor without any of the rules, or elections, that keep Big Labor in check.  Naturally, Big Labor loves it.

It seems as if our relationship with the minimum wage concept has entered a new phase, in which the min wage itself becomes an object of hatred and scorn.  Nobody in America should actually be paid that wage.  Businesses which comply with the law become the object of derision, judged guilty of a non-crime by small but vocal groups who think they know what the minimum wage really should be.  This is one of several ways in which the penumbra of collectivist power extends beyond what even our already overblown body of law specifies.  The persecution of companies like Apple for the non-crime of "tax avoidance" (i.e. taking perfectly legal steps to minimize tax exposure) is another.  The Leviathan State demands that we fear not only the tread of its heavy feet, but the sound of its approaching footsteps.

The way people view the minimum wage offers an important insight into their work ethic, on both individual and cultural levels.  Like most people, I worked for the minimum wage when I first entered the workforce.  (That was way back in the 1980s, kids.  The minimum wage was something like $3.75 at the time, if memory serves correctly.)  I never viewed it as a ceiling.  Even when I was just scraping up money for college, I never thought the minimum wage was my destiny, even in the short term.

My first job was at a fast-food restaurant.  I worked such jobs all the way through college.  I was well into my twenties before I got my first "real" job.  On my very first workday - which was filled with dish-washing and other menial tasks in the back room of a fast food joint - I was asked to work overtime.  That wasn't easily arranged, because my family was going through hard times, and we only had one battered Chevy Chevette to share as transportation.  But when I called my mom at work and asked if my ride home could be delayed by a few hours while I worked overtime, she was overcome with pride.  I might as well have been telling her that President Reagan had just rolled through the drive-thru and tapped me for a Cabinet post. 

I got my first raise within 90 days of being hired.  I worked at that place for the better part of two years, and was making almost two bucks an hour over the minimum wage when I left.  I only had to start at minimum wage a couple more times before my accumulated experience made me worth more to restaurant employers.  I never thought I was doing anything extraordinary.  I showed up on time, did everything that was asked of me, took pride in my work, kept a cheerful disposition, and took every opportunity for extra hours.  None of that should be extraordinary, but it was at the time, and I fear it's even more so now.  What does a busy employer want more than reliable, trustworthy employees who are pleasant to work with, and look at every day as a chance to contribute to the success of their enterprise?

I worked as a computer consultant to contractors for many years before becoming a full-time writer.  I often chatted with my clients about employees and hiring practices.  From coast to coast, they told me the same story, through the Bush, Clinton, and Bush years, through good times and bad: it was hard to find good people, even when tools and training were offered to entry-level employees, to get them started on excellent careers.  It's just not easy to find people who want to work.  I've known businessmen who couldn't persuade people to accept $15/hour apprenticeships during a recession, or had to dismiss a large number of new hires because they couldn't be bothered to show up on time, or pass the drug tests.

When the government mandates wages higher than the true value of entry-level labor, and pressure groups demand even higher pay, employers have to become more selective.  Jobs are eliminated, and higher qualifications are sought for the jobs that remain.  Lower entry-level wages give eager employees an opportunity to prove themselves worth more.  Success comes to those who wish to earn it.  But the combination of high labor burdens, permanent high unemployment, and an exploding welfare state means a lot of people see no reason to try, and too many employers don't want to take a chance on them.

Someone took a chance on me when I was a kid with no experience, stuck in limbo between early high-school graduation and college classes I couldn't afford, and praying to God I could find a job so my family wouldn't have to go on food stamps.  I knew damn well I wasn't worth a penny more than minimum wage.  I was determined to become worth more, as quickly as possible.  I am dismayed by the sagging work ethic of people who spend all their time whining about what they deserve, and getting organized behind those who promise to steal it for them.  What you deserve is a fighting chance, and only in a free and prosperous economy are you likely to hook up with someone willing and able to give it to you, because they think you can help them turn a profit.  Successful people hear such talk as the sound of trumpets summoning them to glory.


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