I’ve had a bit of writer’s block for a while, as evidenced by my latest Ben Folds project just petering out almost three months ago. Lots of reasons for this, most of which don’t seem that important right now.
But sometimes, I see something that just makes me want to write something real quick and get it off my chest:
Mittens Romney, a man that worked at one of the companies that helped kill Toys R Us (among others), is going to get on the Tweet machine (or have one of his social media interns or whatever) to tweet an attack at the long-promised-but-not-yet-delivered student loan forgiveness that isn’t any closer to happening than it was yesterday? Or the day before? Or January 20, 2021?!?
As we sit around waiting for much needed relief from our government – primarily because the Democrats love the filibuster for some reason even though about 98% of the people in America don’t even know what that is – a lot of the debate has turned to increasing the minimum wage in the United States.
Why is this a thing people are talking about? Well, part of the reason is because we are all poor in this country (just some of us refuse to actually admit it), but it’s also because President Biden wants to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of his COVID relief plan. Mind you, that $15/hour wage won’t actually exist until 2025 because we can’t just immediately make people better off in this country.
But it’s being debated because the machination that the evenly divided Senate will be using to pass this relief bill requires us to think if increasing the minimum wage has a fundamental impact on the budget and blah blah blah this is all so boring. NOBODY CARES ABOUT PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURE EXCEPT MODEL UN NERDS AND SIMILAR WEIRDOS. Just pass the stimulus, even if it means doing it over the objections of all that stand in the way for purely dumb reasons.
Let’s talk a bit about the minimum wage in this country, shall we?
The United States was fairly late to the idea of a minimum wage for its workers. The Fair Labor and Standards Act of 1938 was what established the federal minimum wage in this country. It was part of The New Deal under FDR after the Great Depression, and established the eight hour workday and a 40-hour workweek (this was only after the initial proposal of a 30-hour workweek was rejected). The minimum wage was established at $0.25/hour, which in today’s money would be around $4.60 an hour.
It has been adjusted since, obviously, and peaked at an adjusted value back in 1968, when it was nominally $1.60/hour, which is equivalent to $12.25 in today’s dollar. It has gradually declined from that point since, and was increased to its current $7.25 way back in 2009… which is only worth $8.25 in current money.
There have been attempts to move above this level since 2009, but there just hasn’t been any real movement. President Obama wanted to phase up an increase to $10.10 over two years in the 2014 Minimum Wage Fairness Act, but Republicans in Congress didn’t like that, probably claiming “states’ rights” and that the federal government shouldn’t be able to step in on “state” business like that.
Twenty-nine states have minimum wages that exceed the federal minimum wage, with the highest being paid to workers in Washington, DC ($15/hour). As for actual states, Washington leads the way at $13.69/hour. Sixteen states have set minimum wage at the federal level, while five states do not have an established minimum wage, though the positions covered by the FLSA have to pay the minimum of $7.25.
It’s a mix of states depending on political “leanings.” If we base it on electoral votes, the 29 states (and DC) paying more than the federal minimum wage would account for 315 Electoral College votes. But they are a mix of states with different politics at the local and state levels and not as easily defined as “red vs. blue.”
As I pointed out in a Twitter thread, my “junior” Senator, Mitt Romney, has proposed a laughable minimum wage of $10/hour, with an equally ludicrous provision that it somehow screens out illegal immigrants from payrolls (which is just racism and anti-poor with an extra step). The required e-Verify compliance he is seeking is not cheap, so of course if any small employers has to hire someone but has to screen them, guess what the default is going to end up being? They’ll hire the person that appears to pass the e-Verify check without the risk of failing the check, closing down hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs for folks with non-white skin.
But I digress.
A $10/hour minimum wage sounds good because it is more than the current, 12 year-old level. But it is not. If you look at just one aspect of what people spend money on (housing), $10/hour cannot rent the average apartment in all 50 states. In fact, only four states check in at less than $15/hour, and they are all barely under that threshold. The lowest state, Arkansas, would require a wage of $14.19/hour to rent the average two bedroom home, or 57 hours a week at the current minimum wage.
Contrast that with Hawaii, the state at the top of the rankings, or even California, the highest of the mainland. Hawaii requires 153 hours at the current minimum wage, leaving all of 15 hours the rest of the week for non-work time. Hawaii is beautiful, but unless you are making legit money, you are living in a tiny apartment or with multiple roommates to be able to afford it, which is sadly the story in a lot of high-cost places.
So does that mean that we should continue to leave the minimum wage question up to the states? No! As 29 states (+DC) have proven, they are willing to go above the minimum as necessary to their current market conditions. Hawaii’s minimum wage is only $10.10, but I imagine an increase to the federal minimum wage to $15 would lead them to increase it slightly. Would it be 40% higher like it is now? Probably not, but they’ll adjust as needed. The other states would follow suit.
As for the other 21 states, they need to be dragged kicking and screaming into caring for their people, apparently. Utah, the state that Romney represents, requires a wage of $19.83 to rent the average two bedroom home. And with the type of construction going on around here, those type of homes are going to be harder to find. Plus, not every household has two wage earners, or simply has to cover housing alone. I’m in a one-income household, and while I make much more than the minimum wage, if not for the VA loan that helped buy our house, we’d be in a much worse situation.
I’m not an economist, not even at an amateur level, but I feel like paying people more money at the bottom of the economy is a net positive for society as a whole. Multi-billion dollar companies like Walmart that employ millions of people would be forced to pay their employees more, hopefully reducing the burden on programs like welfare that they have to use to make ends meet. That would in turn make it better for every taxpayer in this country, and while poverty would not end overnight – sustained poverty is more than just making more money at a job – it would be immediately improved. Yes, prices would rise, but they are rising anyway and the minimum wage has not been increased for nearly 12 years! If the wage was the thing preventing inflation (spoiler alert: it’s not), costs of things wouldn’t be growing so much faster than wages in this county.
Overall housing prices have increased by over 26% since 2009, just under 2% a year. Basic commodities have increased by nearly 11%. Tuition, other school fees, and childcare have increased by over 42%, which seems low. All this while real wages (not just the minimum wage) has been all but stagnant since the late 1960s.
The real average wage (preliminary) for January 2021 was $29.96. A split of the difference between the current minimum wage and that number would be about $18.50, which would be a much better starting point for a minimum wage in this country. If it needs to be phased in, so be it, but it needs to be done quickly as whatever it ends at is going to be too little in a couple year’s time, especially if we wait another 12 years to raise it.
The $15 they are aiming for at the moment wouldn’t actually occur until 2025, by which time it will already be too little. If they accelerated it a bit, say by 2023 with increases pegged to CPI plus 0.5% (or so) every year after, it might actually catch up before my son enters the labor market in 10ish years.
Either way, if a country truly cares about poverty and caring for their citizens, a minimum wage is a good place to start. Thirteen countries in the OECD have higher minimum wages than the US when adjusted for purchasing power. While none are above $15/hour, they also have more robust social programs that allow for lower wages to be paid at the bottom. The United States decided that poverty was something that is inherent… and has not done anything to alleviate it. So while CEOs earn magnitudes over their lowest paid employee, the wage and wealth gaps continue to grow with no end in sight.
Would raising the minimum wage tomorrow fix these problems? No, not really. As I said earlier, true poverty is a multi-faceted issue that requires a lot more work than raising wages. But it would be a start, and it should be done sooner rather than later. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour effective January 1, 2022, and increase it by CPI every year thereafter forever. Businesses will adjust. Profits won’t shrink (by that much), and more money would enter the economy.
You could also reinforce the small employers out there that would see wage bills increase overnight, like a more gradual increase or even paying the difference between their current employees’ wages and the new minimum wage. Pay this difference by taxing the large employers that will simply eat the increased wages into their profit margins, or take it out of a tax on CEO compensation that is over 30 times larger than the average wage at the company. There are solutions to make things more equitable and sustainable long term.
So while I appreciate the effort from Senator Romney, he truly could do a whole lot better. He should look at the cost of living in his own state and realize that $10, while it would help, is not enough to truly make a difference. A minimum wage of $15 should truly be the minimum starting point, with gradual increases annually until we are paying a living wage. A rising tide floats all boats, and raising the minimum wage should not even be in question.
Unless, of course, you want to offer a universal basic income instead…
Depending on the scale you use, a person can be wealthy or poor. Compared to Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, I am downright impoverished. But compared to the federal poverty guidelines, I am wealthy.
After a recent wage, I have my highest salary that I have ever earned in my life. While I haven’t gone back and adjusted other “high” points in my life to the current year, I am likely making more in real dollars now than I ever have. Regardless, it doesn’t feel like it.
This is not be complaining about my lot in life; I’ve been lucky to be employed through the pandemic, with only a reduction in “extra” travel money the only real impact on my take home pay every month. Sure, my insurance premiums went up a little with the new year, and I’m paying back the former president’s Social Security “tax cut” bribe this year as well, but I’m satisfied with how things are going. I even feel like I’m getting the hang of my job too, which is good because I plan on working where I’m at for the next 17 years or so (but who’s counting?).
Nevertheless, a friend shared an article with me this morning that led to this post. You should go read it if you’re so inclined, but as the title says: “Work is the most important way of proving your worth… and it’s making Americans miserable.” This prompted a discussion, blaming all of the American workers’ ills at the feet of billionaires (as it should be).
But the article also talked about how being chronically unemployed in America is really making people miserable in this country, something that has obviously not been helped by a raging pandemic that has led to tens of millions of people being unemployed for much of the past year. If you can’t prove your worth through having a job, you are therefore worthless, which is contributing to one of the worst collective mental health emergencies this country has experienced – and is mostly ignoring.
The five happiest countries mentioned in the article – Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway – are all social democracies in some regard, with strong social safety nets and generally high standards of living despite high taxes and all that comes with that. The United States ranks 18th on the same list, behind Canada and the United Kingdom, but also countries like Israel, Ireland, and Costa Rica, and just ahead of happy sounding places like the United Arab Emirates.
By defining our “worth” by working, Americans have been built, pretty much since our founding, on always pursuing fulfilling work. Some people are content enough to find something that gives them the resources to survive in life; if you redefine success by being able to pay for a decent place to live and get food or whatever, you can probably be content working a job that provides enough money to do this.
Others still will never be fulfilled based on these things – I was one of these people for a very long time – but will still simply go through the motions because it’s what is expected. Moving from job-to-job, or degree-to-degree, trying to find the thing that calls out to you and makes you feel fulfilled, something that defines your “worth.”
This country was founded on a lot of ideals, and depending on which of the original colonies your boat landed, the reason America is a thing is for all sorts of reasons. The Pilgrims of Massachusetts Bay Colony were escaping religious persecution, but also wanted to persecute people in their own way. The Virginia planters were originally sent here to grow tobacco for their English sponsors, then became a cheaper resource for cotton for the English mills of the industrial revolution. It’s always, in some way, been about capitalism in this country, and this has caused all the great strife in the 400 years of its existence.
I don’t think it’s too late for America to fix this, though it’s a heavy lift to go from where we are now to get to Finland or Denmark. A certain segment of of this country has isolated themselves from everyone else by amassing mass quantities of wealth, and its obvious that they don’t want to share… and they have the political influence because of their wealth to keep it that way. There are 614 billionaires in America, with a total net worth of $2.9 trillion. That’s an average of $4.7 billion. Their total net worth exceeds the projected US budget deficit for 2021 by about $800 billion! It’s a lot of fucking money, man. About $8,000 for every single American… it’s just disgusting.
All this in the midst of a global pandemic (that $2.9T is probably a little higher these days too), and a $1.9T COVID relief plan is having to jump through procedural hoops to pass and give most Americans $1,400, topping them up to $3,500 that their government has given them during this life-altering pandemic. We could be doing so much more to alleviate the lack of worth people feel in this country. The feeling that people need to constantly chase that dopamine high from a fucking job or money in their bank account to feel like you are worthy.
I personally think that the resistance to “socialism” would start to melt away if people started getting more money from the government, especially if it was the result taking some of that $2.9T from those 614 people (and the thousands of people that have hundreds of millions approaching that “three comma club.” Giving people some basic income of whatever number would allow people to pursue passions and not paychecks. Combined with universal healthcare and free college and all those other social support things that real countries have would allow people to be happier.
We can’t really wait for those billionaires to give all their money away. They’re doing it much too slowly – and their wealth continues to grow anyway – so we need to take it from them. A two percent wealth tax is definitely a start; $58 billion isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of the US budget but it sure as hell starts to pay for something. And that’s just the first year and one specific tax…
We as a country need to take better care of each other, and if we have to upset the “1%” to do so, so be it. Things like a minimum wage hike would be a nice start, but sending everyone $1,000 a month would also be good. Giving people healthcare that is free would be amazing. Closing the wealth gap in this country should be something that everyone wants, honestly.
America likes to think they are the best country in the world, but American exceptionalism is mostly just something people lie to themselves about. Finland, Denmark, Costa Rica, etc have it figured out better than we do, and they have for a very long time. “Worth” should be defined by more than just the fact that we work or have money; we should be allowed that “pursuit of happiness” that was in our founding documents so long ago.
Will it happen in my lifetime? Will the 99% continue to push against the 1%, begging for their scraps to feel a little better about themselves? Or will we finally join the rest of the world in caring about people beyond ourselves a lot more, and take the steps necessary to do so? Time is ticking. Let’s get to work.
Don’t worry, handful of people that actually care about the book I’m writing. I’m not ending things (yet). I should hopefully get back to writing it sometime in the next couple of days, but I guess that all kind of depends on my mood.
Honestly, I wish this was an update on the book, another 1,000 words about some bullshit that will probably never see the light of day in book form. But the world is too sad for me right now. I can’t find a place where I can make a fictionalized version of the world that isn’t influenced by all the nonsense and garbage that is currently happening in this country.
The plan was, eventually, to set the book in around 2007 or so, or at least most of the story, so that I could try and avoid the real world for a minute. Maybe the third sequel will cover the election of Trump and our descent into fascism, but by then, I might not be able to write anything that even resembles a critique of our current president. Continue reading “So About That Book…”→