Monday, October 6, 2014
We Are Worth Fifteen Dollars
I am a facebook lurker. I have no interest in being part of that community, but a friend of mine convinced me that it could be an important information source, a "finger on the pulse", so to speak. So, with his blessing, I log on to his profile to keep tabs on our shared crew.
I was a bit surprised to find out that my friend was correct re: the usefulness of facebook. Things that I would have written off as liberal conflations of wackjob opinions held by five or six idiots in Tulsa are proven to be widely held truths in my old Midwestern stomping grounds. Liberals are shown to be as idiotic as conservatives. And a whole lot of people are clueless and out of touch about a whole lot of stuff. None of that should surprise me, perhaps, but it did, at least until I saw it over and over again. Long story short, people are idiots, and there are mountains of testimonials to that fact.
A recent flap over striking fast food workers is illustrative of just how shittiness flows like a river through our doomed culture. Now, mind you, I expect the Fox News hounds of the world to be puking all over this, and of course there's the "self-evident" "IF YOU PAY FAST FOOD WORKERS $15 AN HOUR THEN A BIG MAC WILL COST $20" kind of crap, but there was a backlash I really wasn't expecting: a reaction among many in the "professional class" about how paying fast food workers a living wage devalues their own profession. And it wasn't limited to off-the-cuff comments; it was bitching, long and loud . . . teachers lamenting burger flippers occupying their income range, nurses all in a huff about lowly cash register jockeys getting paid almost as much as the noble ministers to the sick, retail pros whining about lazy stoners getting handed cash at a rate it took them years to attain. It seemed the only people sympathetic to fast food workers were other workers not far removed from the American minimum wage.
Before I go any further, a couple things that should be self-evident: first, most all of the "professional class" whiners are underpaid as well. Everyone should be able to afford clean, safe housing, a safe living environment, food, and health care . . . that is, everyone should have a living, and without having to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve it. Stories of what teachers and nurses have to go through is harrowing, and all of them live paycheck to paycheck if they rely on their job as their living income. Secondly, a benefit for one is not a detriment to another . . . so, if you are a nurse, your pay is shit considering what you have to go through to earn it. And guess what? No matter how much a fast food worker gets paid, your pay is still shit. Why be mad that someone's life is made a little better by giving them a living wage? That's why I refuse to get sucked into all those "our society is horrible because our teachers make nothing but Miguel Cabrerra makes hundreds of millions of dollars" diatribes: the first part of the equation has nothing to do with the second part.
Of course, the whole problem centers around value, and how our culture determines value. That much is obvious, and I'm frankly weary of discussing the subject, and you'd be weary of me discussing the subject pretty quickly as well, since I tend to immediately fall into that annoying adult-talking-to-dull-child tone that is so arrogant and presumptuous. And besides, we as a culture still talk about how "money isn't everything" (though it's hard to see how we really mean it) so there is at least the idea floating around that money isn't the final arbiter of value. No, there's even more than that at play here, things like class warfare/class politics/class betrayal, how we position ourselves toward our fellow man, and, no matter how much we try to deny it, how capitalism defines the very core of our beings.
One of the things I remember about Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is how he always tried to draw up networks of the historic underclasses of the US, and how skeptical of that project I was, given what I have lived. The current state of the underclass is that of a class at war with itself, never forming a unified front against its oppressors. That's not surprising, really: when you're down at the bottom of the pile fighting for scraps, a lot of the time all you can do is focus on those down there fighting with you, and focus on them as your enemies instead of those on the top of the pile (not to mention it's a lot easier to take yours from someone on the bottom than it is someone on the top). America has been skilled (perhaps moreso than any other culture in history) at convincing its underclass to look at anything except class as what is causing them difficulty in life. So, we have poor whites who identify more with rich whites than poor blacks, poor US citizens who blame immigrant labor for their problems instead of the exploitation of that labor, and white men across the class spectrum fighting to retain every single scrap of privilege they possess. We have huge swaths of poor rural whites using their votes to enshrine those most publicly hostile to their own interests. I want Zinn to be right, but those glasses of his were pretty fucking rosy.
I find this difficult to talk about because everyone is so weary now of discussing class war (or, perhaps more accurately, expending great amounts of energy to not talk about class war). Your audience is either mainstream Americans who have bought into the idea of a classless culture . . . or, at very least, a culture of free class mobility . . . or you are in a room with a bunch of leftists who are more interested in discussing the minutiae of syndicalism, Marxism, anarchism, etc. than they are actually doing the hard work of communicating with the mass of citizens outside their normal purview. I find it difficult to write things like the previous paragraph because it is universally dismissed: on one hand it is dismissed as so self-evident as to be not worth discussing, on the other it is dismissed as old disproven, discredited paranoid ranting. Which means: it needs to be discussed, it needs to be looked at. It is the elephant in the room.
Apropos, I spent 19 years in school, and never once was assigned Karl Marx. While 4 of those years were spent in a tiny public high school in the middle of some cornfields, 4 of it was spent in a very expensive private university who were very self-congratulatory about the quality of their liberal arts education ("liberal" arts indeed), and three of it spent in post graduate work, where they at least assumed I had read Marx. Tell me, how the hell is it possible to get a good education in the second half of the twentieth century without reading Marx? Even my virulently anti-communist Bircher great uncle had a copy of Das Capital in his library (gotta know what you hate, right?) . . . the answer, unfortunately, is as obvious as everything else in this discussion: education is too often nothing more than liberal indoctrination, and Marx is too much of a hot potato to be handled outside the fairly restricted confines of "political science". There are, of course, vibrant discussions of Marxism in universities, but these are carefully segregated away from those who have either not been inoculated against Marxism or already infected by the dread Marxist disease . . .
Ah, but I digress, as I am wont to do.
Let's go back to the second of my assumptions: a benefit for one is not a detriment to another. If all of a sudden they double the pay of fast food workers, how is that skin off your ass? Maybe the price of a grilled stuffed burrito goes up a bit, but you really shouldn't be eating that shit anyway, right? The more people in this world that get a living wage, the better off everyone is, because the goal of any society is (should be!) to provide the basics of life for all that occupy it. Right now, fast food workers do not earn a living. They should. Simple. And I am at a loss to understand how that is a problem for anyone . . . anyone, of course, except for those that make profit off the low wages of their workers. And you can surely guess how I feel about them.
If you complain that paying fast food workers almost as much for a menial job as you get for your "important" job somehow devalues said "important" job, then your problem is with how your job is valued. It's abundantly clear that the "objectivity" of the market is flawed (see Miguel Cabrerra v. your favorite high school science teacher), so why apply that logic to fast food workers? Teachers are underpaid because they don't directly make anybody any money; nurses are underpaid because they are at the bottom of the monolithic industrial healthcare pyramid. There is no way that either of these jobs will be properly valued by the market, since the importance of both jobs lie primarily outside the market. If you still feel butthurt about fast food workers making $15 an hour, then I recommend you quit your job and try a fast food career out when wages hit that level. I know the vast majority of us worked fast food at some time in our lives, but I would venture that none of us remember how harsh and soul-sucking it was, and still would be, even at $15 an hour.
We say, over and over again, that money isn't everything. It's time to act like we mean it. Kinda like it's about time Christians take the example of Jesus seriously. But again, I digress.
Even more insidious is the idea (mostly espoused by retail pros, in my personal non-scientific experience) that it is bad to reward such "lack of ambition", usually in exactly those words. Just guessing here, but I bet someone on Fox News developed that particular talking point. Here we get closer to the cultural nastiness of the capitalist ethic: a moral dimension is projected onto occupation, that moral dimension is directly tied to ambition, which is gauged by work performance, which is measured by money. In a nutshell, you are not a good person if you settle for a low paying job.
This is not an exaggeration by any means. By chastising fast food workers for "lack of ambition", you are directly constructing a moral element for performance in the capitalist system. Such thinking doesn't even allow for ambition independent of labor in service of capitalism (e.g., such thinking doesn't allow that perhaps a burger flipper goes home at the end of her shift and ambitiously writes symphonies, sculpts masterpieces, sews magnificent quilts, etc., unless said activity earns money and therefore becomes labor in service of capitalism). And it is precisely here where capitalism is allowed to stand for morality, where gold paves the path to salvation, where camels strut through the eyes of needles and the rich are chauffeured into heaven while the poor grovel at the gates like ciphers from Kafka stories.
As a matter of fact, underlying all this criticism of the $15 wage for fast food workers is naked contempt for those workers. That's straight up bullshit, people. And it's not just the Fox News crowd, either: liberals, conservatives, workers, professionals (including a lot of "compassionate" teachers and nurses), all different types have demonstrated contempt for their fellows on this count. You can't say that all people are equal and then oppose a living wage for another person. It's really that simple. If you oppose the $15 wage, you are part of the problem.
There are other, so called "economic" reasons that some oppose the $15 wage, but these are misguided. I've already gone on too long about this, and actually made the points I consider important, but let me just say: anyone who has worked in this service/fast food/retail industry knows there is not a one-to-one relationship from dollars in to dollars out. There are studies all over the place that wage hikes in fast food would lead to fairly modest price increases, just as there are the $20 BIG MAC! studies. I would further claim that these discussions are beside the point . . . so go ahead and Google away to find the studies to support your point. There are facts enough for everyone.
We spend way too much time discussing the economy, the GOOD of the economy, as if it is a stand in for the good of the people. THE GOOD OF THE ECONOMY IS NOT A STAND IN FOR THE GOOD OF THE PEOPLE. It is time we start looking to the good of the people and let the economy take care of itself, instead of the other way around. It is time we stand up against those who are invested in the economy instead of the good of the people. A $15 wage for fast food workers is a start, if only a start. Don't stand against it just because it doesn't directly benefit you. Don't be an asshole.