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Talk to the Hand (That Feeds You)
by A.M. Siriano
07 November 2003The Hand

Election campaigns always bring out a call for an increase in the minimum wage.

Election campaigns always bring out a call for an increase in the minimum wage.  When I was still wet behind the years and working as a stock boy in a small-town pharmacy, I was making a little above minimum wage, blowing all my money on pizzas, cheeseburgers and 8-tracks, and wondering why I was always broke.  Then I heard the Utopian call:

“We must give those poor slobs more!” railed the candidates.  I, being somewhat poor, and certainly a slob, liked the sound of that.

I decided to take up the cause with my boss, a tall, good-hearted man whose business acumen made for more than a few pints of the little town’s economic lifeblood.

“They’re talking about raising the minimum wage to four, maybe five, dollars an hour,” I said, a bit sheepishly.  “What do you think about that?”

“I think it’s a fine idea,” he said with an affable grin.  “Heaven knows you could use the money, with all the things you and your friends need to spend it on.  Of course, if they raise it, I’m not going to be able to afford at least two of my staff working here.  That means that I’ll have to let go one of my cashiers, and it will probably be my oldest worker, because she’s the least productive, even though she’s been with us since time began.  And I’ll have to choose between my two stock boys, and since one is my son, who do you suppose gets the heave-ho?”

Gulp.

“Naturally, if I have less staff, that means the people I can keep will have to work harder.  I won’t be able to give them overtime, since they now have higher wages.  The chances are they won’t get the job done, and our customers will start noticing and some will go elsewhere.  Plus, when the effect of the increase starts hitting my bottom line, I’ll have to raise my prices, driving even more customers away.  Before long, I’ll probably have to shut down this place, and that will hurt the town in a big way.”

Gulp two.

“Or,” the great man continued, “we can be sensible and leave well enough alone, and you can manage your money better, take more hours when they become available—which you don’t do now—and try to be more efficient—which you aren’t doing now—which will save us money, and perhaps ensure that you’ll get a raise in a few months.  With the government out of our business, you have the freedom, you know, to look elsewhere, assuming you really don’t want to work for me anymore.”

Gulp three, yer out.  Economics class over.

That’s all it took for me to understand that minimum wages are harmful to the economy, not helpful.  The latest, just-in-time, proposed increase has been dubbed a “living wage,” which, as Rush Limbaugh, Thomas Sowell, and many others have pointed out, is an arbitrary figure that has no basis in reality.

I have been a low-income worker and have worked with many of them.  They are an easy target for “living wage” rhetoric, because they live on the edge of desperation.  I’m not talking necessarily about true poverty, because not one that I knew missed too many meals or didn’t have enough money for smokes or an occasional lottery ticket.  But they do have a kind of desperation, a fatigue that comes with the struggle itself, that keeps them wondering if there is anything more for them than what they currently have.  If they haven’t learned to look to themselves for hope, digging in to create personal ambition and drive, they will look elsewhere.

Can we guess what wolves are waiting?  Can we guess where they reside?

The poor are easy prey for the wolves in Washington who sell them promises of prosperity for a vote.  The term “living wage” sounds nice, but someone has to pay for it, and it won’t be the rich.  With any luck, the next time our smooth-talking politicians try to schmooze another working stiff, he will bring the issue to the attention of his boss.  With a bit more luck, his boss will be like the one I was privileged to know.

A. M. Siriano is a DBA/web developer by day and writes for his own website, amsiriano.com, by night
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