The life of man in this world is, for the most part, a life of work. Every man worth calling a man should be willing and able to work. How can one be idle when others are busy? How maintain social respect, honor and responsibility? Work is the best of all educators, for it forces men into contact with others, and with things as they really are. If we consult biography, it will be found that the worthiest men have been the most industrious in their callings. Labor is the price set upon everything valuable. Nothing can be accomplished without it.
Samuel Smiles, Life And Labor (1887)
“…and Brutus is an honorable man…” — Marc Antony
In The United States, in 2019, there is a prevalent attitude that everyone should be required to work. Simply enjoying life is inexcusable. The idea is that if I had to work hard to survive, everyone should have to. Laziness is also sinful. I know because in about 600 A.D. Pope Gregory the First said Sloth was in the Top 7 Deadly Sins.
Another argument in favor of Hard Work is that society will break down without people working. If everyone just sits around watching TV, or more likely, Netflix or something of that sort, how will we ever do anything? SOMEONE has to work.
Finally, I’m told no one owes anyone anything. There is a blank piece of paper shown on Facebook frequently that depicts what the person posting it evidently believes anyone owes you. It’s terribly clever, albeit not terribly persuasive.
I’m going to address each of these arguments, and then I’m going to recommend that we pay a Living Wage to anyone who works full time. You’re welcome to disagree with me, but at least read my arguments before you do.
Is Sloth a Sin?
There may have been good reason for Pope Gregory to suggest that Sloth is sinful, from his interpretation of the Scriptures, and certainly, in the culture in which he was living, it was essential that everyone work hard. One’s survival was often dependent on one’s ability to grow food and create the homes in which they lived. There was no time to dawdle. The Roman Empire had fallen, and Trade was all but destroyed because roads were no longer safe. Lying around reading or watching a sunset were recipes for disaster. Sloth was, from that point of view, sinful. In Poor Richard’s Almanck, Ben Franklin told us, “Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful.” Sloth was hurtful in 600 AD. It fit Franklin’s definition. Is that still true?
Most of us now have at least SOME leisure time. It’s why I can write this. It’s what enables you to read it. Is it sinful that we’re not “working” right now? I don’t have a field to cultivate. I can go to the grocery store to get my food. So can you. We don’t need to grow our own food to survive. That’s a significant advancement.
We produce more than enough food to feed the world now. That can be shown over and over in a brief Google Search. Here are facts gathered from my search. I picked worldhunger.org because they had plenty of data. You’re welcome to check yourself. The link is included below.
“The world produces enough food to feed everyone. For the world as a whole, per capita caloric availability and food diversity (the variety of food groups in a diet) have increased between the 1960s and 2011 (FAO, 2017). This growth in food availability, along with improved access to food, helped reduce the percentage of chronically undernourished people in lower-middle-income countries from about 30 percent in the 1990-92 to about 13 percent two decades later (FAO, 2017). A principal problem is that many people in the world still do not have sufficient income to purchase (or land to grow) enough food or access nutritious food.” https://www.worldhunger.org/world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/
It’s not that we don’t have the resources; it’s that people don’t have the money. And that’s because they don’t work hard enough, right? I think you already know that’s not true. If it were, the little girl pictured at the beginning of this essay would be among the wealthiest people on the planet.
We all know plenty of folks who work 40 or more hours per week, but still can’t feed themselves or their families. And we also know people who hardly work at all, but have obscene amounts of wealth. Congressmen and women, for example, who have great power over all of our lives, work 138 days a year. They have 227 days off every year. They make a low average of $175,000 a year. That’s well more than $1000 a day. I don’t know anyone who makes that kind of money. But, of course, it’s because the people I know didn’t work hard enough to better themselves. They should go get a degree so they can get better jobs. You know, they could be teachers or something.
I did that. I have many many friends who did that. None of us ever made $1000 a day. There were times my monthly pay was little more than that. Today, it rarely gets above that figure.
But, hang on… isn’t the argument that we need to be working harder? That doesn’t seem to follow, does it? Those who work less, make more, in many cases.
So, can we dispense with the argument, please, that failing to work hard enough means a person doesn’t deserve a decent living? If you really believed that, you would have to accept the conclusion that follows from it: A person working 40 hours a week deserves a decent living. It’s about hard work, right? So… they’re working hard. They should be able to afford the basics. If you don’t buy into that, it’s not because you believe in hard work, it’s because you believe in Capitalism. A person’s work is worth what the Market will bear. That’s a different argument.
Will Society really fail to function if no one ever works?
Yes, I suppose it would. We need someone to grow our food. We need someone to ship it to us. We need someone to sell it to us. This is true of all commodities. We need people to work. But we’ve already established we don’t need everyone to work themselves to death. We are now capable of doing what they call “working smarter, not harder.” Hard work guarantees nothing in a Capitalistic Society.
But, let’s remember the words of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He’s explaining why Bedford Falls needs a Savings and Loan. The evil Mr. Potter wants to get rid of his bank’s last competition, Bailey’s Father’s Savings and Loan, because otherwise we’ll have a discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. “This rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”
This is the function of a Minimum Wage. Since our world no longer requires all of us to work so hard that we can’t enjoy the Moments of our lives, it seems to me we would be remiss if we didn’t avail ourselves of the opportunities. When you spend a dollar, you can go to work and make another one. When you spend a minute, there is nothing you can ever do to get it back, even if you’re Jeff Bezos or Richard Cory. You get each one exactly one time. You may have millions of them left, or you may have only one more. But they’re irreplaceable. You sacrifice some minutes in exchange for improving other minutes. Make those leisure moments worth the lousy ones.
I’m told that the Minimum Wage isn’t intended for people to make a living. It’s meant for teenagers who still live at home so they can have some spending money. In other words, we don’t need to pay people a living wage just because they work full time. They need to do more to deserve that.
First, that argument is factually incorrect. FDR, in his Statement on The National Industrial Recovery Act, which became the basis of the minimum wage, told us, “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” And just to be sure there was no misunderstanding, he defined his terms. “By living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level – I mean the wages of decent living.”
If you want to use Capitalism to defend the fact that there are those struggling even to survive, while at the same time, others have more than they could spend in 50 lifetimes, then let’s see what Capitalism really is. The basic dictionary definition is “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” That doesn’t shed a whole lot of useful light on the issue. I would want to go farther, and say that it is based on what markets will bear. If someone produces goods or provide services that are highly valued, at the best price, and at a higher quality than one’s competitors, someone will profit. The rest is good business sense.
The most conservative estimates put small business failures in the first year at 20%. 30% fail in the second year. Half are closed within 5 years.
Capitalism offers no guarantees for business owners. It’s the competition within Capitalism that is often touted as its greatest asset. If a business fails, it’s because someone else is doing the same thing, better and/or more cheaply, or simply because the goods or services they provide are not in demand. If a person can’t make a living, it’s for the same reasons.
Why is it unreasonable to require business owners to pay a living wage to their employees? If a business can’t afford to do that, the business is not yet successful enough to afford employees. They have to do it themselves a while longer. They’ll have to work hard and be patient.
If “work hard and be patient” seems unreasonable when directed at a business owner, why isn’t it unreasonable when it’s directed at an employee? The employee is not yet successful enough to deserve… what?…a living wage? So, for a certain amount of time, they are expected to work for less than they need to earn to have their basic needs met. Why? And for how long?
Small businesses are job creators. If they fold, it causes unemployment. Unemployment is worse than not having enough money. It means having no money at all. Small business owners can’t afford to pay a living wage. Neither, as far as that goes, can giant Corporations. This is the argument against paying a living wage? I don’t buy it.
All right, but do you really think, Fred, that a guy who works at Circle K deserves to make as much as a paramedic? A paramedic earns, on average, $36,700 a year. That’s three times the federal poverty level. They can live on that.
Can they? Maybe it depends on where.
“…the average cost of a two-bedroom in New York is around $3,789. This means that New Yorkers would need to earn a minimum of $162,386 in order to spend no more than 28 percent of their annual income on rent. If you head to Brooklyn or Queens, the average rent prices of two-bedrooms are slightly less at $3,200 and $2,660, respectively, however you would still need a substantial income to be able to afford a two-bedroom in these boroughs.”
A person who works at Circle K earns about $23,000 a year. That’s twice the federal poverty level. They should quit whining. But did you notice? Neither the paramedic nor the Circle K employee is making enough to afford a place alone. They’re working 40 hours a week. They’re working hard. And they can’t support themselves effectively.
It’s not that the Circle K employee is paid too much; it’s that the paramedic is paid too little. Both should be paid at least a living wage. If you want to make the case that the paramedic deserves more, I won’t argue with you. The paramedic deserves more than a living wage. This worker should be able to have a nicer car, a nicer house, eat better food, or enjoy life a bit more. But why shouldn’t the Circle K employee make a living wage? The answer is that businesses can’t afford to pay that much.
In deciding between the need for sub par businesses or human beings to thrive, I’m going with human beings.
And, how many jobs do you think those poor people create? We need businesses for that.
Oh, no, I’m so sorry. You’re mistaken. Jobs are created by a thriving economy. When people, particularly those just barely making it, have money, they spend it. When they spend money, they create jobs for those businesses they patronize. When the Wealthy have more money, they put it somewhere else. They don’t inject it back into the economy because they don’t need to. Poor people do. The more money people have to spend, the more jobs will need to be created to help them spend it.
But, no one owes anyone anything. Remember?
If people can’t make it on their own, that’s their own fault. I worked my ass off all my life to have what I have, and I’m not paying for someone else to sit on her ass and watch talk shows all day!
off, oh, of course you are! Your Congressmen and women have more
than 200 days a year to do that. You’re also paying for the
President to play golf. We’ve spent in excess of $100 million on
that. That’s one HELL of a lot more than you’re paying for welfare
for those that can’t afford to eat even though they live above the
The idea that because you had a horrible experience, everyone else should also be required to have it, is just childish and mean. I have friends who were raped, and I promise you, not one of them wants anyone else to have to go through that.
Did it suck to have to work and sweat and strain? I feel certain it did. I’m sure it was even harder for generations preceding ours. It certainly sucked for me. Why do others have to face that horror? If we can do better, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?
I would really like it if everyone had a few minutes to enjoy being alive. I would like them to be able to watch a movie, or read a book, or listen to a symphony, or do whatever it is that makes them happy. I would prefer they not need to spend the few hours they’re not working, sleeping, so they have enough energy to go to work tomorrow.
But what about the business owners?
A Modest Proposal
If we really want to help business owners, we could eliminate the need for them to pay a wage at all. Slave labor is much less expensive. We can always find a way to get slaves. We can invade a country, or we can lock up more of our citizens than any other country on Earth, and we can use the convicts we make as slaves, or we can just decide one group isn’t as good as the rest of us, turn on them, and make them all slaves. My suggestion would be Straight White Christian Males. Others may have different ideas.
Or, in the alternative, we could move toward automation, if you’re opposed to slavery. Then they don’t have to pay anyone, except the manufacturers of the machines they use. This is already happening in many places. We’re becoming our own cashiers, we use ATMs so commonly we forget they took the jobs of many many bank tellers, and talking to a human being on the phone at a business is becoming nearly impossible. There will be more automation, not less, and I don’t think it’s an unmitigated evil. Machines are eliminating jobs, but they’re working smarter, not harder. They are removing some of the burdens from human beings. This gives us time to do other things. Technology has always done this.
My mother used to have wash my diapers. She had to hang them on a clothesline. This took a lot more of her time than Pampers do. Pampers are probably more sanitary, too, although they’re arguably worse for the environment. We have dishwashers. We have cell phones. There was a time when sending a message across the world would take weeks or months, if it were possible at all. Now it takes seconds. Automation makes human lives easier.
The Need for A Living Wage as the Minimum Wage
But… as long as you’re going to employ human beings, I submit you need to pay them a living wage, as a moral imperative. If you can’t do that, you have no right to the employees.
It’s wrong to make people take jobs that pay subsistence wages. We can, and we should, have a minimum wage that accomplishes FDR’s original purpose. Let’s pay workers enough for them to have the basic necessities of life. Let’s let them have a life that’s worth living. We can afford it.
If we can agree on nothing else, I think we should be able to agree that life is agonizingly brief. Few of us get a single century. None of us gets two. Why can’t we have a little while to enjoy ourselves? If we’re working full time, we shouldn’t need to hope we can put enough gas in the car to get to work tomorrow. We shouldn’t need to worry about eating this week.
It took us roughly 200,000 years to get to the place that we can take care of everyone. We can support the entire population, now, and not just the few. Any advanced civilization would take care of its population. Aliens will think us childish if they ever get around to visiting. Let’s try not to embarrass ourselves.