My Turn: The feel-good path to permanent poverty

For the Monitor
Saturday, July 08, 2017

There are a lot of ways we could help poor people. We could cut their taxes. We could cut taxes on people that hire them. We could let them go to schools of their choice, instead of forcing them into dropout mills that will label them for life as “failures.” We could make charitable contributions to organizations that provide food, medicine, scholarships, legal services, etc. We could even cut out the middleman, talk to the poor that we know, and help them out in person.

But those things all take effort, time and money. It’s a lot easier to just advocate taking away the jobs of the poor, and then blame the poor for being shiftless.

What’s that? You say that some study says the minimum wage will help the poor? Not the recent study on Seattle, which said that employers were forced to cut hours and staff, leaving low-level employees worse off. But never mind, we’ll do what you want... we’ll raise the minimum wage to just 10 percent higher than your salary. Then you can... what? Oh, when it’s you that will be unemployed, then suddenly it’s not a good idea. Now I see.

Advocates of the minimum wage never want the minimum wage concept to be applied to themselves. If you ask them whether they should be fired because they can’t make $100 per hour, they are offended. “My job is valuable! Leave me alone, you maniac!” But when they want to have a young, unskilled, recent immigrant, or just someone who wants to change careers, fired for not being able to make $15 per hour... that’s different.

Wages aren’t static. An unskilled worker, one who can’t speak the local language, or one new to a field, may be worth very little... but a year later it’s a different story. Then the employer has to either pay more or lose the worker to someone who will. Many “great entrepreneurs” started out in humble positions. Very few started out by not working for decades and then suddenly vaulting straight to CEO.

As economist Walter Williams points out in his excellent book on the history of South African apartheid, a high minimum wage, restrictions on trade schools, and union rules were used to keep Xhosas and Zulus out of skilled-trade occupations. As long as the minimum wage is set high enough that workers can never get their first job in a skilled field, ethnic groups can be permanently stifled. This policy was used with great success by South Africa’s Boer regime, which openly advertised its use of minimum wage laws as a way to suppress black African aspirations.

Wage restrictions separate society into castes: the political Brahmins and their government-employee unions on top, a barely-tolerated private sector that provides the taxes to pay for it all, and the underclass Unemployables at the bottom. The U.S. underclass, like the Xhosa under apartheid, are locked away from the economy. Dysfunctional (yet most expensive in the world) public schools keep them from learning marketable skills. The proposed minimum wages of over $15 an hour would keep them out of entry-level jobs as well. All paths of escape from poverty will be cut off.

The same is true for new immigrants... or for you and I. If we want to try out a new career, we aren’t allowed to take a learning position for $7.20 an hour. We either have to be rich enough to pay to learn the new skill, or we have to stay in our existing cubicle like a medieval serf stayed with a plot of land.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution made it illegal to force someone to work for you. Why should it be legal for government to force anyone not to work the job of their choice? Morally, I can’t see a difference.

There is dignity in all productive work. When the poor are allowed to work their way up, they have and will. Getting people on the economic ladder in the first place should be our highest priority. There is room for everyone on the ladder, and no limit to how high we can go… if we just stop sawing off the bottom rungs.

(Bill Walker works at M2S In Lebanon. He was once priced out of a construction job by the minimum wage when he was an unskilled 16-year-old, and had to take more dangerous work with no career path, involving vicious Ayrshire cows.)