Friday, May 1, 2015

The Soldier Ceiling

Click to enlarge
Every time America’s fast-food workers strike for better wages, this image at right hits my Facebook news feed. The version I scavenged here is dated September 20, 2014, which, being a Saturday, cannot be when this self-described “rant” occurred. Since I’ve seen it circulating since at least March 2014, it’s surely older still. Like similar self-propelled zombie arguments, it persists long after it should’ve died.

Credited author Jennifer Harris (a common name difficult to backtrack this late) complains that Clown Meat purveyors demanding a $15 minimum wage—a number determined back in 2005 as only just sufficient to raise a family under austere conditions—shouldn’t expect pay scales comparable to American soldiers. She uses name-calling and false equivalency to mock and belittle strikers. She basically chucks a bomb, leaving us to clean her mess.

This argument has many problems. Start with the claim that “you are working in a job designed for a kid in high school.” This claim would make sense if fast-food franchises were only open on evenings and weekends, when high schoolers are legally eligible to work. But most fried meat shacks have daytime hours, post-curfew hours, and some even have all-night shifts. Students couldn’t possibly work these hours.

Or the claim that “you have chosen this as your life long profession.” Seriously? Does this author believe anybody really chose this occupation? In most large cities, adult fast-food workers are racial or ethnic minorities, retirees with medical bills, and single mothers whose need for income collided with out-of-date skills. John Lennon sang: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.

But most importantly, this argument stumbles on what it doesn’t say explicitly: that one occupation’s wage constitutes a ceiling for other occupations. Even if we believe one career field is more deserving than another, saying we should limit somebody’s pay because someone else also gets paid badly is frankly chilling. Wages should constitute a floor nobody falls through, not a ceiling nobody ever exceeds.

I understand America underpays its military personnel. I attended high school in Honolulu and San Diego, big military towns, and I knew young men who agreed to die for their country, if called upon, but received pay so low that they couldn’t afford to date women. Historically, Americans demand large, interventionist armed forces, but we resent having to pay for anything. We subsidize large militaries by low amortized paychecks.

Ms. Harris implicitly acknowledges bad military pay as acceptable, then insists we should strictly limit what people she doesn’t respect to that level. Ms. Harris’ tantrum doesn’t mention what job she fulfills. Let’s assume she’s a schoolteacher, a highly respected but badly paid career path. Should we justify her low pay by asserting that Catholic schoolteachers are paid even worse? Would she accept that argument?

Would you?

“Inequality” has become such a ubiquitous buzzword lately, even Republicans like Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio have appropriated this traditionally liberal bugbear to harangue the status quo. But it retains currency because it still matters. The mass export of American manufacturing jobs, pay freezes on public sector occupations (like soldiers), and replacing human workers with machines, have meant work’s greatest rewards accrue to management, not labor.

Meanwhile, the mass bipartisan deregulation of America’s financial industry, begun under Bill Clinton and accelerated under George W. Bush, has been blatantly disastrous. Cash-and-carry elections have turned “democracy” into a fire-sale auction from Bizarro World. People who create value, by making stuff or providing services, pay twice the marginal tax rate of people who flip money. Next year’s presidential frontrunners promise to double down.

America’s former middle-class boom, underwritten by expansive manufacturing and Marshall Plan spending, has proven historically temporary at best. Any job that managers can export, downsize, or automate, then will, from self-checkout lines at WalMart to Amazon promising drone deliveries as “friction-free.” Friction, in this case, means interacting with humans. Also paying them. Both, we’re told, should be avoided.

Food service, like construction and trucking and medicine, still requires human effort. Admittedly, in true Taylorist fashion, management will automate whatever they can, and remove the financial difference from grunt-level paychecks; see Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. But these same forces afflict American soldiers. Smart bombs and drone warfare excuse the largest army, and smallest army paychecks, in human history.

Fast food is, essentially, a litmus test for American will. If we cannot pay the people who cook and serve our food—our food—the most basic living wage, who will we pay? If Ms. Harris thinks she’s immune to downsizing and unemployment, she should just wait. Everybody is expendable these days. And when that time comes, Ms. Harris will want a floor to prop her up, not a ceiling to press her down.

No comments:

Post a Comment