Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Just Wages

In watching the union workers in Michigan protest a right to work law with a zeal that puts 99% of Christians to shame, I began thinking about the notion of a just wage and how that might help in a lot of these situations. Then it occurred to me that it might be impossible even to talk about a just wage these days.

John Medaille is a pretty popular writer in distributist circles. He defines the just wage as "the amount necessary to support a worker and his family, but also enough surplus to allow a man to acquire some capital of his own." In other places, like his book Toward a Truly Free Market and this entry of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, we see that leisure activities are factored into the equation of what it is to support a family. This makes sense.

I know that anecdotes are not data, but here's my current observations. Modernity has presented us with a society that values leisure to the exclusion of necessities, whether for a single person or a family. Parents with DirecTV don't take their kids to the doctor. Stylish cars and clothes trump much-needed house repairs. Saving for an Xbox 360 is given priority above buying healthy foods.

Look at all the crap that people buy, regardless of their income level. We can't help ourselves. Poor people aren't exempt from these temptations.

My point in all this is to ponder what a just wage would look like. What could we pay someone with confidence that they would be able to support themselves and be able to acquire capital of their own? Would the average consumer, or even those of the lowest income levels, allow themselves to benefit from a just wage? Or would they upgrade their TV package, get some new pipes for their pick-up, and buy some more memory for their video game system?

This is a pretty big deal, I think, especially for the distributist crowd. The just wage is such a huge part of making the system work that this question is significant. I don't pretend to know what the answer is. I do know that all the base political commentary about dealing with the current minimum wage ignores this.

I'm not sure how subsidizing the acquisition of more crap helps anybody.


Mark of the Vineyard said...

Here in Portugal the minimum wage is roughly 475€. No one can live on that.

I wonder if our wanting to have everything at cheap prices isn't also a cause for there not existing a "just wage". I don't doubt the demand for cheap goods is what drives wages down. Illegal immegration also helps in this situation as well. Just my 2 cents.

Throwback said...

I agree.

I will say that here the cost of living varies radically across different areas. A person making minimum wage who is also on the Medicaid program and getting food stamps can do ok in a lot of places here making $7.25 an hour.

They aren't going to have enough to be upwardly mobile or anything, but they won't be destitute either.