Federal Standards Such as the Minimum Wage

Minimum Wage was the issue that drew me to politics and political resource issues(sometimes called economics).

Personal Story

In 2012 I was obligated to leave Brigham Young University, because I disavowed the Mormon church. I was 1 semester shy of graduating.

In addition to being unable to continue school, I lost access to the employment activities I had enjoyed as a student.

The two subjects I studied were Mathematics and Computer Science. With significant demand out there for programming skills, it may be surprising that I had a hard time finding employment. This was due in part to my dissatisfaction with previous programming jobs and my lack of a completed degree.

I like to do things at my own pace. The process of seeking employment has always been uncomfortable for me. It is still a challenge. In seeking employment in the world today, rejection and disappointment are accepted facts. Interviews and resumes are game you have to play with little or no feedback as a jobseeker. I bet most of you have experienced the second guessing — wondering if your responses helped your chances or hurt them. Besides being professional and courteous, there’s no way of knowing what an employer will respond too.

I’m sure you’ve read countless articles about problems with the millenial generation: boomerang kids, entitlement, and “diseases” like “failure to launch”. If these overgeneralized narratives actually apply to anyone, they apply to me.

It was 6 months after I stopped attending BYU that I finally got a job. I usually end up finding jobs through personal connections. A friend of mine worked at a restraunt. Thanks to her recommendation, I got a job there as a dishwasher.

I didn’t hate the job all the time, but it was stressful and repetitive. There was constant pressure, no down time, and little variation in the tasks. At the time I was also overweight and out of shape. Even though it was part time, 6 hours of standing was not easy for me.

I only worked there two weeks. I crunched the numbers, and I could barely afford rent with what I was earning. If the job didn’t allow me to stop living with my parents, I didn’t see the point. I would find something else.

It was over 3 years later when I finally got another job.

My Crusade

My dissatisfaction with that job was not about the pay level, but the pay level compared to my dislike of the activity. I would be fine earning $3/hr if it was something I enjoyed and I controlled the schedule.

I spent time working through Amazon’s mturk, but the computer tasks were tiring after an hour, and I was only earning $1/hr. Transcribing receipts was fine in hour segments, but $1/hr was below even my modest standards.

At this point I started complaining online about minimum wage. I saw minimum wage as the primary factor in our disfunctional labor environment. I could not express my preference for one type of work over another, I reasoned, because of this rule. I also thought that minimum wage stopped people from organizing economically for mutual benefit.

Trolling twitter under the alias @minwagecritic, I stumbled upon Modern Monetary Theory. It was a long time before I changed my views about the minimum wage, but MMT gave answers to other issues. I had been libertarian leaning, and followed “Austrian School” economics, but MMT changed my mind.

Employment Problems are Political

The disfunction of the labor market is complicated. Being inexperienced and individualistic, I saw employment as a negotiation between an employee liking or disliking a task to different degrees, and how much an employer could profit off their labor. If you took away low paying jobs with a minimum wage, you were forcing me accept a harder job i didn’t want. For me this was the important issue, even if other people had considerations like providing for a family, etc.

Many social negotations in the modern world are handled through creating employment rules. There are certainly other ways we could politically resolve these issues, but for whatever reasons we attach them to employment. This has both pros and cons.

Your political values affect whether you prefer local solutions or federal ones. This debate will never end, but I think the two sides should recognize some basic principles.

Standards are Simple, Practical, and Effective

As much as I hated the minimum wage, I now see that standards are a simple and effective political tool. Identifying the minimum wage as a standard, was the key step for me to understand its role. What follows can apply to many different kinds of standards: food, housing, automobile safety/emissions and more.

With a standard, you describe acceptable behaviors, and then people are expected to meet that standard.

If the standard is unreasonable, it tends to fail pretty quickly. Enforcement becomes impractical, people reject it.

But many standards represent expectations that normal humans should have anyway. I’m not exactly “normal” in my consumption lifestyle, which may be one reason why I struggled to understand the minimum wage.

If a standard makes sense, enforcement is very affordable and practical. The standard becomes a social expectation that everyone holds each other to meet.

Once you can meet a standard, there usually aren’t additional costs to continue to meet the standard. It becomes a habit and an established practice.

When Standards Get Ugly

The way that standards get taken up socially is usually positive, unfortunately, it can have negative effects as well.

Standards can become a mark of class and the inability to meet a standard excludes people socially and from the systems where the standard exists.

With employment standards like minimum wage, we see this manifest through long term unemployment and homelessness.

Imposing a Standard Should Be Matched By Support, Where Necessary

When federal government makes a standard like minimum wage or housing standards, it should provide resources to help meet this standard, especially if communities or individuals will struggle to meet the standard on their own.

This is why I like programs that MMT suggests like the Job Guarantee.

What we can afford comes from the actions we engage in socially, and laws granting people rights or imposing burdens.

The only reservation I have about the Job Guarantee, is that federal government may not be the ideal entity to create employment roles in many situations. Because of this, political issues such as taxation, federalism, and fiscal policy need a great deal of attention as well. We want to empower effective political and financial organization at all levels, not just try to fix everything using federal government.

Federal government should focus on creating practical and reasonable standards for improving society, and provide support where necessary. They should listen and respond to the feedback from individuals and other political entities.