Matt and I have had our share of arguments over how to create a better life for working people, but I mostly endorse his statement about Guaranteed Basic Income.
The minimum wage typically gets debated in terms of econometric studies about disemployment impacts. But the problem with the minimum wage isn’t the alleged disemployment, it’s the freedom. Imagine a worker earning just slightly above the minimum wage, and also working under some kind of conditions that he finds annoying. He goes to the boss and asks for a change. Turn the heat up a little in the winter. Or let him pick which music plays rather than sticking with some dumb playlist that’s been assigned from the top down. Or get a more comfortable chair. Or manage the line this way rather than that one. There are dozens and dozens of little non-wage decisions in any given workplace that impact a person’s happiness and life satisfaction. But the manager looks at it and says there are sound business reasons for sticking with the status quo. Now the problem with the minimum wage is that even if the worker values the change much more highly than he values an extra 2 cents an hour, he’s not allowed to trade 2 cents an hour for an improvement in his working conditions.
Conversely, I strongly suspect that one reason empirical studies often don’t disemployment effects of minimum wage hikes is that there are a lot of non-wage dimensions to the employer-employee relationship along which things can change.
The problem with no minimum wage, however, is that the kind of freedom involved in allowing for unconstrained wage bargaining is that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” The ideal solution to these problems, however, lies not in the workplace but outside of it. Exactly where King and Henry George thought it belonged—in guaranteeing to everyone a minimum standard of living whether or not they work. With that in place, employers will face a de facto minimum job quality. Your job has to beat “unemployment + living off the GBI” rather than “unemployment + homelessness.” You can reach that job quality threshold with money. Or you can reach it by providing valuable training and experience for the future. Or by having a really enjoyable atmosphere of some kind. Realistically, it’ll be a mix.
There are multiple reasons for the minimum wage, which I obviously think should be much, much higher. But part of it is that it was an achievable victory during the New Deal in a way GBI never was. It was part of the piecemeal construction of workers’ rights that reached its pinnacle between 1938 and 1965. Union recognition was also central to that and what people often forget about unions is that they weren’t only or even predominantly about wages, but about dignity at the workplace.
Matt brings up the example of the chair. Let’s expand on that. In the 1970s, the International Woodworkers of America, the union that makes up the heart of my logging book manuscript, fought very hard for the ergonomic workplace. The IWA made alliances with workers and scholars and researchers in Japan, Sweden, and Germany to bring ergonomic timber mills into the Pacific Northwest. This was part of a larger attempt to empower workers on the shop floor through enforcing OSHA regulations. The IWA was among the nation’s leading unions in this task; whereas many unions chose to focus on other issues or fell for job blackmail and employer propaganda that OSHA regulations would force companies to move factories abroad (which they were planning on doing anyway), the IWA centered these issues and made real differences in workers’ lives. If you have GBI, unions could focus even more on the importance of dignity at the workplace, however workers themselves define it. Everyone’s life is better.
As for Henry George’s Single Tax, as I’ve stated before, such one-trick ideas were too simplistic for the modern workings of capitalism, even though that simplicity appealed greatly to 19th century Americans who believed so strongly in the system and just wanted it tweaked to put it back in control of everyday people. But moving toward a tax or a system that would provide GBI is a noble goal. Once you have Guaranteed Basic Income, the world of working-class possibilities opens up. You can work to raise the GBI. Or, if it is at a respectable level, you can fight for an ergonomic workplace, the importance of which can’t be overstated for those who have suffered from its lack.