The current American Right often trumpets the rich as “job creators,” pointing out that a vast number of Americans are ultimately employed by a major corporation. While this is certainly true, it mistakes the fact that mistakes job “creation” with job “consumption.” This discrepancy explains why the masses of them (who are not rich and are employed by “job creators”) are all too willing to support tax cuts, deregulation and legal malfeasance by their employers – they believe such special treatment is essential for their continued employment.
The Conservative viewpoint on employment can be summarized as “rich people spend money to hire people.” While partly true (as is any good lie) it overlooks a fundamental truth: the rich, like any good consumer, want to get the most for their money. This is no different than when you comparison shop among identical products to find the one that provides you with the best cost-to-value ratio, only it involves people instead of inanimate objects. While factors other than price may affect your decision (your attachment to a certain brand, your desire to promote certain environmental practices) at the end of the day you are wishing to get the most of what you value for a set price, whatever that value may be.
For most employers, the value they get from an employee is simple: how much money do they produce versus how much money do they cost? While it is usually not easy to determine exactly how much value any particular employee contributes (outside of salespersons who work on commission) current market trends have shown that employers are willing to pay outrageous sums if they feel it is appropriate. Wall Street bankers and major CEOs do not simply get their outrageous salaries because they “can,” they have to convince shareholders, board members and other persons who employ them that they are “worth it.” This has led to the phenomenon of the “Rockstar CEO” who is very good at convincing his employers that he is worth being paid millions per year, while failing to convince the rest of us that he is worth anything at all. Just as a slick ad campaign may convince you to greatly overpay for a cheap piece of disposable plastic, so these wealthy, well-spoken men convince their employers to pay them much more than they are worth, because they are very good at instilling their employers with perceived value.
Likewise, this principle works the other way, pushing wages down on employees that employers feel are expendable, disposable or replaceable. Just as you might gladly choose a store-brand detergent or generic medication over a brand-name in order to save money, an employee will wish to replace “generic” employees with harder working and cheaper persons. This reaches epidemic proportions in the service industry, where most people work for minimum wage, or less in certain unfortunate circumstances. The reason that illegal employment (both of illegal immigrants and through wage theft) is so high is that employers feel that these minimum wage workers have very little value and thus should be paid as little as possible. Note that this exists even in the face of overwhelming evidence – the value brought in by the yearly harvest, for example, is in the order of billions of dollars, yet those who bring in the harvest are paid a pittance and often treated with unrelenting cruelty.
So how do we fix this wage disparity, wherein the wealthy are massively overpaid and the poor are massively underpaid? Like so many problems this one must be approached from multiple angles if it is to be solved. The first and most important step is legal restrictions on the upper and lower limits of pay. It is simply not possible for any person, no matter how brilliant, to create enough wealth to justify the multi-million dollar pay that many American executives receive. Laws must be passed to greatly increase the tax structure and scale to account for the pay that these persons receive, and de-incentivize that level of pay through increased taxation and decreased subsidy. Industries which pay their executive class more than a certain amount should be prevented from receiving subsidies or economic protection, and persons receiving such pay should be subject to an ever-increasing scale of taxation. Our current five-tier tax structure does not take into account how insanely rich the top 1% is, and should have increased rate tiers that extend well into the multi-million dollar range.
As for the lower limit, the minimum wage must be indexed to inflation. Employers have gotten away with an effective “stealth wage cut” by paying their employees less and less each year while charging more and more for the products those employees create. The minimum wage must be indexed to inflation and re-set upwards with each fiscal year, and wage theft should be punished so frequently and so severely that employers do not feel it is worth the risk to attempt it. Likewise, the hiring of unregistered immigrants for less than minimum wage should be prosecuted by giving those immigrants immunity against deportation for the duration of the investigation into their working conditions. All too often immoral employers are able to get away with unsafe working conditions and unfair wages by virtue of the fact that their immigrant employees are too afraid to approach the relevant authorities for fear of deportation. This must be stopped.
But legal efforts alone will not be sufficient. The threat of legal prosecution is enough to deter some persons, but without the appropriate social and moral persecution something that is “wrong” will never be truly avoided. One of the most obvious examples in modern America is the widespread use of marijuana, a drug which is federally controlled yet morally acceptable, leading to heavy use and a thriving semi-legitimate market in spite of intense federal crackdowns. The approach to wage theft and wage inflation thus must be condemned as morally reprehensible as well as illegal if it is to be successful.
So how can we do this? The answer is simple, if time consuming – American culture must evolve to fit the realities it is confronted with, just as it has so often in the past. Sixty years ago, the belief that blacks and whites could be social equals was considered madness, now it is considered undeniable truth. Forty years ago, the belief that women could contribute to the economic health of their households as well as raise children was accepted as false, now it is considered a fact of life. As recently as thirty years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that homosexuals (and homosexuals alone) had no right to sexual privacy in the face of state sodomy laws, now those same homosexuals are being granted the right to marry and start families.
Wage theft among the poor and wage inflation among the rich must be condemned as morally reprehensible and against the interests of every American. While the Occupy Wall Street movement has done much to bring attention to the problem, the wider culture has failed to adopt and address this problem as the scourge that it is. Just as the appearance of intelligent blacks, working women and socially respectable gays in the media helped influenced people’s opinions about them, so too should movies, television, radio and books be encouraged to promote this wage disparity problem and be rewarded for doing so in an intelligent and meaningful manner. Consumers should boycott products produced using illegal labor or overpaying their executives just as they boycott products for environmental or legal malfeasance. Activists should inform the general populace about the unfair pay practices of the most egregious offenders and make arguments accordingly.
While it will take time, we are capable of doing this, and in fact have done so. The egregious salaries and rampant pay violations of the Gilded Age were put to rest by increased regulation, unionization and public condemnation of the worst practices. These techniques worked in the past, and will work again. We need only to implement them.