The conception behind minimum wage laws – and any similar notion that supposes that employees should receive payment or benefits unrelated to the transactional value which they bring to their employers – is economically unsound.
Though most people in our culture today would disagree with this point, it is at least well understood by most libertarian and anarchist thinkers, as well as by anyone who has ever run a business.
What is not widely understood, even by most Christian libertarians, is that this economically unsound principle is also deeply connected to unsound theology regarding the worth and value of the individual person before God and the nature of God’s saving grace.
Central to the philosophical blind spot allowing this to go unnoticed is a mischaracterization of justice, a flawed understanding rooted in the true meaning of justice as taught by the Christian tradition, but not fully understood and misapplied to the realities of our modern political state.
Flowing from that poor understanding of justice, our present culture also has a strong antipathy towards the language and concepts of marketplace exchange. This ill will distorts the framework with which we understand the relationship between employee and employer. Critically, that distortion and antipathy prevents us from imagining our relationship with God in terms of a transaction – an image which many Christians would find off-putting and heretical, but which is actually fully consistent with an orthodox understanding of God’s free gift of grace. Paradoxically, this image allows us to explore the divine point of view, and to see how highly we are valued by God.
This essay will give a brief overview of the economic unsoundness of “minimum wage thinking” and then explore how this way of thinking has polluted our shared “embedded theology” of salvation. Finally, I will show that God’s free gift of grace, like all relational interactions, is essentially transactional and that this transaction, rightly understood, does not reduce grace to the status of a commodity but rather exalts the human individual as the most valued creation in the eyes of God.
With regards to Minimum Wage as a social construct, it must be said that there are, primarily, two ideas which contribute to the notion that instituting a society-wide minimum wage is beneficial or moral. The original impetus for minimum wage policies grew out of a larger framework of society-planning philosophies which stated that governments could, and should, institute policies which would shape the whole of society toward some desired end. While both deeply immoral and largely ineffective, it was at least somewhat reasonable to have thought (at that time) that this sort of thing was the rightful domain of democratically elected governments. However, as the rhetoric and spirit of the political left has turned away from social engineering and towards social justice, a second justification for minimum wage policies has developed.
This newer (and now, completely accepted) idea is simply that people deserve to be paid some amount, and no less. In this conception, there is some specific and knowable dollar amount associated with an hour of a human being’s life. Paying somebody less than that amount is not just bad for society (for whatever reason), it is fraud and exploitation of an individual person. Since justice is concerned with giving people what they rightly deserve (as Aquinas defines, in part), and since people deserve some specific amount of money, the act of not paying people that amount of money is an injustice.
The core idea here – that a person’s time must be worth some specific amount of money and no less, for the reason simply that they “deserve it” – I refer to as “Minimum Wage Thinking.” While minimum wage policies are harmful regardless of the reason they are created, and while the society-planning impulse carries its own problems, I am here concerned primarily with this Minimum Wage Thinking, and the way this idea, which has now become the central theme of leftist labor ideology, negatively impacts our culture’s embedded theology of salvation.
It shouldn’t have to be said that the general effect of instituting a minimum wage is the exclusion from the marketplace of those whose labor falls below the value of that minimum wage. The main reason for this, of course, is that a declaration of what any individual person deserves — even if it is accepted and believed by all people — has very little impact on transactional monetary value. Even the most benevolent businesses do not set wages for their employees based on their intrinsic worth, but rather based on the monetary value that each employee brings to the organization (and, on average, the pay needs to be less than the value received, otherwise the business runs at a loss).
This exclusion, though hotly contested by proponents of minimum wage policies, can be seen in the disappearance of most forms of extremely low-skill service labor such as baggers at grocery stores and table bussers at restaurants. And the fact that middle-class liberals are, in practice, unconvinced by their own arguments regarding the inelasticity of the “supply” of jobs is evidenced by an almost complete absence of domestic labor in modern life.
Naturally, this exclusion carries economic burdens for the most vulnerable members of our society: women, youth, immigrants, and the uneducated. But what about the spiritual and theological burden? And what about those who manage to actually get hired in jobs that pay minimum wage?
Minimum Wage Thinking is based on a form of justice which Aquinas calls “Distributive Justice.”
The other [type of justice] consists in distribution, and is called distributive justice; whereby a ruler or a steward gives to each what his rank deserves. As then the proper order displayed in ruling a family or any kind of multitude evinces justice of this kind in the ruler, so the order of the universe, which is seen both in effects of nature and in effects of will, shows forth the justice of God.
This form of justice belongs properly to God and, secondarily, to human rulers.
(One assumes that distribution belongs to rulers inasmuch as they, like God, possess something which can be distributed to others for their personal benefit or for the benefit of the group over which the ruler has dominion. It would be a mistake, then, to use this definition as a justification for government officials to distribute that which does not belong to them but rather belongs to others. Moreover, it is fundamental to the entire conception of modern democracy that our elected officials are not rulers, but rather administrators, and so it would be improper to assign to them the privileges of rulers, in any case.)
In a Minimum Wage context, this distributive justice replaces the form of justice proper to human economic activity, what Aquinas (after Aristotle) refers to as “commutative justice.”
There are two kinds of justice. The one consists in mutual giving and receiving, as in buying and selling, and other kinds of intercourse and exchange. This the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 4) calls commutative justice, that directs exchange and intercourse of business.
Note that the practical details of commerce are not replaced by divine, distributive Justice; only the mental framework for understanding these things has been changed. The hard laws of economic reality — primarily the fact that people will not engage in transactions which they do not see as beneficial — cannot be disrupted. In fact, in any case wherein someone willingly gives more in a transaction than they receive in perceived value, we do not classify that as a higher form of justice but as a different virtue altogether – charity.
From this essential mismatch — viewing the activities of commerce through the lens of distributive justice — flow a number of deleterious spiritual effects and erroneous theological conclusions.
The most obvious problem is the equating of monetary value with human worth and dignity. This wrong-headed equation flows directly out of the basis for Minimum Wage Thinking – human beings deserve, intrinsically, some specific amount of money per unit of time. The implication here is that human life has a monetary value that can be calculated. Regardless of the monetary or transactional value that a person brings into an employer-employee relationship, they are — according to this mindset — being paid for their mere existence, because they deserve it.
How then, with this understanding, can one account for the fact that some people are paid a great deal of money, while other people are paid minimum wage? In a realistic, commutative justice framework, the answer to this question is obvious: the employer thinks it is in their economic interest to pay this employee more than that employee. But in a universe that pays people because of their intrinsic worth, the only possible answer is that some people are intrinsically worth more than others.
This notion of deserving and undeserving is a long-standing cultural problem in the United States, and is so embedded that even many opponents of minimum wage increases defend their (usually angry) rhetoric by stating that low-skilled workers don’t “deserve” any more than they are currently getting.
Obviously, the idea that some people are intrinsically worth more than other people, that some deserve more while others deserve less, is a perversion of both Christian morality and secular humanist ethics. And, while the temporal consequences of this error are felt primarily by the poor, it is largely the “deserving” rich who reap the rotten spiritual fruits.
The instances of tragically-comic irony in this whole affair are too numerous to dwell on, as is usually the case whenever there is a massive intersection between the Law of Unintended Consequences and the phenomenon of Pathological Altruism. One in particular that is worth noting is that (despite their origin in racist eugenic social engineering) our modern minimum wage partisans usually denounce both the massive class gulf that separates low-wage workers (and the unemployable) from the wealthy and the obvious difference in worth and value attributed to the exalted rich and the discarded poor. And yet, in an attempt to rectify the situation caused by all this inequality and denigration, they succeed only in reinforcing the destructive notion that one’s material wealth is related to one’s human worth.
It is not only that Minimum Wage Thinking stratifies the perception of human value in a quantitative manner (some are worth more or less), but also in a profoundly qualitative manner as well. That is, it seems that our current system, in addition to communicating that some people are better than others, also communicates that some people are an entirely different sort of person than others are.
This happens in two very related ways.
First, as stated above, distributive justice belongs properly to God and secondarily to rulers. The activities of distributive justice belong to God first and foremost because God possesses all things, so any distribution must have its source in God, and secondly because God alone is capable of knowing what each person deserves and making both absolute and relative judgments about and between people. Distributive justice belongs to rulers only inasmuch as they manifest both of these qualities to a sufficient degree. Additionally, in the context of Aquinas’ time and culture, it seems clear that the human rulers who were compelled to engage in distributive justice continued to possess, essentially, those goods which they had given to others, just as God continues to possess the land regardless of who currently occupies and tends it. Thus, the rulers spoken of were kings of nations or fathers of households, ultimate temporal owners of the property they allow to be held by those under their care.
When this paradigm is applied to the interaction between workers and employers, it sets up an implicit ontological hierarchy in which the wealthy, along with the political class, stand in the place of God, as rulers over the population. This creates a power dynamic which is too easily exploitable. Moreover, because of the underlying assumption that rulers, like God, forever possess and own the goods they distribute, the poor are robbed of their sense of personal agency, especially with regards to the one activity which could bring them permanently out of poverty – the accumulation of capital. After all, why attempt to appear to accumulate and own something which is, in reality, owned perpetually by someone else?
Secondly, even if we lay aside the notion that the employer-class is perceived to stand in place of Divine Authority over the worker class, the qualitative difference is still profound. In a transactional model of the employee-employer relationship, it is clear that — at least for the purposes of the transaction — the two parties are equal in power and dignity. That is, each side has the ability to enter into the transaction or to refuse to do so. Each side can make promises to the other, and can be held objectively accountable to the fulfillment of those promises. Each side can request whatever it wants from the other, and each side can refuse any such request.
But in a worldview informed by Minimum Wage Thinking, there is no transaction. There is no negotiation, no mutual understanding. The balance of perceived power is skewed wholly toward the employer, and the employee must rely on an efficient third-party (the Government) for protection. It’s possible to see this understanding in play in almost any conversation about “worker’s rights” with the political supporters of “Labor.” There is an almost pathological refusal to see or discuss the relationship between employees and employers as being in any way analogous to the relationship between buyers and sellers in any other context. (The weirdest manifestation of this pathology is the constant reversal of supply and demand language found on both the right and left in concepts like “job shortage” or “job creation.”)
This artificial dichotomy between the wealthy who employ and the non-wealthy who seek employment creates an impassable gulf between these two groups of people, turning a temporary economic circumstance into a permanent psychological reality. Thus we see how imposing an artificial valuation onto human beings, and insisting as a matter of justice that all people intrinsically deserve to receive some benefit which naturally would accrue to them only in exchange for equal value, perverts both justice and value, reducing the human being to little more than a “wage slave.”
It is precisely this mechanism which is also at work in modernist and liberal conceptions of salvation, particularly those incarnations of Universalism which hold that all people are saved simply because God created them good, and therefore all are deserving of heaven.
This idea, which purports to exalt humanity and individual humans as worthy – and which self-consciously stands in contrast to an orthodox understanding of sin and redemption – succeeds only in diminishing any true understanding of our real worth and value, and alienating us from the God who poured out His divinity and laid down His life so that we may be no longer slaves, but friends and heirs.
If we deserve salvation, then God – to whom belongs distributive justice – is obligated to provide it to us. There is, then, no mercy to temper justice. There is no relationship, only requirement. Critically, there is no transaction.
Aquinas, in the passage referenced above, makes it clear that commutative justice is not proper to God, because God does not engage in commerce:
Commutative justice […] directs exchange and intercourse of business. This does not belong to God, since, as the Apostle says: “Who hath first given to Him, and recompense shall be made him?”
In an absolute sense, this is accurate. And yet, the whole mystery of the Christian faith is that, through Christ, God does all sorts of things that do not belong to Him. He is born into time, he suffers and dies. Between those events, He places Himself lower than us, becoming a servant.
St. Paul had little trouble using the language of transactions to explain salvation, telling the church in Corinth that they (and all of us) have been “bought with a price.” But today, for a wide variety of reasons, we shy way from this language.
I am suggesting here that a transaction — between ourselves and God — is a legitimate and worthwhile metaphor for the giving and receiving of God’s saving grace.
There are legitimate concerns about employing this metaphor – particularly the danger of suggesting that grace and salvation are earned by us. There is also, unfortunately, a strong bias in our present culture against the notion of transactions at all – a sad result of progressive anti-capitalist rhetoric.
Regarding the danger of suggesting that salvation is something which has to be earned, we must go back to the problem presented by a Minimum Wage understanding of employment and pay. We typically talk about earning a salary, or earning our wages through our work. This is convenient shorthand in everyday life, but it carries with it the suggestion that by doing some task we then deserve to be paid some amount of money. In fact, that is precisely how most people understand employment. It is, however, completely inaccurate.
The simple act of writing a novel, or balancing some accounting books, or mowing a lawn, or developing a piece of software, or any of the other things which people find to do for employment, does not earn anyone anything. No amount of work or labor causes a person to deserve to receive any amount of money. Rather, we receive money through transactions in which some person (or organization) gives us money in exchange for some perceived value we provide to them. We might provide that value in the form of lawn mowing or software writing, but we are not paid because we mowed the lawn. We are paid because someone else, who was able to pay us, felt it would be valuable to them for that lawn to be mowed.
It is the transaction that gets you paid, not the labor.
If we understand that, and understand what a transaction is, the concerns over the inappropriateness or danger of this metaphor simply fall away.
So what, then, is a transaction?
A transaction is an exchange of value between two people. For all the paranoia surrounding buying and selling, for all the corrupting influence of money and power, the heart of all commerce is a transaction in which two people each give the other something voluntarily; something which each recipient perceives as more valuable than the thing they gave away.
In all times and in all places, transactions have knitted communities together and have bridged the gulf between one society and the next. Whenever and wherever inequality of persons has been sanctioned and enforced by government authorities, the ability for legally unequal people to transact business with each other has been curtailed or prohibited. Transactions — free exchanges of value between equal people — are a fundamental characteristic of healthy human communities. They should be seen in a fully positive light, and conceptually worthy of being employed in the service of salvation theology.
And here is the transaction that takes place between ourselves and God: we give our lives to God, and God gives to us salvation and grace.
But if we accept the heresy that we are worthy of salvation, that we deserve it, then nothing about this exchange is miraculous or even meaningful.
In this theological version of Minimum Wage Thinking, God is obligated (by whom?) to provide a benefit to us. Since this benefit comes regardless of what we give to God, one must assume that any value we bring to God is meaningless. In other words, we are without value before God. By claiming a false worth, we declare that we are truly worthless.
Moreover, just as the paradigm of Minimum Wage divides the employer and employee by replacing commutative justice with distributive justice, so too does this type of Universalism enforce a distributive relationship between us and God, a relationship such as that between a ruler and those ruled. But, however proper and right that relationship is, God has chosen to transgress the bounds of what is proper for the Almighty- pitching His tent among us, washing our feet like a slave, embracing us as friends, and promising us that we shall be like Him.
For all the feel-good arguments about the intrinsic worth of human beings, there is no reasonable way to believe that we deserve such lavishness and affection.
Rather, we can imagine that God has engaged with us in a transaction, and understand just how much God values us.
If we have received salvation and grace from God, we have received something of infinite and eternal value. And this must mean something quite amazing about how God views us.
Whereas assuming our own worth ultimately denies it, accepting the fact of our unworthiness exalts us. For, in the transaction wherein we receive all that God has to offer, we give to God the only thing we have that He values.
God allows us to enter into a relationship that is fundamental to human flourishing, to approach the throne of heaven as an equal to the One who has no equal, and finally to see our selves, our lives, as God sees and receives them – as infinitely and eternally valuable to Him.
This article was originally published on the author’s website. This slightly abridged version has been reprinted with permission.
Adam writes about philosophy, theology, libertarian politics, anarcho-capitalism, software development, the Open Source movement, Christian liturgy, and sacred music.
Very interesting piece, although I am still wincing from the first paragraph. To me economics is a mostly value-free science, and a statement about what justice demands can’t be called sound or unsound by the science of economics alone. Physics can tell you that a bullet propelled by an explosion of gunpowder will have sufficient penetrating force to kill a man, but physics is silent on whether or when it might be just to take a life.
I’m also concerned about the denial that a worker deserves a certain pay. Leo XIII took this idea on directly in Rerum Novarum, which I would like to quote directly:
“Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent, and therefore the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond. … To this kind of argument a fair-minded man will not easily or entirely assent; it is not complete, for there are important considerations which it leaves out of account altogether. …
But our conclusion must be very different if, together with the personal element in a man’s work, we consider the fact that work is also necessary for him to live: these two aspects of his work are separable in thought, but not in reality. The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work. Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and *injustice*.”
Economists would like the study of economics to be a “value free” study of capital. But, that is totally incorrect. As we saw during the period 1992-2008, the rational pursuit of profits was anything but rational. Whenever you have humans involved, irrational complexity ensues.
Hmm, I’m not sure what connection you’re assuming between these two different questions:
1) Whether economics as a science can have something to say about moral value judgments, such as what kind of pay a worker “deserves”.
2) Whether man’s economic decision making is reliable rational in pursuit of his desires and/or goals.
They seem relatively unconnected to me, but maybe I’m missing something.
The old idea of Enlightened Self Interest was never enough. In a totally rational world, both labor and management would pursue their goals in a rational way and somewhere arrive in the middle. No one is totally happy; but neither is everyone totally unhappy. But, that is seldom the case. The reason has nothing to do with “greed” per se, but with an irrational pursuit of other goals. The use of the government to regulate capital and the markets, as we have seen, eventually favor the most unproductive in an economy. What were billed as laws created to help the “workers” usually go about in undermining the worker (See the Community Reinvestment Act and the long run damage done to the workers). In the case of mortgage laws and mandates, the extremely loose regulations totally undermined underwriting best practices and risk management. Investors had a field day while it lasted; but the destruction of $5 trillion in residential equity is anything but equitable.
Computerized risk management algorithm have replaced a lenders opinion when judging risk for mortgages. Add in self serving mandates from laws such as Dodd-Frank, and the availability of capital to the Middle Class has even taken a bigger hit. Again, we have an irrational barrier that separates a lenders capital from individual’s demands – all in the name of Helping the Little Gut. The Little Guy in many cases is forced to go to Pay-Day Loans in order to shore up cash shortfalls.
Neat post, bro!
Who ya talkin’ to?
Ironically, I’d say the real “Minimum Wage Thinking” is used by many employers in modern capitalism. And that thinking is this: you pay workers the minimum possible. If you are a large multi-national corporation, and you can pay overseas workers even less, such as pennies on the day, you do it if it increases your bottom line.
And since people usually aren’t wealthy or powerful enough to just pass on what employers are offering they have to take what they’re given. I don’t really question that many companies would push wages to Third World levels if there wasn’t a stopgap like a minimum wage.
This type of thinking, of simply paying workers as little as you can get away with, simply ignores the higher ends of man such as his eternal destiny and providing him the ability to pursue that, along with other ends such as raising a family without the necessity of having both spouses work or for the man to work 2 jobs just to make ends meet.
Purposely paying a man a “just wage” is a recognition of ends which go beyond mere profit and certainly does not have anything to do with “intrinsic worth” as if a Franciscan friar is intrinsically worth less than an engineer with a well paying job. Rather it is a recognition that different stations in life have different duties which may require different renumerations in order for them to be fulfilled. Obviously a man with a family requires a different renumeration than a friar with no family in order for him to fulfill his duty of providing for his family.
I just want to clarify the economics.
“many employers… pay workers the minimum possible.”
Possible given the more important goal of maximizing profits, yes. Even companies that employ a lot of six-figure earners are trying to maximize profits and they will reduce wages if that helps.
“I don’t really question that many companies would push wages to Third World levels if there wasn’t a stopgap like a minimum wage.”
No. The marginal productivity of a worker in America is clearly higher than third world wages. Therefore at that level of wages the profit-maximizing behavior of an employer is to keep hiring more workers and producing more widgets… until competition between employers bids up the wages to a higher level.
The late economist (and late Catholic convert) EF Schumacher, borrowing heavily from Rerum Novarum, stated that the ancient Catholic idea of Man as homo viator – Man created with a purpose. That is, God creates every individual with a purpose, and every worker and owner of capital alike must take this into account. Those who don’t, live their lives at their own eternal risk. One of the worst sins a person can make is depriving a father of the wages needed to support his family.
Modernism appears to operate in a dichotomy between Capital and Labor. However, if one looks closer at the evolution of societies the last 200 years, this dichotomy isn’t quite so clear. Joseph Pearce, when writing about Schumacher, points out that the German born economist saw a huge difference between how the Modern West viewed labor with that of the East:
“From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item
of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated
altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman,
it is a ‘disutility’; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure
and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.”
From the point of view of both the laborer and the owner of the enterprise, labor is only a necessary evil. Gone were the days when a man (or woman) saw his labor as a vocation or calling. Labor was something that got in the way of higher profit margins (for the owners), and one’s leisure (the workers). And as science in the West spread, so did the task of reducing the cost of labor (the owner) and the getting more compensation for lost time and leisure (the worker). Small was out; large was in. Workers fled the rural areas to work in urban sweat shops and giant urban rental barracks (aka slums). However, Socialism was in no way interested in returning to those days where workers lived in small villages, worked in small shops. Socialism depended upon the same Modern infrastructure as did the Capitalists. Add in government bureaucracies to the mix (which usually favor the largest capitalist enterprises), and it is not difficult to see how both the Left and the Right formed an alliance against the Middle – in this case, the worker. Things like Minimum Wage laws are ultimately a phenomenon of the Modern society where the benefits go not the worker but to the largest enterprises (in the form of increasing the cost of operations, which make entry into industry more difficult for smaller businesses).
The Modern or Post Modern Administrative State is a creation of both the owners of capital and the Socialists. These people should be seen not as Capitalists or Socialists, but as Progressives. Both the State and the largest Enterprises conspire in order to both grow the State and to displace independent skilled tradesmen. The State has more dependents and the businesses have a vast supply of ever cheaper labor. Gone is the notion of “homo viator”; in this new paradigm, the worker has no purpose other than to get as much as he can from either the State or his employer; and the employer sees the worker as nothing more than a necessary evil. The RCC, however, still can’t shake that old time religion. It is wielded to such slogans as “We only have our chains to lose”, or “Workers of the World, Unite!”. If fact, in the US most Bishops ally themselves to Progressives.
In the mean time, the average worker continues to suffer. Big is not beautiful.
The average worker is doing pretty well. People like to say that wages are “stagnating”, but stagnating after reaching record highs is a pretty great place for wages to be. They’re permanently high! They’re stuck at high levels!
We probably agree that business regulation is setting up too many barriers to entry and discouraging entrepreneurship. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a business being big. Big businesses can deliver cheaper products, lowering the cost of living for everyone. And when you lower the cost of living for workers, that is the same, in essence, as raising their wages, isn’t it? So it’s not all bad. We in 21st century America have it pretty good.
Wages are a relative thing. Purchasing power may be a better way of measuring the true worth of what a person earns. If someone says that a family of 4 (2 spouses, 2 children) earns $65,000 a year most people will say that they have a fairly decent income. However, if it is pointed out that both spouses work, a person gets a better idea of things. Incidentally, taking into account the value of the dollar and what it can by today (in 2014) and compare that to 1990 one would see a definite problem as far as purchasing power. Using home equity, the cost of energy, transpiration and food and a person in 1990 would have to earn 118,000 a year in order to maintain living standards. This is based on CPI estimates from the US Dept of Commerce. I think it is fair to say, living standards amongst the Middle Class have significantly fallen in recent decades.
I’m not even clear what you’re claiming. Are you saying $65k in 1990 = $118k in 2014? Care to show your work? Also why are we discussing such high numbers? Any couple earning $118 from two jobs should obviously switch to a single income if they have children.
Obviously? No. $118K for a large family is not that much money if you live anywhere near a major city. In Northern Virginia, you’re hard pressed to find a home for a family of 8 (six kids, two adults) for less than $450K, and that’s pushing it.
If you’ve got a $3,000/month mortgage payment, that’s $36,000/year just on that. Plus utilities, food for that many people, gas, car payments, tuition and/or homeschool books, insurance, clothes, etc. Forget vacations at that income level, or doing many projects around the house. You’re paying bills, and maybe saving a little for the future.
After taxes, $118K is a solid middle class living in a place like this. It’s not extravagance.
Oh Steve, here we go again.
I’m 30 miles from Manhattan supporting a family of 6 (next year 7). We’re about to buy a house for $200k. (Needs about $10k in repair.) We will make 3 bedrooms work for a year or two and then finish the attic to add a 4th bedroom. My overall budget is about $70k in spending, which includes private school tuition and a generous $750/month buffer for unplanned expenses like car repairs, home repairs, medical expenses, etc. Per month, mind you. So we could bring our spending down to near $50k pretty quickly if need be. That’s before we do anything drastic, like cutting back on 50 mile trips to & from grandparents nearly every week. That’s before we alter our diet or stop buying clothes or start using washable diapers or even thinking about our energy consumption.
What it comes down to basically, is: Do you own that having a bunch of kids is going to make you live “poor” for a while, or are you trying to purchase some arbitrary “middle class” life for yourself? How you answer that question is the whole sum of our disagreement.
It’s fantastic that you can find a house for that much where you live. It’s simply not the reality here. I know of one person who bought a house in that price range here (and my wife is a real estate broker, so we know the market) and while it was a 3 bedroom, it was completely gutted on the ground level, full of mold, needed a new roof and all new floors, bathroom, and kitchen, and was basically a complete rehab.
You can’t get a townhome for a family your size here for $200K. Condos go for more than $300K if they have bedrooms. Don’t project your personal experiences as universal. It doesn’t help the discussion.
There’s lots of areas in North Jersey where the same is true. But a quick zillow check says that North VA has poor areas too. We all make choices.
Did I not mention that my wife is a real estate broker? We work with low-income, first-time homebuyers all the time. The low end here is easily double what is available in most places. People come here for the economic opportunities and job security, but the cost of living is the cost of doing business.
“We all make choices.”
Yes we do. I’m going to choose not to continue this conversation, because it seems clear that you’re not interested in modifying your rather ossified opinions based on the experiences of others.
Steve, I’m more than willing to consider your personal experience with the market in your area, but I also have access to the internet. For instance, here’s a picture of the Arlington area with red dots representing all the 3 BR homes listed in the last 6 months for less than $250,000:
>>Modernism appears to operate in a dichotomy between Capital and Labor. >>However, if one looks closer at the evolution of societies the last 200 years, this dichotomy isn’t quite so clear.
I believe it is Marxism that introduced (or at least popularized) this dichotomy, and one of my big problems with much of Catholic Social Teaching (and leftist economic thinking) is that it hinges on this dichotomy, which I think is completely false.
A few points of clarification:
1. Something is “economically unsound” if it is based on faulty economic logic. The idea that instituting a mandatory minimum wage as a matter of law is economically unsound because doesn’t accomplish what it purports to do (help low-skilled workers), and the entire notion that it CAN help low-skilled workers is based on a faulty understanding of economics. Therefore: economically unsound.
You can disagree with that opinion (if you think it COULD help people), but arguing that I’m using the idea of economic unsoundness incorrectly is semantic silliness, and imagines that economics is primarily the academic study of behavior, forgetting that it is also involves the application of policy.
2. The concept of minimum wage as a legal mandate from a secular government is separate from the moral requirement to treat your employees with respect and dignity. There are a lot of immoral things we don’t make illegal and a lot of morally neutral things that we regulate.
3. This piece isn’t really about minimum wage policies – though I think they are bad. The point of this piece is to explore how the very notion of deserved wages, and deserved salvation, distorts the understanding of human value. As further evidence of this conception, notice the pervasiveness of anti-life attitudes (pro-abortion, pro-birth-control, pro-assisted-suicide, anti-large-families) of liberal mainline Protestantism, which generally also coincide with salvation universalism and leftist social policies such as increasing the minimum wage. It is not an accident that these things are connected.
Hi Adam, thanks for your response. I don’t exactly want to give you a hard time, but I think your “clarifications” above are kind of asking for it.
1) I think if you go back and reread the first couple paragraphs of your essay, you’ll find that it’s very difficult to impose an interpretation like the one you just proposed. Your response #3 above makes it quite clear what your theme is. You are writing about the idea that workers deserve a certain wage because of the demands of justice, and therefore should be paid that amount regardless of the economic value of their labor. That’s the idea you are calling economically unsound in your first paragraph. At the very least, if you are not talking about justice when you use the word “should”, your first paragraph is both unclear and (more importantly) wildly irrelevant to what follows, since your whole essay is about justice and deserving.
Furthermore it is not coherent to accuse me of semantics if the accusation relies on me making some distinction between economic behavior and the study of policy, because both of those things fall within the definition of economics that I am using and nowhere in what I wrote am I making such a distinction. Obviously economics can have important things to say about whether a law or policy will be likely to have the intended economic effect, or some other unintended consequence. (Usually it is the latter.) The point is, economics can’t tell you whether the consequences of your policy are just or desirable. It can’t tell you if you _should_ enact such a policy.
2) “The concept of minimum wage as a legal mandate from a secular government is separate from the moral requirement to treat your employees with respect and dignity.”
I agree. But, uh, your essay is not about the legal mandate, and I don’t believe any of the responses are focusing on that, either.
3.) “The point of this piece is to explore how the very notion of deserved wages, and deserved salvation, distorts the understanding of human value.”
My quotation of Rerum Novarum was intended to point out that there is indeed a wage low enough that the worker does not receive what he deserves. Leo XIII is quite clear on this matter and you won’t find any contradiction on the lips of any other pontiff writing about economic justice. If a worker is unable to support himself and his family on the wage that is offered, even if he accepts the wage because he can’t obtain anything better, he is made a victim of FORCE and INJUSTICE.
You will find me an ally in arguing against a minimum wage in today’s economy, but I can’t sign on to the chain of logic you propose. The truth, as I see it, is unlikely to appeal to people of any political stripe: We’re all just a bunch of whiners. You can raise a family on much lower than the minimum wage, if you’re willing to “be poor.”
I can only agree with those who point out that giving someone their due is giving someone at least a living wage (a family wage in some cases) in exchange for typical fulltime work. A company with a business model that depends on paying workers less than what they actually need to get by is not serving its social purpose well; it’s an exploitation machine, especially if those at the top are living well off of profit. The Gospels refer to a “usual daily wage” and even use an example of a generous employer who pays the usual daily wage even to workers hired at the end of the day. They made a living that day thanks to the employer who went beyond an economic interpretation of justice based on what the labor was justly worth, to care about the worker.
This is just simply heresy and no Christian should give this essay the time of day. It so fundamentally deviates from a Christian understanding of the human person and the salvific relationship between man and redeemer that it needs to be on a website dedicated to deism or neo-paganism.
I don’t really understand this comment. Why do you think that?