Nineteenth-century reformer Henry George once pointed out that we never see a herd of buffalo or a flock of birds where only a few are fat, and most are lean or starving. In our society, however, there’s an assumption that less than living wages are somehow admissible. Egregious inequality is accepted as a just comeuppance for not measuring up to cultural expectations. As I see it, several psychological influences are at work that allow this to happen.
One is an unwillingness to assume responsibility for oneself and one’s family. Another is the human angst and fear that fester in the existential divide between in-groups and out-groups. The angst fits hand in glove with a paternalistic and authoritative ethos of expectations and cultural mores that can be used as evidence that one is behaving improperly, not doing what one is supposed to do, or not believing what one should believe. Those who do not meet the expectations of cultural norms will be deemed unworthy, and if their differences are too prominent, they may qualify as being nonhuman.
The assumption that less than living wages are justified for full- or part-time work is ardently contrived. A full-time job that can’t command the compensation of a living wage, in my view, is a task better left undone. The only condition in which less than living wages are justified is when the employees are robots. A residue of contempt and imagined cultural superiority causes people to assume that some individuals are of lesser value than themselves and do not deserve the human dignity traditionally ascribed to work. It is time this outdated nonsense be stamped out altogether. Until we start employing the dead, working people deserve enough compensation to live.
The value of labor, or work of any kind, is only partly attributed to its difficulty, while most of its value derives from the power of those who enact legislation and make rules and regulations. Their actions dissolve into the background and become invisible, leaving no suggestion of having negatively affected the worth of labor. What’s left gives the appearance of reality, and we accept this reality in the same way that fish do not ponder the legitimacy of water.
Over the past half-century, we have mangled the ethos of work and reward in this country by letting those with an economic advantage legislate their advantage into law without visible traces of having done so. We have allowed capital to trump the value of labor, a situation that Abraham Lincoln continuously warned against. That human labor does not have any advantage over capital is anathema to civilization. In a country that prizes self-reliance, it is practically subversive.
In his book The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz put it this way, “For years there was a deal between the top and the rest of society that went something like this: we will provide you jobs and prosperity, and you will let us walk away with the bonuses. You will get a share, even if we get a bigger share. But now that tacit agreement between the rich and the rest, which was always fragile, has come apart.” Yes, indeed. I would say it has come apart at the seams and there is little on the horizon, save voting en masse and marching in the streets, that will help us regain what has been lost. As Stiglitz points out, “American inequality didn’t just happen. It was created.”
Poverty-level wages have resulted less from free-market forces than from the legislated advantage of those who have attained the power to loot public corporations in the open while shouting platitudes about skill and success. The clichéd ladder of upward mobility is missing so many rungs that the sing-song mantra of those who use carrot-and-stick analogies as employment incentives rings hollow. Less than half of the available jobs in America pay more than $35k per year. We are rapidly approaching a level of inequality that resembles the feudalism of centuries past.
The fact that we have a viable digital technological society that increasingly does more with less speaks to the historical contribution of working men and women across all disciplines who have made such a technological society possible, not to mention those who have given up their lives on the battlefield on our behalf. Still, every year, because of digital technology, the number of jobs that pay less than a living wage grows larger, and there is no end in sight. If these conditions continue, the foundation that the middle-class rests on is untenable.
That this is occurring at a time of a soaring stock market and record corporate profits is not an aberration—it’s by design. Corporations used to pay a third of our tax burden; now it’s less than ten percent, and one in four corporations pays no taxes at all. We need to stop putting up with the hyper-contemptuous free-market rhetoric that there is divine justice in poverty wages. We must demand living wages, not anemic increases in the minimum wage. And I’ll answer in advance the inevitable question from right-wingers: It won’t take a rocket scientist to arrive at a figure.
Egregious inequality resonates with a strain of existential contempt at the core of the human condition. It’s connected to the deep-seated psychological insecurity that associates uncertainty, change, and otherness with mortality salience, allowing suspicion of all things unfamiliar to fester. And it plays out with people using their false sense of superiority over those with less perceived status as a psychological buffer against nothingness.
We are fortunate to live in a time when our technology is making it possible to live free of monotonous, repetitious tasks and many of the hazards of dangerous backbreaking work. But unless we rid ourselves of the tribalistic contempt with which we are so easily manipulated into settling for a future stricken by spite and the insane fear that the poor are keeping us from living better economically, we will never mature as a nation.
Equality of opportunity and a society where dignity is bound to the virtue of work requires an acknowledgment of the religious and secular, philosophical and moral declaration that human beings are ends in themselves and are not to be treated only as means to an end. Views to the contrary are detailed, complex, sophisticated, sometimes eloquent and ubiquitous, and yet they amount to disingenuous immoral nonsense. The Donald Trump—GOP tax reform proposal is an overt declaration that only the rich really matter.
Charles D. Hayes