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Wake-up call

Minimum wage/maximum activism


Years ago, I tagged along as an invited guest to a testimonial dinner in honor of a nursing home magnate. It was probably a premature lifetime award affair. Any excuse for a party. There were fine wines and a smorgasbord that would have put King Henry VIII in such good humor he would have kissed and made up with all his wives.

The event was emceed by a guy who sounded like he was auditioning for The Tonight Show, but instead of rattling off one-liners he gushed praise for the hospice tycoon. I had never heard of the guy.

Many of the attendees were VIPs from the corporate world, but most were from the jaundiced sphere of  government: City Council members, State Assembly and Senate members, a smattering of judges and at least one active-duty district attorney. 

I wondered whether it was coincidence how these heavy hitters were all connected to the guest of honor. Certainly his relationship with them could come in handy. Suppose, for instance, a member of the public lodged a complaint alleging neglect or maltreatment at one of the honoree's facilities. 

I have no reason to believe this occurred, but it certainly raises potential conflict of interest issues.

Many of these power brokers were called to the microphone and outdid each other with worshipful praise of the honoree. Whether or not he did anything to deserve it I suspect the true reason for this unseemly deference wasn't stated.

One attendee, I found out, was a lawyer who had volunteered his time at a political club, became chief of staff to a legislator who had provided a critical vote to a governor, and was eventually appointed to a judgeship by the governor, on the legislator's recommendation.

The payback chameleon? Optics that change color.

The glittering affair was a renewal of the vows of alliance among the elite. They were not workers. They were networkers. I didn't like the ambience.

It taught me a lesson that I resisted learning for as long as I could: that even in a republic where elitism doesn't rule, it reigns.They are bought off and they buy others off. It's by mutual consent.  Powerful people feel kinship only with each other.

That awareness was traumatic.

They jabber about the virtue of equity while practicing the vice of economic chauvinism. They don't want to be probed and revealed and found out, so they profess democratic principles in solidarity with common folk they defend with one hand and oppress with the other.

They have their own silken worries: tax write-offs, legacy admission, free passes for their heirs, etc. At the end of the day we must rely on them because they control our lives, and by that measure are your leaders, for better or worse.

The contrast is nauseatingly stark between the intemperate demands and drudgery of our lives and theirs.

I got into a debate with one of them over the minimum wage. At this time, it was a hot item in a pending budget, as it is now.  He complained bitterly about proposals to raise it. He hyperventilated about it being a menace to prosperity and national security. 

The phrase "existential threat" wasn't current at the time.

My view is that unless the minimum wage is dramatically, immediately, universally and unconditionally raised to guarantee all workers access to life's bounties, the Federalist Papers may as well have been writ in spit.

The law should forbid the rendering, as a result of legally permissible practices, any person being rendered destitute among the intrusions of so much gratuitous and largely unearned wealth. Some economists say it is unfeasible to do so and that a permanent class of indigent workers must be maintained as a bulwark against inflation. 

Those business analysts should be treated to a meal of raw puffer fish.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. It's been stuck there since 2009. In some Southern and Western states, the wage of tipped employees is as low as $2.13 an hour. That's lower than the Christmas bonus paid that former President Thomas Jefferson paid his slaves.

The Raise the Wage Act would raise it to $15 in five steps by 2027. Anyone who begrudges that is rotten to the core but ripe for certain think tanks. E.J McMahon, Cassandra of the Empire Center, admonishes that "a higher minimum wage reduces job growth and stifles opportunities.”  

The minimum wage of 22 states has been stagnant  since January 2014. Can the same be said for the cost of living?

Josh Bivens, chief economist of the Economic Policy Institute explains: "the move to $15 would create a one-step increase in the overall price level of less than 0.1 percent per year, after which it would fade to near zero. This is completely trivial. Over the past two years, inflation has run at a rate about 100 times faster than this."

Politico reports that New York Governor Hochul "proposed pegging the state's minimum wage to inflation, while capping year-over increases to 3 percent or less." 

That's a lousy $13 a week. State Senator Jessica Ramos and her enlightened allies support the Raise Up NY proposal, which would raise the state's minimum wage to $21.25 by 2026 “and then be indexed annually to increases in prices and labor productivity,” according to The City.

It would be a shot-in-the arm to around one-third of the state's workforce by 2024.

This year, more than half of U.S. states will raise their minimum wage. This has put many conservatives in a beast mode as they scramble to control the damage. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the range of increase will be 23 cents to $1.50 an hour.

Taxable, of course. And how do we reconcile our sense of decency and labor laws that permit sub-minimum wages to the disabled?

Economic justice would not be served by wages merely keeping pace with the cost-of-living. All that does is freeze marginal existence. Leaps and bounds are required, not microscopic increments.

No animal in nature is so rare as rich and powerful people who, despite their spouted democratic sympathies, voluntarily abrogate their leverage and opt to dwell among the rest of us as equals.

The thirst for dominance is insatiable. And it is the cornerstone of economic structure.

Some of the most passionate and high-profile mouthpieces of egalitarianism are beneficiaries and offenders of ruthless economic opportunism. They ingratiate themselves with the people they exploit by posing as their allies and cash in on their distracted ignorance.

A profile in audacity: The Starbucks website calls Howard Schultz "a transformative leader who built Starbucks over four decades into … a company committed to strengthening communities through human connection." He is associated with progressive causes and is the poster child for humanitarianism in big business.

At a hearing on March 29, Senator Bernie Sanders confirmed that "Starbucks has waged the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country." Mr. Schultz: "Yes, I have billions of dollars. I earned it.”

I'm proud to pay a little extra for my blueberry scones, knowing that it will help Schultz the Samaritan realize the fruits of his labor and that he got what he knows he's worth.

Standard of living equates with quality of life. At least it betters the odds. Every successive generation should be better off than the prior. It should be an inviolable precept and cornerstone of all legislation.

Everything the government does should be with such uplifting in mind.

The rule of law and the law of the jungle are on too amicable terms. They intersect at the corners of Greed and Ambition. If Ego were property, it would occupy all the square footage between our timeshares and the North Star. 

That would serve the wage suppressors but not the worker liberators.

Our nation's credibility and the degree that it merits esteem for its professed pursuit of a fair shake for all people who are lucky to be in a position to be productive depends in significant part on the fate of the minimum wage.

Let's not close our eyes.


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