A “Living Wage” is Long Overdue: Let’s Try Using the Mafia Approach

A “Living Wage” is Long Overdue:  Let’s Try Using the Mafia Approach

Desperate people have no respect for property rights.  But, when there’s a revolution against economic injustice, it has a way of ending badly.  Maybe the mafia have a better idea.  Let’s try using a shakedown with the super-rich.  Call it a protection racket.   You can have your property rights in return for a “basic needs guarantee for the rest of us.”  Otherwise…

Among the many useful “lessons of history” is the fact that corrupt or tyrannical regimes are incapable of being changed by peaceful “reform” movements.  Reformers are likely to be imprisoned (and tortured), while protesters are beaten, shot, and arrested.  Or simply ignored.  Only in a functioning democracy can peaceful protest movements like women’s suffrage, or civil rights, or even that dreaded word “socialism”, succeed in bringing about social changes.

Unfortunately, we are no longer a functioning democracy.  (That’s a long story.)  Otherwise, our grossly inadequate federal minimum wage (a very low bar to begin with) would not still stand at a pathetic $7.25 per hour after eight years of rising corporate profits, record stock market prices, and an insidious inflation that has been seriously underreported (look at housing costs in our major cities, for example, or our ever-rising food costs).  The disconnect between the pay scales in this country and what constitutes a “living wage” – enough for an adequate living at current price levels -- is the reason why so many of our citizens these days are working full time and yet are still homeless, or depend on food stamps, or can’t pay for medical care, or live from pay-check to pay-check and see a portion of it go to pay-day lenders.  Forget saving anything for rainy days or retirement.

This is unsustainable in the long run.  Injustice breeds desperation and extremism, and extremism finally finds the villain.  From the Roman slave revolts to the Protestant Reformation, the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions, and, more recently, the Arab Spring, violent uprisings are the inexorable resort yet often fail to fix the underlying problem.  It seems this country has also been sliding down this slippery slope with a callous and tone-deaf economic and political establishment that has just passed huge tax cuts for the rich -- subsidized by an increase in our long-term national debt -- that was overwhelmingly opposed (in the polls) by the American people.  Meanwhile, no broad effort is being made to fix the problems of poverty, homelessness, and a shrinking middle class in this country -- not to mention our many other poverty-induced social problems.

So, we must find a way to create some leverage for change.  The mafia long ago perfected one possibility -- if you “cooperate” you can avoid a credible threat of harm.  I’m not talking about breaking windows and vandalism, needless to say, but finding ways to undercut a business firm’s sales and earnings, and its work-force.  Organized boycotts are one time-tested tool.  Negative advertising to discourage customers or point them to better alternatives can also be effective.  An organized campaign to lure away employees from low-wage businesses and assist them in finding better jobs might also be helpful.  Even the old-fashioned method of unionizing, often defeated these days, could be given new life with strong organized backing and the availability of other options for the employees in our current full-employment economy. 

Finally, an organized effort to enact a universal “living wage” (let’s not settle for any “minimum”) could be pursued as a remedial measure that employers should get behind for their own self-interests.  It would level the famous playing field, so that no employers would be at a disadvantage against their competitors when they do the right thing for their employees, and they would also be protected against the living-wage mafia.  Yes, it might undercut profits or require some price increases.  But, as Machiavelli long ago pointed out, sometimes ruthless measures are necessary to achieve social justice.       



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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