Monday, September 2, 2013

Happy Labor Day!

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day was officially created in 1894 and is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.”  Working conditions a dozen decades ago were intolerable by today’s standards, and there wasn’t a lot that workers themselves could do in the vastly unequal equation between businesses and labor.  But huge strides for America’s workers in the succeeding years make me wonder how relevant Labor Day is in these times.  Mostly, its value just seems to lie in marking the unofficial end of summer and giving us yet one more three-day weekend.
I’m not sad to see summer go.  San Diego has joined the rest of the country in a series of hot, humid days that remind me of why I’m happy to live in a place where such an occurrence is a rarity rather than the norm.  And the investments world has lived up to the old saw of “sell in May, buy back on Labor Day”, with the Dow down some 500 points since Memorial Day – the unofficial start of summer.  Meanwhile, silver’s a bit higher since May, but gold and the mining shares – despite lots of interim movement – are right back where they started.  Yeah, why didn’t I just sell everything 3 months ago and forget about them over the summer?
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In honor of the holiday, fast food workers are demanding $15/hour, about double what most make now.  Classic economic analysis tells us that doubling their wages should result in some combination of higher fast-food prices and fewer burger flippers – not such a good outcome.  Numerous studies question that conventional analysis, however, implying that raising the minimum wage would benefit low-income workers without really hurting the rest of us.  Whether that’s true or not, I still don’t have a lot of sympathy for those working entry-level jobs that don’t pay enough to live on.
Look – most of us started out working at those kinds of crappy jobs.  The point wasn’t to support a family.  It was to make a few bucks while learning some workplace skills; a first, necessary step up the ladder, rather than an end in itself.  And to give you a wake-up call; figure out a better way to make a living!   If you’re well into your 20s or older, and you’re stuck at Mickey D’s or KFC, chances are you didn’t have much of a game plan when you were in school.  I see it all the time: kids with tons of potential, but not putting in the effort.  Or going on to college, but majoring in something that “speaks to them”, rather than something that society values – as evidenced by decent-paying jobs.  So they’re stuck with only a U.S. high-school diploma which, if you didn’t know this, is seen by the rest of the world as not worth the paper it’s printed on, or a college degree that’s worth not a helluva lot more.   
Surely there are many people stuck in minimum-wage jobs for reasons beyond their control, but I think they are more the exception rather than the rule. For the rest – for the majority – I don’t know why we should guarantee them a “living wage”, basically rewarding them for making poor choices.  This is part of the cult of entitlement that so many Americans, especially younger ones, have embraced.  It basically says: “Enjoy life!  Do whatever you want, and don’t worry.  You’re an American, so somebody will take care of you no matter what.  
What if, on the other hand, the message to young people was: “If you want a good life, you need to – YOU MUST – really apply yourself.  Otherwise, your life is going to be really tough.  It kind of reminds me of the claim that most of us only use something like 10% of our brains (very high achievers, people with ESP, etc. apparently use more of theirs).  In the classroom, most students don’t work to their full potential.  They put in, on average, perhaps half the effort they’re capable of because – well, because of the “you’re an American, your life will be good regardless” idea.   As an experienced classroom teacher, even in a very high-performing school, I see this all the time; kids turning in crap, kids not studying when they know they should, not doing assignments that they could easily do, and so on.    
Now I don’t think that was the case 40 or 50 years ago, and I don’t think that’s the case in most of the rest of the world.  I think that earlier, and elsewhere, kids worked and work harder because they knew they’d be screwed otherwise.  It’s cause and effect.  We’ve had 20, 30, 40 years of good times in the U.S. – even during the Great Recession of 2008-2011, how many people didn’t have a place to sleep, food to eat, and unlimited texting on their iPhones?  As a result, trying to tell kids about the necessity of actually doing their best, rather than just whatever they feel like doing, simply doesn’t register with them.  Meanwhile, in most of the world – it does.  Not surprisingly, that’s where many of the high-paying jobs have gone, leaving fast-food and WalMart jobs as the only option for so many Americans.  
So good luck on the $15/hour thing.  I rarely buy that horrid, unhealthy food anyway, so it’s no skin off my nose.  But I won’t feel sorry for them if they don’t get it either.
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