Tuesday, July 24, 2007

R U Serius? Dumb on Minimum Wage

The Wall Street Journal's coverage of today's increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 to $5.85 an hour isn't dumber than the rest, but that's only because they're all dumb.

By dumb here I mean completely ignorant or silent about the main economic justification for the minimum wage. That was that by paying people what we now call a "living wage," they would have more money to spend and would plow it into the economy, which would grow faster. Ethics aside - which also used to be about a whole society advancing together rather than just the top having everything they can dream up - it was in a society's self-interest to pay everyone a good wage.

Who thought this? John Maynard Keynes, for one. Anyone remember him? He was the major architect of the liberal capitalist social policy of the post-Depression period. He was destroyed among American leaders by the likes of Milton Friedman, for whom any "interference" with the "market," which was as natural as the orbit of the planets around the sun, was an attack on efficiency, civilization and reason itself. That his kind also viewed taxes as an attack on the wealthy's power of unlimited accumulation may have had something to do with it too. Just a hunch.

Anyway, reporters seem unable to cover this increase in wages for poor people - they are at the rock-bottom of the salary scale - as anything other than a possible threat to economic health. They should at least say well there is an argument that says increased wages will help the economy (to, once again, ignore the rock-bottom wage earner, which we love to do). It's just pitiful, this American fear of a tiny raise (after YEARS of none) for the poorest workers.

When reporters can't remember the whole argument, they just reproduce right-wing ideology as common sense, which has become common sense in part because so many reporters are like this one.

Avery and I had our friend Neil over to watch a movie last night. Neil grew up in coastal Yorkshire and we talked about the Thatcher-Blair continuum for a bit before settling into Billy Liar, a great 1963 film with Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie (above). The film has a great sequence where Courtenay does voices in his boss's office that may remind you of one of the highlight's of Tom Cruise's career, his underwear dancing-karaoke scene in Risky Business. It is really good - affectionate, compassionate - about Billy Fisher's (Courtenay) gradual slide towards needing to decide whether he really is going to go to London to try to make his advanced powers of imagination into a career, or whether he's going to stay in the small town with this family. His encounters with a big-time producer from London with whom he has corresponded, and the great scenes with his undertaker boss, come from a period when official culture reflected what people still know - that business is often run by inhumane and mentally-limited schmucks who make the world worse, not better, that business is not usually so fricking efficient in spite of its chest-thumping tributes to its virile hatred of waste and slack, that the entertainment business in particular is not obviously the right outlet for a brilliant imagination.

What if it's better to dream at home than write commercial screenplays? Billy Liar can still ask the question. Sorry to draw a moral like this, but are a lot of questions about the role business and the economy that need to be asked all over again.

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