The Minimum Wage Debate

Brad Littlejohn published a piece for Capital Commentary in December about the minimum wage:

In recent months, and particularly in recent weeks, a series of campaigns and strikes by fast-food workers have put the issue of the minimum wage squarely back onto the national radar. The minimum wage, first established by law in 1938, began at the equivalent of $4.25/hr. in 2013 dollars (CPI adjusted) and rose to nearly $11/hr. (2013 dollars) by 1968. Minimum wage hikes roughly kept pace with inflation through the 1970s, but then stagnated for nearly 30 years, resulting in a minimum wage today of $7.25/hr., or only $15,000 a year on a full-time salary. Recent campaigns by fast-food workers have called for the wage to more than double to a “living wage” of $15/hr., while more sober proposals in Washington have put forth an increase to $9 or $10/hr.

Partisans on all sides have trotted out tired old talking points and slogans, with the apparent intent to score political points and discredit the opposition rather than to advance mutual understanding and do justice. Rather than trying to adjudicate all these claims in an issue of great economic and social complexity, I would like to suggest three pillars that should be part of any faithful Christian response: justice, prudence, and truth.

He published a follow-up to that at his personal blog more recently:

So I want to reflect a bit more fully on what’s wrong with one of the common conservative arguments against the minimum wage: that the laborer is only worth his productivity.  The argument goes something like this: Sure, it sounds wonderful to pay people a living wage, but a worker’s job is to contribute productivity to a business, adding value by his labor, and ultimately, the business cannot afford to pay him any more than what he brings in.  If a McDonalds worker can only contribute an average of $6 profit per hour to the company by his labor, then McDonalds will go broke pretty quick paying him $10/hr.  Accordingly, raising the minimum wage will simply increase unemployment, and instead, therefore, we should focus on raising worker productivity.

This prompted a response from Jordan Ballor over at the Acton Institute blog:

You write that you “want to reflect a bit more fully on what’s wrong with one of the common conservative arguments against the minimum wage: that the laborer is only worth his productivity.” I have significant concerns with equating someone’s worth with the economic value of their labor in the marketplace. I do not argue that the laborer is only worth his or her productive work. I argue that a worker’s work is only valuable in a market setting insofar as someone is willing to pay for it. I agree that there is a subjective element to work that is in some ways intimately identified with and inseparable from the person doing the working. But I do maintain that the worker and the work can, and indeed must, be distinguished. Perhaps what we disagree about is that you think the wage someone is offered is primarily a signal about how much that person is valued. I think that the wage someone is offered is primarily a signal about how much that person’s work is useful to others.

“Labor is always attached to a person, and persons are more than mere economic functions,” you write. I do not deny this. In fact, I affirm it, which is why I am loathe to simply identify what a person’s labor commands in the marketplace with his or her value as a person. You go on to call the distinction I draw between the worker and the work as a kind of dodge. What you consider a dodge I consider to be a necessary distinction.

Ballor also wrote about the issue for Think Christian back in August during the fast food workers’ strike. Joe Carter also has a helpful rundown on the minimum wage debate published at the Acton blog earlier in December before Brad’s posts.