On Those Who Yearn to Bern What You’ve Earned
Yesterday I saw the poster pictured above in the rear window of a parked car. I live in San Francisco, so it is by no means the first pro-Bernie Sanders poster I have seen. It was, however, the first time I had seen this specific version. It made me feel as though my head were about to explode.
I’m a pretty analytical person, and when I encounter things that don’t compute, it more or less drives me bonkers. This poster is a magnificent magilla of nonsensical sloganeering. It’s a simple enough message; it asks us to believe that voting for Sanders will “end inequality.” How is that absurd, you ask? Let me count the ways!
Let’s begin with the obvious, face-value logical fallacy. Strictly speaking, the poster should say: “Elect Bernie to End Inequality.” Simply handing in a ballot cannot “end inequality” in and of itself.
You’re probably thinking, “Pish posh, she’s just getting hung up on semantics.” Perhaps, but this is not the only problem with the poster. It makes several assumptions, some of which are quite far-fetched: 1). inequality exists, 2). it is problematic, 3). it can be solved, and 4). a politician/the government should solve it.
The poster does not specify which flavor of inequality Bernie Sanders will supposedly abolish, but his main campaign message seems to revolve around “income inequality,” so let’s assume this is the arena in which The Bern proposes to demonstrate his messianic powers.
Dictionary.com gives two particularly relevant definitions of “inequality”: “1). the condition of being unequal; lack of equality; disparity,” and: “4). injustice; partiality.” Obviously, not everyone in this country makes the same amount of money; in that sense, most people would agree that the first definition is fitting vis-a-vis “income inequality.”
However, the people who do the most complaining about income inequality act as though definition number 4 is most appropriate–as though the fact that we are all paid differing wages is due to some unjust aspect of our culture or political system.
But is that really the case? To answer that question, let us compare two vastly different jobs: that of a fast-food drive-thru cashier and a vice president at a major oil company. I’m choosing these jobs because I have an immediate family member working in each position, and I’m familiar with what they do.
The oil company VP went to university (a state school) on a scholarship. He kept his grades up the whole way through, and started working for the oil company as an entry-level accountant after graduation. He worked his way up from the bottom of the ladder–he put in 25 years of loyal service to the same company before he was promoted to vice president. During his tenure as VP, he has managed multi-billion dollar international projects and teams of employees numbering in the thousands.
The fast-food cashier never finished high school, although she did get her GED. She is over 50, and the only job she has had outside of fast food was truck driving. She has no special training or post high school education–her primary assets are her remarkable warmth and kindness, lovable personality, and sincere faith.
The VP invested many years in building up his education and on-the-job experience to get where he is today. The cashier has never really demonstrated any ambition to get further “ahead” than where she already is. The oil company exec works 60+ hour weeks, and often has to travel internationally, which takes him away from his family. The fast food employee works the same shift every day, and a set 35 hours per week, every week. The VP has a lot more responsibility on his shoulders than the cashier–if he makes a mistake, thousands of employees could be negatively affected, and millions of dollars lost; if the cashier makes a mistake, it is unlikely to make more than a few dollars’ difference to a handful of people, tops. Furthermore, oil is a commodity that, like it or not, is essential to our current way of life; fast food, on the other hand, is in no way necessary to our existence–indeed, one could easily argue that we’d all be better off without it.
Now, can you honestly argue that these two people deserve the same salary? How exactly would this work? Do we pay the VP fast food wages? Or the cashier executive wages? Do we split the difference?
If executives made the same salary as fast food workers, there would be no incentive for them to get the training required to become executives in the first place. And why on earth would they take on the increased risk of heart disease and other stress-related ailments if there weren’t an equivalent reward? No, if they’re going to earn fast-food money, they will only be willing to take on fast-food responsibilities. That’s how these things work. You generally get what you pay for–and, conversely, you give in proportion to your compensation. Even Uncle Joe Stalin understood this–he made sure skilled workers were paid more than their unskilled counterparts.
So why not raise the wages of fast food workers? Ah, this is one of my favorites. It’s a “solution” so universally beloved, and about which complete ignorance almost universally prevails, even though there is a mountain of evidence demonstrating the ill effects of hiking the minimum wage, and every Economics 101 course explains in simple English why this strategy will always fail. Let’s walk through the steps.
The supply and demand lines represent the labor market–the supply of workers and employers’ demand for them. They intersect at the equilibrium wage (W0), which is determined by market forces. At the higher minimum wage (W1), supply and demand no longer intersect; the demand for workers shrinks, and the number of job-seekers rises. The higher the minimum wage is, the greater the gap between labor supply (L1) and labor demand (L2). The gap between the two represents the unemployed.
Firstly, when the cost of workers, especially unskilled workers, goes up, demand decreases, and supply increases. In other words, when our fast-food cashier suddenly costs $15/hr, rather than $7.25/hr, her employer is going to look for ways to either replace her with a machine, reduce overall staff levels and have fewer employees do more work, or some combination thereof. The boss’s labor budget doesn’t double just because the minimum wage doubled. He or she will have to do more with less. People will lose their jobs, and/or full-time workers will be reduced to part-time status. Period. And the businesses that will be hardest hit are the small, local, family-owned businesses, not the major chains.
If a business can’t get by with half the number of staff or labor hours (and most can’t), they must raise their prices to accommodate the increase in the cost of production. Because all sorts of businesses rely on minimum wage employees at some point in the chain of production and distribution, prices of just about everything wind up going up right along with the minimum wage. This means that, for the minimum-wage workers who were lucky enough to keep their jobs, the wage increase doesn’t end up being an increase in real income, because the cost of living rises in lock-step with the increase in the minimum wage. So they may have more money after the wage hike, but it doesn’t go as far as it did before.
And if you don’t believe me, just look at what’s happened in Seattle since they passed their minimum wage hike. They’ve seen price increases, 15% surcharges at restaurants to cover increased labor costs, increased unemployment, and business closures. Furthermore, since everything costs more, the wage increase hasn’t been sufficient to allow welfare recipients to get by without government assistance, but it has made their incomes too high for them to qualify for help–so they are asking to work fewer hours in order to maintain their aid.
Clearly, it makes no sense to artificially raise the cashier’s wages. In fact, it would be shooting her in the foot. So maybe we should just take some of the money that the VP has earned through hard work and perseverance, and hand it over to the cashier, who has made no effort to acquire more skills to get a better job. Is that just? Sounds an awful lot like criminal theft to me.
And that’s the problem with the direct re-distribution of wealth. It commits a wrong (theft of property from its rightful owners–a violation of the 7th Commandment) in an attempt to achieve a virtuous end (alleviating poverty). As The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just … An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (1753, 9).
So yes, income inequality does exist, but I’m not so sure it’s a problem that needs solving–by the government or anybody else. Should we feed the hungry? Yes, indubitably. Clothe the naked? Care for the sick? Shelter the homeless? Obviously we should do all of these. But with stolen funds? Should we punish the rich for being successful and give away their stuff to people who have less stuff, just so they can acquire more stuff? Why?
Jesus taught us that we should detach ourselves from worldly possessions–the desire to redistribute wealth seems to me to be the diametrical opposite of this teaching. It betrays a worldview that places ownership of material things and the acquisition of possessions ahead of what is actually important–our spiritual growth. What the cashier needs, and wants most, is not a flat-screen TV or a nicer car–she wants to be closer to God. So, in that sense, she has everything she needs already. Giving her more “wealth” is irrelevant.
Why can’t we simply be content to be different, and accept that, in reality, we are not equal anywhere but in the eyes of God–which, after all, is the only place that really matters? Some of us are better singers, some more beautiful, others faster runners, a few are mind-bogglingly intelligent, and, yes, some have skills or circumstances that have allowed them to accumulate more wealth than others. Why is that no longer okay? What is the intrinsic evil in our simply being different from one another? And why are the very people who claim to celebrate diversity in the loudest and most insistent fashion trying the hardest to erase the colorful palette of human variation in favor of a drab gray conformity, all in the name of “equality?”
As for me, I’ll prefer the bright, beautiful, divinely created, infinite variety of human “inequality” to the artificially imposed monochromatic dictatorship of “equality” any time, anywhere. And that’s why I will never vote for the likes of I’ll-Bern-What-You’ve-Earned Sanders, or any of his ilk.