WHAT AM I WORTH?

Recently, mimimum wage workers in NYC went on strike for a higher salaries. They’re arguing that the current wage floor is incompatible with a sustainable economic existence. And arguments can be made that it has not kept pace with inflation. The larger and more appropriate questions we should be asking are, what should anyone’s wage be, who should decide, and based on what?

I’m in favor of a law that doubles my salary. And so are you. Heck, let’s double everyone’s salary. With the increased buyiing power we can pay off the debt, rev up the economy and have money to spare. OK, you see the absurdity of it. But I’m not trying to trivialize the plight of the low income earner, just point out the hazards of economics by decree. We can try to shift the balance by legislation, but where do we draw the line, and who gets to do  it?

Government interference creates odd inequities that we’ve come to accept as a way of life. While we all see the value of having everyone working at greater than subsistence wages, the government, in its meddlesome ways, does much more than that. Let me give an example from my personal experience: Recently, I fielded three after-hours calls over a short period of time. I generated zero income from this, as the government, through Medicare, has kept costs down by deciding this over-the-telephone work is not reimbursable; this has extended to other insurers and has become the standard. Howerve, if you were to get on the phone with your accountant or tax lawyer, the meter would be running, and you would receive a bill for a not insubstantial hourly rate. Their time is, apparently, infinitely more valuable than mine. Ironically, their jobs are artificial, existing only because of, you guessed it, government meddling. If we didn’t have the arcane and ridiculously complex tax code our ruling class spends much of its time tweaking and finessing to assuage special interests and to give the appearance of actual work, rather than doing something they were hired to (like making a budget), there would be no tax lawyers or accountants. Now, I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me, nor is that the purpose of this rant, only to illustrate the hazards of government legislation when it comes to the marketplace.

So what should I be paid? How should my worth be detemined? And yours for that matter? In a socialist system the government decides by fiat. We all know how well that works. In a true democracy, the people decide. Of course, the largest number of people are making less than the fewest wealthy, so they run the risk of succumbing to the temptation of taking what isn’t theirs (often using altruistic slogans as cover) and degenerating into socialism (as aptly illustrated by the old saw that democracy is two wolves and a sheep meeting to decide what’s for lunch). Our Founding Fathers tried to navigate their way around this pool of quagmire by devising a democratic republic. But they recognized it would only work for as long as morality held sway over avarice. So, if not government, and not the people, then who? I submit: The marketplace. The value of goods and services can only be fairly determined there. The more we meddle with it, the more distorted and absurd it becomes.

Ultimately, the question of the right minimum wage falls into the same nebulous territory as how  much welfare and unemployment we should grant. Liberals will argue that more defines us as compassionate and libertarians will argue that the law of unintended consequences mandates a hands-off policy, with conservatives somewhere in the middle. I like to park in the middle.

Keep the safety net low, the playing field clean, and let the marketplace do its thing. Its can be a harsh taskmaster, but ultimately it’s the only umpire I trust.

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