Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Few Thoughts on the Minimum Wage Flap

The last couple of days, a storm has been a-brewin' among some members of the Progressive Bloggers as to whether it is appropriate for Ontario's minimum wage to be raised from $8/hr to $10/hr. A rising young Liberal Party star (who seems, based on the general tone of his writings and politics, to have his eyes on some political career-related prize) has twice decried the notion of such an increase. Others on the PB have taken various sides, including strong words in favour of such an increases here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

(On a side note, the original anti-raise poster, Jason Cherniak, seems to be upset that people have used strong language in disagreeing with him, and seems to attribute it all to NDP partisanship. It's kind of sad, really, that partisanship is the only reason he can come up with for why someone might feel strongly in favour of a raise in the minimum wage and the only reason why people might be engaging in online political writing. Does he think that noone living on minimum wage (and therefore having trouble feeding their kids and staying housed) has a blog? His delusion that politics is best understood as "a civilized policy debate between people who respect the differing opinions of others" is kind of precious. I'm all for "respect" but he means something quite different by that than I would mean, I think. To me, it means proactively engaging in the kind of humble, open learning that this post talks about, rather than feeling comfortable with off-the-cuff dismissal of the realities of those with whom you are in a structural relationship of domination. Using "respect" to mean "empty civility" as seems to have been done here is just plain oppressive. It is amazing the vast swaths of the population whose political realities are erased by his seeming insistance that rage at one's own oppression (or the oppression of those near and dear or oppression in general) should be stifled if one doesn't want to risk rendering one's self somehow inadmissable. Sigh. Well, at least the fact that I am posting after he had already posted this childish rant means that I at least won't be falsley accused of being a New Democrat, as a number of his other targets were.)

I could try and address the many problems in the original anti-raise posts, but others have done that adequately, as referenced above. I would only add that his suggestion that the minimum wage is principally earned by high school students is particularly laughable to me, living as I do in a city where a report last year found that 60% of jobs pay less than $10/hr.

However, in reflecting on this debate, it seems to me that there are two other points that are missing from the discussion.

The first has to do with the false choice that has been posed by Cherniak between raising the minimum wage versus having more resources for social services. As others have noted, it is not clear why this is being posed as an either-or thing and those posing it in such a way have refused to provide a substantive answer. But beyond that is the need to problematize the centre-left tendency to characterize social services as only and always good, as being _the_ answer. Which is not for a moment to say that services are bad -- certainly, in the context of current social relations, I would rather have resources going to services than to profits. However, we need to recognize the fact that in many instances, people living in poverty experience services -- services which they absolutely need to live and therefore cannot simply walk away from -- as institutions which regulate their behaviour in ways that people with more money do not get regulated, as sites where whatever non-economic oppressions they happen to experience (racism, heterosexism, colonialism, ableism, lots of others) get reproduced and reinforced, and as institutions that demand that they perform poorly rewarded and alienating work (broadly understood). This is not meant to feed into right-wing arguments that people should be left to drown without bothering to throw them a rope, but it is to try and make the point -- a difficult one for those of us whose lives are not quite so thoroughly defined by bureaucratic services -- that services are not a panacea and at least in some cases are hated by the people who depend on them.

The second is to maybe reconsider what Cherniak means by the various ways he has said "We can't afford it" or "It isn't practical" and what people mean when they counter that yes we can. The generalized version of that question is, given current social relations, how much can we redistribute resources downwards before it makes simple business sense for those who make decisions in the service of capital to do things with their money that result in the Ontario or Canadian economies, and by extension workers in those jursidictions, being hurt. As far as I can tell, the debate is mostly between those who think that raising the minimum wage crosses that line and will ultimately cause harm, and those who think that raising the minimum wage will not cross that line. I do not have enough specialist knowledge to provide a good technical answer to that question, when posed in those narrow terms, though the answers provided by other bloggers in this debate make me think there probably is room in terms of "economics", just not in terms of the hypocritical balancing act that is Liberal Party politics. In general, my feeling is that we have more room to do such things than we are lead to believe, but we also have substantially less room than before the global rise of neoliberalism tore apart the post-WWII social democratic compromise. But I think that way of framing the question is really offensive because it is accepting without question and therefore providing legitimacy to the idea that capital/business/elites/ruling relations have a right to dictate that some people here must suffer, must be exploited, must be oppressed, must lack food, must lack housing, must have their land stolen, must be raped, must be bashed. I don't accept that. I don't think anyone who considers themselves to be a progressive should accept that either. When neoliberals like Cherniak (or, in the unlikely event they should ever get a real say in such things, even Hampton or Layton) tell us we can't afford to have people no longer going hungry, no longer becoming homeless, what they really mean is that capital will resist if we try to do that. So we need to think long and hard about what we want to do, knowing that we will hit that barrier eventually, even if it isn't this particular proposal for raising the minimum wage.

I have no magic answer, though I think building power outside of state relations, and outside of para-state institutions like political parties which reward faux-progressives like Cherniak and keep even their vaguely more liberal members safely marginal, will be key. And that means building social movements. Because sooner or later, the argument that we can't institute policy X, Y, or Z without retaliation from capital will be an accurate statement, and the only way to change the ground upon which such decisions are made is to have anti-oppressive social movements that can push for social relations that are truly responsive to human need and human desires for liberation.

Being "civilized" -- and I hesitate to even try to reclaim the word, given its horrid colonial baggage -- is not about being polite on blogs while people in Ontario go hungry (and suffer in so many other ways), it is about genuinely committing to an Ontario, to a world, in which noone goes hungry.

12 comments:

Truthteller said...

"who seems, based on the general tone of his writings and politics, to have his eyes on some political career-related prize"

Liblogs is nothing more than a platform for a personal agenda and it's about time everyone realize this simple fact. Your writings are being used to promote a narrow self-promotion.

Anonymous said...

Well reasoned, accurate, and insightful post. I have little to contribute, except a pat on the back.

Scott said...

"Liblogs is nothing more than a platform for a personal agenda"

If you say so -- I have never been to Liblogs and have little interest in it.

"Your writings are being used to promote a narrow self-promotion."

I don't get what you mean. Are you presuming that I am a member of Liblogs, and contributing the the "platform for a personal agenda"? I am not a member of that blog ring or of that party...which, frankly, I think should be obvious if you've actually read this post and looked at all at this site.

Anyway, thanks for reading.

Scott said...

Thanks, Red Jenny!

Dr. Dawg said...

I think truthteller was addressing Jason.

Scott said...

Ooops...you're probably right. Thanks, Dr. Dawg! And sorry, truthteller, for misunderstanding!

Berlynn said...

Good post. Thanks for saying what needed to be said.

Scott said...

Thanks Berlynn...it was reading your post on the subject and the one at Marginal Notes that pushed me to decide I wanted to say something on this issue in the first place, so thank-you for that!

Tim Webster said...

The real question is why the cost of living is so high. And what can be done to lower the cost of living.

1) Has owning a car became a necessity, in order to drive to work. In china, hong kong, india, car ownership is unnecessary luxury. Which does not figure into the cost of labour.

2) Has complex tax policies, such small tax credits to win votes, increased the cost of doing business. Harpers New Conservatives have only made things worse.

3) 3)Are essential services high profit enterprises, raising the cost of living?

4) Perhaps it is another reason? Please share.

Why is the cost of living so high? Raising the minimum wage doesn't really solve the problem caused by inefficiency. Economics seeks efficiencies and if the living cost is too high. The economy will move to more efficient areas.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post.

I echo red jenny's words.

Polly Jones said...

Great post. I am so glad you raised the issues you have around social services.

Scott said...

Thanks Polly and April!

Tim: There may be interesting things to be learned by thinking about the cost of living, but it is not clear to me that it is "the real question."

Just off the top of my head, I think of E.P. Thopmson's accounts of bread riots and direct action to seize needed food in late 18th century England in The Making of the English Working Class, as well as other earlier history about similar conflicts in more purely feudal times, and I have to think there is more going on than that -- employers (and feudal lords) have long managed to allow ordinary people too little to eat, even without all of the fancy infrastructure and created-by-capitalism needs that surround us in 21st century North America.

That said, I certainly agree that we are going to need to collectively examine how we live. I don't know if competitiveness is really much of a reason for doing that -- in that sense, "efficiency" just becomes a stick by which capitalists can beat workers, and extract more from them. But there are very sound environmental reasons.

I think cars are an interesting example. We absolutely must extract ourselves from our dependence on private automobiles because they are killing us and our planet. But it is a common finding in research around barriers to leaving welfare that one barrier is not having and not being able to afford a car to get to where the jobs are. In that narrow sense, the need to include cars in the cost of living is a barrier. But cars are not just a cost. The economy of Ontario depends heavily on the auto industry. Therefore the political economy of the automobile not only increases the cost of living in a sense, it also makes the Ontario economy much more able to provide decent incomes for people. So it is not simple. And, of course, we need to do away with it anyway because it is killing the earth, and because, probably within my lifetime, peak oil will mean that transportation by private automobile will cease to be viable and it will collapse anyway.

Don't know much about tax policies. Certainly Harper is not making anything better, though I am dubious of arguments that say that complicated tax policies are so, so crucial in driving away business.

Regardless of the specific possibilities you cite, I don't know if I agree with the analysis with which you close. I'm not certain that raising the minimum wage is meant to deal with inefficiency -- it is meant to deal with not having enough food, etc., etc. Certainly capital seeks lower costs -- that is a truism -- and I think what you are suggesting is eliminating anything that unnecessarily increases the cost of doing business in a jursidiction. The problem with that is that very often "efficiency" gets used as code for eliminating things that workers have won through struggle. In a way, you are using economic language to go back to my second point above, which talks about it more in class struggle terms: sooner or later, even if we limit our demands to everybody being able to be housed and fed and have some roses as well as bread, capital will respond by disinvesting or even by more aggressive measures via the state. And we need to figure out what do in response to that.