A well-known, liberal economist was discussing the increasing polarization of wealth in the US, the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and the minimum wage, among other issues, the other day on a relatively popular radio program. In addition to his other remarks, the economist (who once served as Labor Secretary) noted that when it is adjusted for inflation the minimum wage is today lower than ever. He also added that if the minimum wage were adjusted for productivity levels, it would amount to something like $15 an hour in today’s dollars. Among other things, he suggested something that on first blush sounds entirely reasonable, but on further reflection seems highly problematic. For the economist suggested that, in general, economic conditions would be markedly improved if fast food workers were to receive an hourly wage of something like 15 dollars. Not only would more people be able to afford a higher quality of life, he argued, but the increased money in circulation would create even more jobs.
Yet while such a wage raise would undoubtedly alleviate much short-term misery, it would do little to correct deeply-rooted socioeconomic problems in the long-term. For even if, for argument’s sake, all fast food workers received livable incomes, not only would there still be a huge pool of unemployed and underemployed people in the world (even fast food jobs are hard to come by these days), the production of meat, according to a 2006 UN report, is so harmful that it imperils the livability of the entire planet.
Not only does the meat industry pose more of a harm to the planet’s water, air and soil than the automobile industry, its harms extend beyond the general environment: the employees of the fast-food industry systematically suffer occupational diseases; the people who consume, and increasingly rely on, fast food for inexpensive nourishment suffer all sorts of serious health problems as a result; and, of course, these harms extend as well to all of the other animals slaughtered in the process – not to mention the forests and ecosystems destroyed to create pastures for raising animals. To be sure, rather than raising wages and further “developing” the fast food industry, a sane political-economy would work toward banning this ecocidal industry altogether.
Such a suggestion will no doubt strike many as lying outside the bounds of political reality. Yet, what makes such a statement seem so unrealistic is less its practical content than an ideology that is itself quite literally unmoored from reality – one that not only mistakes a set of social conditions that are wholly contingent on all sorts of historical and geographical variables for a natural and necessary Order, but one that is downright ecocidal as well. Indeed, any honest, critical, non-dogmatic assessment of our present and future ‘Fukushima economy’ must recognize that our vast technological knowhow and our copious resources are hardly being employed in a sane or humane manner. Rather than providing goods and services that people actually need, more often than not our economy produces disposable, carcinogenic garbage. From fast food and fracking, to automobiles and disposable plastic bottles, without hyperbole the present political economy may be said to spread more harm than good. Rather than wage increases, then, and the creation of more toxic jobs (among the other reforms that do little to ameliorate – and just as often exacerbate – our socio-economic predicament) what we really ought to do is rethink our entire political-economic system.
Before discussing a minimum wage, or a maximum wage, we should ask the basic question: what is the point of an economy in the first place? Is it to create jobs, and to make money? Or are jobs merely incidental? Are they an end in themselves? Or are they but a means to the creation of those conditions necessary for human flourishing? One may even go so far as to argue that an economy is only legitimate to the extent that it creates such conditions; and that a society (especially one holding itself out as a just society) has an actual duty of care to supply these conditions directly. If one accepts the argument that a society has such a duty of care, a society’s failure to supply such conditions amounts to a breach of this duty, and to a forfeiture of its legitimacy.
With more and more people living in poverty, and most of the 99% of us carrying unconscionable levels of debt; with the degradation of the natural environment leading to epidemics of cancer and other preventable diseases (not to mention other widespread injustices, like the so-called “justice system” itself) it is not difficult to see that this society has failed to satisfy this duty of care. Nor is it difficult to see that this political-economy’s march along its ecocidal path is precluding the possibility of satisfying such conditions in the future.
As we discuss the two year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street – as collective wealth in the form of forests, and minerals, and schools, among other parts of the public sphere, are further privatized and given to businesses to “develop” – and as a 1,000 year flood submerges portions of Colorado as a result of these antisocial policies - we must recognize that though it may be important to support efforts to secure livable incomes for all, we must also recognize that increases in mere “purchasing power” (as opposed to a meaningful, truly egalitarian redistribution of political power and resources) only contributes further to our toxic Fukushima political-economy.