Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Place at the Table: The Problem with Capitalism

According to wikipedia, capitalism is an economic system in which trade, industry, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit.

I see capitalism as a system where private investors run companies which run the economy.  Capitalism, in many ways, is highly efficient and strongly individualistic.  The most successful individuals manage our resources because they have proven they can do it successfully.  What you earn is entirely determined by your individual level of success.

But capitalism leads us to collectively embrace behaviors that almost none of us would accept on an individual level.

The good news is, it doesn't need a lot of changes to make things dramatically better.

The bad news is, if we don't change things they are going to get pretty ugly.

Capitalism doesn't give everyone a place at the dinner table, metaphorically speaking.

Dinner is a great tradition that families have, where they gather around and share both their lives and their food.  They tell stories, talk about problems, discuss ideas, and just spend time with each other.

But imagine what it would be like if everyone had to buy their place at that table.

It would destroy the whole purpose of what Family Dinner is all about.

In a family, everyone is expected to participate and contribute, but at the same time, that expectation is adapted to each individual's needs and abilities.

As a society, we are sorta like a big family.  This family is large, has a lot of different people and ideas, but we are all stuck in the same fishbowl together, we are all connected.

This may be a loosely knit family, that allows us to express a great degree of individuality, but it still needs to have some common expectations.  One person can't be allowed to mess things up for everyone, and everyone, in a small way, needs to participate in public well being.

The problem with capitalism, is it doesn't give everyone a place at the dinner table.

Incidentally, this is also the problem with minimum wage.

Minimum wage got a lot of things right.  It said people should get paid what they are worth, not what they can negotiate for under duress.  It said that people should be treated fairly and generously, and that individuals looking to exploit labor for personal gain don't have any business running our family business.

But minimum wage got some things wrong as well.

Minimum wage says you have to earn your place at the table and it sets a fixed price tag.

It won't take much to fix minimum wage.  But we really need two concepts: Minimum wage and Minimum Pay.

Minimum wage is the amount that reasonably healthy individuals are required to earn.

If you aren't at least putting in your basic share of the work, then that is a problem.

But minimum wage still says you are required to earn all of your living.  You have to fight for your place at the table.

Often times, the people staffing our lowest paying jobs are the ones working the hardest.  They might be minorities, immigrants or targets of discrimination.  Unlike myself, they usually don't have the option of falling back on parental welfare.

When I washed dishes, I estimated that 20 hours of work would involve cleaning 2 years worth of dishes.  One year of part time work would require cleaning 100 years of dishes.  If someone worked that job for 20 years, they would need to clean all the dishes 1 person would use in 2,000 years.

The work of our lowest earners is subsidizing comfortable middle class lifestyles.

Maybe it's time we became directly involved in helping out low wage earners.  They do all the jobs we hate, and ususally because they don't have any other options.  Minimum wage is a small step in improving their pay, but we can do better.

Minimum pay is an assurance that if you do a basic level of work, we will make sure you have enough to live on.

In my proposal, you are required to earn $5/hr, that represents your chores.  But we ensure you can get paid at least $7.50/hr, that is your allowance.

Hopefully this measure will improve the diversity and quality of low wage jobs.  It will take pressure off of disadvantaged workers who are forced to slave away for a limited share of our discarded scraps.

It will give new ventures and local businesses more opportunities to compete.  It will give low wage workers a greater variety of choices without cutting their pay.

Just like the rules of the family are adapted to each individual, we can adapt our societal economic expectations to individual needs and abilities.

For those individuals who don't believe in government welfare or don't need it, they can choose to forgo receiving benefits.  In areas with higher cost of living, the subsidy starts at the local minimum wage level.

Distinguishing between Minimum Wage and Minimum Pay would allow both the state and the individual to play an important role in ensuring personal well-being.

I believe that having both a minimum wage and a minimum pay will do a lot to alleviate inequality and fix our broken system.

It is in our best interest to do so.