Actually, a surprisingly amiable conversation. We release this fifth Courteous Conversation about minimum wage fittingly on Labor Day. Today celebrates the contribution of laborers—sometimes underpaid and overworked—to our nation’s prosperity and wellbeing.
Kevin, a tenured liberal professor at Vanderbilt, asks Tim a range of questions about the minimum wage. Kevin is tall, confident, and wears a pink shirt, khaki pants, and white socks. He feigns being embarrassed about the socks. Tim is a little shorter and a little more nervous. It’s his first year as a visiting professor of econ at Vanderbilt, and he says, “If this was a boxing match, we’re not exactly in the same weight class.”
We quickly realize they’re both incredibly intelligent; it’s not just what they say but how they frame their comments. It’s always with an understanding of limitations. They are quick to acknowledge all the weaknesses and assumptions of a particular perspective, even if it’s one they hold. And while they speak, I keep returning to the realization that below the policies and rhetoric, these people really agree. They have the same goals. They want to improve the situation of the poor and needy. And it’s not some intellectual game either. They’re sincere.
But how do you do this? Of course no one really knows. What we do know is that there are some natural statistics, social experiments, and a lot of ways to look at the problem. Kevin primarily adopts an ethical and interpersonal perspective. It’s the idea that these people living at minimum wage can’t make a decent living. That shouldn’t be the case. It’s that simple. They deserve better—and so instead of purchasing a yacht, the CEO should pay his employees a little more.
To explain the plight of people working at minimum wage, he gives the example of a business owner who has just realized that over the last century he has raised all of his employees’ wage by 3 percent per year except one. This employee’s earnings remain stagnant. That’s people stuck at minimum wage. The cost of living has gone up and people around them are richer, but they remain at the bottom. So imagine you’re the owner, what do you do? We all get that.
And Tim gets it too. And he gets it better than we do. He nods his head and says that in the competitive market, that worker should have left twenty years ago. His problem is not that the parable was inaccurate but that it ends with a business owner making a moral choice. That’s great, but it’s really hard to enforce morality. It’s hard because the mechanisms we use, like minimum wage, can really mess things up and often hurt the people they’re meant to help.
And he has another problem. The people at the bottom of the wage distribution are not just competing with the people around them. They compete internationally. A lot of those jobs can be shipped away, sent to other people who likewise really need the money. So we can raise the minimum wage, restrict international trade, but do we end up helping more people than we hurt? Sometimes when we try to help our neighbors it’s at the expense of someone across the world. That complicates things. He asks, does living in America entitle us to a certain standard of living? Do we somehow deserve a bigger bite of pie than people in Ethiopia? In some ways he thinks so, but he doesn’t know the answer. What he knows is that wages continue to equalize internationally even if not locally. And if nothing else, that should make us think.
And that’s just the value of this sort of conversation. It exposes that liberals and conservatives often share the same underlying goals. They both care about people. We just approach the problems differently. And what solutions we come to, what feels right to us, has a lot to do with what questions we ask.
Please listen to the conversation; it’s worth it. This conversation was recorded outside on Vanderbilt’s campus. I apologize for a few sirens, and occasional construction noises. I do not apologize for the lovely birds.
Here are the other four Courteous Conversation topics: