McDonald’s has been under fire over its Practical Money Skills Budget Journal, a planning tool designed to help employees organize their personal finances. The tool’s sample budget fails to account for a variety of first-world expenses, leading to a predictable cacophony of folks calling for newer, fresher, more enlightened price-fixing tricks. Stephen Colbert channels the sentiments well.
On the finer points, it can be tempting to get into the weeds, and many already have. Some have focused on the budget itself, debating everything from the actual cost of heat to the necessity of a $100 cable bill. Others have aimed to play the CFO, imagining how Big Mac prices might be impacted if McDonald’s paid its workers the $15 per hour they demand. It’s all been thoroughly deconstructed, but rest assured, the next hypothetical is well on its way.
Yet as fun as all this back-and-forth may be, it misses the larger reality: Prices are not play things.
As economist Art Carden has pointed out, raising the minimum wage is likely to lead to a host of deleterious effects:
The basic introductory economics story holds that when you raise the minimum wage, people increase the amount of labor they are willing to supply while reducing the amount of labor they demand. This creates unemployment: more people want to work, but firms want to hire fewer people. In spite of evidence suggesting that minimum wages do not cause large disemployment effects, a January 2013 study by David Neumark, J.M. Ian Salas, and William Wascher “conclude(s) that the evidence still shows that minimum wages pose a tradeoff of higher wages for some against job losses for others.”
It’s possible that we can get a disemployment effect even if there is no actual change in the unemployment rate or if no one loses his or her job: firms may not actually fire anyone or may not change the number of people they wish to employ, but they might reduce the number of hours of labor they want. A McDonald’s that had ten people working eight hours each on Tuesday might cut that back to ten people working seven and a half hours each on Tuesday.
Further, even if the tradeoff weren’t a tradeoff — i.e. even if McDonald’s retained labor levels while absorbing significant wage increases — different prices attract different people. If entry-level burger-flipping spikes to $15 per hour, you can bet that everyone from unemployed factory workers to newly unleashed B.A. graduates will begin to apply, each competing quite handily against the non-English-speaking immigrant, the single mom without reliable transportation, the inexperienced teenager, or the ex-con looking for a fresh start.
But in addition to the more mundane economic ignorance, the reach and roar of such backlash demonstrates a deeper spoiling of the soil: a widespread preference for pretending rather than progressing. For instead of observing the price and aiming to increase our output to society, such an approach subverts the signal altogether, demanding that society give us what we believe we are due. Rather than viewing human persons as creative beings with creative potential designed to serve and contribute to creative purposes, the bourgeois chatterclass paints low-skilled laborers as hopeless serfs, trapped and beholden to the cauldron-stirring of domineering cheeseburger overlords. Human industry is overrated, and the prospect of mobility is nothing more than a grand old myth. And alas, in a world as bleak as this, what else is one to do but clamor for certain static somethings from certain statused someones?
I recently observed that peace and prosperity are underappreciated, using our widespread scorn for places like McDonald’s as Exhibit A. Quite unfortunately, the point stands affirmed.
Businesses like McDonald’s offer low-skilled workers a place to begin a larger, lifelong process of personal development and social contribution, yet in response, we now prefer to elevate and legislate an ethos of sitting, settling, and begging for more. Only on the heels of modernity and at the peak of unprecedented prosperity can Americans treat a $7-per-hour gig in an air-conditioned burger joint with more disdain than my immigrant great-grandfather would’ve lent his coal-shoveling duties on the railroad. We’d do well to remember from whence we came, but even better to know how we got where we got.
Prosperity is a messy thing to come by, and though it’s less and less messy by the day, this wonderful world of cell phones and cheap groceries didn’t happen by accident. It was built from a basic view of human dignity and opportunity that reached higher than the types of low-ball thinking and cheap gimmicks that permeate the conversation on mobility. We can bully the fat cats to give us our due till we’re green with envy, but this is characteristic of a people grounded in temporality and fatalism, not hope and possibility.
The moment we get all of this backwards, confusing the beginning with the end, the floor for the ceiling, is the moment we trade the authentic for the artificial across the board. The human spirit was destined for much more than minimum-mindedness such as this.