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The McDouble and the Minimum Wage

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Wizard of Id - Minimum WageThe protests organized by labor organizations to advocate for an increase in the minimum wage have garnered attention, most recently from the NYT, which editorialized in favor of such moves. Over at Think Christian, I weigh in with an attempt to provide some more of the complex context behind the moral evaluation of such mandates.

In the piece, I’m really less interested in the plight of current-minimum wage workers relative to those who might become minimum-wage workers with an increase, those who are currently priced-out of labor markets because of minimum-wage legislation, and those who will be priced out with an increase.

Earlier this week, Joseph Sunde discussed the issue with an eye towards the price of labor: “Prices are not play things.” I largely agree with Joseph about the significance of the price associated with various kinds of labor. The signal that minimum-wage workers should be receiving is that their work is not that specialized or valuable in the marketplace. You can rage against the values of the marketplace all you like, but that’s what the prices signal.

But as I also acknowledge in the TC piece, the price of our labor isn’t all there is to say about us as people:

The human person created in God’s image is of inestimable value. But what the wages represent is not a commentary on the value of the human person as such. Rather, wages are a sign, a token really, of the value of our work to others. What we are paid is a representation of how serviceable, and therefore how salable, our work is. It’s a natural instinct to tie our self-worth to what we are remunerated in the marketplace. But this can be a misleading and potentially destructive identification.

So while prices aren’t perfect, and certainly don’t perfectly represent the inscrutable value of the human person as such, the do communicate something that shouldn’t be ignored about the value of particular forms of service.

The economist Victor Claar makes a salient point in the forthcoming controversy in the Journal of Markets & Morality about fair trade. He writes, “People earning only the minimum wage today in the United States are usually stuck there because they have relatively little to contribute in the way of specific skills, expertise, or training; that is, their labor productivity is low.” He then points to the Wizard of Id strip that appears at the top of this post as a way of illustrating this reality.

Victor concludes that a relevant takeaway from this, for both minimum-wage workers in the US and those in poverty across the globe, is that “people everywhere enhance their earning potential when they increase their own human capital in ways that have worth to others.”

That said, minimum-wage work does render true service, and that shouldn’t be ignored or undervalued either. It’s highly doubtful, for instance, that what’s been called “the cheapest, most nutritious and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history,” the McDonald’s McDouble, would have been able to rise to that achievement without the value-added by millions of minimum-wage workers.
Subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality here.

Purchase Victor V. Claar’s Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution here.

Purchase Economics in Christian Perspective by Victor Claar and Robin Klay here.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.


  • Curt Day

    As I wrote on another person’s article, the only questioning that seems to be allowed is that of the demand of the worker. And the answer given to the demand assumes that neither the system nor those with wealth and power who define the system need changing. This is economic classism where we push those with the least in both power and wealth to the fringes to protect those with the most and their creation of the system.

    The scripture verse of the month on my blog comes from Ezekiel 16:49. It says that part of Sodom’s guilt consisted of the contrast between the riches that people were given compared to the help they withheld from those in need. From their arrogance sprang their sins of coldheartedness (vs 49) to those in need as well as doing detestable things (vs 50).

    If raising the wages of low wage earners results in fewer such earners having jobs, perhaps the system we so tightly embrace needs to be pried away from our arms less we, because of arrogance, become like Sodom.

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  • Jim Wyse`

    I want everyone to be able to earn enough money to live with dignity. The question on my mind continues to be: is the best way to do that making a law that people must be paid ten dollars an hour whether or not they produce ten dollars of value every hour, or is it helping people become able to produce more value?