Pope Francis recently published an Apostolic Exhortation (AE) called “Evangelii Gaudium” or the “Joy of the Gospel” in English. The AE is a communication from the Pope to the church body encouraging them to undertake a certain activity, though it does not, itself, set church doctrine. In it the Pope criticizes unrestrained Capitalism, the blind faith that people place in free markets, and the structural and institutional causes of poverty and income inequality. Mostly he criticizes the “deified markets”. Shocking that a religious leader might criticize the worship of money. Though that sounds shockingly similar to some other religious leader I’ve heard of. Who was it? hmmm, totally blanking on his name. Started with a J? It’ll come to me I’m sure. Anyway, the point being that the Pope is being completely derivative on this issue. After the AE came out, conservative pundits predictably cried Marxism! A full discussion about the causes of income inequality and static economic mobility is beyond this blog. But I did want to think about the morality behind wage levels. It’s not a new quandary, but it’s very much part of the national discussion at the moment.
In addition to the AE, Labor unrest has been hitting the news cycle. Marches, protests, and labor strikes among low paid employees have drawn a lot of attention in recent weeks. Commentators at Fox News, have been quite adamant that low paid employees don’t deserve higher wages from a moral perspective. They say that you’re not supposed to compensate them well because these are the bottom of the barrel workers. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have these jobs in the first place and paying them more would somehow be theft from their employers and artificially inflate the wages of the next higher class of employee until the system falls apart either because the professional class can now just laze about like the working class (seriously guys?), or because it’ll cause a cascade reaction forcing wages up at every class and destroying business in this country. Aside from being completely divorced from any kind of practical reality or basic understanding of the labor market the focus on morality as it applies to wages is a little unusual from an economic perspective.
From a conservative economics perspective it’s a little unusual to talk about what wage a person deserves. Typically a conservative economist when discussing wages will talk about productivity and supply and demand. A CEO gets so much because his productivity will create or destroy value for the entire company and his salary should reflect (in theory) the potential increase in value. The professional classes get more than working classes because of their productive output gets a premium from the relative value that their skill maintains. The working poor contribute relatively small amounts of overall productivity individually and they have no special skill set or their skills are too common to demand a premium. We typically have laws that protect the working poor from being exploited since it would be relatively easy to do.
From a Liberal economist’s perspective, when it comes to wages they often discuss justice. You may notice that you have to pay your workers actual, like, actual legal currency. This wasn’t always the case. Nor can you mandate where they spend their money. The Liberal economist would also demand you pay your workers some minimum. They would argue that a worker produces goods and services and should be compensated for such even if the supply and demand market forces put the wages below that of the cost (to the worker) of production. The minimum wage law in this country is $7.24 nationally (it may be higher depending on local and state laws) because it can be argued that at the very minimum workers are contributing is at least 7.24$/hr to their employers and should be compensated at that rate even if employers could otherwise find cheaper labor. Obviously it’s a somewhat arbitrary figure, and, since it’s a law, it carries with it certain political connotations.
Suffice it to say there’s a LOT of overlap between the Liberal and Conservative voices on this issue. But neither of them would approach the question ‘morally’ since that would be fundamentally unquantifiable. But that’s never stopped others. Giving wages moral value, and by extension the workers themselves a moral value is old news. What the pundits at Fox News and other conservative media outlets is doing is a VERY unsophisticated form of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is the theory that Might Makes Right. That whoever is on top deserves to be on top and poor deserve their poverty. It’s a theory who’s primary argument is that we shouldn’t help people because helping people is the theft of resources from the more deserving and morally superior elite. That when the underclass completes this theft they can now breed and propagate requiring ever more stolen goods from their betters. I wish this was sarcasm or hyperbole, but it’s not. If the papal message about valuing human life and dignity is revolutionary then this should tell you how far from the ideal we are and how badly we have failed.