Ego is such a funny thing. It is contradictory in its nature. It is powerful and fragile at the same time. People create amazing works of art because of ego, and engage in spectacularly stupid behavior as well. As I get older I wonder more and more whether economics is less a cause of human misery than our need to stand out and above all others. Oh, sure, wealth allows us to do so more readily, but each year it the evidence seems greater that when push comes to shove we are still just animals beating our chests to establish our status.
Nowhere else is this more obvious than the debate about the minimum wage in America. Yes, the talking heads will have you believe it is about job creation. They smile wide and tell you that employers cannot afford to raise the minimum wage. They do so while the people they represent live lives beyond the imagination of kings of old. Somehow asking them to live in a 30,000 square foot house rather than a 50,000 one is a gross injustice.
Never mind that though. The real ugliness rears its monstrous head when the middle class starts weighing in. Because once you have torn down the lie that raising the minimum wage raises prices or destroys jobs (the opposite is true in the latter case, as more people being able to afford goods means a greater need to produce them, but I digress) all they are left with are appeals to our baser nature. Minimum wage workers do not deserve higher wages because their work is “unskilled.”
Rather than look on their fellow Americans as people who are earning a living wage by being productive members of our society (whatever that means, I seriously doubt most folks reflect on that question) they demean them. They claw at what little status they have. They need to be over someone, and since that someone is not the economic elite they will take it where ever they can. The thirty year old single mom flipping burgers in a chain restaurant is less than them, because they need her to be, and if her life is not one of scraping to keep a roof over her kids’ heads, than how can they be better than her?
It is the only explanation I can think of, because the economics just don’t add up. Paying a living wage helps everyone, including the fat cats at the top. It means more production, more wealth for all, and a safer, stabler, society. It means more people with the means to pay into our public works making better roads and better schools, and seeing that the burden is shared by everyone, including the “takers” at the “bottom.”
I guess we cannot have that though. It appears that we are only able to measure our happiness relative to others. The lack of self-examination by those who decry progressives as being envious of the rich all while displaying that envy themselves would be funny if it were not so sad. They envy the very wealthy and because their happiness is diminished by others, they only way they can find happiness is by reducing it for yet another group. At least that is what it seems.
It would be nice, would it not, if we could let go of this need for status. I do believe we are able. I also believe, though, that it will be hard work to convince folks to do this. Status is almost a religion to us, and has been since before the word “capitalism” ever entered the lexicon. People will not let go of it easily, even if it means their continued unhappiness.
- Everything You Ever Needed to Know About the Minimum Wage (theatlantic.com)
- Where do you set the minimum wage? (globalnews.ca)
- Infographic: Is the American Minimum Wage Too Low? – Part 2 (mint.com)