Friday, September 15, 2017

Blueprint For America: Going Minimum Wage One Better

Not long ago -- a few hours, as it happens -- I published an article (you can read it here) arguing for an increase in the minimum wage to a livable wage. So far I've gotten a few comments on this ... one guy who regularly trolls my stuff dropped his load, as expected, but other than that the comments have come from thoughtful, reasoned places (both for and against).

One of those comments linked to this article in The Atlantic published 'way back in 2014 (seems a lifetime ago, don't it?) arguing for a guaranteed minimum income -- in short, giving people money. I love this idea, and for reasons that conservatives might actually get on board with. So let's dive in, shall we?

First off, taking this approach would eliminate all forms of means-tested government assistance. Food stamps, child care subsidies, home heating assistance -- any federal dollars going to these programs or others like them would be redirected into this fund. This also means entire bureaucracies could be dissolved completely, saving the government billions each year.

Second, doing this would effectively eliminate poverty.

Third, in many cases the government would get the money back under my proposal. "But wait," say the people who actually took the time to read the Atlantic article (you did read it, didn't you? Good. I thought so), "I didn't see anything about getting money back. What gives?" The explanation is quite simple, really:

I made it up.

Now, before y'all start accusing me of being just another lying hateful liberal communist socialist atheist muslim dog raper or something, let me just clear one thing up: I love dogs. I have two.

As far as the "getting money back" thing, I am doing nothing more than expanding on the idea espoused in The Atlantic. The way I see this program working is simple:

  1. Each year, at the start of the year, every adult who is not being claimed as a dependent on someone else's tax return will get a check from the Federal government equal to the annual poverty line for that person's household size. So, using this years poverty lines as examples, a single person living alone would get a check for $12,060. A household with two people would get a check for $16,240, a three person household would get one for $20,420, and so on (the actual mechanics of how these funds would be disbursed would have to be worked out ... for example, a household of two of which one is a minor might see a single check for $16,240 going to the head of the household, whereas a two person household with two able-bodied adults might see two checks for $8,120 each).
  2. This amount would be taxable, and taxes withheld according to contemporary rates.
  3. For people who are working, an additional amount sufficient to return the amount of this payment by the end of the year will be withheld in addition to normal payroll taxes. This amount will not exceed 10% of the gross wages for that pay period.
  4. For people who are working for only part of the year (seasonal workers, for example, or someone who had not been working starts a job), the amount to be repaid will be prorated based on the number of months of the year spent working.
  5. If the full amount is not repaid by the end of the year the remainder is taxed as income at the highest tax bracket in place for that year.
This is all just spitballing, so I have no hard numbers to bolster this, but it seems like a good way to both reduce (if not eliminate) poverty while simultaneously ending the minimum wage debate and reducing income inequality. Obviously, there are many aspects of this that I haven't dealt with here -- incorporating incentives to work for those who are unemployed, for example -- which is why this is just an idea, folks, and not an actual policy proposal.

I gotta lie down.

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Blueprint for America: Minimum Wage

One of the points highlighted by Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail in 2016 was the idea that someone who is working a full time job should be able to live above the poverty line. This is not a very radical concept, if you think about it, but conservatives (always the master of spin and messaging) have managed to paint this idea with a tar-soaked brush. For some reason, and despite mountains of data to the contrary, they maintain that raising the minimum wage will hurt businesses, that people earning minimum wage just need to be more responsible and they will be able to invest their savings to accumulate wealth, and so on.

One man I know, who happens to be a local elected official where I live, has angrily demanded to know why, if these people are so poor, they have iPhones. He was also one of the strongest proponents of "the poor should just invest their savings" line, despite it being pointed out to him that living below the poverty line means you don't have savings (to be fair, he did concede this point, but it didn't change is position one whit). Evidently, he also subscribes to a notion popular among conservatives that people should not be eligible for any kinds of assistance unless they live in Dickensian squalor.

It is not only criminal and immoral, but downright idiotic that a person can work full time and the only way to avoid being below the poverty line is to have no dependents at all. Consider that, for 2015, the federal poverty line for a single individual is $11,770. If this person works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, with no unpaid leave at all, then he or she will earn $15,080 -- BEFORE taxes. Assuming the standard deductions, etc. and even granting that this person lives in a state with no state income tax (Florida, for example), this works out to a gross amount of $290 a week. Take Federal taxes out and it becomes $251.01 a week, or $13,052.26 a year, under $1,100 a month. Add in Pennsylvania state taxes, say, and this drops to $239.00 a week, or $12,428 a year, or about $1,035.00 a month.

Add a dependent to the mix? The net income in Pennsylvania goes up to $246.79 a week, (12,833.03 a year, or a little over $1,069.00 a month), but the poverty line has now moved to $16,240 per year ... which means that a person with one child, working 40 hours per week with no time off, is now living roughly $3,500.00 a year below the poverty line.

“That’s not a problem,” say corporations like Wal-Mart. “They can get food stamps and other forms of public assistance.” And they are absolutely correct. However, what they don’t like to point out is this is actually one of the biggest ripoffs of the Federal government in history.

Consider: between a minimum wage salary and public assistance, individuals are receiving the equivalent of just under $17 per hour. However, the employer is paying less than half of that, with the federal and state government bearing the cost of the rest. Kind of a sweet deal for the corporations, since they can pay their employees wages that would not have provided any standard of living ten years ago, much less today, without the guilty conscience (stretching that it even exists, I know) or public relations liability (a much more realistic concern) of them actually living that way. In addition, instead of a boost to tax revenue from higher wages coming to state and federal coffers, we are actually drawing those coffers down.

Conservatives like to tout studies that say that increasing wages causes employers to cut jobs. While this may be true in the hypotheticals that were posed to employers by conservative organizations like the American Enterprise Institute and Americans for Prosperity, the reality is that they are only looking at one side of the coin.

The truth of the matter is, if you raise the wages of a person living at or near the poverty line, that extra money doesn’t go under the mattress -- it gets spent. A night out at the local pizza place, a new pair of shoes, new brakes for the 24 year old Toyota ... regardless of what it is, it is actual economic activity that would not have taken place before. Compound this by the number of people receiving this wage increase, and you start to see that the economic benefits are actually pretty significant.

But don’t take my word for it. Look at Henry Ford, never one to be considered an altruistic humanist. Ford was a tycoon in the greatest early 1900s tradition. In 1914, however, he shocked the world by announcing that he was raising the wages of his assembly line workers from $2.34 for a nine hour day to $5 for an eight hour day. In a book published in 1926 called “Today and Tomorrow,” Ford said “The owner, the employees, and the buying public are all one and the same, and unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low it destroys itself, for otherwise it limits the number of its customers. One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers.”

After Henry Ford did this, Ford Motor Company went belly-up, never to be heard from again, right? An interesting historical footnote that simply proved the conservative argument?

Actually, from 1914 until 1942 (when civilian automotive production ceased and shifted to wartime production), Ford was the number one automaker in the country for 19 of those 29 years -- including an unbroken run at the top spot from 1914 through 1926. After that Ford was swapping places with Chevrolet based on a few percentage points until well into the 2000s (there are some who would argue that Chevrolet’s numbers are actually artificially inflated starting in the 70s because of “captive imports” such as the Chevrolet-branded Isuzu pickup trucks and so on, but that is another, much geekier, discussion for another time and an audience composed primarily of nerdy gearheads).

It is also interesting to note that in 1968, when minimum wage was at its highest in relation to the poverty line, the economy was healthy and the amount spent per capita on federal benefits was near record lows. Compare that to 2007, when minimum wage was at it lowest in relation to the poverty line (just edging out 1990 for that title) and federal spending per capita for benefits was near record highs.

But hey, we're talking about the poor, so it doesn't really matter, right?

Increasing the minimum wage to a living wage may cost a few jobs in the short term. However, as was mentioned before, it will be short term pain for long term gain. The people enjoying the living wage are not going to hunker down and start stashing all of this newfound wealth under the floorboards. They are going to spend it. They are going to spend in ways they have never been able to spend before -- not just day-to-day necessities like food, diapers, clothing, and so on, but also bigger ticket items like washing machines, a used car, that sort of thing. This will create increased economic activity, which creates jobs. See how this works?

I gotta lie down.

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Monday, September 11, 2017


Sixteen years ago -- hard to believe it's been that long -- I was fast asleep. My girlfriend (who later became my wife, and is now my ex-wife), an event planner, was asleep next to me, having decided to come home the night before instead of spending the night with her colleagues at the event they had been putting together for the next day. I was awoken by the phone, and my girlfriend's mother asking frantically where she was. When I told her she was with me, the relief was palpable ... then she told me to turn on the TV.

When I did, and the picture finally came up, it was just in time to see the second plane hit. I didn't know what I was looking at. Even after hearing Tom Brokaw explain it to me, I was still having a difficult time wrapping my head around it.

It didn't take long for it to sink in. I sat on the couch, smoking incessantly while my eyes were glued to the TV. My girlfriend got up and took a shower to calm herself. While she was in there I had to be the one to tell her that the south tower had collapsed.

I could go on with a play-by-play of the entire day, and those that followed ... the second tower collapsing, the single engine plane that went overhead a couple of days later (not an uncommon occurrence) that was followed seconds later by two F-15s (an extremely uncommon occurrence) ... but instead I want to focus on what has become of us since then.

We have seen a number of fundamental changes in our society in those years. Some of them were a direct result of the attacks, others were part of the "natural" progression of society, still others were ... well, just kinda random. I'm going to focus on those elements that sprung directly from the attacks.

Increased airport security
Prior to 9/11, airport screening consisted of a bored, minimum wage mall cop asking you if you were carrying any explosives or firearms, requiring a single-word answer ("no"). You had to go through a metal detector; as it turns out, many of them weren't even turned on about half the time. The cockpit door was basically the same as the door to the lavatory, it was wide open while passengers boarded the plane, and it was not uncommon for the cockpit crew to take a little stroll down the aisle to chat with passengers, stretch their legs, or possibly sexually harass a flight attendant in the back.

Nowadays you're lucky if you can get on a place without a full cavity search. If you give any indication that you are not WASPy enough, you may be pulled off the flight by an air marshal.

Oh, and we have "air marshals" now.

A new (mis)understanding of Islam
In the 20th century and the first eight months of the 21st, Muslims were basically cartoon characters in the West: they were either shrieking maniacs with scimitars who made weird ululating cries before being shot by Indiana Jones, or they were adorable urchins who abducted princesses for magic carpet rides before singing a romantic ballad in a flawless, if somewhat bland and uninspired, tenor.

After 9/11, we in the West began to understand that there are two kinds of Islam: the shrieking maniac kind, and the devoutly religious but otherwise peaceful kind. Fortunately our leaders at the time understood the difference between the two, and took great pains to point out that the maniacs were nothing more than a very extreme, very tiny minority, and that we should not paint all Muslims with the broad "terrorist" brush.

Of course, I'm kidding. The George W. Bush administration, under the capable, slimy hands of Darth Cheney, decided that since Islamic fundamentalists were batshit crazy they couldn't possibly be a part of the same religion as the rest of Islam, so therefore all Muslims wore suicide vests as fashion statements. After all, it's not like Christianity had intolerant, racist, spittle-emitting lunatics posing as fundamentalists, right?

Orwell may have been onto something
In 1984, the citizens of Oceania -- formerly North America and the British Isles -- lived in an oppressive society in which a constant state of war exists between either Eastasia or Eurasia (the antagonists switch every now and again, but nobody seems to notice since all records are scrubbed), each citizen's movements and activities are monitored every minute of every day, and even thinking, much less voicing aloud, thoughts that were "impure" could get you arrested or killed.

In 2017, the citizens of the United States live in a constant state of war with either Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria (depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them), our actions and activities are pretty closely monitored thanks to domestic surveillance put in place by the Bush administration and studiously not removed by anyone since, and while "thoughtcrime" doesn't exist (yet) there are people whose lives have been ruined due to backlash resulting from the voicing of unpopular views.

I'm thinking George Orwell may have been more prophetic than anyone realized.

As time goes on the 9/11 attacks become less "traumatic national crisis" and more "important historical event." I have not a few friends who are no longer with us who were alive on that day. I have two children who were not yet born on that day. More and more I am encountering people for whom 9/11 was not a defining moment in their lives but yet another date to remember on a history exam.

It's similar, I suppose, to the assassination of President Kennedy. That happened almost ten months before I was born, so I do not have anywhere near the connection to it that, say, my parents had (they were twenty five when it happened). I'm guessing that, by 1979, this catastrophic tragedy had faded in impact due to an entire generation growing up outside of its shadow, in much the same way that we have people graduating from high school this year who were too young to remember anything from that fateful day in September, 2001.

It is important that we teach them. Not just the facts and figures, not just the names, dates, and places, but also the stories ... the hundreds of first responders who rushed into harm's way to try to save lives; the heroism of the passengers of Flight 93 when they realized that they people who took over the plane were on a suicide mission; the people in Queens and Brooklyn who took in tired, footsore Manhattanites who had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge because there was no other way off the island. We need to teach them that this was a momentous event, one that helped to define our national character for decades to come, and that we will soon be passing the torch to them to carry on the work of rebuilding. Not just the buildings and infrastructure, but also our national identity, our reputation as a "shining city on the hill" (to cop a quote from Ronald Reagan), our standing as a beacon of freedom, and liberty, and tolerance, and light.

Now, sixteen years later, the pain of that day has lessened. The immediacy is gone. The scars left by the twin towers have been healed, and One Freedom Tower stands where there had been smoking, burning rubble. The Pentagon has been repaired. The field in Pennsylvania where Flight 93 was forced down by the passengers has become a holy site, much like the battlefields in Gettysburg and Spotsylvania, memorials to the thousands who lost their lives on those days.

True story: a few days after the attacks there was a telethon to raise funds for the families of the victims. Hundreds -- thousands -- of people volunteered their time. Some performed gratis (Billy Joel's version of "New York State of Mind" was almost heartbreaking), while other well-known celebrities were answering phones. I called in to pledge my $25, and I found myself speaking with Robert DeNiro.

I knew this was his hometown, so I asked him "Mr. DeNiro, how are you doing with all this?" There was a moment of silence, then a sigh, then he said "I lost a couple of people. It's hard." There was another pause, and he became all business ... but in that brief moment he was not an internationally recognized movie star talking to an out-of-work database administrator, we were just a couple of guys trying to make sense of a world that had been completely upended in the space of roughly twenty minutes.

It is important on this day to not only remember what happened and who it happened to, but also to acknowledge that it could have turned out so much worse. The attackers were trying to terrify us, to make us afraid, maybe even to force us to turn against each other. They did not count on the resilience of the American spirit, the sheer determination of the American people to not be cowed.

Above all, they did not understand the sacrifices we, as a people, are willing to make to ensure that such evil does not go unchallenged.

I gotta lie down.

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