A Philosopher's Blog

Minimum Wage VI: Subsidizing

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 11, 2013

McDonalds-Brentwood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common way to argue against not raising (or even just eliminating) the minimum wage is to build a case based on claims about those who work such jobs. For example, one approach is to argue that the people on minimum wage are mainly high school and college kids who are just earning spending money. As another example, it is often claimed that minimum wage jobs are temporary jobs for most workers—they will spend a little while at minimum wage and move up to better pay. While these claims are true in some cases, the reality is rather different in general. For example, the average age of fast food workers is almost thirty—they are not just school kids. Also, a significant number of people get stuck in minimum wage jobs because there is nothing else available.

As an aside, even if it were true that all those working such jobs were just earning spending money or were going to move on up, it would not follow that the minimum wage should be lower or eliminated. After all, the fairness of a wage is distinct from the motive of the person working for the job or what they might be doing next. For example, if I am selling my books to get money to buy running shoes rather than on survival necessities, it would seem odd to claim that I am thus obligated to lower my prices. Likewise, even if a kid is earning money to spend on video games rather than for putting food on the table, it would seem odd to say that she is thus entitled to less pay for the work she does.

Getting back to the main focus of this essay, the reality is that many of the folks who work minimum wage jobs are working the jobs primarily to pay for necessities and that many of them are stuck in such jobs (in large part to the current economic situation).  The reality also is that a minimum wage job will typically not provide adequate income to pay for the necessities. Interestingly, some corporations recognize this. McDonald’s, for example, generated a brief bit of controversy with its helpful guide for employees: the corporation advised employees in minimum wage jobs to have another job.

Given the gap between the actual cost of living and the pay of a minimum wage job, it is not surprising that quite a few of the folks who work for minimum wage avail themselves of state support programs, such as food stamps (which now goes by other names) and Medicaid. After all, they cannot earn enough to pay for necessities and certainly prefer not to starve or end up on the streets (although some are malnourished and struggling with housing). While one narrative about such people is that they are living easy on federal support, the reality is rather different—most especially for the working poor who have families, for those who are endeavoring to attend college or who hope to start a business.

Obviously enough, one large source for the funds for these programs is the taxpayer. That is, those who pay taxes are helping to subsidize those who received state support while working minimum wage jobs. However, there seems to be another equally plausible way of looking at the matter: the taxpayers are subsidizing those who pay minimum wage to their employees. That is, these employers can pay their employees less than what they need to survive because other people pick up the tab for this, thus allowing the employers to increase profits. If this is correct, those of us who pay taxes are involved in corporate socialism.

It could be countered that the taxpayers are not subsidizing the employers, such as McDonald’s. After all, the money for Medicaid and such are not going to the corporation, but to the workers. The obvious counter is that while this is technically true, the taxpayers are still contributing to sustaining the work forces for these employers, thus subsidizing them and allowing them to page sub-survival wages.

It could also be contended that the employer has no obligation to pay workers enough to survive on without the addition of state support. After all, there are plenty of poor people and if some cannot survive on minimum wage, then economic selection will weed them out so that those who can survive on less will take their place in the economic ecosystem. This, of course, seems rather harsh and morally dubious, at best.

Another counter is that the poor are to blame for their wages. If they had better skills, more talent, better connections and so on, then they would not be receiving that minimum wage but a better salary. As such, while it might be unfortunate that the poor are so badly paid, it is their own fault and hence their employers owe them nothing more. If the state wishes to help them out, that is hardly subsidizing the companies—they would, or so they might say, pay more for a better class of worker.

This has, obviously enough, all the moral appeal of a robber saying that it is the fault of her victims that they were not able to resist her crimes.

Overall, it does appear to be clear that the taxpayers are helping to subsidize those on minimum wage. While we could decide to let the poor slip deeper into poverty that would seem to be a wicked thing to do. It does seem to be reasonable to shift more of the cost to the employers who benefit from the work of the employees. After all, many corporations that are based on minimum wage workers have been making excellent profits—at the expense of the workers and the tax-payers.

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Minimum Wage V: Taxes & Wages

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 9, 2013
Money cash

Money cash (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

In the United States, there is considerable intersection between the class of people who oppose minimum wage and the class that opposes taxes. In some cases, both of these views can be grounded on a consistently applied principle. For example, those who favor a minimal (or non-existent) state will note that both views are well grounded on the idea that the state should not impose on the citizens. In other cases, though, the reasons presented for these views seem to be at odds. In this short essay I will consider this matter. For simplicity’s sake, I will just stick to discussing earned wages and stay away from such things as inheritances, lottery winnings, and such.

I have conservative friends on Facebook and, when the issues of taxes heats up, I get to see various postings that claim taxes as a form of theft. When the issue is more specifically about taxes being used (or increased) to pay for government services such as welfare, the stock line is that such taxes are wrongfully taking money from the rightful owner and giving it to people who do not deserve the money because they have not earned it. Interestingly, many of the quoted sources are wealthy people who are dismayed at being compelled to pay taxes. This view seems to rest on two important assumptions. The first is that the people who are being taxed have earned (in the moral sense) their money and thus are entitled to keep it. The second is that the people who are imposing the taxes and the people who get the money have not earned it and thus are not entitled to it.

The basic principle at work here does, on the face of it, seems reasonable enough: people are justly entitled to what they have earned and not entitled to what they have not earned. This, in turn, seems to rest on what appears to be a principle that people are entitled to the value they create. After all, there has to be some foundation for the claim that an income is earned and thus justly belongs to a person. The mere fact that a person gets the money is, obviously, not automatic justification that it is earned in the moral sense and that they are thus morally entitled to the income.

In the case of taxes, the folks in question obviously get that principle: they believe it is their right to keep their money and it is not right for other people to get, via taxes, what they have earned. This is, as noted above, apparently based on a principle that people are entitled to the value they create. This is certainly appealing—if I have created the value, then that value is justly owed to me. However, it would also seem to follow that I owe payment for value received. Such, when I receive the goods and services of the state, then I am obligated to pay for their value—otherwise I am stealing from others and violating my own principle. But if my taxes are simply being taken from me and given to others, then it would seem that I am being robbed—the value I have earned is being taken from me, not to pay for the goods and services I use, but to simply give handouts to those who have not earned it. This seems to be clearly wrong.

At this point, it might be wondered what this has to do with wages. Fortunately, the answer is straightforward. If the principle is accepted that a person is entitled to the value s/he has created (and thus earned) and that for someone to take from that person is theft, it would follow that an employee is entitled to the value s/he has created. For the employer to take that value for himself/herself would be the same as if the employer was receiving money taxed from a worker and just given, unearned, to him or her.

It might be countered that the employer earns what s/he receives by the value the employer contributes. The obvious reply is that this claim is true—but this would entail that the employer is not entitled to profits acquired by underpaying employees or overcharging customers. Either approach is like the employer being taxed so that the money can be given to people who have not earned it.

It could be countered that the employer-employee relation is different because of things like market forces, abundance of laborers and so on. As such, an employer can justly pay an employee less than the value the employee creates by his/her labor because of these factors. The obvious counter is that an analogous argument could be made regarding taxation—that the various complex economic factors warrant taking money by taxes to give the money to those who have not earned it.

Thus, those that argue against taxes by contending that they have a right to what they have earned must extend the same principle to the wages of workers. They, too, would be just as entitled to what they have earned. So, if taxation is theft, so is underpaying workers. As such, the minimum wage should be the value of what the worker creates. Anything less that allows the employer to steal from the worker would be theft.

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Minimum Wage IV: The Value of Work

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 21, 2013
Forex Money for Exchange in Currency Bank

Forex Money for Exchange in Currency Bank (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Some folks labor for minimum wage (or less) while a very few receive millions per year in compensation for their work. Many people are somewhere in between. However much a person makes, there is still the question of whether she is earning what she deserves or not.

This question falls, obviously enough, within the realm of moral philosophy and, more specifically, the subset of moral philosophy that is economics. After all, this is a matter of value and a matter of what a person should be paid.

On the face of it, the easiest and seemingly most sensible approach would be to answer the question by determining what value the person contributes and set that as the compensation the person deserves. To use a simple example, to determine the value added by a Big Burger employee to a Big Burger would involve subtracting out all the other contributions to the value of the burger, ranging from advertising costs to raw material costs. Naturally, the cost of managing the person would also be subtracted out. Since Big Burger employees are paid hourly wages and work with more than just burgers, the deserved wage would involve some estimations and calculations involving the average productivity of the worker. Other situations (such as those of salaried workers or self-employed people) would require appropriate modifications, but the basic idea would remain the same in that a person would presumably deserve to earn compensation based on the value she adds.

This would certainly seem to be a fair approach. If a person is paid more than the value of his work, then he would seem to be engaged in theft. If a person is paid less than the value of his work, then he would seem to be the victim of theft. Naturally, there can be obvious exceptions. For example, a person might help out a friend or charity by doing work at a rate far lower than she actually deserves without it being theft. As another example, a person might decide to help someone out by paying him more than his work is actually worth. This would be charity rather than theft.

On the idea that a person should earn what she deserves, then the idea of minimum wage would seem to not apply in a meaningful way. After all, the minimum wage and the maximum wage would be the same in this case, namely the value of the person’s contribution. Thus, perhaps the law should be that people must be paid what their work is worth. In some cases, a fair wage would be less than the current minimum wage. But, in most cases it would certainly be higher.

An obvious problem with this is the difficulty of determining the value of a person’s work. One aspect of the problem is practical, namely sorting out all the costs involved and determining what the person in fact contributes in regards to value. This is mainly an accounting problem, presumably solvable with a spread sheet. The second aspect of the problem is were value theory really enters the picture, namely sorting out the matter of assessing worth. That is, determining what should go into those cells on the spreadsheet. For example, what value does a CEO or university president actually contribute via their leadership? As another example, what is the real value an artist adds to the paint and canvas she is selling for $45,000? This area is, to say the least, a bit fuzzy. There is also the fact that people would tend to overvalue the value of their own work and generally undervalue the work being done for them.

The minimum wage could, then, be seen as a rather weak guard against work being grotesquely undervalued. By setting a minimum, this means that people will (in general) at least get some of the value of their work. However, it certainly leaves considerable room for greatly underpaying workers relative to what their work is actually worth.

The stock counter is that such matters get sorted out by “market forces.” That is, people whose work is more valuable can command better wages while people whose work is less valuable will command lower wages.

The obvious reply to this counter is that the alleged market forces tend to result in most people being underpaid and some people being compensated far beyond their actual contributions, even accepting the fuzziness of value. In fact, the underpaying of most is what is needed for the few to have such generous compensation. After all, if people were paid based on the value of their work, then there would be no fair way to profit off this work. For example, if Bob contributes $50 of value per hour to my widgets, I would need to steal from Bob to make a profit off his labor.  As another example, if a CEO contributes $100,000 in value to the company, but is compensated with $10 million, then he is stealing the value generated by others.

It might be said that this is all fair because people agree to this system of value. However, this does not seem to be the case: people seem to agree to it in the same way that people agree to a dictatorship: they just go along because the people on the top and those who support them have the power to hurt them.

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Minimum Wage III: Theft & Value

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2013
Thief II: The Metal Age

Thief II: The Metal Age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine Sam has pulled up to the drive through window at Big Burger and rather than pay the full price for his order, he tosses a handful of change into the window, grabs the bag from the distracted Burger minion and zips away on his moped. This would, of course, be regarded as theft and the police would arrest Sam for his hamburgerlary.  The prevention and punishment of theft is generally regarded as a legitimate function of the state and few people regard this as a form of oppression or an overreach by Big Brother. If Sam protested that as an agent of the invisible hand he had paid what he regarded as the fair market value of the burger, then it would seem likely that this would have no effect.  After all, he is supposed to pay the full value of the burger.

Now, imagine that Big Burger makes part of its profits by paying its workers rather less than the value they contribute to the raw materials. Big Burger would seem to be stealing from its employees in roughly the same manner as Sam. That is, Big Burger is paying them less than the full value of their labor.

The Burger Boss would naturally reply that the situation is different: Sam is robbing Big Burger because there is no agreement between him and Big Burger for Sam to pay less than the value of the burger. However, the employees of Big Burger agree to accept less than the value of their work and thus it is not theft.

The Burger Boss might then bemoan the fact that there is a limit to how low he can pay his Burger minions, namely the minimum wage. Surely, he might say between tears, he is being cruelly oppressed by the state by this imposition on his free choice.

Someone with socialist leanings might respond by saying that the minimum wage would seem to be aimed at preventing employers from stealing (too much) from employees. The idea is that they are forced to pay at least a minimum for work done. This, it might be claimed, is similar to what the law does for Big Burger: just as Sam cannot pay less than the price of the burger without being a thief, Big Burger cannot pay less than a minimum wage without being a thief (or a bigger thief).

Burger Boss could weep that this is unfair, that his workers should be paid less because they produce less value than the minimum wage. This, it must be admitted, is potentially a fair point. After all, if it is accepted that a person should be paid based on the value he contributes (which is so often claimed when defending the top salaries of the “top talent”), then a person who actually did produce less value in his work than the minimum wage would be effectively robbing his employer.

However, if the principle of paying a person what he is worth holds true for paying a person less, then the same principle would need to hold when it entails that a person should be paid more. Interestingly, the “top talent” and their ardent supporters seem to fully embrace this principle when it comes to generous compensation for the top people, such as CEOs. However, their grasp of this principle seems to fail when they examine the pay at the opposite end of the hierarchy. But, to be fair, it can be rather hard to see things that are so far away from a person’s own location. In any case, it seems to be capitalism when the people at the top are paid what they are (allegedly) worth, but socialism when the people at the bottom ask to be paid closer to what they are worth.

Getting back to the minimum wage, it seems that people who are paid the minimum wage generally contribute more value than they are paid.  To use a specific example, McDonald’s enjoyed billions in profits last year. This would seem to indicate that even if the CEO is truly magic with money, the workers are creating considerably more value than they are being paid. If this was not the case, then the corporation would not have this sort of profit. Unless, of course, it can be shown that the bulk of the profit was created by other means—which seems unlikely. As such, it would seem that in many cases the minimum wage is actually considerably lower than the value generated by the workers.

As noted above, theft from businesses is illegal and the state uses its coercive power to prevent or punish such thefts. This is seen as a legitimate function of the state. What a minimum wage does is a similar thing—workers can only be legally robbed so much. That is, they have to be paid at least a minimum wage, even if that wage is significantly lower than the value of what the worker contributes.

This seems problematic. After all, it would be like allowing people to only steal so much. Imagine of people were allowed to steal from businesses, but could only steal so much. This would be a “maximum theft” rule, which would be somewhat analogous to a minimum wage. That is, both rules would set something of a limit on how much could be taken without compensation.

While the state does not allow a maximum theft rule, just as the state needs to protect employers from what is regarded as theft, so the state has to protect workers from what would also be theft.

Burger Boss might argue that employment exists in a special realm, distinct from that of all other human relations. So, while stealing from someone (especially a corporation) would be wrong, it is fine in the case of stealing value from an employ.

The usual argument is that employers do not owe the workers a job and they can thus pay as they wish within the working of the free market. On the one hand, this could be seen as true: Big Burger does not owe Sally a job and it could be said that Big Burger does not owe Sally a fair wage that is proportional to the value she contributes.

However, this would seem to suggest that Sally does not owe Big Burger and presumably does not owe Big Burger a fair price—so if Big Burger can work a way to pay Sally less than her work is worth, Sally would seem to have the same right to get a Big Burger for less than its value. While Burger Boss would regard Sally as a thief, Sally would certainly think the same of Big Burger.

This could be seen as the free market: every party is trying to get one over on everyone else. However, when this takes place in a more general setting, it is seen as approaching the state of war rather than being what is expected of civil society. As such, it would seem that if it would be wrong for Sally to steal from Big Burger it is wrong for Big Burger to steal from Sally.

The stock counter is that Sally chooses to work for Big Burger and thus consents to hand over her value for less than it is worth. Now, if this were a free and un-coerced choice, then that would be fine. However, this is clearly not the case: Big Burger tends to have the coercive edge over those who work for it.


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Minimum Wage II: Freedom & Coercion

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2013

As I noted in my previous essay on minimum wage, one stock argument against minimum wage is based on liberty and rights.


Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

The basic idea behind this line of reasoning is that an employer should have the right to set wages and that the state is wrong to use its coercive power to compel a minimum wage. A rather key assumption here is that such coercion is wrong. This assumption should be kept in mind for what follows.

Those who oppose increasing (or even having) a minimum wage often like to appeal to the notion of the free market of employment. The basic idea is that businesses should be free to offer pay as they see fit. Workers can then consider the pay being offered by each employer and refuse to work for a low-paying employer and instead elect to work for one who pays more. For example, if Big Burger is paying $7.25 an hour and this is not to Sally’s liking, she can keep walking past Big Burger and find a job with better pay—perhaps the CEO position at Big Burger for $7.25 million a year.

Naturally, Sally will face some reasonable limits here—there will be jobs that she is not qualified for. For example, if Sally is fresh out of college with a degree in chemical engineering, she will not be able to get work as a lawyer or doctor. But, it is often claimed, she is free to find any job she is qualified for via the workings of the free market.

Alternatively, Sally can create her own business (Sally’s Sandwiches perhaps) and endeavor to get the income she desires. Naturally, Sally will also face limits here based on her abilities. She will also face the obstacles put in place by the government, or so the narrative goes. However, Sally is supposed to have a shot at being the next billionaire—or so the stories go.

On this view, the situation is rather rosy: Sally and her fellows are free to seek their desired employment and potential employees are free to offer what they wish, with no coercion being used against anyone. Alas, the government tinkers with this beautiful scenario of freedom by compelling employers to (generally) pay a minimum wage. Such coercion, as noted above, is assumed to be wrong: the powerful state is pushing around the weaker businesses and leaving them no choice in regards to the lowest wage they can legally pay.

While this tale is appealing to certain folks, it is not just the state that has coercive power. In the case of jobs, the employers often enjoy considerable coercive power. Going back to the example of Sally, it is true that she is free to walk on past Big Burger and other places that are paying the lowest wages. However, it would seem that she only has a meaningful freedom if there are other jobs available that pay better. Otherwise her freedom is a matter of wo

rking for the lowest wage or not working at all.

It could be replied that she is still free—after all, there would seem to be no coercion or compulsion at play here: she can take the job or not. If Sally is financially independent or is supported by someone else (such as her parents), then she would not be coerced—she would not need the job and is thus free to accept or reject employment as she desires. However, if Sally actually needs a job to pay for food, shelter and other necessities, then she would seem to be in a situation that involves coercion.

The obvious counter is that she is not being coerced by Big Burger or their fellows. After all, they did not create a world in which people need to purchase the basic necessities in order to survive. And, one might add, Sally could avail herself of welfare—at least until her benefits run out. Even then, there is always private charity. Sally could even attempt to create her own business, although this would be difficult and she would likely be competing against well established and well-connected corporations.  As such, Sally is still free and Big Burger is merely offering her one choice among many. So, since Sally can chose to be unemployed, it would seem to follow that she is not being coerced by Big Burger or their fellows.

If Sally elects to take the job, then she has chosen to accept the low pay and is thus not coerced in this scenario either. After all, it is her choice.

Interestingly, Sally’s scenario is analogous to that of the employer that is required to pay minimum wage. An employer is free to decide to not pay minimum wage. This could be done by deciding not to hire anyone, by deciding to not have a business or by deciding to simply pay below that wage. A business could also decide to leave and go somewhere that has no minimum wage—just as Sally could move away from an area in search of a job. So, employers are as free as Sally—they have choices, although there may be no good ones.

It might be countered that the employer is not free—there would clearly seem to be compulsion at play here. However, those who enforce the law could say that they did not create a world in which people have to pay a minimum wage any more than Big Burger created a world in which people have to pay for necessities.

So, since a business owner can chose to not pay minimum wage, it would be the case that she is not coerced. As with Sally, if a business owner elects to pay minimum wage, then she has chosen this and thus is not coerced. After all, it is her choice. Just as it was Sally’s choice to accept or not accept a low paying job despite it being the only sort of job available.

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Minimum Wage I: Arguments Against

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2013
Minimum Wage In Paraguay, one simple figure

Minimum Wage In Paraguay, one simple figure (Photo credit: WageIndicator – Paulien Osse)

The United States government, like many other government, sets a minimum wage. This is the lowest (with some exceptions) that an employee can be paid per hour. There is considerable debate regarding the minimum wage ranging from disputes over the exact amount of the wage to arguments over whether there should be a minimum wage at all.

Some arguments over the minimum wage are grounded in concerns about economic facts. For example, there is some dispute about the economic impact of the minimum wage. Some contend that increasing it would increase inflation (which would presumably be bad) while some claim that increasing it would boost the economy by increasing spending. In terms of what should be done, these disputes fall nicely within the realm of consequentialism. That is, settling them involves sorting out the facts about the consequences. There would also be some moral aspects to the matter as well, such as sorting out the positive values and negative values based on who they impact and how.

Other arguments about the minimum wage are more ideological in nature and have minimum (or no) connection to matters of economic facts. These arguments tend to be philosophically interesting because of the strong connection to matters of morality.

One argument against the minimum wage is based on the notion that it causes a culture of dependency that interferes with the mobility of labor. The idea, at least as presented in various talking points in the more conservative media, is that a higher (or any) minimum wage would encourage people to simply stick with the minimum wage job rather than moving upwards in the economic hierarchy.

On the one hand, this has a certain appeal. If a person believes that she is earning enough and making a comfortable living, then she might very well be content to remain at that job.

On the other hand, there seem to be some rather obvious problems with this argument. First, unless the minimum wage were increased dramatically, it seems unlikely that anyone would be able to make a comfortable living on such a wage. It also seems unlikely that most people would be content to simply stop at the minimum wage job and refuse opportunities for better employment. People generally stick with minimum wage jobs because they cannot find a better job not because they think they are making quite enough. I would not claim that it is impossible for a person to live what he thinks is a comfortable life on minimum wage nor that a person might be content to just stick with such a job. However, such a person would be an unusual exception rather than one among a vast crowd.

Second, this sort of reasoning seems to be based on the problematic principle that it is necessary to pay people poorly in order to motivate them to move up the economic hierarchy. One problem with this principle is that it would warrant paying people poorly all the way up the economic ladder so as to allegedly motivate them. After all, if people are content to coast at minimum wage, then they would surely be willing to coast if the pay was better. This would thus seem to entail that only the topmost position in a hierarchy should not pay poorly since there would be nothing above that position and hence no need to motivate a person to move beyond it. Interestingly, this does seem to match the nature of CEO salaries—it is common for the CEO to make many times what lesser employees make. Since the number of topmost positions is rather limited, this would seem to be rather unfair. In fact, if this principle is pushed, it would seem to point towards having one position in total that has good pay—thus motivating everyone to attempt to get that one position.

Another problem with this principle is that it seems to be untrue. As a matter of fact, people do attempt to get higher paying jobs when they are available, even if their pay is not poor. People mostly seem to stick with a minimum wage job or a lower paying job because they cannot find one that pays better (there are, of course, other reasons).

As a final point, the idea that paying people to do work creates a culture of dependency seems to indicate the view that the workers are mooching or sponging off the employer. This is, obviously enough, absurd: the worker is getting paid for work done which is the exact opposite of mooching.

A second ideological argument is based on the notion of liberty and rights. The idea is that employers are having their liberty (or rights) violated by being forced by the state to pay a minimum wage.

This line of reasoning does have a certain appeal. After all, people (and corporations are the best sort of people) have rights to liberty and property. If the state tells employers that they must pay a certain wage, the employers are being denied their right to liberty via the coercive power of the state.

There are at least two obvious responses to this line of reasoning. The first is that workers are also people and hence would also have rights, including property rights to their labor. These rights can be used to argue for a minimum wage (or more)—after all, theft of labor would seem to still be theft.  The second is that being part of a society involves, as Locke and Hobbes argued, giving up some rights. While some employers would like the liberty to pay whatever they wanted (which might be nothing—slavery was and is rather popular), it makes sense that such complete freedom would not be consistent with society. Having a civil society, as Hobbes argued, does require the coercive power of the state. As such, the fact that the state is imposing on the liberty of the employer does not automatically entail that this coercion is wrong. The stale also imposes on the liberties of those who would like to steal and kill and these impositions are hardly wrong.

The obvious reply is to contend that while the state has a legitimate right to limit some liberties, this right does not extend to coercing job creators into paying at least a minimum wage. This cannot, of course, be simply assumed—what is needed is an argument that employers should have the liberty to pay as they please. Even if such a liberty is assumed, surely it would have at least some limit. At the very least, it would seem that an employer has to pay more than nothing. Then again, some might like to see slavery put back on the table. There is much more to be said about minimum wage and more essays will follow.

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Strip Searches

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 13, 2012
The United States Supreme Court, the highest c...

They are, in fact, the judge of you. And me, too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the media and public were briefly focused on the Supreme Court’s consideration of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the court made a rather troubling ruling on a case involving Albert Florence.F

Florence, a finance director for a care dealership, was stopped on the way to a family event. He was then arrested when the trooper determined that there was a warrant for his arrest. While the warrant was in error (he had paid the fine in question) and he had a document to that effect, he was still jailed. While in jail he was strip searched. Six days later he was transferred and strip searched once again. Florence took issue with this treatment and his case made it to the supreme court.

By a predictable 5-4 vote, the Court ruled that anyone who is arrested (even for minor offenses, such as traffic violations) can be stripped searched. The ruling allows this even when there is no reasonable suspicion the person is concealing anything that would require a strip search to locate.

In the majority opinion Justice Kennedy noted that it would be “unworkable” to require jail officials to strip search only in cases in which they had reasonable grounds to suspect that a strip search would be needed. As might be imagined, this seems like an absurd thing to say. After all, it seems to be saying that it would not work to limit strip searches to cases in which a strip search would be reasonably justified. I certainly hope that this same logic is not extended to arrests. After all, the police are currently limited to arresting people when they have reasonable cause to suspect that a person needs to be arrested. I do hope that this is not also “unworkable.”

Kennedy did attempt to back up his point with an example, specifically that of the infamous Timothy McVeigh.  McVeigh had been arrested for driving without a license plate which caused Kennedy to note that “people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.”

One rather obvious response to this is that his example is irrelevant to the matter of strip searching. After all, nothing about the McVeigh case involved finding something dangerous or important by strip searching him. Now, if McVeigh had been arrested on a traffic stop and the police had found a bomb taped to his genitals and had thus prevented the horrific bombing, then Kennedy’s example would have had at least some relevance. It would, of course, still be just one example and thus an incredibly weak argument by example.

It might be countered that Kennedy did not mean for this to be an example directly showing the importance of strip searching people but rather as evidence that very bad people can be arrested for minor offenses. Presumably his reasoning is that such people would be more likely to hide things in places that only a strip search would reveal. Of course, this logic would also seem to apply to having the police check anyone, such as folks who eat fast food. After all, “people who eat at McDonald’s can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.”

It might be replied that people who are arrested for minor offenses have been arrested and hence are legitimately subject to searches in ways that people who are just out and about are not subject to arrest. This can, of course, be countered by the reply that it seems to be unwarranted to treat all prisoners the same, regardless of the offense and other factors. After all, if the police can distinguish between who should and should not be arrested, they should be able to distinguish between who needs to be strip searched and who does not.

This can be countered by arguing that the strip searching is done for the safety of the prisoners and the guards. After all, if everyone is strip searched, then the chances of dangerous items getting into prisons is somewhat lower. However, there is the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who are arrested for minor offenses are not concealing anything and to strip search people on the minute chance that they have something would be overreacting. To use an analogy, putting all prisoners in straight jackets and masks would provide greater protection, but that seems needlessly excessive for the vast majority of prisoners.  There is also the rather important fact that people are not supposed to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.

While searching prisoners is a legitimate practice, strip searching certainly seems to go beyond what is needed in the case of minor offenses. After all, even Alito notes that strip searches are humiliating. As such, to subject a minor offender to such unnecessary humiliation  would be to punish them in cruel and unusual ways-even before they are found guilty.

Naturally, the ruling does not require that everyone who is arrested be strip searched-it just allows it to occur.  Alito even noted that for most people arrested for minor offenses, “admission to the general jail population, with the concomitant humiliation of a strip-search, may not be reasonable.” As such, jails could elect to house those arrested for minor offenses apart from the general jail population and not strip search them. However, the fact that this could be done does not mean it will be done and there is the rather obvious concern that this ruling will be exploited to allow the humiliation of people who are arrested on minor offenses. This would add nothing to public safety and would merely serve to impose on liberty, privacy and dignity.

Given that the court accepted that the police have a right to strip search even without probable cause, it would seem sensible to think that they will rule in favor of the Affordable Care Act. After all, if the state has the right to strip you naked and check out your junk when you are arrested for anything at all, then surely the state has the power to require you to buy health care insurance. In fact, given that an increased number of Americans will be exposed to the chilliness and psychological stress of being strip searched, they will need health insurance more than ever.

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How Much Can We Expect?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 10, 2011
Herman Cain

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While philosophers differ a bit on this matter, it is generally accepted that a moral theory has to impose reasonable requirements on people in regards to moral behavior. As such, it is a mark against a moral theory to require too much from people. This seems sensible: while some people are moral saints, a moral theory is supposed to address the mass of humanity rather than the saints. As you might imagine, thinkers are divided regarding what counts as reasonable. A similar sort of approach is often taken in regards to laws. After all, a law that expects far more than the average person can endure or provide would be an unreasonable law. In both the moral and legal realms the key question is “how much can reasonable be expected of the average person?”

A similar sort of question arises in the context of economics in regards to what we can expect of people in terms of being financially successful in the face of challenges. Recently, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain claimed that the poor and jobless are to blame for not having a job and not being rich. Presumably Cain’s answer to this sort of question is that the poor and jobless should be expected to be employed and apparently even rich and a failure to do so is their fault and not due to other factors (like a recession). Cain has, of course, blamed the liberals for destroying jobs and this would seem to be inconsistent with his other view (namely that the unemployed are to blame for their unemployment). However, perhaps these two views can be made consistent by blaming the unemployed for being unemployed and for enabling the liberals to destroy jobs-thus making the poor excellent scapegoats.

Being sensible, I do admit that some people are unemployed and poor through their own choices and actions. There are people who, for example, prefer alcohol or drugs over employment. There are also people who never took the effort to gain the skills needed to get a job. It seems reasonable to expect that these people change their ways if they wish to be employed.

However, most people seem to be rather eager to get jobs. This is proven by the fact that when jobs open up, the responses are often overwhelming (for example, think of all the people who applied when McDonald’s recently had a major hiring event). Job fairs are always packed and people are trying all sorts of ways of getting jobs-even the media is giving unemployed people a chance to pitch themselves for jobs on the national news. Most people want to work and most people do not want to be poor. When people I know have faced unemployment, their first response is to try to get a new job. As such, the lazy fellow who wants to be poor and unemployed is not a member of the majority, but does provide a convenient straw man for certain people to bash as a representative of the majority of unemployed. The vast majority of people want to work and it seems reasonable to expect that of them.

Of course, many people cannot find jobs (especially certain minorities) despite their efforts and their qualifications. What, it is fair to ask, should be expected of such people?

Cain’s view seems to be that they should be expected to find jobs (and also become rich) and any failure to do so is their fault. But, is this a reasonable expectation?

One obvious point of concern is that thanks to the misdeeds of certain people in the financial sector, the economy is still in rough shape. While Cain is willing to say that these people had some role in the troubles, his view is that they can no longer be blamed because this is 2011 not 2008. However, the impact of 2008 (and before) clearly remains. People who cannot get jobs because of the recession would largely seem to not be at fault. Expecting people to easily find or create their own jobs under such conditions would seem to be asking more than the average person is capable of achieving. The fact that some people are able to do so does not change what can be expected of the many. To use an analogy, the fact that I have students who could do well if I taught my undergraduate classes at a graduate level does not entail that I should expect the average student to be up to that challenge.

Another point of concern is that companies have not been hiring (despite being flush with cash) and have often sent jobs overseas and/or downsized. Presumably the mass of workers cannot be held to blame for these practices. As noted above, it seems unreasonable to expect the average person to easily overcome these challenges.

A third point of concern is raised by the Republicans and Cain himself, namely that Obama and the liberals have been destroying jobs. If this is true, then it would seem that at least some of the unemployed are not too blame. Unless, of course, we want to blame the unemployed for the liberals and Obama. This, I suspect, would play well on Fox.

Not surprisingly, people like Cain will point to examples of people who arose from humble origins and became rich. Such people are, of course, often worthy of praise and serve as examples of what exceptional individuals can do (with some luck). However, our general expectations of what average people can do should not be set by the rare exceptions but by the capabilities of the average people. To use an analogy, the fact that some folks can run the marathon in close to two hours does not prove that we can expect average people to do that. Rather, we can expect average runner to run an average time.

One of the main dangers of the “blame the poor” ideology is that it can be used to “justify” reducing or eliminating social safety nets and opportunity enablers (such as student aid). After all, if the unemployed are entirely to blame for their unemployment, then it would seem to make no sense to offer unemployment benefits. If people are to blame for not being rich, then it would seem to make to sense to offer poor students Pell grants and other aid-after all, they should be rich enough to afford Harvard and, if not, it is their own fault.

Naturally, it is possible to err in the other direction and provide unneeded support. However, the greater harm would seem to stem from not assisting those truly in need than from allowing some who are not in need get a little free cheese.

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Cleanup Crew

Posted in Environment, Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on July 17, 2010
Pile of trash 2
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I am a member of that informal clean up crew, those who clean up what other people do. In parks, on campuses and on the streets. That is, I pick up the trash others throw down without a thought. I fix the damage fools do to signs, water fountains, and park playgrounds.  I get to do this far too often, usually when running.

One fine Sunday, I went out for my usual run. In the park, I found that some folks had torn down a light post and shattered it, along with the light. I gathered up as much as I could find. Then I saw that some enterprising person (or persons) had tore apart the dispenser of doggy clean up bags and the sign for it. I did not have any tools with me, so I had to merely gather up the debris and put it where the park folks could find it.

After leaving the park, I ran out to the road and saw that the gremlins had been busy. Someone had pulled up most of the signs for the nearby student housing megaplex and had thrown them into the road. While people seemed content to drive over them, I pulled them out of the road and made a neat pile. I then continued my run, pulling a broken bottle or two from the bike lanes and gathering up various bags from McDonalds and other fast food joints.

As always, this makes me think about what is wrong with people.

Occasionally I will (literally) run into someone else doing the same thing. We exchange knowing smiles and return to our small roles in the struggle against the destroyers.

I think that the builders and the clean up crews are still winning against the drunk, the drugged, the wicked, and the bored destroyers. But it is a tiring struggle and cleaning up after fools is not very rewarding.

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