This morning, Charlie Pierce wrote a interesting article over at his perch at Esquire, American Exceptionalism. It follows up on a great bit of reporting by Liz Alderman, Steven Greenhouse, and Anna-Katarina Gravgaard in The New York Times yesterday, Living Wages, Rarity for US Fast-Food Workers, Served Up in Denmark. It compares two young men who work for Burger King — one in the US and one in Denmark. In Denmark, he makes $20 per hour and in the US he makes $9 per hour. And the guy in America is a shift manager. Moving on up!
The critical element of the story is this line, “Many American economists and business groups say the comparison is deeply flawed because of fundamental differences between Denmark and the United States.” And what are those differences? Basically, they are reasons why the situation is bad here. They aren’t reasons for keeping the current situation. For example, in Denmark, the workers are unionized. Well, yeah. There is also universal healthcare in Denmark. All these things mean is that fast-food workers in Denmark are doing even better than the wage comparison would indicate.
There is a kind of Catch-22 thing here. Because of our huge inequality problem in the United States, we have policies that take from the poor and give to the rich. And because we have these policies, we must have our high levels of inequality and they need to get even higher. That doesn’t indicate that we have to continue on with poverty wages. It just means that when one part of a political economy is screwed up, many other parts are screwed up as well. If we still had strong unions, we would doubtless have universal healthcare and higher wages. That doesn’t mean that because we have low wages we must therefore have no unions. Organizing can work wonders if we do still have a democracy.
What Pierce added to this discussion is that we have such a screwed up system because the business community has gone insane:
Since the 1970s, the business community (and this includes business majors at college) have taken on this Ayn Rand kind of idea that by making as much money as they can they are by definition doing good. We’ve gotten so used to it that it is shocking to hear business owners in Denmark say things like, “We don’t want people living on the streets. If that happens, we consider that we as a society have failed.” But notice: that’s the kind of thing that you could imagine most humans saying. It is an aberration that this kind of talking is anathema to the American business community. I’m not even referring to what actual practices here. In the United States, the capitalist class has gotten to the point where they don’t even give lip service to the good of the society or even the country. Indeed, on that last item, the business position seems to be that if you can bilk some money from the government, it’s just great. Remember when Mitt Romney while running for President of the United States proudly announced that he would be unfit for the job if he had paid any more than the law required? Because, you know, freedom!
As we see, this kind of thinking has infected our entire society. When Mitt Romney made his vile comment, there was no outrage from the mainstream media sources. It was just taken as part of the continuum of acceptable discourse. And this is at the same time that the mainstream media are dismissive of the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour — a rate that would still be below its late 1960s rate if it had been raised at the rate of productivity increases. It’s disgusting and the journalism industry would be ashamed if it hadn’t lost the ability.
This is American Exceptionalism: the vast majority of the people live much worse than their peers in other advanced economies. I’m so proud.