Reflections on Ferguson, the Schools, the Minimum Wage, and the Assault on American Employers
by John F. Di Leo
In the old country, life was predictable.
If your father was a farmer, so were you. If your mother was a maid, so were you. If your father served in the House of Lords, so did you; if your father went off to war, possibly never to return, well… so did you.
There were exceptions, in that feudal and post-feudal world, but not many. Poverty bred poverty; wealth bred wealth. There wasn’t much of a middle class, but merchants’ children did usually grow up to take over the family bakery, smithy, or cobbler shop, to be merchants themselves. Life was, and remained, predictable, for centuries upon centuries.
But with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment came some small opportunity for breakthroughs in those ancient walls between classes, and this New World, in particular, opened up a new economy in which a smart and hard worker could rise to the top… even if, back in the old country, he had been a minor scion of long-landless forgotten nobility, or an Irish convict, or the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.
In a free market, governed by an invisible hand, anything was possible, for the first time in history… but you have to be willing to take the good with the bad, to accept the fact that rewards require risk.
In a free market, it is critical that it be easy to start a business. A restaurant, a consultancy, a hair salon, a savings and loan… society needs all sorts of goods and services, so it is a public service just to take that risk, and open a business of one’s own… experimenting with the question of whether one’s offering will satisfy enough of its prospective clientele to enable the proprietor to prosper.
Sometimes, of course, it won’t be possible. Perhaps there just aren’t enough people who can afford what you do to keep you in business in your chosen location; or perhaps there are, but others do it better than you. Or perhaps there are just too many offering it already, and the market is saturated. It has to be inexpensive enough to start a business that people can afford failures… perhaps, again and again… until the entrepreneur finds a formula that produces success.
The bigger the business is, however, the more people are affected when it fails. Society can handle a dry cleaner’s closure without noticing the two to five people displaced; society handles restaurant closures every day, with dozens displaced as soon as that sad “For Sale” sign goes up in the window.
But what if a single business employs hundreds, or even thousands? Then it’s noticed by press and politicians, and they react. Twenty restaurant closures might easily have dwarfed a factory closure in their economic impact, but politicians and reporters who never noticed those individual restaurants dropping like flies will certainly notice the factory shutdown, and they will act on every murmer.
Politicians will offer a tax break if the factory stays open or stays here, and they just raise everyone else’s taxes to pay for that break. Politicians nationalize a bank, insurance company or automaker, wiping out debts to little vendors in the process, perhaps wiping out those little vendors or dealers entirely, because the little companies had no clout, but the big companies were just “too big to fail.”
Does our society understand what it’s lost by getting so squeamish about business failures? Depending on the industry, a business has to give 60 days, 90 days, six months, a year’s notice before a closure or move. Who knows, months out, if the business isn’t going to make it, especially when the broader economy is shaky? But the rules are there, so they have to be on the entrepreneur’s mind at start-up time, and they do weigh heavily indeed.
We’ve raised taxes and implemented limitations and regulations on our businesses so often, ostensibly to keep people employed, that we’ve made it almost impossible for anyone to start a new business. All these rules – all these plans for an end-game that may not even occur – become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every well-intentioned advance notice rule, every taxpayer-funded unemployment program, every workman’s compensation and business regulation – becomes a barrier to entry, ever more daunting to the prospective entrepreneur, reducing the opportunities for employer and employee alike in this marketplace of jobs, investment, and opportunity.
What should be a thrilling and daring experiment – the noble foundation of a new enterprise, hanging a shingle outside the door – is instead a scarier proposition every year.
Of course the do-gooders had everyone’s best interest in mind when they put all these rules in place, but what has been the actual result? Not more security, but less variety, less risk-taking, more of the same. Thirty of the same restaurant, instead of perhaps forty or fifty different ones. And fewer jobs, and less chance at promotion… all because government is terrified that some employers of noticeable size might fail, leaving angry constituents and reduced tax receipts in their wake.
Once upon a time, there were three kinds of education in America:
- You could study on your own, at home, as George Washington did.
- You could attend a local schoolhouse, run by a minister or entrepreneur, as John Adams did.
- You could contract for private lessons with a tutor, as Thomas Jefferson did.
Three approaches; all three worked fine.
Over the past century, we’ve deviated a great deal from this approach, and we usually think of the difference between government schools and church schools as being the primary change. But there’s been another:
Softly, quietly, there has been a revolution in both grading and punishment. Classes have been split into AP History and regular History, between Honors Algebra and regular Algebra, between Honors English and regular English and remedial English. This way, everyone gets a chance to “excel;” nobody has to bring home a D or F because you can always just pick the class that’s easy for you.
Sure, most of us won’t be challenged as well as we once were; we’ll never really know what we were capable of. But we won’t have the embarrassment of poor grades, and for many in this new, modern America, it’s the grades that matter, not the information they represent.
Over this past century, many teachers have taken the concept of “grading on a curve” to its ultimate conclusion, at which it’s not really grading at all… and behavior has so deteriorated at many schools that they are more effective as inner city gang recruiting stations than as “houses of education.”
There are still many good schools too, of course, especially in the suburbs or countryside, even in the cities for the children of the lucky and the connected… but the variety is incredible, as standards at so many have plummeted.
An inability to stand the prospect of children failing in academics or behavior has led us to schools lacking discipline in both. From teachers to parents, from community to school board, a refusal to accept the fact that some must fail has given us schools in which none can succeed.
The Bonfire of the Vanities
A generation ago, author Thomas Wolf wrote a horror book about the modern city. In his classic “Bonfire of the Vanities,” which surprisingly became a film without losing too much of its bite, he built a Greek tragedy around an auto accident in which a thug gets himself killed in the act of an attempted crime, and all society is turned upside down in the wake of the moment, as a movement arises – led by an Al Sharpton caricature (with apologies for the oxymoron) – to remake the dead teen as an innocent hero.
In 2014, we saw fiction become fact as Michael Brown, a minor criminal and drug dealer who had just knocked over a convenience store, assaulted its proprietor and attacked a policeman, was reinvented as an innocent victim of imagined police brutality once he was killed in self-defense by the patrolman he had attacked.
We must ask ourselves – what are the police for? Why do we have a criminal justice system at all?
Because an economically free society – a society in which people can start businesses, study hard, work up from the bottom to the top, rise from the tenement to the penthouse – must also be physically safeguarded from those who would intentionally impede that rise. As long as there are thugs (of any color)… as long as there are gangs (of any color)… as long as there are muggers and burglars and rapists (of any color)… there must be a criminal justice system that does its best to rid society of those impediments.
The Ferguson case can be divided into several key elements: the imposition of race onto an event that had no racist element, the insistence of both media and Sharpton’s racebaiting allies to outright lie about the events of the case, the refusal of a subculture to accept the decision of our grand jury process, and the expansion of the issue into a wholesale attack on our entire criminal justice system, as protests have spread from city to city and as individual police are now targeted for assault and murder.
But all this stems from one core error – the refusal to accept the fact that sometimes there are failures in life, and we must accept them and move on, if this nation is to continue to be the safe breeding ground for an upwardly mobile society, with the opportunity for prosperity for all.
Some people are thugs; we must acknowledge this reality, and accept the fact that such thugs will sometimes die in the commission of their crimes.
Our society is protected by police in the field; as hard as they try to bring in criminals without injury, sometimes force will be needed. We must acknowledge this unavoidable reality, as that force will sometimes result in the perpetrator’s injury or demise.
Our system has a delicate judicial system, ensuring civil rights for the accused, including an incredibly cautious grand jury system to analyze the case against public officials, from policemen to bureaucrats, to maintain the balance of rights and justice. The sanctity of this system is more important than the details of any individual case; when the faith in this system is undermined, the very security of the nation is jeopardized.
The Ferguson case is among the most severe examples in our history of a mob mentality refusing to accept reality. Even reporters, pundits and politicians will not face the unpleasant fact that sometimes a criminal will die in the act of resisting arrest, that sometimes a grand jury (given far more evidence to guide their decision than the public has been treated to) will come to a different conclusion than the public expected.
These individual events must not be allowed to undermine the criminal justice system – the critical enforcement of the law and prosecution of lawbreakers – just because in one case the facts were twisted and the story was spun, by pols and pundits with an axe to grind.
As so brilliantly analyzed in the classic Cagney/O’Brien film “Angels with Dirty Faces,” the fact that, sometimes, a criminal will die in the commission of his crime – or be imprisoned for a long time as a result – is a crucial deterrent for the criminal element. We NEED the criminal to fear death or imprisonment; if morality doesn’t deter him, only his own fear of physical harm or incarceration will.
The modern American Left, too squeamish to imagine imprisoning or executing anybody, no matter how malicious, undermines our entire society by upsetting our criminal justice system this way.
The Minimum Wage
In economics, there is no such thing as a “minimum wage job.” Every career has a range of potential salaries, sometimes narrow, sometimes enormous.
- A maid might make just a few dollars an hour for scrubbing floors and sinks, but can rise to the position of owning a janitorial service and own a fine house in the suburbs on that business’ contracts.
- A flagger on the highway might make just a few dollars an hour to start – how hard is it, after all, to flip a sign back and forth between “slow” and “stop?” – but that flagger position could be the first step on a ladder from flagger, to patcher, to driving the grader or the asphalt truck, to foreman or even, eventually, to the owner of a construction business, pouring driveways or repaving highways for individuals, businesses, or the state, living in a mansion with a private drive of his own.
- A receptionist at a factory just answers the phone; a starting assembler on the line in the plant just attaches parts on a conveyor belt. How much are these jobs worth, when literally anyone off the street can perform the tasks? But a friendly and diligent receptionist can move up to customer service, to inside sales, to marketing, and a hardworking and efficient assembler can move up to supervisor or foreman, engineer or plant manager.
How much were those first, starting jobs worth to the employer? Not much, if anyone without experience can do them. But how much were they worth to the employee, especially to the employee who used them as the foundational experience for a successful career? Far more than just that starting wage, I deem.
It’s that next job, and the next one after that, where the employee has a chance to shine, and to earn a real living. It’s the promotions that serve as the path to prosperity, not staying in one place at the bottom of the ladder. If you’re still earning minimum wage after a year, you don’t need to picket for a pay raise; you need to change jobs. It’s just not right for you.
The minimum wage is a socialist dream, the outrageous idea that a faraway government has the right – heck, it’s even a dream that government could have the ability – to mandate what an employer pays his employees. The government doesn’t know the complexity of each job, or the potential career paths that those jobs open up. The government doesn’t know how much an employer can afford to pay each employee; the government may not evenunderstand that, when it forces the employer to pay the entry level worker more, it is simultaneously forcing the employer to pay everyone else less.
But the modern American Left isolates a case – a fast food cashier, a big box store bagger, a sweeper or call center clerk – who’s been on the job for five or ten years – and says “this person can’t live on $7/hour, you must pay him or her $10/hour instead”… or $12, or $15, or $20… whatever arbitrary figure lights up the Op/Ed pages that week.
Never mind that every additional dollar comes from the fixed pool of salaries at the company. Never mind that to free up these additional dollars for the entry-level employees, the company must reduce the salaries of its other employees, or fire some, or not hire people it had planned to hire next quarter or next year. Never mind the fact that this becomes a new barrier to entry, keeping potential new businesses from starting up here, or driving existing ones to move production lines over the border or over the ocean.
At the root of it all is an inability of the pundits of the modern American Left to acknowledge reality, even to acknowledge basic math. They are fixated on a single case, rather than the broad panorama of the American experience. If you look only at what the clerk earns today, sure, it’s easy to wish him more money. But look what it costs him – what it costs us all – the limitless opportunity that a truly free market can offer to everyone.
For the mere price of hard work and privation at the start of one’s career, one could choose from a hundred career tracks and truly prosper. But the more that early privation scares our society, the more obstacles it places in the way of that future chance for prosperity that was once an American’s birthright.
The Blindfold of Justice
The criminal justice system has long been portrayed as a wise old Greco-Roman goddess, wearing a blindfold and hearing the facts on their merits, without any opportunity for undue prejudice to affect her judgment.
The American system was designed – by our Founding Fathers, and particularly, by the Framers of the Constitution – to apply that same blindfold to all our public decisions, or at least, to as many as is practical.
We need to acknowledge that in order to have a chance to win a race or game, there must also be a chance to lose it. In order to become a million dollar consultant, you had to first learn the industry you wish to advise. In order to produce a $40 million blockbuster movie, you had to first act, write, or direct – at a much smaller paycheck! – or you’ll have no clue of what producing is all about.
And sometimes, even with all that experience, you’ll still fail in the effort. The American dream is that, as the Dorothy Fields lyric advises, you “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”
The modern crisis – which I would argue is at the core of the worldview of the modern American Left – is that our culture hamstrings every attempt to look at the big picture, and instead focuses entirely on the saddest, most heart-wrenching individual case. They forget the old truism – such a good guide today! – that “hard cases make bad law.”
In a trial, we are told to forget the distant victim and feel sorry for the criminal on trial. In an economy, we are told to compromise, or even sacrifice, the clerk’s chances for future success by mandating ridiculous overpayment for his starting job…
In fact, the risk of failure, or punishment, or privation, has its benefit in a free society, because the desire to avoid or escape the tenement or jail is what spurs a person toward accomplishment in life. The mansion and limousine aren’t achievable without the dedication, concentration, and hard work at the start.
But the modern American Left is squeamish. That worldview thinks that we can have a safe society without punishing criminals… that we can have a manufacturing boom without linking accomplishment to reward… that we can discover cures without any unsuccessful pharmaceutical trials, that we can live in a science fiction world in which all diseases are curable, all people are good citizens, and all the homes are beautiful upper middle class suburbs.
It’s just not possible. Not in the real world.
Conservatives acknowledge the world as it is, and strive – as our Framers did (so eloquently explained in the Federalist papers) – to channel all of man’s interests, both altruistic and self-interested, both hopes and fears, both household and mercantile – to the betterment of society.
The Right accepts this reality, and understands the costs of freedom. We remember Benjamin Franklin’s warning that “those who would give up a little freedom for a little security, deserve neither.” The free market provides unprecedented potential for a Montgolfier balloon trip to success and happiness… but if you weigh down that balloon with unlimited dead weight, it will never get off the ground.
The Left, it seems, would rather retreat into a feudal world in which everything is predictable, everything is settled. No risks, no rewards. But that world doesn’t exist.
If you want prosperity – a free nation with opportunities galore – you must accept reality and cheer the risk-takers, easing the path for entrepreneurs, creating a thousand points of entry for worker and employer alike, trusting the truth that limited government will provide limitless opportunity.
Governance is not for the squeamish.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is an international trade compliance lecturer, having built his career in transportation and manufacturing from past roles as a file clerk, a messenger, a buyer, and a writer. It was those early, low-pay jobs that paved the way to the job at which he excels today. He knows that part of his pay for those early jobs – in addition to the minimum wage salary at the time – is a share of the current salary his receives today… and he prays that all Americans can someday enjoy a similar career trajectory in a free market, unencumbered by irrational fear of failure.
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