The McDouble and the Minimum Wage
Religion & Liberty Online

The McDouble and the Minimum Wage

The protests organized by labor organizations to advocate for an increase in the minimum wage have garnered attention, most recently from the NYT, which editorialized in favor of such moves. Over at Think Christian, I weigh in with an attempt to provide some more of the complex context behind the moral evaluation of such mandates.

In the piece, I’m really less interested in the plight of current-minimum wage workers relative to those who might become minimum-wage workers with an increase, those who are currently priced-out of labor markets because of minimum-wage legislation, and those who will be priced out with an increase.

Earlier this week, Joseph Sunde discussed the issue with an eye towards the price of labor: “Prices are not play things.” I largely agree with Joseph about the significance of the price associated with various kinds of labor. The signal that minimum-wage workers should be receiving is that their work is not that specialized or valuable in the marketplace. You can rage against the values of the marketplace all you like, but that’s what the prices signal.

But as I also acknowledge in the TC piece, the price of our labor isn’t all there is to say about us as people:

The human person created in God’s image is of inestimable value. But what the wages represent is not a commentary on the value of the human person as such. Rather, wages are a sign, a token really, of the value of our work to others. What we are paid is a representation of how serviceable, and therefore how salable, our work is. It’s a natural instinct to tie our self-worth to what we are remunerated in the marketplace. But this can be a misleading and potentially destructive identification.

So while prices aren’t perfect, and certainly don’t perfectly represent the inscrutable value of the human person as such, the do communicate something that shouldn’t be ignored about the value of particular forms of service.

The economist Victor Claar makes a salient point in the forthcoming controversy in the Journal of Markets & Morality about fair trade. He writes, “People earning only the minimum wage today in the United States are usually stuck there because they have relatively little to contribute in the way of specific skills, expertise, or training; that is, their labor productivity is low.” He then points to the Wizard of Id strip that appears at the top of this post as a way of illustrating this reality.

Victor concludes that a relevant takeaway from this, for both minimum-wage workers in the US and those in poverty across the globe, is that “people everywhere enhance their earning potential when they increase their own human capital in ways that have worth to others.”

That said, minimum-wage work does render true service, and that shouldn’t be ignored or undervalued either. It’s highly doubtful, for instance, that what’s been called “the cheapest, most nutritious and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history,” the McDonald’s McDouble, would have been able to rise to that achievement without the value-added by millions of minimum-wage workers.

Subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality here.

Purchase Victor V. Claar’s Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution here.

Purchase Economics in Christian Perspective by Victor Claar and Robin Klay here.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.