Hannibal Lecter was right

Hannibal Lecter was right December 21, 2013

NO, NOT ABOUT EATING PEOPLE; I’m saying he was right to ask this question of Clarice Starling: “First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. ‘Of each particular thing ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?’”

The quote is from (or more accurately, inspired by) Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations,” regarded as one of the masterworks of Stoic philosophy from Classical Antiquity.

I think that question is worth asking when it comes to our economic system. What is its nature?

My first job out of the Army was working at McDonald’s, one at a shopping mall near my home town. It was close to the holidays, so getting hired was a cinch, and the pay was $5 per hour — pretty OK money in 1987, the equivalent of $10.26 today.

I worked there for about a year, and note that I say the following as someone who has been in the labor force for 36 years and worked a wide variety of jobs: I have never worked that hard in my entire life, before or since. Not when I did grunt work for a local landscape contractor, not even when I was humping a heavy pack and rifle up and down hills for mile after mile in the Army.

I worked in the kitchen during the closing shift, and by the end of every long shift I ached all over, smelled like French fries and had enough animal fat on my skin and in my hair that I was probably a fire hazard. I’d head home after closing, try to keep my eyes open in the shower, and collapse into bed and sleep the sleep of the dead. (Hint to any young people who are thinking about getting into the food service industry: You always want to work the opening shift. You have to get up pretty early, but you’ll arrive at a squeaky clean restaurant and at the end of your shift hand off to the night crew, who will be responsible for cleaning up both their mess and yours before they can leave for the night.)

There was an older guy named Rick whose morning shift overlapped with mine. Rick was in his 50s, and his hair was mostly gray, and he’d had some kind of back surgery so he moved in a very deliberate way, as if every move he made was pre-planned to minimize the possibility of pain. Rick worked the grill where first the breakfast items, and later in the day the smaller (10 to a pound, hence the name “10-to-1 grill”) hamburger patties were cooked, and I learned a lot from him about how to manage tasks in such a way as to minimize stress and keep from getting jammed up during the lunch rush. He was always patient, always willing to share little tricks he’d picked up, never short with me. He’d have made a great high school coach, the kind whose players revere even 30 years later. He made my time there more bearable.

Rick lived in a camper shell on his pickup truck.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her 2001 book about the working poor “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” said the following (and note that her book was written between 1998 and 2000, more or less at the crest of the 1990s boom):

When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.

Ehrenreich is onto something there, but I would take it a step further. I would say that no society has the right to impose such “philanthropy” on its workers. Any society in which some “go hungry so that others can eat more cheaply and conveniently” is a society that, in the words of the biblical author, “cries out to heaven for vengeance” because it is indifferent to manifest depravity in its midst.

“Of each particular thing ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?” Any society where some are required to neglect their children so that others can be cared for is one that is becoming a society in name only — one that, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., “is approaching spiritual death.”

The good news is that there are two efforts under way to address the injustices I’ve named.

One is the effort by fast food workers around the country to win a wage of $15 per hour. I support this: as I mentioned, I can say from personal experience that if workers were paid according to how tired they were at the end of a work day, fast food workers would be paid far better than they are today (and lots of bankers and Wall Street types would be paid considerably less.) The other is to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour. Given the cost of even basic shelter in the Bay Area, where I live, or in places like New York City, that would be a start, but I think the minimum in our region should be more like $12 or $13 per hour or more.

Both initiatives are worthy of your support.

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  • heather hodgin

    Spiritual death indeed…even as newscasters and retailers ramp shoppers up to stampede the stores for last minute Christmas shopping to score “deals” on products that harmed the environment, abused poverty stricken workers, exploit foreign resources, and fail to pay store clerks a living wage….the tip of the iceberg, ho ho ho.
    I am thrilled to read this article but sad that this message is not being trumpeted to the public. People are more interested in their one in 15 million chance to win the lottery.

  • Ronald King

    Matt, I agree with you. I am retired now and have not worked since 3/2010 due to an illness. I do not have the energy to return to my previous vocation but with a push from spouse and children I got a part-time job selling running gear at a store named Runners Soul and make minimum wage. I have a great time being there and interacting with everyone who shops there. I get worn out socializing and having fun and what I earn in wages is a blessing. Those who work in the industry you describe should be paid more than I and deserve it. I see a lot of single mothers working their tails off with very little support. How does the “culture of life” support them. Their daily lives seem to be such a struggle. I would be extremely happy if the government or some private organization developed a national network of services to support the education, health and welfare of these mothers and their children to decrease the amount of distress and uncertainty in their lives and increase the possibilities of choices for education and vocations which would give them the hope and joy which I experience on a daily basis. Merry Christmas.

  • Jordan

    Thank you Matt for your excellent essay.

    I’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed a number of times. In fact, I hope that university history and sociology departments now require that their professors include her book in their curricula as required reading. I am thoroughly convinced that a so called “developed and postindustrialized society” cannot maintain what is in effect a serf class without eventually stumbling under the weight of the objectification of others.

    I am a product of affluence, and I have reaped its benefits. I must be clear about this. I must be thankful for my upbringing. Otherwise, I would not be able to achieve what I have in life. Still, both Dives and Lazarus writhe in their own agonies during their earthly lives. A failure to recognize the anomie found in both income and social extremes underscores part of the reason why America’s working poor are poor and are prevented from advancement through cultural change and positive law.

    The justice of a living wage is not a matter for them, as if poverty cannot be named and embraced. It’s important to remember that so many more affluent Americans dare not give a name and due dignity to the poor unless they must also expose their inadequacies and fears of material impoverishment.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    It is worth noting that it is possible to run a profitable fast food restaurant that pays more than minimum wage. The regional chain “In-n-Out Burgers” pays its workers in California a starting wage of $10.50. California minimum wage is $8.00, set to rise to $9.00 in July, 2014.

  • MLR

    Awesome post, Matt!

  • Kimberley

    I truly wish that economics was enough of a science that it could actually give us clear answers to these issues. Half of the articles I read about minimum wage say an large increase will hurt the poor and that the earned income credit is the best way to redistribute wealth. The other half say that raising the minimum wage is the only way. Many articles now poll economists and use the results of the poll to make a conclusion. And when you read the completely opposite conclusions of economists on the left and right how can a reader not conclude that they’ve started with their political directive and use their economics to rationalize the starting point. St. Matthew, pray for us.

    • Economics is the science of explaining tomorrow why your predictions yesterday did not come true today.

    • re: And when you read the completely opposite conclusions of economists on the left and right how can a reader not conclude that they’ve started with their political directive and use their economics to rationalize the starting point. <<<<<

      I've read studies that suggest there's not much ideological influence among academic elites and laureates in economics. There's a great deal of consensus among them, in fact, regarding many issues, which otherwise divide political ideologues. While there is much less consensus regarding the minimum wage, because there's little ideological influence on other issues, one might reasonably conclude that the lack of consensus results more from methodological constraints than from ideology.

      Those who study and practice mostly positive (descriptive & explanatory) economics, which makes predictions and relies on empirical evidence, have strong disincentives to be swayed by ideology. They'd too soon be found out by academic peers.

      Those who mostly engage in normative economics (and all economists do both positive & normative) are in more jeopardy of exploiting their discipline ideologically, especially on issues where the positivists lack consensus because the evidence is ambiguous, for whatever reason. There needs to be a great deal more transparency and disclosure for those economists who work in policy making positions in government, disclosure regarding for whom they work and from whom they receive compensation (and how much) in the private sector.

      One might get one impression from primarily reading articles in the popular media, including such as op-ed pieces and think tank spinning, and quite another from peer-reviewed academic journal articles, where the lack of consensus doesn't seem to be ideologically driven. I wouldn't too casually dismiss economics as a legitimate, helpful social science, however problematic certain of its objects and limited some of its methodologies. It's enough of a science but its objects are hyper-complex realities. I certainly wouldn't so rashly judge its scientists, broad-brushing them as overly influenced by ideology.

      Finally, many economists seem to support, to some extent, a complement of minimum wage and EITC, but often end up supporting the minimum wage, alone, only because it's more politically palatable to the electorate than government transfers.

    • Kurt

      It is quite possible both are equally true. It is interesting that for liberals, the solution is to make work rewarding and a means to self-sufficency, while the conservatives want to use redistribution through the tax code.

  • Great post, and great quote.

  • Steven

    So people should be paid for how hard they work? This has happened when in history? The problem with paying minimum wage workers more is they aren’t worth it according to society. Is that a problem, yeah. Is that gonna change…not if you want to the Dollar Menu to disappear.
    I would ask anyone in this room to go talk with a small business owner – If you had to pay people more then they produce, how long would you stay in business? You wouldn’t – you would have to fire 1/2 the crew to afford labor costs. Can you run a store with 1/2 the staff? What happens to the people that you can’t afford to pay minimum wage?
    he last statement made, ‘Given the cost of even basic shelter in the Bay Area, where I live, or in places like New York City, that would be a start, but I think the minimum in our region should be more like $12 or $13 per hour or more.’ So your community has inflated housing to the point that it is unattainable for the ‘average’ worker yet you believe they should be paid more for choosing to live in that area?
    Last point – how fair is this to all the other blue collar workers? Good GM line jobs are about $20/hour…should they be paid an additional $8-15? How about for doctors? After school payments and insurance many doctors go years without making money…seems unjust to make such a carte blanche statement about how much people deserve to be paid.

    “This case is in one respect very much like public housing. In both, the people who are helped are visible – the people whose wages are raised; the people who occupy the publicly built units. The people who are hurt are anonymous and their problem is not clearly connected to its cause: the people who join the ranks of the unemployed or, more likely, are never employed in particular activities because of the existence of the minimum wage and are driven to even less remunerative activities or to the relief rolls; the people who are pressed ever closer together in the spreading slums that seem to be rather a sign of the need for more public housing than a consequence of the existing public housing. A large part of the support for minimum wage laws comes not from disinterested men of good will but from interested parties. For example, northern trade unions and northern firms threatened by southern competition favor minimum wage laws to reduce the competition from the South.” – Milton Friedman

    Much respect but very confused,

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      ” The problem with paying minimum wage workers more is they aren’t worth it according to society.”

      And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.

      • kurt

        Amen. Minimum wage workers generally receive a lesser share of the value they add to a product than higher wage workers.

    • So people should be paid for how hard they work?

      My point is that, in a country as rich as the United States, no one who works full time should have to live in their car. No one who works full time should need public assistance.

      McDonald’s could pay their workers $15 per hour, raise their prices a tiny amount, still make obscene heaps of money, and no one who works there would be involuntarily homeless.

      So your community has inflated housing to the point that it is unattainable for the ‘average’ worker yet you believe they should be paid more for choosing to live in that area?

      has inflated housing

      Interestingly passive voice there. A big part of what has happened in the Bay Area is that all the builders built high-end housing developments because the profits are higher on more expensive houses, thus leaving ordinary workers (too often literally) out in the cold. This, again, is morally depraved. There really is no other word for it.

      [T]he people who join the ranks of the unemployed or, more likely, are never employed in particular activities because of the existence of the minimum wage

      Milton is begging the question there, in the technical, logic-chopping sense – he’s using the conclusion of his argument as the premise. Whether or not minimum wage hikes result in higher unemployment is far from a settled issue, but the balance of research indicates that the net effect is more stimulative: more money in the pockets of workers (especially lower-paid workers who spend every penny they earn) leads to more final demand in the economy, and thus more need for workers to fill that demand.

      • Ronald King

        Physical and mental health improves with a more secure and rewarding environment.

  • Given the ambiguity in evidence-based data and lack of academic consensus, the prudence of the proper default biases, against intervention, in general, against federal solutions, in particular, seems somewhat reflected in such political realities as 1) federal adjustments remain infrequent and 2) the states have been recently empowered, within limits, to act as laboratories.

    Surely, not all of the disagreements are rooted in ideology. Some disagreements are empirical and moreso grounded in prudential judgment. And not all of society’s ills are rooted in personal sin. Some tragic shortfalls result from human finitude.

    When the only tool one has in one’s toolbox is a hammer (e.g. coercion or nonintervention), then every problem will, suspiciously, look like a nail (political or market-based). And no such solutions will address our putative spiritual ailments,
    but will only ameliorate their symptoms.

    Highly reasonable and deeply moral people can agree on the moral objects of hypercomplex socioeconomic realities like wages and even abortion without agreeing on political solutions. This is not often enough conceded by many partisans.

    • heather hodgin

      Simply put, as long as our society accepts being wage slaves to the billionaire monopolies like walmart, mcdonalds, home depot, as long as we agree that is democratic and disregard social justice, our children will have less and less opportunity to live rewarding lives. I am truly amazed at the arguments put forth here by people who think our current system is ok. Doesn’t it seem more and more similar to fiefdoms? I don’t want my children to be serfs. I don’t support unbridled capitalism that exploits humans and all other resources on earth. He is keeping his eye on the sparrow. Ask yourselves how God will judge the few people who became filthy rich by the blood, sweat and tears of so many. Keep your eyes on the final hour. For all our education and culture, must we still be ruled by greed and evil?

      • Doctors can agree that a patient is sick even while disagreeing regarding how sick they are, why they are sick and what should be done about it.

        That we have a sick patient, most probably would agree. There’s much disagreement, however, regarding diagnoses and prescriptions.

        That part of the ailment is spiritual, we know from that fact that coercive government interventions are needed, in the first place, to supplement our failed social, economic, cultural and religious polities.

        In my view, in the case at hand, the in/efficacies of both political and market-based solutions are too often oversimplified and overstated because the various ideological positions have outrun the scientific evidence.

        One can both oppose abortion and oppose its thorough criminalization. One can both agree with Matt’s diagnosis (poignantly articulated) and disagree with his cure (I haven’t even stated my position, but have been studying the angles). That Matt’s article was evocative and inviting folks to dig deeper, whether agreeing or disagreeing in whole or in part is a credit to him and the blog.

      • Heather, others may speak for themselves but I haven’t declared the current system okay. I have been exploring the NATURE of the reality, discovering that it is multifaceted and hypercomplex. If I am hesitant … … well … “It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.” — Murray N. Rothbard

        Once those who know more (including others here, I’m sure) are able to ameliorate, somewhat, the symptoms of injustice, politically, an interesting question will remain: “How are we going to treat the social, economic, cultural, religious and spiritual diseases that remain?”