False Concerns for the Poor

Fast food workers have been organizing across the country for months now, and last week a series of spectacular coordinated strikes generated a deluge of media coverage. As you'd expect, the right-wing media and pundit class came out swinging against the workers with their usual mix of hateful trashing and concern trolling.

The hateful trashing mantle was best carried by talking heads at FOX News who slammed fast food workers as mediocre ingrates who should be happy to have a job at all. Comments like these remind us that the right-wing does not merely hate welfare programs due to some anti-spending, anti-government ethos. They just hate the poor in general. Even poor people who, by their very description, are in jobs working hard and seeking to negotiate up their wages with their own employer receive the same vicious treatment the right-wing pretends to reserve only for "lazy welfare cheats." For those of us who don't think the working poor are subhuman garbage, this attack strategy is not very persuasive to say the least.

The concern trolling is a more interesting case. For the unacquainted, concern trolling occurs when individuals interject themselves into some dialogue out of a phony concern for the participants. Here, it takes the form of alarm over fast food workers demanding a $15 wage, out of the concern that it will put the strikers permenantly out of work. (Ozimek has the best rundown of such an argument, though he is not a concern troll). What's ultimately so amusing about this concern trolling is that it has no real empirical support. 

In fact, courtesy of Dylan Matthews, we know at least two prominent labor economists, Arindrajit Dube and David Neumark, are on record saying you can't predict what might happen as a result of bumping wages to $15 because an increase of that magnitude is without precedent. Zeynep Ton has carved out an entire research niche ferreting out fast food and other low-wage firms that thrive while paying considerably higher wages than normal. From minimum wage literature, we have learned that higher wages means lower turnover in jobs, which saves firms money that might otherwise be tied up in searching for and training new employees. Higher wages can also attract more productive workers, the hiring of which saves firms money. The point is: massive disemployment is not nearly as obvious a consequence as it may at first seem.

Even if you assume there will be disemployment, that doesn't end the discussion. If fast food restaurants are induced to make capital investments that allow them to reduce their staffing levels by 10 percent in order to pay the remaining 90 percent a living wage, most would regard that as a really positive net outcome.

This concern trolling is ultimately an empty game. The reality is that these workers are living terrible lives. Many of their kids, due to the horrors of poverty, are on track to wind up with mental problems. They are, as striker Terrance Wise put it, slowly dying in need of some kind of help. So what would anybody seriously have them do? Organize to push a new cash transfer program through the GOP-dominated House of Representatives, the same one that passed a Farm Bill that eliminated the food stamp program? Don't be ridiculous. Where, as here, more targeted legislative remedies are not available, directly confronting extraordinarly profitable employers with higher wage demands more than clears the requirements of the theory of the second best.