Normally on Sundays I write about issues outside of the world of careers and work. But today I read a letter in the Chicago Sun-Times that made my blood boil. John Babush of Big Rock, Illinois defended the disparity in pay between CEOs and front line workers, citing the example that McDonald’s CEO makes in an hour what it takes a minimum wage worker three and a half months to make.
Babush’s first point is stunning – stunningly absurd: “How many hours do you think he or she [a minimum wage worker] would last in that job [CEO]?” No one who supports a living wage suggests that front line workers should be paid what their mangers are making much less what a CEO of a Fortune 50 company should be compensated. The question is one of degree. In the 1970s, CEOs in the U.S. earned 30-50:1 to the average employee salary. Now that ratio is often 250-300:1. Mr. Babush says we are asking the wrong question. He needs to go back to school for a little training in logic.
Worse still, Babush writes: “Anybody working a minimum wage job, should they want more income, ought to do whatever necessary to increase their value to their employer. If that doesn’t work, do whatever is necessary to makes oneself a potentially valuable asset to another employer. Keep it up and one day that minimum-wage worker might end up a CEO.” Is it possible to follow this map to success? Sure – for the very lucky few. Most successful people in the U.S. today had parents who were also successful. Fewer and fewer children born into poverty have options to rise from the class into which they were born.
“Do whatever is necessary”? Nice advice. It fits well in the myth of American Exceptionalism which conservatives like to push as a rationalization for the wealth distribution they claim to hate. Since the 1980s, middle class and working class people have seen their earnings fall, especially for those without a college degree. In the same period, the most wealth Americans have seen their incomes go up and up. Babush’s model of working hard sounds great, but is it possible in an economy where most of the new jobs pay $15 or less? Is it possible in a culture where greed drives the richest Americans to find new ways to avoid paying taxes that fund what we share in common as a society? Is it possible in a country where politicians of both parties, following neoliberal economic policies, ignore the needs of the middle class, working class, and the poor.
John Babush’s ideas have the strength of simplicity: Work hard and you will succeed. Push that balloon just a little bit, and it bursts. At first, I didn’t know why the Sun-Times published this letters, but the more I think about it, I’m glad it did. This letter gives us a chance to think about so many hard working people – now two generations since Ronald Reagan was president – have worked so hard and “done whatever it takes” to go nowhere or just tread water. We need to take a hard look at the American Dream. Is there still “equal opportunity”?
[On Sundays, this blogs looks beyond the work world in “Sabbath.”]
Simplicity and Lies
Everyone was shocked a little over a week ago when one man with a gun killed 26 people at a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. We can’t understand why anyone would do such a thing, which is logical since such actions betray any definition of reason. The President and other officials weighed in on the event, and quickly the subject turned to how to prevent such event in the future. That’s where it gets messy.
From Revolutionary War heroes to Civil War heroes to cowboys to tough guy detectives, America has always told stories of heroes that use guns. Today’s action movie posters frequently show a well-known star holding a weapon he or she would never touch in real life. We are also a culture of hunters and sports shooters, law-abiding citizens who use guns to pursue happiness. None of these examples are meant to knock guns or their owners, just to show how pervasive guns our in our cultural.
What can we do about gun violence? I don’t know. But I do know what we should do: Stop talking to each other like adults talking to young children. Last week, the NRA and its allies claimed that armed guards or teachers could have stopped the killer. There logic is that it takes “good people with guns to stop bad people with guns.” Such a claim simplifies reality, and it is a lie. The organization’s real goal is to prevent any kind of restriction on guns sales. Rather than address that question, it turns to pseudo-moral language that clouds policy issues.
On the day of the shooting I was listening to political talk radio. A caller said that we shouldn’t have any kind of gun control because the real problem is evil. That kind of thinking is also a dangerous simplification through a false moral rhetoric. If we say a problem is rooted in “human nature,” it cannot be changed. The classic way of framing this claim is “Guns don’t kill people. “People kill people.” However, if they are doing the killing with a gun, if they kill more people at one time with guns, it’s nonsensical to dismiss the role of the gun in the murders. In recent decades both Australia and England changed gun laws after mass killings, and the number of mass killings has greatly decreased in both countries. My point is not to argue for any type of law. It’s about language and how we talk to each other about solving a problem.
If we speak to each other in language that simplifies reality, we will never change. In fact, we will move backward to a time where fear ruled over reason. Do adults have the right to own any kind of weapon? If not, what are the restrictions? Should we have national laws, or should the laws vary from state to state? This kind of question brings us to a place where we can debate specific actions. White hat and black hat language is an excuse for inaction. People who really care about the deaths of the children and teachers in Sandy Hook should honor their memory with honest language about the tragedy and its aftermath.
[On Sundays, this blog explores intersections of life and work in “Sabbath.”]
Bill Moyers retired from his PBS show Bill Moyers Journal a couple of years ago. However, Moyers, now 77, has not retired. He is back with a new venture called Moyers & Company. Over the past years, he has also continued to write and give interviews.
Many on the right and some in the mushy middle condemn Moyers as a “liberal,” as if that label made someone not worth listening or respecting. Moyers, on the other hand, presents his ideas without insult or name-calling. If someone disagrees with his position, he listens and engages them in dialogue, a quality lacking in American politics and society today.
Moyers criticizes a political model of “winner take all” and argues that inequality is not simply the result of market forces, but political scheming. Are these positions liberal? Yes. But, unlike many of his critics, Moyers and his guests lay out ideas in clear language, not talking points and phony statistics. In another video essay, Moyers ponders the contemporary relevance of the folk singer Woody Guthrie.
In a time of simplified ideas and political campaigns based on finger-pointing TV commercials, Bill Moyers is a welcome antidote to the poison that threatens our democracy. He wants his audience to think about an issue and understand its full complexity. Agree with him or disagree, love him or hate him, Moyers offers his viewers real news, something we don’t get from corporate news readers.
When Bill Moyers left PBS, American lost an important voice. Now that he is back on TV and the Internet, we have more ways to engage with this interesting thinker. That’s a good thing to do on the Sabbath – Think about how to make life better for others and how to live a better life.
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