August 2007


    Here’s an article about Leisure.

    Provides a useful context for the Living Wage discussion, and for homeschooling in general.   I don’t really know much about the history and genealogy of the Protestant Work Ethic, but realize that its impact is sometimes felt in Christian homeschooling circles.   It is easy to slip from striving to do our work better, and offering up that work to God, down the slide into giving work too great a place of importance in our lives.

    But I point you to the article, because I can’t count on myself to keep a balanced, or even properly informed, perspective on the question. 

Saw an advertisement for this in the latest issue of the Catholic Miscellany:

My thought was, "Life Imitates the Curt Jester", only to realize I’d missed his reporting of it when it came out in April.

Okay, and I have to wonder . . . are rates as high as 31.99% not  pushing the limits of the prohibition on usury?  Hmmn, maybe a study is in order, after we get through the living wage.  Not an area of church teaching where I’ve spent much time.

***

Meanwhile, here at the castle . . .

    I haven’t forgotten the promised snake photos.   If nothing else, the blog is just the thing for people trying the cultivate the virtue of patience.  

    Garden results this year are keeping the local grocery store in business. 

    All of us are enjoying the last weeks of summer break (this, from someone who started out as a year-round schooler).  Big kids have made great strides in their swimming ability, which had started the summer at the "nonexistent" level.

    I’m working out the details of the plans for the year, with a goal of being somewhat more structured than last year.   The snake study is in there.

    Kids’ closet has been officially cleaned out (though it could use a second and third pass), Kids’ study is underway, and adult study is getting attention here and there.  Laundry closet is just going to have to wait.  Christmas sounds like a nice time.
   
    More living wage articles coming, maybe over the weekend, or next week.  Or so.

Bethune Catholic is doing a bit of a back-and-forth with this blog on the living wage question.  So you can go there to see comments on my entries here.   Jim also has a busier blog right now for general reading purposes, for those greencastle fans now wasting away in the current blogging drought.

    A common justification for not paying workers a living wage goes something like this:  "If I didn’t hire these people, they would be unemployed.  It is better for them to have something, even if it is not an ideal wage, than to have nothing at all."

   I didn’t see any treatment of the "something is better than nothing" argument in the Catechism; the Church is emphatic about the need to pay workers a living wage.      The Catechism does list several factors that employers must take into account when setting wages, and one of those is the "state of the business" (CCC 2434). 

    There are situations in which the state of the business might not allow employers to pay a living wage.  Imagine, for example, if our family farm (previous post) were to suffer a dust bowl or a depression.  The farm operates at a loss; even the owners are living on less than they need.  Certainly in that scenario, the owners are not guilty of any injustice if they are unable to pay their workers a living wage — they cannot pay themselves a living wage!    

    But one cannot use the "state of the business" clause to justify paying inadequate wages under "business as usual" conditions.  When the farm recovers from this temporary calamity, or the various workers find some other more profitable line of work, it is understood that the return to normalcy includes all workers earning a living wage.
 
    This is a radical way of thinking for corporate America (and corporate elsewhere), where the market price is considered the acceptable wage under all conditions.  There are many firms today which are reporting profits to shareholders, and paying sizable salaries to management, but which are not paying all workers a living wage. 

    The church tells us this is not acceptable.  To say that a company which acts this way is  "building the economies of the developing world" would be like saying that a parent who indulges himself while feeding his child concentration-camp rations is "helping his child grow".

    I think the Church is asking us to do something that is both radically big and very very small. 

    To pay a living wage, even if that wage is higher than the going market rate, is a big change.  It costs.  It means a company cannot rely on the investment capital of those whose idea of  "normal"  is to pay workers as little as possible in order to maximize profits, no matter how little those wages are.  It likely means owners and managers must sacrifice some of their own salary in order to ensure all workers can earn a living.

    On the other hand, making sure your workers can have food and shelter and clothing —  how much is that too ask?  Would you consider it unreasonable to ask your own employer for enough of a salary to provide for your basic needs? The moral mandate of the living wage boils down to common decency.

    Under normal business conditions, the "something is better than nothing" argument is deceitful and cruel.  It is an excuse to take advantage of other people’s vulnerability and poor bargaining power, in order to grow rich at their expense.  Is it hard to pay a living wage?  In a time and a place when the wider culture says it is normal not to pay one, yes, it is hard to go against that practice.   But it isn’t meant to be.  The living wage ought to be business-as-usual.

   

    I find it easier to understand economic (and accounting) concepts by beginning with small — though realistic — scenarios.  So here I am opening with a possible living wage scenario, but an intentionally uncomplicated one.

    Also, I am at this time making no prescriptions.  So nobody get huffy and tell me that I don’t understand the implications of minimum wage laws or what is wrong with our welfare system or any of that.  If you must know, my personal opinion is that the living wage issue is far more pressing in certain other countries than it is in the United States.  We have social justice problems here, of that I am sure.  But primarily they are, in my opinion, of a somewhat different (though related) type.

    But today, living wage.  And just an introduction to what it seems to be about.  That’s all.  If it isn’t helpful, other people might have something more useful to you elsewhere.

****

    Imagine you own a farm. Some of your produce directly feeds your family, and then you sell your excess crops to purchase those things you don’t make yourself.  In addition to yourself and your family members, you employ some hired hands to assist you in the work.  It’s going well — you and your family have all that you need and enjoy a few extras as well.  You consider yourself a successful farmer.

    Now one of your hired hands is a guy named Bob, and he’s an ordinary local guy, a good enough worker.   He does work that you need done around the farm — if Bob didn’t do it, someone else would have to do it instead.  Bob works hours that everyone agrees are "full time".

      You pay Bob the going wage.  You comply with all the relevant laws regarding his employment.  Bob is happy — even grateful– to have the job you give him, for the pay you offer.  Part of your view of the success of the farm is having good workers like Bob who are happy to work for you.

    Now imagine that Bob, who does all that you expect of him, and who earns a wage that everyone agrees is fair, does not make enough money.   The wage you pay him is not enough to pay for Bob’s basic needs. We aren’t saying "Bob can’t afford an MP3 player" or "Bob can’t eat steaks every week".   Bob’s wages force him to choose between, say, owning a pair of socks, or having a bowl of beans and rice for dinner — he can have one or the other, but not both.  If he manages to have both, it is by the charity of others. 

    Furthermore, it is not some extraordinary personal expense that is causing this problem.  His counterparts  on the other local farms all share his plight.  As a result they, like Bob,  suffer physical loss — the toll of inadequate nutrition, shelter, clothing, and so forth.   Some kind of aid program is required in order to supplement the farm workers’ wages so that their basic needs are met.

   
  ***

   The essence of the catholic social teaching on the living wage is this:  You, the farm owner, cannot count yourself as sucessful, if your success depends on someone else’s deprivation.

    CCC 2427: "The development of economic activity and growth in production are meant to provide for the needs of human beings".  An economic activity which is pursued without meeting that end simply is not a successful economic activity.

    CCC 2434:  "Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages."  The fact that Bob, and his counterparts elsewhere, agree to the wage, does not mean that you,  the farm owner are on solid moral ground.

    This doesn’t mean you have to run the farm at a loss.  CCC 2432: "Those responsible for business enterprises . . . have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits.  Profits are necessary, however.  They make possible the investments that ensure the future of a business and they guarantee employment."

    But what it does mean is that you the owner are wrong to be taking home profits for your own consumption, above and beyond your own legitimate needs, if it means leaving your workers to go without basic necessities as a result.

****

    Catholic social teaching is, therefore, radically different than the going assumption in the wider culture,  that if it’s legal and mutually consented to, it is acceptable. 
   
   The reality is that inadequate wages cause physical harm.  Poor nutrition, exposure to the elements, unclean water supplies, all these things lead to disease and death.  So if your profit model depends on some of your workers not being able to afford the essentials of life, your profit model depends on literally harming another person.   That’s wrong.  Even if your workers live far away, and are used to this suffering, and everyone else in their city suffers the same and always has  —  no, you may not profit off their willingness to suffer.

    And I think that’s about the heart of it.

 

    In addition to neglecting my own blog over the past month or so, I’ve been neglecting everyone else’s as well.  And so I missed the living wage discussion that happened at Bethune Catholic, Darwin Catholic, and who knows where else.  Caught up on those two, and nearly felt compelled to jump into the fray, but came to my senses. 

    But having (re-)read the pertinent bits of the Catechism, having consulted my favorite moral theology book, gone into an up-too-late discussion on the topic with the SuperHusband last night, and then discovered this morning that the Sunday readings (and thus, the sermon) were on just these sorts of questions, I don’t think I can contain myself much longer.  (Did I mention I went to business school?  And liked it?)

    So I’m diving in.  This is just a topic that I love.  Snake photos are still on their way, of course.  Massive de-cluttering and organizing continues to consume my ordinary time, and those curricula are due in another week.  But I’ll try to put together some little posts, covering just one idea at a time, delving into this whole concept of a living wage.  

    Forgive me if I repeat what others in the blogosphere are saying, perhaps saying better than I will manage here; my internet-reading time is limited. 

   

   

    Friday afternoon the kids and I came back from a short outing, and I discovered the front door was ajar.  I had apparently locked the door from the inside and then not quite shut it all the way — happens every now and again, it’s a tricky door. 

    Mr. Boy bee-lined for the toilet while I unloaded little girls, but returned with pale face, quivering voice, and this report:  "There’s a snake in the bathroom."

    "Really?" I asked.

    "Really."

    I gave him charge of the baby, had all kids stay outside, and went to investigate.  Cracked open the bathroom door, and sure enough, there was a snake.  I took the same sensible action as my son — shut the bathroom door and went outside.

    Now I’m not fully terrified of snakes, but they give me the creeps.  Furthermore, they are wild animals, and I have a healthy respect for wild animals —  long and skinny, small and furry, all types.  Finally there was the sudden realization that I had absolutely no idea what to do with a snake in the house.  No idea how to catch one, no idea how to convince it to go outside.  What with being fresh out of snake biscuits.

    At Mr. Boy’s suggestion I called animal control.  They were amused, but don’t do snakes.  The friendly animal-control lady suggested I call an exterminator, or else get a hoe.   Time to phone the SuperHusband. 

     Our hero dashed out of work a few minutes early to come to our rescue.  He arrived, surveyed the scene, and, like his wife, had no idea how to catch a snake.  But he is way too cheap to call an exterminator, and couldn’t have the rest of us weren’t going to ride bikes in the driveway indefinitely. 

    His first challenge was finding the snake.  On opening the bathroom door it was not in sight, and after a careful shaking out of rugs and towels, he still didn’t see it.  He began to fear it had escaped the bathroom (despite my blocking up the door with a blanket and some bricks, per his phone instructions), but then caught a bit of movement out the corner of his eye — a very long, thin black snake draped over the windowsill and shower curtain rod.

    Too big to use the kid’s Little Tykes gardening tools to carry out.  He retreated and devised his snake-catching tool: A mop, turned upside down, with a bite of rope threaded through the hole at the end of the handle, and knotted on one end.

    He returned to the snake, putting the loop of rope in front of it.  As if this were the moment our visitor had been waiting for all along, the snake willingly slithered through the loop, and the SuperHusband pulled the rope tight once the head was through.

    Snake coiled itself around the mop handle, and SuperHusband brought the snake outside.  

    Next was the question of what to do with it.   I was charged with both getting pictures of the snake for identification purposes, and finding a container to transport the snake away from our home.  Lord of the Rings action figures were quickly evicted from their storage bin, and as I could not find the still camera I grabbed the video camera. 

    I shot the snake-u-mentary — baby in arms —  while the SuperHusband got the snake into the container.  Twice.  Then the SuperHusband found the still camera and took photos of his own.

    At the very useful www.snakesandfrogs.com, we determined that our guest was a black rat snake.  Also learned that the SuperHusband’s mop-based snake-catching tool is just what the herper-host at that site uses for his own snake-catching needs — though he uses a walking stick instead of a mop.

    Upon learning that that black rat snakes eat squirrels, Mr. Boy proposed training our catch to be his hunting partner.  Instead, the SuperHusband carried the snake down the block to some woods, and the snake was very happy to disappear under the leaves and be done with us. 

    The photos did turn out, but are still sitting in the camera’s memory card.  I’ll post them as soon as the SuperHusband gets them onto the computer.  Meanwhile I’ve got about a week before I have to send in my 2007-2008 curricula for the kids; I’m pretty sure Snake Identification is going to be one of our topics this year.