It is a commonplace of free-market economics that victims of the minimum wage are anonymous and invisible, and that this gives an unfair advantage to supporters of such laws. They can point to the smiling faces of minimum wage employees (and those immediately above them on the pay scale) giving profuse thanks to their benefactors in Congress whenever they get a legally-mandated pay raise without having had to work harder or improve their skills to get it. Meanwhile, the tens or hundreds of thousands of unemployed who were not hired because of the increased minimum wage have no voice, and are unknown even to themselves, still more so to economists.
Though essentially true, this generalization seems to have some exceptions. I believe I have been unemployed as a direct result of the minimum wage, and my experience may be of some interest. It was in late 1977 and early 1978, though I still have vivid memories. I had dropped out of graduate school the previous May, with nothing but a thesis between me and a degree that would do me no good in the workforce and that I was therefore in no hurry to complete. Wanting to get as far away as possible from the university at which I had studied, I grabbed the first affordable apartment I could find, sight unseen: it was being vacated by a college friend 800 miles away. This was a mistake. I was living in a smallish town with no car and few friends, and the economy seemed to be in a deep recession. Perhaps it was only my personal situation that made it seem that way, but during the Carter administration, it usually did seem that way.
After six months of complete unemployment, I finally found a minimum-wage job through a newspaper ad: helping to deliver pianos and organs for a music store at $2.70 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, that would be around $7.00 an hour today.
The job was the low point of my life so far. Though skinny and totally unathletic, I had paid my way through college moving furniture for Mayflower. With proper equipment and training, it doesn't take that much brute strength, just endurance. Of course, moving nothing but pianos and organs is quite a different matter, and I only lasted a week. It didn't help that my employer routinely sent three men to do a four-man job, for instance moving an upright piano down a flight of stairs into a basement. Not to mention that a foot of snow fell my second day on the job and kept the sidewalks treacherous all week. You definitely don't want to slip and fall while carrying a piano. Did I mention that I had no health insurance? Nor was the company particularly pleasant. The crew chief, who also drove the truck, repeatedly boasted that he had once had his name in the newspaper when he was arrested for dealing cocaine along with the son of someone semi-famous. The day we moved the upright into the basement, he 'got something in his eye' and left the other two of us holding the piano half-way down the stairs while he took his sweet time in the bathroom washing out his eye. When we were not out on deliveries, we spent our time sanding used pianos for hours to prepare them for refinishing and resale. This was in some ways even worse. As I said, the low point of my life so far.
So what is the point of my story? That I would have been far better off in every way if I had been able to find a job using my brain instead of my muscles, with prospects of advancement, maybe with health insurance and other fringe benefits, even if that job had paid $2.50 or $2.25 or even $2.00 an hour. I wasn't paying a lot in rent, and could in fact have broken even on $2.00 an hour. Of course, such jobs, being illegal, were not available.
When I did by chance find a better job after one week (thank God!) of moving pianos, I almost didn't get it, again because of the minimum wage. I was hired to drive a truck for a company that measured air pollution. The Carter administration was good for that particular industry. My brief interview went well, and the boss offered me $2.50 an hour. I was afraid of getting in legal trouble, so I told him (with trepidation) that the minimum wage was $2.70. He thought long and hard before finally offering me $3.00. The job lasted four and a half years and led to a ten-year career in computers, as I moved from driver the first day to data processor the following week to programmer a few months later to (after 2 years) head programmer, supervising one other programmer and 4 data processors, with appropriate pay raises along the way. And it almost didn't happen: I'm not sure the boss have advertised the job if he had know it would cost more than $2.50.
At the time I blamed Ted Kennedy and people like him for my difficulty finding a decent job. Twenty-five years later, I see no good reason to reassign the blame, though he has had plenty of allies over the years, not all of them Democrats. He's still sitting in the Senate, still clueless about what it's like to actually work for a living, still doing his best to screw up the economy. I figure my net worth -- whether it's positive or negative is none of your business -- is at least a thousand or two dollars less than it would be if it weren't for economic illiterates like Senator Kennedy.Posted by Dr. Weevil at October 24, 2002 09:56 PM