Updated: Apr 21, 2021
This is the first of a two part blog post about fallacious political arguments that contribute to, and are impacted by, widespread precarity in the U.S. by William Wright, an engineer, artist, political activist and previous gig worker on Taskrabbit. See also his Weaponized Empathy
The peculiar circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic likely led millions of Americans to (unfortunately) frame their voting options in the 2020 election as a decision between going back to work (with an explicitly villainous president), or courting personal economic disaster (by electing a new President who might pursue COVID-cautious shutdowns). For folks who don’t care about the harms of white supremacy - which they may incorrectly assume doesn’t affect them negatively or directly - the threat of a dangerously incompetent president may have been outweighed by the fear of having to sacrifice their own livelihood for the sake of public health.
Such risk calculations are muddled and shaped by precarity, a condition affecting more people than those who are poor or economically insecure. Many Americans are struggling with precarity and this condition distorts our reasoning and ability to care for each other. It is deeply antisocial for such a large portion of the population to prioritize work over public health or safety. But the American life has been reduced down to either tireless work/production/consumption, or devastating poverty/prison/homelessness. Even the concept of Middle Class status has been eroded down to being able to afford to put all your bills on autopay (not home ownership, nor food security), as so aptly described by Anne Helen Peterson, in a recent article for Vox. When you live paycheck-to-paycheck, or you’re forced to cover some of your monthly expenses on growing credit card debt, the thought of shutting down restaurants, retail or tourism is terrifying. The virus, until personally affected by it, is abstract and tragically filtered through partisan lenses; but that negative checking account balance, and the hunger pains are very real and tangible. Many hard-working folk--the produce pickers, the cleaners, the cooks, the meat processors, the drivers, the teachers burning through their hard-earned free time doing app-delivered gig-work-- simply cannot afford to care about the health of others more than their paycheck. Most are paid far less than they should be, and must devote so much time towards work that they are trapped in a restless cycle of just barely getting by. The exploitation of workers has been refined and optimized so that this all feels like it’s just how things are, how it’s always been, and how it always will be.
Consider the main argument against raising the federal minimum wage, that businesses cannot afford to pay low-wage workers more, and so increasing the minimum wage would result in a loss of jobs. Although based on a false dichotomy (low pay or job loss), this argument is presented as if it is a matter of fact. It’s at least implied, and often asserted that employment policies favoring low wages is simply common sense; thus, supporting a minimum wage increase is deemed ignorant.
This web-ad from the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) appeared on Politico.com (in late 2019, based on the url). It can be found at minimumwage.com/video-graphics, alongside a number of their political ads from the past several years. EPI has been generating and spreading propaganda since 1991 against increasing the minimum wage. They hide their true intentions behind false objectivity and the possibly fraudulent guise of “non-profit research”. They seem primarily interested in low-wage work which they obscure with misleading euphemisms. “In particular, EPI focuses on issues that affect entry-level employment”, according to their About page.
Sure, higher pay is better than the minimum wage (or reduced hours for the same pay); but when fear dominates our reasoning the thought of losing one’s job may motivate more than the possibility of a pay increase [low wages = more jobs ∴ higher wages = less jobs]. There is some implied balance in this system when we accept this false dichotomy as foundational. However this oversimplification is a lie. Higher wages do not lead to job loss, and may even lead to a net increase of jobs as recent research on the food service industry shows. Moreover, the argument against minimum wage, ignores the fact that the federal minimum wage has not increased in relation to inflation over the past 5 decades. What we think of as a balanced or static relative value of labor, is actually always changing, imbalanced and continuing to grow more exploitative of those reliant on low wage work (which also impacts wages higher than minimum wage by depressing the value of labor generally).
You would think that a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic would be the catalyst for an awakening of empathy, a renewed sense of our interconnectedness, as we face this literal threat to humanity together. Yet, what we know, or what we think we know about the world around us, impacts our ability to realize and nurture the vital connections that we rarely are fully aware of. And exploitative myths like trickle-down theory, meritocracy, or white supremacy are tenacious. Such myths reinforce bad faith arguments that conveniently maintain exploitative status quos and artificial power imbalances. These harmful myths are seductive to those they promise to benefit and become dogma perpetuated by the convinced. Through such lies many are misled into voting against their interests, confined to the false certainty that their choices are restricted to either drudgery or joblessness, and aspiring to one day surmount this predicament by joining their wealthy masters on the other side of a widening class divide.
Like the fertile ashes of a forest fire, the violent end of a neo-Know Nothing fascist regime might be the right conditions for a more thriving social ecosystem to flourish. A bare minimum and long overdue routing of white nationalists from law enforcement and military organizations could have long term significant benefits for the U.S., including changes to how we make economic decisions. The righteous rage just might be breaking through.