Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Social Justice and the College Campus

I finished college in June, and since travelling overseas for work, have paid less attention to domestic news, and more attention to topics of national security and foreign policy. Something interesting has boiled up on college campuses this year, and I’m glad to have graduated; and to have also attended a ‘school of hard knocks’. Idle hands, not found on the campuses of strictly engineering, science, and technical schools, do lead to trouble. The illiberal faction of the left, afforded with time and resources to pontificate, protests and denies respect to graduation speakers, professors, and guests of honor. They demand that we “check our privilege”, and put a damper on Cinco de Mayo and Halloween festivities with aggressive accusations of cultural appropriation (St. Patrick’s Day and Octoberfest are spared). This is all done with the good intention of Social Justice. But why the guerilla tactics? I read one interview with such a proponent, who stated: “dissent cannot be tolerated because these issues are so important”. There is a more moderate faction which recognizes that the issues being discussed make the comfortable middle class- uncomfortable. But this faction is worth hearing out, since it respects the autonomy of the mind. What do they have to say?

 In traditional Catholic doctrine (dating prior to Vatican II), Social Justice wrongs are highlighted in economic terms: oppression of the poor and defrauding laborers. In a discussion of Miranda rights, one professor informed my class that there are individuals trapped in a cycle of debt caused by court fees. I was unaware of this problem, but I know that there is bipartisan appeal in criminal justice reform. There are conservative arguments for second chances, fiscally responsible sentencing reform, and for the disablement of Kafkaesque government intrusion in the lives of people trying to make good. As for wages, I believe that employers, more than the government, hold the moral responsibility to provide living wages and other collateral benefits when possible. Teens should use the good money to build a financial cushion that will protect them when they move away from home: a Benjamin Franklin kind of wisdom. Some business owners understand that their responsibility for laborers extends beyond the minimums the government allows. I am optimistic for this based on my experience in the Washington, DC area. Both DC and nearby Maryland suburbs raised the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour. The Virginia suburbs did not increase the minimum wage, yet employers voluntarily paid more to keep quality employees. In-and-Out sets their lowest wage at $10 an hour. Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A offer employees the social benefits of having Sunday off. Perhaps it’s human nature to give the less advantaged a deal. The only way I can fathom that executives at wage-scrimping companies can live with themselves is if they mentally dehumanize their ‘associates’ as mere numbers on a spreadsheet. I did a similar manpower exercise in a project management class.  Never forget who’s on the other side of the spreadsheet.

Enough about economic theories: Laffer, Keynes, and John Locke won’t pay working-class bills. People are taking to the street. Enter the New York phenomenon: “Stand for $15”. Low-wage workers in New York are justly fed up with their situation. The aggravation of middle-class commutes are reasons enough for griping, but it’s worse for the poor. Commuter rail is pricey, and low-income earners are literally priced off the road by $8 tolls on tunnels and bridges in New York. They must contend with long and slow subways and bus rides to work. The cost and time of commuting is sunk; and floating shifts as short as two hours are becoming common in retail. Employees tend to put up with this crapshoot, but this is not a tenable situation. Unlike elsewhere in the country, government is not seen as the inherent problem. With a push by the unions SEIU and AFSCME, ‘the proletariats are marching in the street’.  Squares like myself poked at their dancing and chants; and commenters wrote: “Union agitators…”, “Get back to work!”. But one thing going for the protesters was a responsive government. Cynics called this the unholy trinity of DeBlasio, Cuomo, and the President of the United States. (Hence, in 2001, Republican Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki and President Bush consisted the holy trinity of New York?) Ideologues like Bill DeBlasio are predictable. He would side wholeheartedly with the workers, consequences be damned. Tactful politicians like Andrew Cuomo (a New Democrat) and his father are sometimes unpredictable, but are well-versed in what to say and what to do. Statistics like the percentage of homeowners or business proprietors play an important role in defining the ‘triggers’ of the electorate. As far as a $15 minimum wage, it was a safe issue. New York has a unique relic that strikes of mid-century liberalism: the wage board. I’ve passed by this office before: it runs from a fine 1950’s sandstone building in downtown Manhattan, adorned with reliefs of working-class white men, who used to dominate the outer boroughs of New York City. Governor Cuomo and the gurus decided to give the protesters ‘everything they wanted’. (When I took Negotiation 101 in project management, I learned to always come to a compromise, never give in fully). Fast food workers would get $15 per hour. 

Neoclassical economics suggests that good compensation relies on a job being one or more of three things: dangerous, undesirable, or unique. Such is the ‘natural order’ of life. First responders and military personnel, of whom I have many friends, were perturbed that burger-flippers would earn the same as themselves. Working-class solidarity is not a simple issue: The real world is interesting and intricate, and filled with tensions concerning self-worth and one’s sense of personal dignity. Some employers engage in what amounts to unethical, if not sinful exploitation of their employees; while others do the right thing. Everyone knows it’s tough to be poor. But it’s worse when trapped in poverty by economic circumstance, with no clear way out. Social Justice, in an economic sense, is to create opportunities to lift oneself out of poverty. Allowing employers to run employees into the ground with commuting costs- just one example- is wrong, Viewing Social Justice in this light makes an individual’s situation succinct as a spreadsheet. Judging Social Justice in terms of race is soft science. It’s messy, as we’ve seen in the news this year.