Voices
Krieg Barrie

Upside-down Golden Rule

Jobs | Isn’t minimum wage another way of saying, ‘If I could legally pay you less, I would’?

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

The conversation is still all too vivid in my memory. It’s been more than 20 years, but it was a defining moment in my management career.

Friends were visiting WORLD magazine’s offices, and as part of our modest tour, I was showing them the warehouse where in those days we provided a mail order service for a number of good books, especially for children. The warehouse handled several hundred orders every day, and employed about 25 people.

Among my visitors was an entrepreneurial fellow who liked to know the details. Discreetly but pointedly, he asked me, “How much do you pay these folks?”

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“I honestly am not quite sure,” I told him, with a touch of embarrassment. “I’ll let you know.” And I quietly pulled one of our newer workers aside to ask her quite simply, “Do you mind telling me how much we’re paying you?”

“Minimum wage,” she replied with a slightly puzzled look on her face. “Is there a problem?”

The little tour went on, but I was rattled. I thought I kept fairly close track of such things, but I simply wasn’t aware that we were paying any of our people the federally required minimum wage, which back then was something less than $5 an hour. More significantly, it had never struck me before that very minute what that level of pay communicated to the wage earner: “If we could legally pay you less than we are,” I suddenly realized I had been telling this woman, “we would.”

I was upset with myself. If ever Jesus’ “Golden Rule” applied, it fit this circumstance. I should be treating this employee, along with all her colleagues, just as I would want to be treated. And I knew I would never want to hear someone say to me, “If I could legally pay you less than I am, I would.” How demeaning!

That’s when the wacky idea hit me. What I should really be saying to folks on my staff was exactly what I would want to hear from my own boss: “My goal is to pay you just as much as I possibly can—while balancing our budget, giving our investors a good return on their investment, and making sure we’ve got reserves for future operations. I value you, and I don’t want you to leave us to go somewhere else.”

So word went out. From now on, we’d be adding a quarter or 50 cents an hour to the starting pay scale. From now on, our goal would be maximum compensation, not minimum wage—always consistent, to be sure, with our real-life abilities. It was a radical thought—so radical that we also had to acknowledge that it would be a step-by-little-step experiment. The big thing was that it changed the boss’s perspective.

And that’s the major problem with the minimum wage proposal now before Congress. It does nothing at all to change the heart perspective of the management class throughout the nation—except perhaps to prompt a few stonyhearted bosses to dig in their heels.

If the fast food team at your local McDonald’s is suddenly given a raise next week that jumps their pay from $7.40 an hour to $7.90, and everybody on that team knows the only reason it happened is that Congress said it must, not a whole lot has been done for company morale. And if a couple of years from now the team at Burger King across the street are all making at least $10.25 an hour, but only in response to a power-mad president’s executive order, almost no one will see it as a good or productive bargain.

None of us is ever all that impressed with forced generosity, legislated largesse, or mandated kindness. Judging from the State of the Union message, and the president’s proposed agenda since then, such coercion seems to be the way the current administration thinks is best to get things done. But it doesn’t have much in common with the Golden Rule the way Jesus taught it.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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