This started out as a Facebook comment that turned into a much longer post. It is something I’ve kept meaning to write more about but for which I never get around to doing the in depth research. Partly because I am not an economist or interested in economy. I am interested in history and this is something I’ve been putting together in my head based on viewing of a number of documentaries and articles and books that were not specifically about the economy. But the past decade or so has had me pulling these threads together into this concept that I think has a valid point.
In the fight to change minimum wage into people being able to earn a living wage if they work full time may be easier to understand if one understands that our modern economic system was developed by the same people who create the ‘trunk’ system of work compensation. Once upon a time, these people were called ‘Railroad Barons’. Not because their work on the railroads made them rich but because they way they made money made people think of the old ‘robber baron’s’ back in the Old Country. These were people with titles who took to robbing travelers and merchants crossing their lands in order to have an income.
Railroad Barons as a term came about because most of these people were in the business of building railroads. But it included others that were not but practiced business in the same manner. These were the people who came up with the idea of creating towns at their factories or operations and paying people in company script that had no value outside the company town. Then getting the families in debt to the company so they would never be able to leave their jobs and move away.
The government determined this was simply a way to try to legally enslave people and made company script illegal. Wages must be paid in legal tender. The government seemed to be less concerned with the payment itself and more concerned with the fact that it limited mobility, trapping people. They probably could have paid the employees anything so long as it would have been considered to have an equal, legal value, anywhere they wanted to take it so it could be used and spent in other places. They could have been paid in pocket watches because they could be sold and traded for a relatively constant value. Well, at least until the market got flooded with pocket watches. But it gets the idea across. These company scrip were bit of paper that held NO value once outside of the company town.
But in response to the Great Depression, these people changed the perception of their characters. They became known as captains of industry. They were praised for attempting to put some kind of organization and structure onto the economy. We called it capitalism and made a board game praising the concepts of making as much money possible off of others while trying to compensate them with the least amount possible without getting in trouble with the law.
Another reason that people don’t really realize that the Mafia came really close to taking control of the government back in the day is the reason that so many people were willing to work for the Mafia and to protect them. It wasn’t because they were family members. It wasn’t because these were people with natural criminal inclination. It was because, back at this time period, the Mafia in the U.S. took better care of its workers and their families than any other employer did. Older kids and young men took jobs doing stuff for the mob because the work was more likely to be steady, reliable, and better compensated and their families were looked after better than any other job in the cities they could have found, for the most part. Which may be a really sad thing to say.
Our entire economy was solidified and fine tuned by people so questionable that they made the Mafia look good. Think about it. This is the Free Trade Capitalism that so many people say is the best method of Economy. It is a method that says anyone can get rich if they work hard enough. This ignores the fact that unless there is an unlimited source of money, it is blatantly not true. Given a finite source of wealth in the world, that means only so many people can get rich while most people never will, no matter how hard they work. Free Trade Capitalism is best for funneling the most money into the fewest pockets.
I’m not saying that people should run out and become the exact opposite. That isn’t any better. What I’m saying is that our system isn’t all that and a bag of chips and the very roots of that system is why a living wage is anathema to what most people have been taught.