My brother’s an economist; I didn’t take a college class in the subject. What I learned started with two-bits (or maybe a nickel) per gopher for trapping them when I was 6, getting paid the outrageous sum of a dollar an hour when I was 12 to walk dogs, getting $.95 for nine-hour days on a flower farm at 16, etc. I read Adam Smith and bits of Marx and Ricardo for the required Western Civilization class 50 years ago, but coming of age in the Sixties had its own twist on economics. Money — discussing it; having it — was often an embarrassment among my peers.
I came to Wallowa County in 1971 to do economic and job development, and running an employment office out of my County Extension seat on the second floor of the courthouse was part of my job. So I learned: In 1971, the federal minimum was $1.60; Oregon’s was $1.25. State minimums have never been in line with the federal minimum. In the past, they were often “less than” — and complying with the federal law depended on how many employees a business had. I don’t remember the numbers, but do remember that the good thing about getting a federal job, or a job with some federal money in it, was that buck-sixty. With gas at40 cents a gallon, that was the difference between three and four gallons of gas you could buy with an hour’s work.
Back to early lessons in economics, I took a pay cut of $600 from my Peace Corps staff job to my Extensions Service job — $11,000 a year to $10,400. Friends said I would never catch up or be able to move back to the city. But I was happy to be here and making more than my dad had ever made in his radio shops and gas stations. It did stick in the craw some that getting the best raises given by the agency each year — usually 3 percent — did not keep me up with new hires, as OSU kept upping starting salaries 4 or 5 percent to compete in the job market. But I never moved back to the city.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned on wages and income over the years is that the relationship between work done and pay received is almost accidental — or plumbers would be making more. I’ve also learned that “wealth” doesn’t relate much to work.
I was teaching a class on Pacific Northwest Tribes in La Grande a couple of years ago, and a wonderful essay on “People of the Salmon” by anthropologist Richard Daugherty outlined the economic and social situations of the tribes at the time of Columbus, about 1500. The Tlingit and Makah and other coastal tribes had economies rich in salmon, berries, roots, fish, and whales. Whale oil could be stored and help store other foods, held over from season to season, and traded with other tribes. These people were “rich,” and they had canoe builders, priests, artists, and slaves, divisions of labor and wealth. The Paiutes took salmon, too, but their economy was year-to-year and day-to-day. They were more democratic than the Tlingit, and much poorer.
I called my brother: I think I get it now; wealth means surplus, having more than you need to get by today. And if you grow up with surplus, whether a Tlingit in 1500 or a Buffet today, your chances of staying on top of the economic heap are pretty good.
A couple of years ago a new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” by French economist Thomas Piketty, used extensive data to show that the free market, left to its own devices, inevitably widens the gap between rich and poor, and that only some kind of intervention can restore any kind of equilibrium. The New Deal programs of the ’30s had done this; the post-WWII GI Bill created America’s middle class. I called my brother. Yep, he said, read the intro; you’ll get bogged down in the book.
The actual, federal government-set minimum wage has gone from75 cents per hour in 1950, my age of awareness, to over $7 today; in Oregon we are now at $9.25. States across the country have now pushed well past the federal government, and cities — Seattle, San Francisco, Portland — are now pushing past their states.
Years ago, I ended up in the company of a bunch of big city businessmen on a fishing trip. An increase in minimum wages was in the works, and they were all opposed. Finally, in exasperation, I said “OK, let the free market do it. And while we’re at it, do away with child labor laws and the 40-hour week. The market handled them.”
So go for it, Portland: $12 per hour — four gallons of gas!
Columnist Rich Wandschneider writes from his home in Joseph.