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April 16, 2018

I got into one of my infrequent yet regular Facebook arguments this past week.

As per usual, I dip into these discussions purposely and only when something “clicks.” Usually, the click comes when one of my good-natured, earnest, and liberal Facebook friends posts a bit of pointed social or political commentary, but nothing too directly confrontational. The fighters can defend themselves; I don’t think it’s either correct or productive to promote a quick demise for all conservatives or sterilization for Trump supporters, and anyone with that much venom is apparently equipped to fight their fight.

This particular case involves a dear high school friend and a meme she shared making the point that it isn’t “efficient” for companies to not pay their employees a living wage—it’s cheap, inhumane, and incredibly inefficient when the government must step in to provide that missing support.

My dear friend has two other dear friends that I either don’t know or don’t remember. They must be dear friends to her, because they harangue her with snippy, ridiculing, almost condescending Facebook counter-arguments, almost every time she posts something; and she hasn’t blocked them yet.

Well, why am I telling you (my vast blog audience) all of this? I guess this is the public version of those inner conversations one has when reliving conflicts, usually with two main objectives:  (1) confirming one’s righteousness and (2) giving all of the clever or inappropriate comebacks that either didn’t present themselves at the moment or would have sent the argument into a new level of nastiness that absolutely would not have been productive.

On the first count, of course I do believe that I am correct on several counts. A living wage does matter. Companies have responsibilities to all of their stakeholders—whether owners, shareholders, the community they serve and operate in, the employees, or the government. Some are mandated, and some are just common sense. Ultimately, if your business is doing more harm than good, then you are dampening the macro economy. You may not feel the crunch from your harm next week or even next year, but harming people, harming animals, harming the environment, and harming the community—all of these things will circle back on your business at some point.

But what of the counter-arguments I was presented with? Was I too dismissive of them? Well, you judge. I was told (with all the condescension appropriate for a deluded socialist such as me) that the market determines wages and that people are responsible for getting jobs that demand a wage that is sufficient for their economic needs.

Having not had the luxury of being a deluded socialist in real life, I have more than lived this advice. I worked at an ice cream shop out of college, making around seven bucks an hour.  By fits and starts, I pushed my hourly wage up to around $13 an hour by the time I started my professional career as an accountant, 11 years out of college. I racked up $45K in credit card debt in the meantime, coming dangerously close to bankruptcy, and found that the only way for me to almost comfortably support myself was by working two jobs.

Going back to school to get my accounting degree cost me more than $35K, and I just barely managed to pay for the small part of tuition that wasn’t rolled into the loans. I studied online while working over 60 hours per week.

Things have eased considerably for me since beginning my professional career. But it was a huge uphill battle for me to get that foothold. Some conservatives like the two I wrangled with this past week would hold my story up as a paradigm demonstrating the nonsense of companies worrying about a living wage. Some jobs just aren’t meant to sustain a person—you move on to one that does—it’s as simple as that.

Except—not simple. Not at all. I made it happen for myself, and I am exceptionally proud of my accomplishments. But I just barely made it happen. I had just barely enough money, enough credit, enough resources, enough lucky breaks, enough connections at the right time, enough people willing to take a chance on me to make the pieces come together the way they did. So I feel lucky.

Oh, and a couple other things. I am a white male. I have no children. I have no other family members to support—no elderly parents or grandparents, no disabled brothers or sisters, no mooching cousins. I have no health issues. For those years I struggled below or at the level of the living wage, I could contribute 100% of my sparse income to my food, rent, and utilities (and credit card minimums). Plus I had an unexpected roommate for about three years during my most dire straits, and that extra few hundred dollars a month in rent saved me. That, and spending $20 a week on groceries. (Yes, it can be done.)

Oh, and one more thing. I’m smart and educated. Not everyone has the aptitude or the opportunity to gain the credentials needed to land a big chunk of those available living wage jobs. I graduated as valedictorian of the best public school in the state of Tennessee, then graduated from arguably the best college in the entire southeastern United States.

Yet and still, I bounced around at a handful of practically entry-level jobs for a decade after graduating college.  And just to clarify, this circumstance was not due to poor job performance or lack of planning. I went into each job understanding that some level of advancement was available to me. And it’s entirely possible I would be chugging along as a mailroom manager or an ice cream shop manager these many years later, making an OK salary, if I hadn’t gone back to school. However, I stayed at the ice cream shop for over seven years, and it just wasn’t happening for me.

Please tell me again how anyone can just decide they want a better-paying job and then execute. I’m dying to know how that works. The level of privilege that presents in that statement is staggering, and that’s what really lit a fire under me in this Facebook discussion.

So, in the course of my explanation of why I think I’m right, I think I covered some of the snappy comebacks that I withheld during the actual discussion, as well. Besides, name-calling, even in absentia, is not productive. So I think I will forego covering here all the names I wanted to call these two guys.

I think they revealed themselves sufficiently in their viewpoints, and more importantly, in the arrogant way they expressed those viewpoints. They called themselves the names that I won’t.

I’m not sure if I did any good or opened any minds by engaging in the discussion. At the very least, I hope I let these guys know that an alternative viewpoint can be well considered. And that they can’t run roughshod over my friend, a single mother of three who no doubt felt the sting of judgment in their comments.

I also hope by extending the discussion into this post that some other folks who are on either side of such an online thread gain some insight about how they behave and present themselves when discussing political issues. People take these things seriously because they take them personally, so it always helps to understand and honor that personal connection.

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