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Published: Sat Apr 15 2000
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
A Minimum Rage

It may be time to reconsider communism: Even as the thought crosses my mind, I shudder. My parents, after all, lost everything—family, property, a country, their entire past—to Stalin’s criminals, whom they fled in 1944. But I’m not sure how else to respond to the recent news that the average CEO’s salary has risen 500 percent over the last ten years and that corporate leaders regularly receive salaries in the millions of dollars, while most Americans make do with modest raises, and the federal minimum wage stands at $5.15 an hour.

It’s hard not to be reminded of the old country, however, where similarly gross inequalities fertilized the ground from which revolutionaries sprang. The Russian czars, as we know, lived well. Their beachfront estate in Crimea stretched some 150 miles. Huge views. On birthdays, members of the royal family gave each other mountains—literally, mountains—as gifts. Mountains seemed popular presents once—Queen Victoria and Germany’s kaiser also showed their affection for each other by trading gifts of hills in Africa. Today we seem content with mountains of cash and stock options, which could, however, be easily converted into the real thing.

While my mother’s family included teachers, lawyers, and priests, my father’s father was a small-businessman and I was taught to respect business. Business, I was told, was where ethics really counted, where character determined success. In the professions, you might be able to weasel by on charm and the goodwill of individuals; in business, though, if you were not honest, if you did not deliver the goods, you paid for it. Today, you seem to be paid for it even if you do a lousy job and your company loses money. A class does not like to turn on its own.

Am I the only one who feels piqued, to say the least, at the blistering (and mounting) inequality in the distribution of income? Do you not feel common sense and justice somehow insulted by these inequalities? Is it a matter of personal envy?

I don’t think so. What is at stake here is one’s sense of equality as a citizen in a democracy. In fact, I don’t know a single person, not one, who actually feels enfranchised in our democracy today or who believes that his opinion matters or is taken seriously or that he can in any way be considered equal under the sun with your average corporate executive.

And that is a problem. When everyone (and it’s not just my friends from 02138, but also my friendly neighbors in 02155), except the very few whose bonuses enable them to make political contributions large enough to win them invitations to meet with politicians, feels powerless in the face of megamergers and supranational interests, you may be sure we are beginning to spawn something that will fester like a raisin in the sun.

One alternative, I suppose, is to trade up: swap these ragtag friends and neighbors for some better-heeled CEOs and lawyers. No thanks. I like the company I keep. I too am more comfortable with my own kind. What I don’t like is feeling that there aren’t open lines, channels of communication between classes, in our increasingly stratified society.

What should be done? The first thing is that minimum wage should be raised again—500 percent would be nice, but let’s settle for around $10 an hour. That way those who work forty hours a week can begin to make enough money to actually take a little time off after hours. At $10 an hour, a worker devoting his entire income to it would make less than half of what he needs to cover the average mortgage in the greater Boston area. This still means two workers per family would be needed if housing costs alone were to be covered. And what about food, clothing, education, children, and so on? Well, but you see, nobody is asking for equality. Nobody’s even asking for ease. We’ll settle for a little less gross inequality, thank you. As for the rest, let them eat rage.

Moreover, this minimum wage should be universal. That is to say, workers anywhere in the world employed by an American corporation should receive the same hourly wage. That would accomplish two things. First, it would prevent companies from doing what they regularly threaten to do: take their jobs elsewhere. And it would relieve me of the feeling that we live in an elaborately feudal society, one in which those who serve and tend me, whose hard labor makes possible the many lavish conveniences I enjoy, from the clothes I wear to the technology I use to the food I eat, live thousands of miles away in circumstances I can’t begin to imagine.

It bothers me even to have said the word communist. Drop it then. Let’s consider this from the perspective of the pleasure principle. Don’t you think we would all take even more pleasure from our enormous privileges if we knew that those who served us were fairly compensated for their efforts?

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