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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Upside-down Golden Rule

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

Upside-down Golden Rule

(Krieg Barrie)

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?”

“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.



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  • Dominique B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    Your article on the minimum wage is almost certainly from the perspective of the "management class," which you identified in your article. I'd like to propose another perspective - that of the "student working class." These are students who are just starting their employment, in many cases to earn money for community college or university. I hardly need state the extraordinary rise in college tuition, college debt upon graduation, and the corresponding student loan default statistics. I worked my way through college struggling to pay $3,000 in tuition each year. The same university now charges $48,000 per year.Students are frantically working sometimes two and three part-time jobs to keep up with the rapid rise in book costs, tuition, and the cost of gas to get to school. I know - I have first-hand experience with this with my teens and their friends. It is a much leaner, hungrier financial atmosphere for these young people.The increased minimum wage does not force companies to keep poor workers, but it does motivate them to provide a fair, competitive wage for the excellent service that these workers provide.You state that "almost no one will see it as a good or productive bargain," but I can guarantee it, your young person has no philosophical or grandiose ideas about changing the "heart perspective of the management class." They just need gas money to get to their classes and enough left over for a mid-day meal.

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    Mr. Belz paints a beautiful picture of how Christians should view and care for employees, but then dismisses any legal recourse because, " 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 laws are only valid if they change hearts, why do we as Christians fight against gay marriage or abortion for that matter? We know full well that most laws will not change hearts, but aren't there other uses of the law?  Does not Jesus state that the law restrains evil and protects the poor and innocent from those who would exploit them?

  • David Troup's picture
    David Troup
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    I've never heard a sermon on James 5:4 (NIV) "The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty."  We love migrant workers because we can pay them low wages and they can literally break their backs for us, e.g. road construction, roofing and heavy physical labor.  I have Christian brothers who live in virtual mansions, driving luxury cars while their employees struggle to make ends meet.  Who should determine the wages we pay?  The government-no.  The market?  That's the tyranny of the majority.  Just remember, Matt. 9:24 says, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

  • ClayJ's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    "In truth, there is only one way to regard a minimum-wage law: it is compulsory unemployment, period." - Making Economic Sense by Murray RothbardLets face it. Some jobs aren't worth paying someone minimum wage. And when the government forces an employer to pay more than the employee is worth that job either goes unfilled, another worker (or workers) have to pick up the missing persons job or the job is automated in some way. I do respect your decision to try and pay your workers a good wage.Murray Rothbard again (one of my favorite quotes)"The advocates of the minimum wage and its periodic boosting reply that all this is scare talk and that minimum-wage rates do not and never have caused any unemployment. The proper riposte is to raise them one better; all right, if the minimum wage is such a wonderful antipoverty measure, and can have no unemployment-raising effects, why are you such pikers? Why you are helping the working poor by such piddling amounts? Why stop at $4.55 an hour? Why not $10 an hour? $100? $1,000?"

  • John6689
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    I loved the Scragged article, Bill Taylor! (see post #3)

  • CarlnGeorgia
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    It has been decades, but I still recall sitting in a high school class and listening to the local owner of the Burger King franchise talking about his business.  He stated he always started his employees at $0.10 / hour over minimum wage as he didn't think the government should tell him how much to pay his employees.  As a KFC employee (making minimum wage), I immediately was in awe of my fellow classmates who worked at Burger King.

  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    Twenty years ago my father was running a processing plant.  A union came in and organized the employees who voted to join the union.  After a few years of negotiating with the union my father put a notice on the plant bulletin board that he believed the union did not negotiate faithfully on behalf of the employees.  He announced that he was giving them a raise that he genuinely believed they deserved.  They voted the union out.Good relationships and good communications are always better than coercion.   Too bad most politicians understand only coercion.  Hopefully we can communicate effectively at the next election that we are dissatisfied with the relationship they force on us. 

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    Who will buy those $20 Big Macs when all the manufacturing jobs are driven out of the country?  

  • DakotaLutheran
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    I've never understood the concept of a minimum wage. Actually, I can't say I really understand the economics of a wage. The way that Joel sort of states it is correct: you determine how much to pay someone based upon a larger context which takes into account the cost of production and the some measure of profitability. The factors that go into determining this wage are bound up in economic realities. This is easier to understand in a barter system than a money based system. What actually happens when some entity establishes some minimum wage is not completely clear. You haven't changed the productivity of the worker, and yet it does have some effect upon the overall economy. Over the long haul it may only be an inflationary pressure that ends up not improving the lot of the lower income worker at all. So it seems to me that the bottom line is the sustainability of an enterprise and the economic realities in which it is embedded. To declare by fiat some minimum wage appears to be ill advised, and more political grand standing. What you would more sensibly want to do is to improve the economic reality under which an enterprise must struggle, and to change the attitudes of the enterprises themselves. It is the latter that Joel refers to and what each employer can do now. In doing so, however, there is no guarantee, in conjunction with the ethical requirement of sustainability, that the wage will be higher than some minimum wage established on political grounds.

  • Bill Taylor
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    People forget that for a private-sector enterprise to survive, each employee's work must brings in more money to the enterprise than the employee cots.  If the enterprise doesn't manage itself to achieve this, it fails.  Each employee must be more wonderful than the money he or she costs.As government mandates increase the cost of employees, each employee must generate more wonderfulness to keep his or her job.This article summarizes the huge costs employees' work must pay for:

  • EARLC's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    A government is not run in accordance with kingdom principles and exists solely for the purpose of restraining evil until such time as our Lord Jesus Christ establishes His kingdom on this earth.  That being said I cannot see this new standard as anything other than an undue burden on just as many as it helps and is nothing more than another socialist attempt at wealth redistribution.  I am no economist but it seems that all that is accomplished via these gambits is a further shrinking of the middle class and a wider gap between the rich and the poor.

  • Donald V J
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:51 pm

    My first job for money was working out with threshers all day for $1.50,  I worked real hard to prove myself to those men and they ended up paying me $2.00 a day instead.They didn't really need me but they liked giving me a chance.That experience helped me all my working life, it was always my goal to do more then what was expected of me therefore I always received more wage then my peers.  Because of my attitude most of my working life was spent in management and I looked for people who would work like I did and then made sure they were compensated accordingly; I'm SO GLAD THERE WAS NOT a minimum wage when I started.  

  •  nxlcsdeo's picture
    Posted: Tue, 09/06/2016 03:07 pm

    Joel, I love this perspective, coming to you as it does in a kind of epiphany in your managerial life.  To give employees an actual stake in the success of the company they serve is a great way to motivate productivity--or at least separate the workers from the shirkers.