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The following four emails vividly define the discussion we've been having here on MNB about living wages, minimum wages, and corporate responsibility.

MNB reader Donna Hekker wrote:

You have not a clue do you. Another Marxist journalist writing about the have’s and the have nots. Ive worked since I was 13 years old and you don’t pay an entry level person in the work world 15.00 an hour . You have to work your way up start at the 8.94 . You’ve never run a business and probably have never worked in an industry where you have incentive to earn more. You have no business even weighing in on this.

Write an article about the crony capitalist that the Imperial President wastes our tax dollars on.

Really? I'm a Marxist? (Next thing you know, someone will be accusing me of having a Kenyan passport.)

For the record, I started working when I was 13 years old, too. I think the minimum wage then was about $1.45 an hour. And I don't think I've suggested legislation mandating that entry level workers get $15 an hour. What I have suggested is that companies making big profits ought to find ways to reduce wage disparity and share the profits with the people on the front lines, rather than trying to find ways to pay people as little as they can ... and that such a strategy actually could lead to greater effectiveness and efficiency.

However, my sense from the tone of your email is that no matter what I say, you are going to assume that I think a certain way, and that anyone who disagrees with you is a Marxist.

With all due respect, this is a crock.

From MNB reader Carol Elliot:

Please do not  let your readership dictate what is in your conscience.  You're smarter than that; that's why I'm a loyal reader of your column.

Frankly, with the average wage disparity between those in the C suite vs. the "average Joe" being at approximately 440 times, something needs to be done.  I believe that the second country on the planet with the next largest disparity is the UK at about 40 times.  (You may want to fact check me here, but, I think I'm close.)

Content Guy's Note: Best I can tell, this isn't exactly true. But both the US and the UK are in the top 10 when it comes to income disparity around the globe.

For some reason, probably the abject greed of the few, it is deemed somehow "ok" for this disparity to remain in place.  A short read of history will show that anytime  oligarchy is the structure of a society, it fails, usually spectacularly.  Think France in the late 1700s, Russia in the early 1900s, some might even point to Egypt today, with it's widespread unemployment and lack of opportunity.

I'm reminded of that great capitalist, Henry Ford, no quoted enough here from my perspective.   The concept of paying your workers a livable wage, which, $15 an hour could be argued is barely minimal, can actually be profitable.  Henry doubled his workers salaries, after they staged a walkout.  He then discovered that those workers actually "returned the favor" by buying his cars.  Just amazing what happens when people are paid a decent wage for decent work.  If the fast food workers of today have to stage a walkout to get some attention, then I say, more power to them since it will be for the ultimate good for all, including the fast food corporations.

However, there will and will always be, those unenlightened few who will focus on short term gain to the ultimate detriment of their businesses.  For those, we need a realistic minimum wage law in place.  Not everything can be left to "market forces" as if they're some "magic elixir" we've all been told to swallow.  After all markets are made up of people and we're all fallible.

If you don't agree, show some courage on this issue instead of "walking the fine line"  you have been. That's why you've built a loyal following.  It's frankly disappointing to see you "waffle" on such a fundamental issue.  Pick a side and stick to it. That's what leadership is all about, especially journalist leadership.

I appreciate your confidence in me. I'm not trying to walk a fine line here, or to waffle because of my readership. (I think Donna Hekker would support me on this.)

I think it is possible to believe that companies ought to invest (and it would be an investment, not just an expenditure) in higher wages for employees without believing that living wage legislation - especially selective legislation that only affects certain industries - is a good idea.

Which leads, quite naturally, into an email from reader Chuck Jolley:

You wrote, “I keep saying that if companies do the right thing in this case, they'll render any proposed legislation irrelevant. And I keep getting email from people suggesting that I am calling for living wage legislation, and castigating me for it. Which is not what I'm doing.”

I’ll be glad to do it.  When “C” level execs fee free to write themselves ever increasing personal checks and major corporations report near record profits, it’s time to ask where that money comes from and why are people in top management and so many working Americans supporting a pay scale imbalance that has become wider every year?  A corollary question might be why does Costco enjoy a better profit margin than Sam’s Club even though Costco pays their employees significantly more? 

Or do Sam’s Club and Walmart get a free pass on dipping into what amounts to corporate welfare to help pay their employees?

Finally, here is an email from a reader that does not deal with the same issue, but that I think is relevant because it expresses a mindset that is consistent with those who oppose not just living wage legislation, but also minimum wage laws:

Discussing with a co-worker the item on the 20 Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety companies, and their 5-year, $45 million commitment to upgrade safety issues at local factories just now, noted your comment, "...shallow support would be worse than no support at all."

Co-worker comments (paraphrasing here): "Let me get this straight; these 20 companies that source product from these factories in Bangladesh take it upon themselves to make this commitment, put up their own money to try and make things better, AT SOMEBODY ELSE'S FACTORIES, and Kevin snarkily suggests they're 'showing shallow support'?  THESE AREN'T EVEN THESE COMPANIES' FACTORIES!  Remind me to never donate $45 million to Morning News Beat.  I wouldn't want to be accused of cynical, gratuitous tokenism."

You wouldn't like my co-worker.

First of all, let me be clear. If someone wants to invest $45 million in MNB, I promise not to be snarky or cynical about it.

But let's get serious here.

A $45 million commitment by 20 companies over five years amounts to about $450,000 a year apiece, or a little more than a thousand bucks a day per company. For some, that's a rounding error. Or a mediocre bribe to a foreign official. (Sorry. That was a cheap shot. Couldn't help myself.)

Let's get beyond the money for a second.

True, these factories don't belong to these US retailers. But these factories are making products that these companies are selling to US consumers, at cheap prices that may be at least in part enabled because the companies that do own the factories pay people poorly and have less than effective safety measures.

I think that these retailers do have a responsibility here. A $45 million commitment is hardly tokenism, but I also think that sometimes it is easier for companies to simply write a check and say that this is enough. I'm not saying that this is what they are doing, but I'll repeat what I said yesterday: Shallow support is worse than no support at all. Because shallow support will give the false impression that often intolerable situations are being dealt with, an illusion that will persist until the next foreign factory collapses on top of the people who are working there.

I don't dislike your co-worker. I'm not a fighter, I'm a lover. (Extra credit if you get the movie reference.) But I believe that this is all part of a larger continuum, and that if companies don't do the right things, it has the potential to spin out of control.
KC's View: