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Peter Schiff, minimum wage, offensive terminology, and philosophy

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On the Jan. 28 episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” correspondent Samantha Bee interviewed businessman and financial commentator Peter Schiff on the subject of the minimum wage. In the interview, Schiff made the controversial statement that the work of a mentally retarded person would be worth only $2 per hour.

The interview provoked a response by Allen Clifton of Forward Progressives. While Schiff's comments certainly deserve a thoughtful response, this was not quite it. Let us examine this piece philosophically and provide rebuttal where necessary.

“I’m sure many of you have met those people who 'just don’t get it.' I had a friend growing up who was born into a wealthy family. I remember a debate I had with her once about who had it harder, rich people or poor people. She said rich people did. Her example was that when her basement flooded the damage amounted to over $100,000 to fix, whereas a poor person who can’t pay for their electric bill only needs a couple hundred dollars.

I remember this debate so vividly because I honestly couldn’t believe the ignorance. She just didn’t get it.

Well, that’s the same feeling I had watching an interview from The Daily Show where the CEO of Euro Pacific Capital, Peter Schiff, discussed his ridiculous beliefs about the minimum wage.”

With only the information given, the girl mentioned above does appear to have an ignorance of economics. But as we will see, Mr. Schiff's position against the minimum wage is not ignorant, even if he does make a terrible argument in defense of his position.

“His belief is in line with many 'free market loving' Republicans who believe that workers should be paid what they’re worth. Which sounds great, until you realize the reality that the “worth” of a worker is determined by the person paying them – a person whose only real concern is growing their wealth, not yours.”

The quotation marks around “free market loving” are fair, as Republicans are statists who do not believe in a truly free market with no government interference. However, the next sentence is false. The truth is that the worth of a worker is not determined solely by the person paying them; it is also determined by the maximum worth of that worker assessed among all possible employers, modified by the costs of travel to a different place of employment, the inconvenience of finding a different employer, the inconvenience of starting one's own business versus continuing to work for someone else, and so forth.

“By all means if we want to hire tens of millions of independent arbiters to go into every job, assess the work each worker does then assign a fair value to each employee that their employer must pay – then I fully support abolishing the minimum wage. Because I can promise you one thing, most workers would be paid much more than they are now.”

This is not an abolition of the minimum wage at all. It is just a more intrusive means by which the state could interfere with the labor market by mandating a certain wage for a certain amount of labor of a particular type. As for a fair value, it cannot be determined in such a manner. A fair value is a value agreed upon by both buyer and seller without the use of coercion or fraud. An arbiter as described above, who is actually not independent because he or she is employed through the state, will have his or her assessments enforced by coercion applied by agents of the state. Essentially, this would create a planned economy. Take a close look at North Korea or the former Soviet Union to see how well this tends to work.

“Honestly, who really feels that they’re paid what they’re worth?”

Probably no one, from lowliest worker to wealthiest CEO. But feelings are economically irrelevant unless one acts upon them. A person who feels he or she is worth more should demonstrate this by either becoming more productive, finding another employer who will pay more, or starting his or her own business. There are government barriers that make these actions more difficult, and these should be targeted and eliminated.

“Look at teachers. They mold the minds of our future generations, yet their salaries are often below $50,000 per year.”

Under the current system, teachers mostly indoctrinate children with a pro-state view of the world. There is no reason to assume that a state-run public education system is necessary, especially with developments of private alternatives such as the Khan Academy and the theories of unschooling and natural learning. If the system is unnecessary, then the jobs will not exist, so speaking of the salaries for such jobs becomes meaningless.

“Firefighters risk their lives saving others, yet they’ll never be part of the top 1%.”

This is because there is a difference between loss prevention and wealth creation. If acts of loss prevention were to create a “top 1 percent” degree of wealth for those preventing losses, then they would have to cost more than the objects whose loss was prevented. Then it would make no economic sense for there to be activities of loss prevention, such as firefighting.

“So don’t give me this nonsense about 'workers should be paid what they’re worth.' Especially when you see the pay of some of these executives making 300-400 times more than the average employee at their company.”

On the contrary, paying workers an amount other than what they are worth is nonsense. Paying workers less than what they are worth makes it unprofitable for a worker to work at a certain job, while paying workers more than what they are worth makes it unprofitable to keep employing them. As for executives, if they make this much more in a free market, it is because their efforts are worth that much to shareholders. Of course, there are government interferences that help to create this disparity in the current market, such as a corporate law system that tends to shield the wealthiest people from competition, criticism, and liability.

“Well, Mr. Schiff took it a step further by basically saying the 'mentally retarded' should only be paid about $2 an hour. In other words, if you suffer from some kind of disadvantage in life which has precluded you from obtaining many skills required for better employment opportunities – you should be devalued as a human being.

Oh, but he wrote an 'explanation.' Basically he blamed Comedy Central for airing that part of the interview, claiming that the only reason he used the phrase 'mentally retarded' is because he couldn’t think of the proper phrase.

Using that logic, it’s perfectly acceptable to say anything derogatory if the socially acceptable term escapes your mind.”

What Mr. Schiff said about “mentally retarded” people is factually incorrect, and he deserves to be criticized for it. There are many people who have mental disabilities who are capable of producing enormous labor value, such as savants.

But let us look at the term “mentally retarded.” While this term has fallen out of favor, it is the subject of a euphemism treadmill. As Nicholas Cummings and Rogers Wright note in Destructive trends in mental health: the well-intentioned path to harm, the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” were invented in the mid-20th century to replace the previous set of terms, which were deemed to have become offensive, such as “imbecile” and “feeble-minded.” Now these newer terms have come to be widely seen as disparaging and in need of replacement. At some point, it is necessary to recognize that a negative condition is going to be described by negative-sounding terms and stop viewing such things as offensive. Or, to return to Mr. Schiff's mistake, we could stop defining people by their shortcomings and assuming that those shortcomings must necessarily diminish one's worth.

“But let’s think about his $2 per hour comment for a moment. That would be $80 per week x 52 weeks = $4,160 per year.

Basically what this man is advocating is that businesses should be allowed to pay workers based on 'what they’re worth.' So if they deem a worker to be worth no more than $2 per hour, how’s that worker expected to live on that?

Oh, I know – they can rely on government programs.

Then these people will come out complaining about the millions of people on these government programs, while simultaneously supporting policies which force more people to rely on government programs.”

The worker may not have to live on $2 per hour if he or she can find another employer or become self-employed in order to earn more. But let us consider the next argument; that people will come out complaining about the millions of people on government programs, while simultaneously supporting policies which force more people to rely on government programs. The government programs are the root problem, as companies would not be able to pay such low wages without them. Over the long term, people cannot work for less than what will keep them alive, and this natural minimum would be higher without a social safety net that allows people to survive on lower wages. While this position is frequently caricatured as heartless, it is actually one of the best ways to raise wages throughout the economy.

“Not to mention that by drastically cutting the pay for millions of Americans you’ll hurt demand for products.”

This ignores the fact that lowering pay for workers lowers the operating costs for a company. This means that the company can sell goods and services cheaper, as labor costs are usually the most expensive costs of a company. So while workers would receive less currency for their labors, that currency would have more purchasing power. Note that the opposite effect will occur if the minimum wage is raised, which is why a minimum wage increase will not help the economy.

“And again, don’t give me this nonsense about 'paying workers what they’re worth.' The reason why we have a minimum wage in the first place is because businesses weren’t paying workers enough. If they were, there wouldn’t be a minimum wage.”

The first federal minimum wage law was passed in 1938, and they were passed not to protect workers from business owners, but to codify racism and eugenics into law. The major proponents of minimum wage laws were white union workers who did not want to be out-competed by black workers. If there is a mandated wage floor and the white union workers are paid at that level, then no one can legally undercut the racist employers and employees by hiring black workers and paying them less. But if there is no mandated wage floor, then a non-racist employer can hire previously rejected black workers for less money, thereby running a more efficient business and making a racist employer pay a substantial cost for his or her racism. The minimum wage removes the ability of the free market to punish prejudice.

Of course, some on the left who embraced eugenics policies understood how the minimum wage could destroy opportunity and create unemployment for the most vulnerable people, but they thought it to be a positive development. As Thomas Leonard writes in Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era, “The progressive economists believed that the job loss induced by minimum wages was a social benefit as it performed the eugenic service ridding the labor force of the unemployable.”

“It’s the same reason why we have child labor laws. If companies hadn’t tried to exploit child labor, we wouldn’t need child labor laws.”

Child labor was also outlawed in 1938, and it was also done not to protect children from exploitative business owners, but to shield established workers from competition. Defining a whole sector of the workforce out of official existence is a handy way to lower the unemployment rate, and it continues to this day in the form of manipulated numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Barring children from working was not even effectual by this time period; in 1930, only 6.4 percent of male children and 2.9 percent of female children between the ages of 10 and 15 were employed, and of those, 74.5 percent of the boys and 61.5 percent of the girls worked on farms.

Today, such laws mostly have the effect of preventing children who are knowledgeable about technology from being paid for their skills.

“But this belief that by just allowing businesses to 'regulate themselves' and all will be right in the world is ridiculous. These businesses operate to make profits, not jobs.”

This is a straw man. Businesses are not regulated solely from within; they are regulated externally by their customers. If the customers of a business believe that the owners and/or employees of the business are doing something reprehensible, then those customers are free to boycott the business, support a competitor, or start a competing business which does not do the reprehensible activity.

“Most employers make their employees well aware of the fact that they’re replaceable. If you don’t like working for them, quit – we can find someone who will.”

The correct response for an employee is to provide value to such a degree as to become irreplaceable.

“Even with regulations, most companies do anything and everything possible to get around them. Why do you think there’s such a big push by many of them to eliminate the minimum wage? It sure as heck isn’t to pay their workers more, it’s so they can pay them less.”

The truth about regulations is that they are written by the wealthiest players in a given industry. The wealthiest players in an industry have every incentive to bribe politicians and regulators to write and enforce regulations in a way which is favorable to them and unfavorable to their competitors. By increasing the cost of doing business through compliance costs, regulations can drive smaller companies out of business, thereby allowing larger companies to increase their market share. This is how large corporations become mega-corporations. Those who fail to understand this process, such as most left-wing statists, then call for more of what caused the problem in the first place.

“Quick question: Without regulation on offshore drilling, do you think we’d have more or fewer environmental disasters like the BP oil spill in the gulf a couple of years ago?

If you really believe we’d have fewer of these instances, you’re crazy.”

As Socrates said, “When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.” But let us actually address the question. While there would probably be more environmental disasters if restrictions on deep-water drilling were lifted, the choice between government regulation of offshore drilling and open access for anyone is a false dichotomy. In a free market in which private property rights are respected, polluters are made to perform restitution for damages they cause, and there are multiple mechanisms to prevent polluters from setting up shop in the first place. The area in which the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred should have rightfully been owned by the fishermen who labored in the area, as property is justly acquired through the homesteading principle by mixing one's labor with natural resources. Under such a system, the fishermen could simply refuse to grant permission to oil drillers, and could hire private military companies to defend the area if the oil drillers sought to trespass and build anyway.

“The same goes for the minimum wage. If we ended it, these companies would abuse a society that didn’t have protections for its workers.”

A society cannot be abused, because there is no such thing as a society. Each individual person exists; a collective is just an idea with no independent form in physical reality. The idea of the minimum wage as a protection of workers has been refuted above, and the idea that it is the only protection for workers is refuted by the presence of unions and workplace safety standards, among other measures.

“Instead of having $2 an hour sweatshops like they have all over developing Asian countries, we’d have them here.”

$2 an hour has more purchasing power in developing Asian countries than it has here, so this is comparing apples to oranges.

“This whole argument is absolutely absurd. And Mr. Schiff’s ignorance about it was appalling.”

Indeed it is. It is clear that while Mr. Schiff made a terrible argument against the minimum wage, the case against the minimum wage is solid. To claim otherwise on the basis of a bad argument is to commit the argumentum ad logicam fallacy.

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