Virginia Postrel has a delightfully counterintuitive take on the relationship of the high minimum wage to misery within the low-skilled labor market. In short, she argues that laborers cannot take lower wages for more predictable hours because of the high minimum wage, thus creating a short-circuit on a certain commodity on the market, namely, time structuring. Higher wages, she argues, gives the labor side negotiating leverage for more time structuring (I want to see my children at regular hours, so I’ll take less money to work the hours I want). The minimum wage creates a high floor, so a low-skilled laborer cannot use wages to negotiate for regular hours.
I react as a layman, not quite conversant with all things economic, so I pose the following as an inquisition, not as a critique:
My initial reaction was something like this: well, that seems to work in a high-demand market, where high-skilled labor is valuable, as in the retail pharmacy market. In the high-skilled, low-demand market, say, academics (which happens to be the marketplace for my accumulated skill set), wages have not hit the minimum wage floor yet, but they have sunk below investment (see: “Market for Humanities Sob Stories Is Also Flooded”). Moreover, the demand for residential scholarship has plummeted, meaning, you can stand at the gates begging for a job at any price; there just isn’t any work to be had, not for second-rate, glorified grad-assistant lecturers like myself, anyway.
Ah! But the internets! The internets! The internet has opened a new market, one which institutions have begun to exploit. The cost of maintaining residential humanities departments is prohibitive (as far as I can tell, anecdotally), but the demand for humanities instruction is still significant, though niche. Thus, universities and colleges are offering courses to meet niche demand on campus, taught by guest instructors, and they are offering courses in virtual classrooms, gathering students from the four winds, taught by instructors who lecture from the comfort of a home-office (or bathroom, whatever the case may be; you won’t know till I flush).
At this point belongs an excursus detailing the thousand weaknesses of the system, e.g., stagnant scholarship, quality control mishaps, administrative snafus, et. al., but suffice it to say there’s a market, a supply of labor and a demand for it, and I participate in that market as a laborer.
Now an excursus about my labor: as for me, I contract out my labor all over the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario and the Niagara Frontier in New York. I lecture thereabouts and online in linguistics and methods of interpretation. I also have my own business as a
fully armed and operational battle station Registered Representative, working independently. Each of these contracts overlaps with the other, which I manage through the magic of a smart phone. I have weighed the opportunity costs and made the trade-offs so that I have some measure of happiness, which is measured in part by my ability to pay the mortgage and put two cars in the garage and a chicken in every pot, not to mention hockey and music lessons for the children, and the rest of the accoutrements I dreamed of when I declared myself a participant in the American Middle Class, by God!
It still stands, however, that there is only so much demand in my market, and the supply is overwhelming. I recently tried to negotiate one contract for better hours. It’s an online lecture every Thursday night from 8 pm to 10 pm from September through May. I’d be glad to take a few dollars less for the opportunity to have a Thursday night off in November and February. The answer came back cold and clear: we have more qualified names than will fit on a 40GB thumb drive, buster.
I need that contract.
If I can spin that many plates, just about anyone who manages to sit through eleven years of post-secondary education and a handful of exams and a dissertation defense can also spin that many plates, and probably has more desire than I do. Whenever I meet a fellow-traveler, I smile sweetly, expressing some banality about the market, and wishing him good luck, but inside, I boil, knowing that if he drives himself off one of the Skyways by happenstance, my price rises a few ducats.