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The collision between ‘in the beginning’ and minimum wage

In the beginning, there was the job cleaning toilets, collapsing boxes and pressing clothes at the family clothing business.

The pay was, uh, negotiated.

Then there was the college summer job of lawn mowing and landscaping, with its customer base built through Sun-Gazette classified ads and any place a 1965 Malibu could travel with a lawnmower, rake, shovel and clippers stuffed in the rear trunk.

That pay also was negotiated.

For a bunch of us, there was a Sun-Gazette newspaper route, with its per-customer return gleaned from door-to-door, punch-card collections every Saturday morning. Or flipping burgers, or washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen.

This was all fine, because we were “in the beginning.”

On this day before Labor Day, there is an economic collision taking place between “in the beginning” and the minimum wage, which was 25 cents when first instituted in 1938.

Amid an economy boasting record low unemployment within 15 months of a presidential election, campaign and Capitol Hill sales pitches now lean heavily on a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

We are told this will solve poverty for everyone on the bottom of the American Dream totem pole. It will — for about five seconds.

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, a presidential candidate, recently flashed that arrogant grin of his and wondered aloud how there can even be a debate about a national, $15-an-hour minimum wage, which he views as a no-brainer.

This is not to suggest he has no brain. But he may have missed the basic economics class during his ascendancy to New York City mayor.

Or he may have not had time on his limousine ride to the Brooklyn fitness club where he starts each work day to read a recent Sun-Gazette article on the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

At the very least, he is proving he has no idea how business — especially small business that employs most of the work force — operates outside New York City.

A $15-an-hour minimum wage would nearly double starting pay for much of the workforce of a mom-and-pop operation with a finite amount of payroll money. The only solution to avoid going out of business would be to hire fewer people.

This is not because people running businesses are rich and mean, though half the presidential hopefuls either believe that or want you to believe it. It’s as simple as the math calculated on a cell phone: If Joe must start at $15 an hour, that’s what you used to pay for 1.5 employees. And Jimmy, who worked hard for years to get to $15 an hour, is rightfully entitled to pay above that.

So guess what, Mayor Bill, there are going to be fewer Jimmys and Joes hired, and not because business owners are cruel people. It’s because they want to stay in business. They will — through automation or reduced work forces.

And no one will be happy. Not you. Not Jimmy, now being told to perform multiple roles. Not Joe, whose hours are reduced because of the new wage minimum. Not the person laid off so the business can survive. And certainly not the business owner who delivers that news.

Capitalism is not utopia. But it’s the best version of economic fairness for the most people. And there’s about a 245-year track record to show a national minimum wage that cuts “in the beginning” from the equation is a prescription for economic pain.

In the beginning, there was a $750, 1965 Malibu that, when traded six years later for a Nova, had so many dents in it only one door opened. Then there were work years and gradual pay increases and, eventually, a Blazer.

In the beginning, there was the $150-a-month apartment. Then a better apartment that cost a little more. Then the $45,000 house, traded up for the next house, then traded up for the house in Nisbet, then the bilevel in DuBoistown and, finally, traded to pay for construction of a new house.

And in the beginning, there was the low, “negotiated” minimum wage. Gradually there was the first professional job. Then there were years of work and pay increases and promotions and, eventually, pay that allowed a few things we call the American Dream.

It did not take decades because people are mean. And sure, it would have been nice if it had happened more quickly. But it would not have been nice if there were fewer of us earning it.

We all labor. Our “in the beginning” pay at that labor varies according to multiple factors.

But at least we get to begin. If the starting block is moved five miles into the marathon, lots of us are going to have a hard time gaining entry into the race.

Dave Troisi is the retired editor of the Sun-Gazette.

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