Chris Rock Portrays the Tragicomedy of the Minimum Wage
The comedian Chris Rock has always examined the African-American experience in his work. He sets up one famous joke by explaining how Martin Luther King, Jr was against violence. He then remarks that if one finds oneself lost and happens on a street named after King, one should run away quickly because there will be violence going down.
The joke laments the state of African-American life, as well as exposing an institution which, through its placement of MLK streets, stigmatizes African Americans as poor and violent. Sophisticated stuff.
I was thus intrigued when I came across a 2007 episode of the TV comedy, Everyone Hates Chris, which focused on the minimum wage. The show — produced, written, and narrated by Chris Rock — loosely portrays his experience growing up in the 1980s in the violent Bedford–Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn.
In this episode, teenage Chris is earning $3 per hour at a local grocery shop when he discovers that the minimum wage is actually $3.35. How would the comedian treat this situation?
The Basic Storyline
In the opening scene, we learn that Chris had worked in this African-American-owned shop for three years and it was “the single greatest job he ever had.” We see a mutually happy exchange between him and his boss at the end of the week, “Good job, man! 60 dollars.”
Still, when Chris learns of the minimum wage, he feels deceived. He gives his boss an ultimatum, and his boss bids him farewell.
Off Chris goes to find a job with a minimum wage. He successfully finds one at a local Chinese restaurant and he feels justified in standing by his principles.
Things quickly turn bad. His new boss works him cruelly. His coworkers find fault in everything he does. They give him dangerous duties and racially denigrate him, calling him Lionel Ritchie and worse.
Chris concludes, “I was getting minimum wage and having minimum fun.” He quits, makes amends with his old boss, and gets his old job back at $3/hr.
The Morality Tale
The teller of a morality tale must interpret this series of events. Young Chris faced either an oppressive system or just some simple unfortunate circumstances. Popular culture typically tells the first tale — focusing on strife and strikes. Chris temporarily considers that approach and then tells the second, offering the most sophisticated account I have seen in popular culture.
His boss responds sympathetically to Chris’s ultimatum, “I like having you around. But I can’t spare the money.” The math comes to him quickly. An extra 35 cents an hour “is $28 dollars a month, three cartons of milk a day, two boxes of Mike and Ikes an hour!”
The boss knows what no distant technocrat can know, what Friedrich Hayek called the “particular circumstances of time and place.” He has that special knowledge regarding his flow of business, his profit margins, his viability of surviving with higher labor costs, and his long-term reinvestment projects.
Paying the minimum wage would have driven the shop out of business, the boss tells him, and this would have put Chris out of work. It would have also ended the trajectory of the boss’s own future American success story of “opening a Walmart.” In paying $3 an hour, therefore, the boss is saving both jobs and dreams.
Teenage Chris nonetheless protests, “Where are you going to find somebody as reliable and trustworthy as me?” The answer is immediately and comically provided. A cherub-faced white kid (wearing a Boy Scout uniform!) enters and asks if they are hiring.
When we raise wages, more people enter the labor market. Those people will often be, in Boy Scout terms, more trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. And, as Walter Williams observes, they will be more white. Jobs shift to these new entrants.
In keeping the wage low, Chris’s boss is keeping opportunities alive for those who, because of their less fortunate upbringing, haven’t earned all their metaphorical merit badges yet. Chris’s father says he earned his badges this way and that it would be “spoiled” to expect otherwise. Many others do the same, earning less, growing more: interns, first-year teachers, entry grade federal and military employees, and first-time Wonder Women.
This episode shows us who is in jeopardy from the minimum wage: young people, African Americans in particular who are at least twice as likely to be in this particular labor market, and anyone who is willing to accept a lower wage to get a foot in the door.
Early proponents of the minimum wage openly sought to keep African Americans from underbidding white workers and advancing. They were overtly racist and oppressive. Today, with goodness in their hearts, minimum-wage proponents are only accidentally so.
This episode offers a number of other economic insights, as well as one clear misstep. It makes for an excellent lesson for the burgeoning economics student. It may even help life-long minimum wage enthusiasts find a few things to ponder.
I once found myself lost in Anacostia, Maryland adjacent to the nation’s capital. It happened to be MLK day, and there I was, waylaid in my minivan by an MLK parade on MLK Avenue across from MLK Elementary School. The warm symbolism of this time and place stood in stark contrast to the cold realities. This nearly entirely African American town has a violent crime rate two-and-half times the national average and has a poverty rate three times that of DC proper.
There are many causes of such social ills, but we would err to not consider the peculiar negative impact of the minimum wage. While the minimum wage helps some people, it also denies opportunities to others. Such government gambles are the games of gods and monsters, conceits that have no rightful place in our human constitution.
Without the minimum wage, some of Anacostia’s shops would remove boards from their windows, some of these young people would choose peaceable work in those shops instead of crime. It is not a stretch to imagine that honest business would beget more honest business, skills beget more skills, dreams beget more dreams.
Long before MLK had a dream, AS had one. Adam Smith had what he called the liberal plan: “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way.” Beyond eliminating the minimum wage, this liberal plan would simplify the business tax code, lessen the burdens of certifications, make economic zoning more flexible, and so forth.
Both of Chris’s bosses had a dream of this liberal plan, but they struggled because of the laws that impinged on honest and virtuous expressions of it. The first had to engage in unlawful labor transactions to survive, the second had to be brutal to extract enough productivity to warrant paying the lawful rate.
Much has improved in race relations since Martin Luther King. But the same cannot be said of the laws governing labor markets. Until we give fuller implementation to Smith’s dream, we cannot say we have done proper honor to King’s dream.