Tuesday, February 09, 2021

$15 an hour

 Proponents of trickle-up economics make a compelling case for raising the minimum wage from the current (and longstanding) $7.25 an hour to a comfortable $15. Put money into the hands of workers at the bottom to create a more solid foundation to our economy. It also has considerable humanitarian benefits, but those don't even have a line item at the accounting department. If you can't make your case monetarily in some way, it will fail. Even environmental protection has to resort to cost-benefit analyses of open space versus a cancerous sprawl of raped land. Oh yeah, clean air and water, those are good. Now let's dump this mining waste down this conveniently located stream.

If the minimum wage gets raised to $15 an hour, I will get the most significant raise of my entire working life. I know, what was I thinking? All that shit about never giving up on your dreams runs insidiously into the day to day creep of advancing age, until one day you realize that it may never be too late to hit it big (whatever that means) but that in all likelihood you will die destitute after either a period of extreme poverty or a serious illness that you can't afford to treat. In my defense, I did occasionally tap into freelance income that looked promising before another blowdown or washout interrupted progress.

Kill your dreams, kids. Kill them before they kill you. Know when to quit and quit hard. Either that or turn your back instantly on anyone who hinders your single-minded attention to whatever far-fetched notion of creative success you envision. And you still run greater odds of failure than success. Do your best to enjoy the process in either case.

While the rising tide of higher wages will lift most boats, it will sink some of them. This is not a reason not to do it. But some small businesses won't be able to pay that well on the limited revenues they bring in. They will have to restructure to find the right size, which could mean growing, or shrinking, right down to vanishing completely.

The shop I work for already has to manage a broad array of financial stressors. Until 2020 triggered a truly unprecedented level of interest in what we sell, both the bike and cross-country ski business were gradually dying. Cross-country skiing, dependent as it is on natural snow and reliable winter weather, was suffering worse than biking. Biking masked its decline behind category sales, while the real freedom represented by the road bike of the 1970s and '80s and the mountain bikes of the early boom has eroded greatly. Mountain biking mutated into a sport of staggeringly expensive toys operated mostly on engineered courses. Road biking has similarly chased high dollars, while the open road remains a hazardous venue. Separated infrastructure is just another prison, part of the ghettoization of cycling. Move the undesirables into a separate enclave, preferably contained by a fence. Spend millions to go to fewer places than the road, and if someone complains, call them an ingrate. And that's only in places that have scraped up the investment. Elsewhere it's just a free-for-all.

Our clientele consists mainly of people who would see no personal benefit from raising the minimum wage. Whether they want the modern expensive stuff or not, their buying decision doesn't hinge on their hourly income. In the broader area from which we draw, we have customers who will enjoy better finances, but their improved circumstances might lead them away from bikes entirely. Just giving people more money does not mean that they will spend it on what we offer.

I've written ad nauseam about the challenges faced by outpost shops like ours, and many others beyond the reach of powerful retail chains. Each one finds tendrils of support unique to its area. Major suppliers, meanwhile, follow the understandable practice of courting large accounts and using them as the basis by which to judge all others. If a big company makes concessions on unit price for complete bikes they sell to small, independent shops, they still won't support their marvels any better with parts and tools.

A small shop that can't afford to stuff a warehouse with widgets stockpiled against future obsolescence can't offer as strong a service department to the technolemmings who come looking for bargain-priced expertise. And they'll let you know when you don't impress them sufficiently. The classic case was a local trust funder who breaks things a lot. His propensity, combined with the increasingly temperamental nature of modern componentry, led us to some long and complex repairs before he quit bringing anything to us. He came back from one of his many well-funded voyages to somewhere or other to tell us, "I checked with a shop where they really know what they're talking about..." Are we really ignorant, or am I just really bad at confirming his biases for him? I'm never going to get good at confirming his biases.

Because the tech-obsessed represent an increasing portion of the market for recent stuff, but millions of old bikes remain in service, the tech crowd looks for sophistication on demand, while the majority of riders still just need reliable service on their simple machines. Frankly, I'm with them. Technological inequality is a perfect metaphor for income inequality. Back in the olden days, bikes were very similarly designed across the whole price spectrum. You paid more to get something lighter weight, of better metals, more precisely machined and finished. But your mid-price bike might actually handle pretty nicely, so you could enjoy riding at your price point.

With modern componentry, lower-priced bikes have trashily-made versions of the expensive stuff -- which is itself pretty trashily made. Nothing is intended to last, even if it is intended to hold up to heavy levels of abuse during its short lifetime. If you take good care of your stuff, respecting its vulnerabilities as well as its strengths, expect to pay a lot and undergo a long treasure hunt when you finally need suspension or hydraulics rebuilt. And that's on top of the ongoing expense you will incur with tubeless tires and brake fluid.

Why does this matter to a $15 an hour minimum wage? Overhead expenses. A shop needs to have tools, parts, work fixtures, and perishable fluids on demand for the needy technolemming. As "luxury" features like hydraulic disc brakes are used to fluff up the showroom appeal of mid-price bikes, increasing numbers of riders get recruited to run off the cliff because they didn't know that they should refuse to, and might not have had a viable alternative. A big shop in a heavily populated area can absorb more of these changes as part of its overall financial existence. Well-kept tools will last. Mechanics can be trained in procedures, and get better with practice. A large facility can set aside dedicated space for time-consuming projects that require extreme cleanliness, like anything to do with hydraulics. You can do the work in a clearing you stomp out in the middle of a mucky swamp, but you need to defend that clearing until the job is done. In a small shop, that can tie up a bench for a while, preventing other work from getting done.

Repair type is unpredictable, as is repair volume. No one saw last year's stampede coming. We can expect in general that bike work will pick up in April and run in fairly high waves until late summer. Last year it hit earlier and stayed at flood levels until late summer, tapering gradually into autumn. However, the well-documented shortages of parts hampered our ability to get these riders up and running. Those shortages persist as we roll inexorably closer to the new season.

Meanwhile, Specialized imposed a drastic price increase on bikes already ordered, but not shipped. As of February 1, anything that hadn't left the warehouse automatically jumped in price, even if it was a prepaid special order the Big S had themselves been unable to fulfill. We ordered in good faith. Have a kick in the teeth, little guy! Specialized makes the case that they are squeezed by price increases from their suppliers, and other expenses. A price increase was inevitable. But a small shop subsisting on special orders for high end bikes has to negotiate the increase with the customers who thought that they'd already satisfied the financial part of the transaction, and had only to wait patiently for it to arrive and be assembled. If someone digs their heels in, we have to decide whether to eat the loss or refuse the bike and eat a bigger loss. A loss is a loss. You don't stay in business by operating in the red. Maybe we should start laundering money... The problem is that we got into the bike business because we liked bikes, not business. The more complicated the business gets, the more life it eats for diminishing psychic and emotional reward. The accounting department rolls its eyes. Get the money, by any means necessary!

You may wonder how I can claim to live on such meager pay and still go to the dentist and pay to be tortured. The fact is, about all I spend money on is my teeth, my eyeballs, and two aging cats. My car is so old I expect the frame to collapse every time I get into it. I figure if I can chew my food and see where I'm going I'll be able to cheat the reaper for a while longer. My life choices were guided in part by a resolve to explore the satisfaction of life on a modest income, anticipating that if the global economy ever did get adjusted to make a fairer distribution of proceeds, no one would be upper middle class anymore, let alone wealthy. The more satisfied a person could be with less, the better off they would be. The bike as I found it was an excellent element of such a lifestyle. The bike as the industry has made it is just another expensive toy. And minimum wage is just a number. Somewhere outside of our fantasy economy is a real world in which money has to represent actual value of goods or services, and those goods and services have to support basic survival. The number could be anything: $1 a week, $50 a minute, as long as it relates to the real necessities that form the foundation and framework of a sustainable society.


Rob in VA said...

Minimum wage has not come close to keeping up with inflation during the last 2 or 3 decades. Nor has social security. If a worker making minimum wage must toil for 2 hours to net enough funds to purchase groceries only sufficient for dinner, something is wrong in our society. Especially when the uber-wealthy make more in 10 minutes than the minimum wage worker will earn in a year. Unfortunately, doubling the minimum wage will not address the obscene inequities in the division of wealth in our capitalistic society.

RANTWICK said...

Chewing and viewing, the core elements of life. I have always enjoyed/admired your outlook on things; never more so than after reading this. Keep it up 'fiend, you've got it right I think.

Steve A said...

An argument I've heard that resonated was that of the notion that a full time worker should make at or more than the poverty level. That being said, when I first started working, the minimum wage was less than 10% of what's been proposed, as well as what my union job paid...