Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Wish Week Day 4: Fresh Start Campus

This is now Day 4 of “Wish Week” – a week of ideas that I would wish for if I had the power to make wishes (or the money to make such a wish come true).

So far, I have discussed:

Day 1: Logic Circles

Day 2: Proportional Representation

Day 3: The University of Earth

For Day 4, my wish of the day is to see an experiment in what I call Fresh Start Campuses.

This wish comes first from thinking about the minimum wage issue.

For reasons that I have mentioned in the past, I am do not think that raising the minimum wage is a good idea. It helps people who do not need it, and the hurts the people it is most intended to help.

A higher minimum wage pulls people into the job market who do not really need the money – elderly looking for something to do, college students seeking extra income, household members looking to supplement the family income. With a higher minimum wage, it is more worthwhile for these people to enter the job market. Their greater working skills means that they can out compete workers who do not have these other options. These less-skilled workers get pushed out. This is on top of the jobs that are simply lost because employers cannot afford to pay the higher wage. There are also inflation costs as businesses raise prices to cover their costs, which lowers everybody’s standard of living, and does more harm to the budgets of those with less money than to those with more money.

Now, liberal hate-mongers like to paint people such as me as corporate stooges blindly supporting a society in which the rich get richer by exploiting the poor, and gleefully cackle each time an opponent of a higher minimum wage suffers some setback or embarrassment. These are individuals who prefer to (verbally) attack people when they should be discussing ideas.

However, it does raise the question, “What are we going to do about those people at the lower end of the economic ladder?”

Well, I hold that direct subsidies for food, clothing, health care, and education are far better than raising the minimum wage. However, in this context, I think that the construction of “Fresh Start Campuses” would be the best program for workers.

The Fresh Start Campus

As I mentioned earlier, because I am scientifically minded, I like the idea of experimenting with a new project just to see if it would work. So, what I am going to describe here is the Fresh Start Campus Experiment.

I imagine the first campus being able to support about 20,000 people. People apply to the Fresh Start Campus as if they were applying for a job. They fill out an application listing their skills and training. The Fresh Start Campus accepts those individuals that it thinks can be trained to do work that is worth significantly more pay then they would be able to get on the open market. So, an individual who cannot hope for more than a minimum-wage job at a fast-food place, but who shows some measure of dedication and a good work ethic, would be accepted onto the campus.

I keep imagining this as a campus that applicants actually move on to. We are dealing with people at the bottom of the economic ladder that need food, shelter, and medical care. Consequently, those who are accepted into the program move on-campus. They get their meals from a campus cafeteria, live in a campus dorm (or married-student housing, as appropriate), and get their medical care at the corporate clinic. They would live on campus for two years, after the campus works to find jobs for them that use their new skills.

I have no strong arguments for or against the imposition of a curfew, mandatory drug testing, or restrictions on the ownership of weapons or the possession of tobacco or alcohol. To minimize the costs to the taxpayer, and to better develop the skills and the work ethic of the attendees, they may be organized into work details to help operate the campus. They would prepare and serve the food, clean the dishes, manage the dorms, clean the buildings, maintain the yards, and perform many of the clerical and administrative tasks that such a campus would require.


As I have argued in the past, I have no problem with taxing the rich. The argument that I commonly use suggests imagining a case in which an airplane crash lands in the desert, far from any known town, except a lone mansion that a reclusive billionaire has built for himself in the middle of nowhere. This billionaire is has imported all of the water that now fills his fountains and swimming pools and waters his lush gardens. He has no concern for others, and is quite content to sit on the balcony of his house and peer out into the desert, where he watches these “intruders” who crash-landed outside his gate die of thirst.

Free-market purists would have us believe that the airplane survivors have a duty to sit outside the gate and die of thirst. They may try to buy water from the recluse. However, if the recluse is unwilling to sell any, the survivors have a duty to curl up into little balls and die. Redistributing the water wealth from the haves to the have-nots is totally unacceptable.

In order to make the case for an obligation to curl up and die, we have to believe in some sort of intrinsic values. Specifically, we must think that it is intrinsically wrong to redistribute the water wealth. Desire utilitarianism denies the existence of intrinsic value. It argues for an aversion to using force to take property that belongs to other – because of the value of keeping the benefits of trade over coercion. However, it would also argue in favor of a charitable desire to share the water and spare the lives of the survivors. The property owner, showing he has no such aversion, shows himself to be evil. The crash survivors, I would argue, are within their moral rights to redistribute the water wealth from the evil recluse to those who are dying of thirst.

Accordingly, if a billionaire decides to share his wealth with those in need, as Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett have done, then there is no reason for the government to step in and order any redistribution of wealth. However, the billionaire who sits in his mansion and watches from his balcony while the crash survivors outside die of thirst may be subject to a forced redistribution of wealth.

Note that this is quite consistent with the view that Buffett presented when he announced his donation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Buffett is in favor of the Estate Tax (what Republicans call the Death Tax). However, his argument for the tax is that it provides wealthy people with an incentive to contribute their money to private foundations. He does not like having the government engage in charitable acts – because the government is grossly inefficient at such things. However, he is willing to allow the government to redistribute the wealth if the billionaire does not take steps to establish or support a more-efficient, government-free alternative use of the money for charitable purposes.

Why the Fresh Start Campus

Part of the argument for the Fresh-Start Campus comes from wisdom of the cliché, “Give a person a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” The purpose of the campus is to give these people the skills that would allow them to teach them to fish. That is to say, education is the most efficient use of resources, even when we are concerned only with the benefit we can provide to an individual person.

Also, education is a “public good” that is subject to the problem of “free riders.” This has been a common theme in these posts. Whenever there is a product that produces goods for people who do not have to pay any money to collect the benefit, that good would be under funded. The free market would solve this problem by eliminating public goods – making it impossible for an individual to obtain a benefit without paying the price. However, with some goods, such as military defense or education, there is no easy way to do it. The more efficient option is for the government to arrange for an industry to get the funding it would have gotten if its “public good” problem could have been fixed. That is to say, the government subsidizes public goods such as national defense, the police and court system, the survival of the human race, environmental goods, and education.

In addition, the government gets a return on its investment. The graduate’s higher pay will not only mean that the government has to worry less about providing him and his family with social benefits, but it will also be getting more tax revenue. The government would obtain a great many benefits from turning a bunch of $5.00 per hour workers into a bunch of $20.00 per hour workers – both in terms of fewer payments out of the budget and more money coming into the budget.

Not For Everybody

Of course, there will be those who cannot benefit from such a program. This is not meant to be the only government program to aid the poor. It is meant to focus specifically on those people that advocates of a higher minimum wage claim to want to help – those who have jobs but who are not making a living wage. It is an alternative to a plan that will benefit some and harm others; providing its greatest benefit to those who do not need it and doing its most harm to those who are already the worst off.

Maybe it will not work. However, I would wish to see it tried.

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