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“Cruel Optimism,” Minimum Wage, and the Good Life

photograph looking up at Statue of Liberty

In early May, executives from the fast casual restaurant Chipotle Mexican Grill announced that the company would be raising its average hourly wage to $15 by the end of June. A few weeks later, Chipotle also announced that its menu prices would be increasing by about four percent to help offset those higher wages (as well as the increasing costs of ingredients). This means that instead of paying, say, $8.00 for a burrito, hungry customers will now instead be expected to pay $8.32 for the same amount of food.

While you might think that such a negligible increase would hardly be worth arguing about, opponents of a minimum wage hike jumped on this story as an example of the supposed economic threat posed by changing federal labor policies. During recent debates in Congress, for example, those resistant to the American Rescue Plan’s original provision to raise the federal minimum wage frequently argued that doing so could disadvantage consumers by causing prices to rise. Furthermore, Chipotle’s news exacerbated additional complaints about the potential consequences of the Economic Impact Payments authorized in light of the coronavirus pandemic: allegedly, Chipotle must raise their wages so as to entice “lazy” workers away from $300/week unemployment checks.

Nevertheless, despite the cost of burritos rising by a quarter or two, the majority of folks in the United States (just over six out of ten) support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. As many as 80% think the wage is too low in general, with more than half of surveyed Republicans (the political party most frequently in opposition to raising the minimum wage) agreeing. Multiple states have already implemented higher local minimum wages.

Why, then, do politicians, pundits, and other people continue to spread the rhetoric that minimum wage increases are unpopular and financially risky for average burrito-eaters?

Here’s where I think a little philosophy might help. Often, we are attracted to things (like burritos) because we recognize that they can satisfy a desire for something we presently lack (such as sustenance); by attaining the object of our desire, we can likewise satisfy our needs. Lauren Berlant, the philosopher and cultural critic who recently died of cancer on June 28th, calls this kind of attraction “optimism” because it is typically what drives us to move through the world beyond our own personal spaces in the hopes that our desires will be fulfilled. But, importantly, optimistic experiences in this sense are not always positive or uplifting. Berlant’s work focuses on cases where the things we desire actively harm us, but that we nevertheless continue to pursue; calling such phenomenon cases of “cruel optimism,” they explain how “optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving.” Furthermore, cruel optimism can come about when an attraction does give us one kind of pleasure at the expense of other, more holistic (and fundamental) forms of flourishing.

A key example Berlant gives of “cruel optimism” is the fallacy of the “good life” as something that can be achieved if only one works hard enough; as they explain, “people are trained to think that what they’re doing ought to matter, that they ought to matter, and that if they show up to life in a certain way, they’ll be appreciated for the ways they show up in life, that life will have loyalty to them.” Berlant argues that, as a simple matter of fact, this characterization of “the good life” fails to represent the real world; despite what the American Dream might offer, promises of “upward mobility” or hopes to “lift oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” through hard work and faithfulness have routinely failed to manifest (and are becoming ever more rare).

Nevertheless, emotional (or otherwise affective) appeals to stories about the “good life” can offer a kind of optimistic hope for individuals facing a bleak reality — because this hope is ultimately unattainable, it’s a cruel optimism.

Importantly, Berlant’s schemata is a paradigmatically natural process — there need not be any individual puppetmaster pulling the strings (secretly or blatantly) to motivate people’s commitment to a given case of cruel optimism. However, such a cultural foundation is apt for abuse by unvirtuous agents or movements interested in selfishly profiting off of the unrealistic hopes of others.

We might think of propaganda, then, as a sort of speech act designed to sustain a narrative of cruel optimism. According to Jason Stanley, a key kind of damaging propaganda is “a contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those very ideals.” When a social group’s ideals are eroded into hollowness — when stories about “the good life” perpetuate a functionally unattainable hope — then the propagandistic narratives facilitating this erosion (and, by extension, the vehicles of propaganda spreading these narratives) are morally responsible.

The case of Chipotle arises at the center of several overlapping objects of desire: for some, the neoliberal hope of economic self-sufficiency is threatened by governmental regulations on market prices of commodities like wage labor, as well as by federal mechanisms supporting the unemployed — with the minimum wage and pandemic relief measures both (at least seemingly) relating to this story, it is unsurprising that those optimistic about the promise of neoliberalism interpreted Chipotle as a bellwether for greater problems. Furthermore, consumer price increases, however slight, threaten to damage hopes of achieving one’s own prosperity and wealth. The fact that these hopes are ultimately rather unlikely means that they are cases of cruel optimism; the fact that politicians and news outlets are nevertheless perpetuating them (or at least framing the information in a manner that elides broader conversations about wealth inequity and fair pay) means that those stories could count as cases of propaganda.

And, notably, this is especially true when news outlets are simply repeating information from company press releases, rather than inquiring further about their broader context: for example, rather than raising consumer prices, Chipotle could have instead saved hundreds of millions of dollars in recent months by foregoing executive bonuses and stock buybacks. (It is also worth noting that the states that elected to prematurely freeze pandemic-related unemployment funding, ostensibly to provoke workers to re-enter the labor market, have not seen the hoped-for increase in workforce participation — that is to say, present data suggests that something other than $300/week unemployment checks has contributed to unemployment rates.)

So, in short, plenty of consumers are bound to cruel optimisms about “the good life,” so plenty of executives or other elites can leverage this hope for their own selfish ends. The recent outcry over a burrito restaurant is just one form of how these strings are pulled.

Farmworker Abuse and Agricultural Exceptionalism

photograph of migrant workers harvesting sweet potatoes

In mid-June, New York passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, a measure aimed to improve working conditions for agricultural employees that has circulated the hallways of the state legislature for roughly twenty years. By allowing farm workers collective bargaining rights, eligibility for workers’ compensation, and unemployment benefits (among other provisions), the FLFLPA targets a series of long-standing exemptions in the legal code that have allowed farm owners to disadvantage their employees for decades. 

Although the 1930s brought a series of federal labor regulations to the books, including familiar arrangements like minimum wage requirements, overtime pay standards, and laws restricting child labor, agricultural workers were explicitly excluded from each of those statutes. Dubbed ‘agricultural exceptionalism,’ the federal government has largely left the task of protecting the interests of farmworkers to particular states which house various industries. While this practice of special treatment may have made sense in the early 20th century, one might expect policy arrangements to change as the landscape of contemporary agriculture has changed and farmwork has grown ever-more industrialized (and ever-more similar to the dismal factory conditions which, in part, prompted FDR’s labor reforms in the ‘30s). With a few notable exceptions, this simply has not happened.

Take, for example, minimum wage requirements and compensation protections for injured workers. Although the federal Fair Labor Standards Act was amended in 1966 to include some farmworkers under its wage mandate (a provision originally left out of the FLSA when FDR signed it in 1938), those requirements allow for plenty of loopholes that corporations can exploit to lower expenses by lowering employee compensation, such as the implementation of a piece rate system that pays farmhands based on their productivity (as measured in buckets or bags of produce picked). Even when piece rate systems are supplemented to equitable hourly rates, their very nature incentivizes farmworkers to engage in unsafe practices (such as working through rest periods or minor injuries) – a particularly problematic result when laws often do not require employers to provide workers’ compensation benefits for injured employees (in a field routinely ranked at “very high risk” for occupational hazards) or when a variety of additional pressures make such benefits risky or inaccessible to farmhands.

Of course, comparing data across industries is particularly difficult for agricultural economists, given that many agricultural jobs are filled by seasonal, migrant, and/or undocumented workers. This means that even if workers are paid above a state’s minimum hourly wage rate, their actual take-home earnings can leave them significantly impoverished. Consider how quirks in reporting requirements allow Californian employers to grossly overstate the actual amount of money paid to each employee: because the majority of workers do not work full-time for one employer, “in 2015, workers who received their primary earnings from agricultural employers earned an average of $17,500—less than 60 percent of the average annual wage of a full-time equivalent (FTE) worker in California.” Nevertheless, industry representatives can routinely make claims about higher compensation rates that, though technically true, are thoroughly misleading.

Consequently, the passage of the long-debated FLFLPA sets a standard against agricultural exceptionalism in one of the largest agricultural states in the country; requiring, among other things, that farmhands receive overtime pay (after working sixty hours a week, not forty, as a concession to industry lobbyists), be eligible for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation coverage, and be given one uninterrupted 24-hour rest period each week. Critics of the legislation suggest that increasing industry costs may lead to the bankruptcy of small farms and the out-of-state relocation of others, but human rights advocates and labor defenders have heralded the FLFLPA as a landmark step in the right direction. As Beth Lyon, a law professor at Cornell who founded the school’s Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic points out, “If you have an industry where the jobs are so unattractive that you have to fill them with undocumented 15-year-olds, then maybe you need to make the jobs more attractive.” It remains to be seen whether NY’s legislative victory for farmworkers will prove to effect change more broadly throughout the country or not.