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One Hundred Ways to Change the Subject: Plutocratic Fallacies in the Service of Fast-Food Exploitation

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

As fast-food workers demand a fair share of the profits they create, the industry, its supporters and assorted critics of the movement have responded by lobbing red herrings, from the contention that workers should find new work if they don’t like their current working conditions to the threat that “robots will replace you.” Others charge that workers don’t deserve a living wage because their job doesn’t require a college education. A Facebook meme posted by Sarah Palin in response to last fall’s Fight for 15 protests pictures US soldiers in combat, accompanied by the text: “We get paid less than minimum wage and you’re demanding 15 bucks an hour to slap a burger on a bun.” These common appeals are part of a tapestry of “plutocratic fallacies” used to justify exploitive wages and foster irrational division among low-wage workers.

Justice: The Heart of the Matter

Exploitation occurs when “the energies of the have-nots are continuously expended to maintain and augment the power, status, and wealth of the haves.”

“Exploitation, Not Lovin’ It.” These are the words of a popular sign at protests that satirizes McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” slogan. In a society where the vocabulary of ethics, justice and the public good are marginalized and maligned, terms like “exploitation” should be defined: Exploitation is the imbalanced and unfair transfer of the value of one group’s labor to another group. Philosopher Iris Marion Young writes that exploitation occurs when “the energies of the have-nots are continuously expended to maintain and augment the power, status, and wealth of the haves.”(1)

Exploitation is wrong because it is a form of injustice. Young’s vision of the just society is one that ensures members of society are able to 1) develop themselves – flourish, and 2) play a meaningful role in determining the rules and order of society – political autonomy.(2) Oppression is the opposite of experiencing justice. To say a person is experiencing oppression is to say “their ability to develop and exercise their capacities and express their needs, thoughts, and feelings” is being unjustifiably inhibited.(3)

Between 1978 and 2013, compensation adjusted for inflation has increased by 937 percent for CEOs and 10.2 percent for the typical worker.

Exploitation is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the stark contrast between CEO pay and average employee pay. Average CEO pay is 185 times that of the average American worker’s pay. The gap is even larger among the CEOs at top American companies. A 2011 study done byEquilar, an executive compensation data firm, found that median pay for CEOs at 200 large US companies averaged $10.8 million in 2010. The Economic Policy Institute’s June 2014 report found that the average US CEO earned $15.2 million in 2013, an amount 296 times greater than that of the typical American worker. To put this into perspective, EPI notes that the CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 20-to-1 in 1965. Between 1978 and 2013, compensation adjusted for inflation has increased by 937 percent for CEOs and 10.2 percent for the typical worker.

Fast-food workers’ efforts have put their industry’s CEO-to-worker pay disparity front and center. In 2013, McDonald’s president and CEO Don Thompson’s total pay package fell from $13.8 million to a mere $9.5 million. This reduced pay is double what he earned in 2011. This is a sum that would require a $9.50 an hour employee – the average pay for a McDonald’s shift manager -to work more than 1 million hours. McDonald’s CEO’s pay is 475 times the $20,000 that McDonald’s shift managers could theoretically make if working 40 hours, 52 weeks a year. Thompson’s pay is 570 times greater than a full-time McDonald’s “crew member” working for $8 an hour. In Thompson’s ballpark, Wendy’s CEO received $7.6 million in total compensation in 2013. As startling as those figures are, the CEO-crew member pay gap is even greater at Yum! Brands. In 2013, the company’s CEO received $11.3 million in pay and benefits and also profited from gains in his company stocks valued at $44.3 million.

Denied dependence is logically implied in assertions that workers are replaceable, unimportant, “low skilled” as in of little value, and/or just lucky to have a job.

Industry representative Justin Winslow, vice president of governmental affairs at the Michigan Restaurant Association, has responded to the fast-food workers’ fight for $15 an hour by contending, “Fifteen dollars an hour is not a reasonable approach.” Yet such industry representatives fail to call into question record-breaking fast-food CEO income. This despite the fact that fast-food CEO earnings are 1,000 times that of the average fast-food worker’s – that is, when the head of Starbucks’ pay and the reality that most workers do not get to work 40 hours a week are factored in.(4)

Industry defenders justify the exploitation implied in the immense profits generated by poorly rewarded laborers through what philosopher Val Plumwood calls “backgrounding” or “denied dependence”: regarding the essential work done by members of a particular group as unimportant and inessential. Denied dependence is logically implied in assertions that workers are replaceable, unimportant, “low skilled” as in of little value, and/or just lucky to have a job. This tactic serves to protect the myth of the “self-made man,” which is essential to justifying and preserving such severe examples of economic inequality and workplace exploitation. Such thinking obscures the reality that shareholders and upper management are presently reliant upon fast-food laborers for their immense profits.

Bootstrap Myth Redux: Lazy Fast-Food Complainers

Conventional wisdom dismisses the conditions of fast-food and other low-pay jobs on grounds that the individuals are responsible for their fate and can pull-themselves up by their own bootstraps. Sarah Palin makes this point in an August 7, 2014, criticism of those who support fast-food workers’ living wage campaign. At the end of the, at times, incoherent recorded speech, Palin says, “Minimum wage jobs: they’re not lifetime gigs; they’re stepping stones.”

Having shifted the debate to focus on the workers’ character and conduct, such narratives avoid crucial questions: “What entitles a wealthy, successful corporation to pay its workers so little while it profits so much?”

This fallacious, plutocratic “common sense” is reflected in reader comments on fast-food strikes. One reader wrote, “The uneducated, low-skilled, intellectually lazy that remain in those jobs over a long period of time make their own situation in life so thus warrant their status.” Another writes, “These types of jobs are starter jobs, for teens, college kids and for retirees to make extra money. If you are trying to raise a family on a minimum wage salary, somewhere your ambition and priorities got out of whack.”(5) To overcome the lowly pay of $7.25 an hour, Leo Calderon suggests, “Stop complaining and get some education.” Leonard Dreher urges workers to “Do something to add value to society.” Glenn Sadler says that fast-food workers don’t deserve $15 an hour, and “need to earn it, not have it given to them. This generation just wants everything given to them without the work.” Bringing these perspectives together, Judy Marshal calls for workers to try “getting an education or try to improve your work status with good old fashion hard work.” Meanwhile Larry Hubble of Phoenix, Arizona, comments that December 5, 2013, striking workers “apparently either [did] not need the money, or else they are just lazy slobs,” and that they should be fired.

Asked about the strikes, Domino’s vice president Tim McIntyre asserted, “Opportunity exists for everyone in our system who’s willing to work hard and focus on rising to the next level. For that reason we don’t focus on an individual, specific wage issue.” McIntyre further noted that he does not “believe unions are necessary for our brand” for reasons including the “tremendous upward mobility” at Domino’s.

Counting Red Herrings: 100 Ways to Change the Subject

The commentary opposed to protesters’ demands is marked by an egocentric abandonment of ethical considerations, and the embrace of classist stereotypes. Setting aside the merits of contested empirical claims about American economic mobility, such thinking legitimizes the subordination and exploitation of low-wage workers. Collectively, these assertions suggest that the solution to exploitive low-pay is to 1) acquire a better education, 2) climb “upwards” out of assorted service-industry work, and/or 3) work hard to rise through the ranks within (or outside of) the service industry. In short, if you’re working for $7.25 an hour today, worry not, you can work your way up the economic ladder. This endorses the idea that wealthy businesses are not morally obligated to provide workers with a wage that provides for basic well-being by the standards of the given society.

Justice Tomorrow Does Not Justify Today’s Injustice

“What justifies a company raking in record profits while sharing so little of immense profits which workers help to generate?” The retort “Because I can!” is illegitimate: It’s the might makes right or appeal to force fallacy.

Having shifted the debate to focus on the workers’ character and conduct, such narratives avoid crucial questions: “What entitles a wealthy, successful corporation to pay its workers so little while it profits so much?” To suggest that this is acceptable because these workers live in a nation that supposedly provides them with the opportunity to climb toward better paying jobs is beside the point. Tomorrow’s justice does not justify today’s injustice. To say otherwise suggests that those without a particular socially exalted skillset or education should expect to be deprived of basic respect and recognition of their moral equality via wages that virtually guarantee present-day impoverishment, that it’s OK to exploit the “uneducated” and “unskilled.” Such assertions violate the basic moral idea stated in the Declaration of Independence, that all are equal in terms of moral status. Poverty, ensured by low-wages, provokes very real suffering and even death. Obtaining a living wage and appropriate benefits is essential in a nation where more than 40,000 people die each year due to inadequate health care.(6)

Attempts to justify low pay for workers on account of their freedom to seek work elsewhere or their lack of an education irrelevant to their job amount to nothing more than subterfuge. Namely these diversions exemplify the “red herring” or “changing the subject” fallacy: arguing for a conclusion that is not at issue.

What’s Education Got to Do With It? Nothing

Arguing that fast-food workers are not entitled to a greater share of the wealth they generate as workers because they do not have a particular level of education is like arguing you shouldn’t have to pay as much for the car I’m selling because you don’t like my outfit. The two have nothing to do with one another. The value of my car has nothing to do with my outfit; and the value of the fast-food worker’s labor is not tied to possession or lack of a college degree. If a fast-food worker contributes to a business’ profits through her labor, then she deserves a fair share of those profits regardless of age or unrelated skill set.

Might Doesn’t Make Right

Putting aside that low-income people are profoundly reliant on hard-to-come-by low-wage jobs, let’s acknowledge that it’s true a Taco Bell employee can in fact quit. But this fact has nothing to do with the fundamental issue at hand: “What justifies a company raking in record profits while sharing so little of immense profits which workers help to generate?” The retort “Because I can!” is illegitimate: It’s the might makes right or appeal to force fallacy. You can also abuse vulnerable people such as your own children, and you can throw a cat under the tire of a moving truck because you don’t like it. Decent people understand that not everything we can do should be done. Whether or not workers can or should climb to a different economic position is a convenient, industry-friendly diversion of the fundamental moral questions at hand.

Freedom to Quit Is Freedom to an Economic Bullet, Thus No Freedom at All

Claims that everyone has the freedom to choose their job either ignore or indicate ignorance about the significant limitations experienced by low-income people. If I put a gun against your head and say, “Give me all of your money,” do you have the capability of uttering the word “No”? Of course you do. But the circumstances under which you must make your decision are so limitedly onerous and injurious that the decision does not deserve to be labeled a truly “free” one.

This is horizontal hostility: marginalized people turning on other disadvantaged individuals or groups rather than addressing those with measurable power and control over the root causes of inequality.

Can fast-food workers quit what might be a miserable job? Sure, of course they can, just as you can say no with a gun against your temple. Is your “freedom” significantly hindered by the negative consequences of quitting that low-paying job, like not being able to care for your loved ones or losing your place of residency? Of course it is. Can CEOs and others doing richly well cut their profits, affording lifestyles far beyond basic necessities, to share with workers who are unable to cover the basics of life, let alone opportunities for personal development? Of course they can, and doing so would hurt them much less than it would for someone to lose a job in a scarce job market.

These ideas reflect a class bias favoring the interests and experiences of the economically privileged at the expense of those at the bottom. In particular they narrowly conceive of “responsibility” as having everything to do with workers’ decision making and efforts. They are comparably silent about the responsibility of businesses and their leaders and stockholders, namely their responsibility to pay laborers a fair wage, one recognizing the profits they help generate. As Kansas City fast-food striker, Terrance Wise puts it, “We’re doing hard work. And we deserve to get a living wage for what we do.”Without such laborers, businesses would collapse and their profits would plummet – a point fast-food worker Amber Sterling made in her interview with the Today show.

The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming! Confronting Fast-Food Industry Fear Mongering

The industry also responds to fast-food workers’ demands by arguing that fast-food companies would turn to machines before they would pay $15 an hour. In the first place, if and when companies can implement this technology at a reasonable cost, they will. In the meantime, they are reliant on human beings to fulfill these roles. Secondly, low-end workers are among the most important customers for goods such as fast-food. This means that businesses not only rely on workers to generate profit within companies as workers, but also outside as customers generating sales. Should all such industries replace people with machines, they would simultaneously rob themselves of customers and, thus, profits. This is an argument that amounts to: “Come one step closer to a living wage and I’ll rob myself!”

The pivotal role the general working population play in sustaining economic growth is among the key points made in the self-described “plutocrat” and advocate of “New Capitalism” Nick Hanauer’s Ted talk. “Raising wages increases demand, which increases hiring, which in turn increases wages and demands and profits, and that virtuous cycle of increasing prosperity is precisely what is missing from today’s economic recovery,” Hanauer said. Later in the talk, he adds, “No matter how wealthy a few plutocrats get, we can never drive a great national economy. Only a thriving middle class can do that.” Thus, replacing millions of American laborers with machines may well only generate a greater need for governmental redistribution of wealth as in the guaranteed minimum income. So even if these industries “rob” themselves in the manner described above, the solution to their economic plight will be to put money into the hands of those they’ve deprived of work. So be it.

Doing the Right Thing: The Freedom and Responsibility of Businesses

The time has come to make visible the small-minded double-standards that emphasize the freedom and responsibility of the disadvantaged worker rather than emphasizing the freedom and responsibility of the comparably powerful and freer employer to do the right thing by fairly sharing wealth that workers help generate.

We should also point out and support businesses that recognize their responsibility. Dr. Bronner’s soap company provides a clear example of a company taking responsibility for the way it conducts business. The company has capped executive compensation at five times that of the lowest-paid position. Employees also receive a no-deductible PPO health insurance plan for themselves and their families.

While very few are embracing the level of ethical commitment displayed by companies like Dr. Bronner’s, some companies in the restaurant business are raising the standards. The New York Times reports that a handful of restaurant chains are setting basement pay above the minimum wage. New England restaurant chain Boloco Burrito pays employees a minimum of $9 an hour. The California-based chain In-N-Out Burger pays workers at least $10.50 an hour. Costs at these restaurants are “largely similar to those at Chipotle or McDonald’s.” Shake Shack pays a minimum of $9.50 an hour and those working over 30 hours a week qualify for health coverage. In September 2013, a growing Michigan-based restaurant chain, Moo Cluck Moo, increased pay from $12 to $15 an hour at its two stores. Owner Harry Moorhouse told the Times: “Our people work really hard, and $15 impacts their lives in a very positive way. The whole notion that it’s all kids starting out and they don’t deserve to be paid much, that’s all specious. We’re paying people $15 an hour so they have a living wage, so they really care about you when you come in the store.” In 2013, co-owner Brian Parker said that it “just feels human to do.” Moo Cluck Moo employee and mother of four, Rachel Troutman, 34, said that her improvement in earnings has allowed her to upgrade her transportation and housing, and to end reliance on food stamps.

Justice Is Best Served Through Solidarity

Rather than supporting the push for fairer business practices, some have expressed disgust for striking fast-food employees. Forbes reported that one New York Police Department officer responded to Brooklyn fast-food protestors by uttering under his breath: “You know what I hate? Everybody thinks they’re important.” This reflects an increasingly popular denial of human dignity to all, that all are equal in intrinsic worth. Others complain that it makes no sense for fast-food workers to be paid more when they are struggling to make ends meet at their job – retail, customer service, and so on. This is horizontal hostility: marginalized people turning on other disadvantaged individuals or groups rather than addressing those with measurable power and control over the root causes of inequality.

Sarah Palin fanned the flames of horizontal hostility when she posted a widely discussed Facebook meme picturing US soldiers in combat accompanied by the text: “We get paid less than minimum wage and you’re demanding 15 bucks an hour to slap a burger on a bun.” Indeed many soldiers do receive poverty-level wages. According to, basic pay for a Private E1 is just $18,378. Yet instead of promoting solidarity among workers in industries capable of improving workers’ wages, Palin’s post urges division rather than unity.

Expressing disdain for marginalized people who are demanding recognition of their dignity appears to be a misdirection of anger given the facts of CEO-worker pay ratio: that the richest 400 Americans possess more wealth than the poorest 60 percent of US households, and that the world’s 66 richest possess a net worth equal to 3.5 billion of the world’s poorest.(7) Struggling people of all stripes would be better served by embracing horizontal “unity,” and sending their democratically expressed outrage upward.

Company executives aren’t alone in denying their dependence on fast-food workers. Each and every day, fast-food workers feed millions of Americans. A survey by Placed Insights found that total percentages of Americans visiting fast-food chains in April 2013 was even higher: 50.7 percent visited McDonald’s, 24.7 percent visited Burger King, 23.8 percent visited Wendy’s, and 18.4 percent visited Taco Bell. And chances are that the very person shrugging off the impoverished lives brought about by poverty-level wages is denying their own dependence on these workers. People who actually frequent fast-food venues can’t really mean it when they say that the answer is for workers to get better jobs. Just imagine if every fast-food worker or every low-wage child caretaker finally got that better job. Who would serve your burgers and who would watch your children? America doesn’t “run on Dunkin.” We “run” on each other’s contributions: the farmworker, the teacher, the journalist, the fast-food worker, the doctor, the garbage collector, and so on. The sooner we disavow what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “hard-heartedness” that evokes sneers when disempowered people lay claim to their dignity, the better off we will all be.

Four Practical But Essential Steps of Solidarity

  1. Treat workers with respect. Tell them you don’t think they get paid enough, that you support their efforts to improve their working conditions, and that they have dignity regardless of their education status or the work they do.
  2. Ask managers of the businesses you patronize how much their employees are making. Let them know what you think of poverty-level wages. Choose to support businesses that treat their workers best by comparison. Your options will often be between bad and worse, but we have to start somewhere. Whenever possible, support cooperatives.
  3. Sign petitions in support of increased wages for fast-food, retail, and other marginalized and low-paid workers. For example, Low Pay Is Not OK’s petition.
  4. If you don’t work in these industries, use your immunity from retaliation by participating in rallies, marches, and simply raising the issue in your community.


1. Iris M.Young, “Five Faces of Oppression,” in Theorizing feminisms: A reader, ed. E. Hackett and S. Haslanger (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6

2. Iris M.Young, “Displacing the Distributive Paradigm.” In Ethics in Practice, An Anthology, edited by Hugh LaFollette (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 541

3. Young, “Five Faces,” 4

4. Catherine Ruetschlin, “Fast-food Failure: How CEO-to-Worker Pay Disparity Undermines the Industry and the Overall Economy,” Demos, April 22, 2014

5. These sentiments are an elaboration of salient principles in conservative political thought. In a 2011 op-ed titled, “How class warfare weakens America,” Paul Ryan touts American income mobility and a survey indicating the vast majority of a group of 500 successful entrepreneurs were from middle-class or lower-class backgrounds. Ryan calls for “civic solidarity” over class solidarity, and condemns “equality of outcome” as a “form of inequality – one that is based on political influence and bureaucratic favoritism.”

6. The exact number is 44,789. Andrew P. Wilper, Steffie Woolhandler, Karen E. Lasser, Danny McCormick, David H. Bor and David U. Himmelstein, “Health Insurance and Mortality in US Adults,” December 2009. American Journal of Public Health. 99(12): 1-7.

7. Kasia Moreno, “The 67 Richest Are as Wealthy as the World’s Poorest 3.5 Billion,” Forbes, March 26, 2014

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