Protest kicks at minimum wage, but should shiver glass door at bank

The Rev. Brian Merritt protests the statutory minimum wages paid to many workers in front of a local chain restaurant.

The Rev. Brian Merritt protests the statutory minimum wages paid to many workers of a local chain restaurant. (

By David Tulis

The protest in front of a McDonald’s restaurant in Chattanooga demanding the chain boost wages might have been misdirected. The dollar is poor not because McDonald’s pays too few of them, but because, just down Brainerd Road, First Tennessee bank is injecting credit into the economy. Like the Fed and all other lenders, it devalues the dollar with each new loan and with each new loan prevents a deflation, which would make workers’ pay afford more in goods and services.

Now you’re about to say I am changing the subject, that I am skipping away from “minimum wage” to “the banking problem.” That problem is in another industry, you say. It is disconnected from dining except that both are involved with the dollar, aka “the green rectangle” in your billfold.

But hold on. Complaints about the F$7.25 minimum wage’s being chintzy and unjust to low-level (and often young) employees have merit. Insofar as the gripes point out that workers’ buying power is weak — and shrinking, talking about banking is not entirely irrelevant. The group is demanding F$15. They’d like McDonald’s to pay that voluntarily. But since they are talking about a statutory minimum wage, their argument is indirectly aimed at the federal congress. In 2009 the U.S. reset the level to account for currency debasement (inflation).

Protesters intervene in a settled relationship

About 20 protesters took part, waving signs such as “living wage” and “fair wages, not slave wages.” Seeking social justice, as they call it, they complain on behalf of employees who said nothing publicly on their behalf.

The protest sees injustice in relations established voluntarily between willing and legally capable parties to contract — a corporation and an individual. The protesters would have the company pay the workers more than the agreed-upon hourly sum. They would favor one side of the transaction and disfavor to the other. If the company won’t pay F$15 based on protesters’ opinions, will they demand the federal government impose it by fiat? If that is a prospect, why not demand F$25 an hour, or F$50?

One sign waver is the Rev. Brian Merritt, an evangelist for East Tennessee for the Presbyterian Church USA. The organizer of Mercy Junction ministry, the “activist anarchist” Rev. Merritt has participated in many local protests. These have touched on bank foreclosures, the Trayvon Martin slaying, NSA spying, a proposed federal war against Syria and another involving the Cherokees. He is member of a workers’ collective and of Occupy Chattanooga. He teaches at the Chattanooga public library-hosted Citizens Organizing for Action Justice School.

Breathing man vs. bank corporation

The Rev. Merritt was active in the sought-for expulsion of Bob Smith by FSG bank, a clash that made Thanksgiving day headlines in Chattanooga. His analysis of the conflict between a fractional-reserve lender and its debtor suggests the Rev. Merritt is open to looking further into the issue.

We stand in witness to Bob Smith’s worth as a neighbor. Bob is not what FSG would want us to believe. Their narrative is one of cold and calculated investments and returns. They see Bob and his house as just one of many cogs in their effort to extract profits from our communities. To them Bob and his home are part of an investment portfolio. The bank’s handling of Bob has shown that they believe that Bob is not a living and breathing human, but merely a means to an end. They have not kept their promises to Bob, but expect others to keep strictly to their mortgages. One more acceptable loss in their balance sheet. The bank is a powerful institution with a billion dollars in assets. We are here to bear witness to the fact that Bob and his habitation are much more essential to our community than FSG’s losses over the last quarter. Bob is not a notation on a spreadsheet, his value is not associated with his net worth or the ability to pay on property with shifting values, nor is this bank’s position of unchallenged power in this community over an individual like Bob moral or sustainable for the residents of Chattanooga. ( [Italics are mine. DJT]

His text effectively pits flesh and blood people against banks licensed to steal by debasing the medium of exchange (the paper dollar). The Rev. Merritt echoes our own argument that banks are economic poison and should be shut down by law.

Localism and Christianity

We seems to agree with my nebulous claims of localism: That local is better than remote, small is better than big, and personal better than corporate. This formula isn’t the law of God. But it expresses a proposed remedy for structural injustice built into the American system. It outlines the fruit of the gospel and implies a course for culture suggested by the gospel’s law of love for one’s neighbor out of fear of God. Local economy is a goal, a fruit of a system of intellect and faith. The gospel is far more comprehensive than the broadest-based “social action” of social gospel liberals.

The gospel minister is known for organized social action, pressure tactics, political lobbying and protesting corporations. I wonder how the Rev. Merritt handles his primary charge: Faithfully preaching the Word of God on the Lord’s Day, in God’s service, before God’s people, in spirit and in truth. He might deny that to be his primary charge as an ordained minister. I suspect he would accuse me of overrating Christian worship and doctrine. Does he believe in reformation based on the Word of God, or only in managing pressure groups and inspiring revolutionaries in the social justice school? He wants good things, but does he seek them by the imposition of force by Washington? Is he partly drawn to local solutions, but has a fallback in Uncle?

For many activists outside of Christianity, the state is the apotheosis of man. Man lives and has his being in the state, in organization, in corporations, in groupings, in regulation, zoning and congresses. Within Christianity  lies a divide on the role of the state, and of culture. The fault of many Christians in Chattanooga, my hometown, and yours is that their conviction is so individualistic and private that Christianity cares little for gay ordinances, onerous taxes, corrupted currency, or abortion legislation. On the other hand, Christians in the social gospel wing represented by the Rev. Merritt and debt jubilee promoter Thomas Gokey care so much about the externals of culture and society they overlook the work of personal grace that repentance for sin under the stroke of God’s law. These of God’s children are impatient. Their concern is all external; the Baptist fundamentalist’s largely internal and subjectivized, and culturally impotent.

The Rev. Merritt is right about Yankee spying of cell phones and the need to avoid another interventionist war, that being against Syria. Unlike Christians in the mushy middle, he opposes interventionism and absolutism.

But a spirit of interventionism, like that within the minimum wage law itself, brings him to the doorstep of McDonald’s. Some say better technology throws people out of work. Such an argument is short-sighted, considering how tech gains constantly improve mankind’s lot with better and cheaper goods, such an argument is short-sighted. Innovation may displace workers, but these people often find work in the same field as a result of falling prices and increased demand for goods. Minimum wage laws and atmospheric wage demands reduce the number of low-end jobs by outlawing them from the official economy. Unwittingly, the Rev. Merritt favors fewer jobs — better paid, but fewer.

Ideology works on surface, reformation holistically

You can wholly sympathize with the Rev. Merritt’s description of the noncompliant Mr. Smith’s refusing to quit his mortgaged house.

But I wonder about the rest of the arguments made by Chattanooga Organized for Action. The Rev. Merritt proposes an alternative to the consumer culture. Let’s start a community garden to further interracial relationships, he says. Let’s help a farmer set up a fruit stand in an empty parking lot. Let’s take part in a transgender fundraiser to help a person find his/her identity. Church worship should be  “Christ-centered gatherings that are revolutionary, non-hierarchical and radical in nature.” Let’s patronize the arts. Let’s have more personal economics — local economy, even, he’s willing to grant. Indeed, the gospel impels Christians into every area of life (as for gays, it counsels them to chastity and repentance).

If one must protest wages, how do we overlook the medium in which those wages are paid? The money is a more fundamental problem than the amount per hour for any given job. According to a federal labor department calculator on the Internet, $100 in 1913 had the buying power of F$2,359.05 this year. Thanks to the central bank, the dollar is 4 percent of 1913 value. The current minimum wage was set in 2009 at F$47.25. It takes F$7.89 to to achieve the same buying power, according to U.S. data, a 64 cent loss in buying power.

The structural problems are deeper than the protesters realize. McDonald’s is as much a victim of this alternative narrative of inflation as its workers.

Sources: Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson (New York: MacFadden-Bartell Corp., 1961, 1946), pp 33-42

Shelly Bradbury, “Brainerd protesters fight for $15/hr minimum wage,”, Dec. 6, 2013, Mr. Merritt’s blog

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