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Make Yourself Useful

  • pepperoni_pizza_slice.JPG

Tags Legal SystemCapital and Interest TheoryValue and Exchange

06/30/2003Adam Young

From shiftless bum to employee. Who can argue with that? Apparently the usual suspects at Commercial Alert, one of Ralph Nader's anti-capitalist "watchdog" organizations. Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, said the homeless who act as billboards should be paid minimum wage.

"If they don't get minimum wage, this is exploitation," he said.

How could it be exploitation? As the participants themselves relate, each sees it as a win-win situation. In Portland, the restaurant chain Pizza Schmizza offered to pay homeless people a slice of pizza, soda and a few dollars in exchange for holding a sign for 40 minutes on downtown sidewalks that read: "Pizza Schmizza paid me to hold this sign instead of asking for money.'' 

Peter Schoeff, one 20-year-old homeless man employed in this way, said of the offer: "I think it's a fair trade. We're career panhandlers, that's the only other way we can get money.'' As he told Andrew Kramer, a reporter for the Associated Press, he "woke up in an abandoned house and planned to spend his day dumpster diving and asking for spare change."

"We dig in trash, but usually, you can't find anything good in the trash," he said. "Just half-eaten sandwiches, cold french fries, crumbs in a bag of chips."

So a slice of hot pizza seemed like a good deal, especially since all it required was holding a sign for 40 minutes. 

For Andre Jehan, the owner and founder of Pizza Schmizza, he saw the homeless as a new advertising vehicle—and an opportunity to help. "I got tired of not being able to make eye contact with these people,'' he said. "I thought, 'What skills could they have?' Holding a sign was an obvious one.'' Mr. Jehan said the signs were intended to be humorous, that "People don't have to feel guilty while still appreciating the person is homeless. It's a gesture of kindness more than anything." 

During his interview with Andre Jehan at an outdoor table at one of his downtown Portland restaurants, Mr. Kramer observed a homeless teenager panhandling passers-by for spare change a dozen feet away.

The use of the homeless as advertising mediums is new and joins other attempts to break out of the "ad clutter." For instance, a London ad firm paid students by the hour to wear temporary tattoos on their foreheads while at bars or shopping. Sony Ericcson, the cell phone company, hired models to lounge at tourist attractions and use their new mobile phone that doubles as a camera. A New Jersey company, Beach N' Billboards Inc., stamped ads for Snapple iced tea on the beach.

Andre Jehan even tried his hand previously at innovative advertising. Pizza Schmizza handed out fake parking tickets with pizza coupons and even put up fake election placards reading "Elect Schmizza for Dinner." 

Using human beings as billboards has at least one precedent. During FDR's Great Depression, it was a common sight to see men sandwiched between two boards carrying the advertising of merchants. The New Deal, through its ongoing effort to raise prices and wages, prolonged the correction in the prices for goods and labor required by the Fed induced boom of the 1920's. As a consequence wages for unskilled labor were artificially high, increasing the cost of unskilled labor for employers which had the inevitable result of reducing the number of employment opportunities. 

The problem of vagrancy is, as usual, a byproduct of public ownership of streets and other public places on the one hand, and on the other, the modern refusal to protect property values in any concerted way by cooperating with storeowners and others who are now forced to accept behavior and conditions that discourage a pleasant shopping experience.

Coupled with this implied entitlement to loiter is today's FDR-style price control on labor, the minimum wage, which overprices Peter Schoeff and the others like him, who may be forced to choose between living on the streets and breaking the law if he is even able to find an employer willing to do this.

The minimum wage for unskilled labor is an arbitrary price, not based upon supply and demand within a given area, but pulled out of thin air by interests that believe they are doing good by appearing kind and compassionate when it comes to the lives and conditions of the poor. In reality, they destroy opportunities for the poor to rebuild their lives by destroying employment and in many circumstances, potential employers. 

When an employer offers a wage that the employee agrees is fair, as Peter Schoeff said himself, there is no exploitation involved here. Genuine exploitation exists where one party to a transaction is compelled, through fear of the consequences of disobedience, to submit to the theft of his property. Taxation comes to mind. As well as the rest of the modern welfare/warfare state apparatus of compulsion and deceit. 

If the unwanted advice of Ralph Nader, Gary Ruskin and their like were heeded, these human billboards would be even worse off then they are now. In their demand for an arbitrary politically dictated minimum price for unskilled labor, the Naderites would be repeating the mistakes of the same New Deal wage controls that drove men to sandwich boards in the first place.


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