The Standard History of Labor: Lemony Snicket Edition
By Bryan Caplan
When I teach labor economics, I debunk a caricature I call the “Standard History of Labor.” The Standard History goes something like this:
1. In the days before the minimum wage, unions, etc., life was terrible for
workers because employers paid them whatever they felt like paying them.
2. But then government became more progressive, and changed the laws.
3. Life is now better for workers because employers’ greed has been tamed.
I often quote popular expressions of this narrative, but I’ve never come across one as funny (even unintentionally) as the one in Book 4 of the Lemony Snicket series. A worker at the Lucky Smells Lumbermill explains the plight of his class. Factory employees get a stick of gum for lunch, a damp casserole for dinner, and no chance to escape because…
[T]hey don’t pay us in money. They pay us in coupons. See, here’s what we all earned yesterday: twenty percent off a shampoo at Sam’s Haircutting Palace. The day before that we earned this coupon for a free refill of iced tea, and last week we earned this one: ‘Buy Two Banjos and Get One Free,’ The trouble is, we can’t buy two banjos, because we don’t have anything but these coupons.