This is my response to the “Dead Presidents Take Precedence” essay prompt in the Barron’s New SAT book. You can find it on Google Play (Books section) – here’s the link. If that doesn’t work – just Google “Dead Presidents Take Precedence,” perhaps adding “Barron’s New SAT.” Be advised – Google will let you access this book a certain number of times, so use it sparingly, and seriously, go buy a copy of Barron’s New SAT – it’s not expensive – or check it out of the library.
The first notable literary device used in this essay is humor. The author has given the essay a humorous title containing a pun (“presidents/precedence”) to make his point that money (humorously referred to with the slang term “dead presidents,” which, of course, refers to most people depicted on U.S. currency), and opens the essay with an irreverent and humorous comparison of Henry David Thoreau’s famous stay on Walden Pond to a modern unsuccessful grown man’s living in his mother’s basement, later calling Thoreau “The Patron Saint of Lawn Gnomes.” The author points out that the stay on Walden Pond was, in his opinion, basically just a grown man camping out in his mother’s yard. The author maintains this humorous tone throughout, also using self-deprecating “aw shucks” humor when he states that he doesn’t know much about economics, other than buying a large jar of mayonnaise is a better deal than buying a small one. He also uses alliteration in a humorous way to illustrate his point that American jobs are being outsourced – that clothes are much more likely to be manufactured in “Botswana and Burundi and Bosnia” than in “Boston.” While the humor certainly makes this economic argument easier to read, it’s the kind of weak, mild humor most readers would expect from a magazine or newspaper columnist who’s trying too hard to be funny, perhaps because he’s trying to distract the reader from obvious counterarguments.
The author also questions the purported sacrosanct status of the minimum wage, and details the history of minimum wage law, going back to its roots in the Great Depression, and mentioning how a minimum wage regulation was at first found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1932, but another similar law was found constitutional by the same Supreme Court in 1938. This tactic is relatively effective, because it emphasizes that minimum wage laws were not always seen as obviously necessary, and, in fact, were so controversial that the highest court in the U.S. found minimum wage laws to be an improper and impermissible use of government power. This tactic “opens the door” on the assertion that minimum wage laws are not necessarily good for business, or even for workers, leading to the author’s citation of evidence supporting that assertion.
The actual evidence the author uses to back his argument is a survey done by the American Economic Review in 1978, for the fact that “90% of U.S. economists (as in, the people whose job it is to analyze economic theory) believe a minimum wage actually harmed unskilled workers, youths and minorities … the primary people the law is designed to help.” The author also uses humor and irony making a statement similar “Hey – you know what economists – people who actually know this stuff- have to say? The people you liberals want to help actually are HURT by your do-gooder wage law!” This is an effective rhetorical tactic, combining humor, irony, and mild sarcasm with an appeal to authority and statistics. However, the use of a survey that’s about as old as middle-aged person on a topic that is constantly debated and reviewed by economists, not to mention that the author has already asserted that minimum wage laws have no shortage of supporters, including, presumably, many esteemed economists, strongly suggests that the author couldn’t find more recent data supporting his or her argument as strongly. Indeed, the author admits that “countless” surveys and studies on the same topic, but economists currently oppose minimum wage laws “at a 75% clip.” While 75% is still an impressive percentage, the author fails to cite to any specific study, not even a survey or review journal article, to support that assertion. He or she also fails to address the obvious question as to why no one other than economists seems to oppose the minimum wage, or if others do oppose the minimum wage, why politicians do not act to repeal such laws, except for blind adherence to tradition and sentimentality. If that is the author’s assertion, he or she should state it explicitly. This problem detracts from the effectiveness of the essay.
The author then further cites to an argument by a “think tank” named “the Cato Institute,” setting forth a hypothetical situation in which an increase in the minimum wage leads a small business with a limited budget for employee wages to lay off an employee, “leading to more scrutiny and a higher workload for the … remaining employees,” since the employer can no longer afford to keep all the employees on. The author then adds “You see, the Road to Hell, really is paved with Good Intentions,” citing a common saying to emphasize the effect of the Cato Institute’s hypothetical, that the good intention of providing higher wages is “no free lunch” (another common cliché) and the bill for that “lunch” will be paid by the people we, as a society, intend to help. This helps create fear and doubt in the minimum-wage-supporting reader, and supports the viewpoint of readers who are against minimum wage laws.
The author continues his or her high-fear approach by citing to that fact that many low-wage manufacturing jobs, such as the mass production of clothing, has been outsourced to other countries, betting the reader “dollars to doughnuts” (using yet another cliché) that most of the readers’ clothing items bear tags showing they were made in “Botswana” or “Burundi” instead of “Boston.”
Finally, the author makes an argument to authority by questioning why the American public trusts “the lawyers in Congress” instead of economists to set wage policy in the U.S., when no sane person would make the analogous move of allowing untrained lawyers, instead of skilled surgeons, perform open-heart surgery. While this is an effective analogy – many readers will ask “This writer has a real point – why aren’t we listening to the economic experts instead of the clowns in Congress?” – it has two significant deficiencies. The first is that it is an old, trite cliché. Any industry can make the same argument – e.g. “Who are you going to trust to make safe drugs – the scientists and doctors at pharmaceutical companies who invent the drugs, or the silly politicians who don’t know science?” These arguments ignore the fact that Congress has advisors on all topics, and many politicians and lawyers are themselves competent economists.
Despite the flaws I have listed, the author make an engaging and coherent, as well as folksy, argument against the minimum wage using citations to surveys, statistics, appeals to authority, humor, and common-sense sayings and analogies. It is an effective opinion piece, similar to what is found in most newspapers and magazines, as well as online, today.
Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.