Step One Toward a Fairer America: Raise the Minimum Wage

This item begins with two policy announcements, then switches back to "what the bartender saw."

Policy announcement #1
: Thanks to the scores of people who continue to send in views every day about the Atlas Shrugged Guy, and his different-but-related California counterpart. There is so much of this that I will let it sit for a little while before doing another harvest.

To those who complain that there has been way too much on this theme: I am taking a time-out -- and the subject must be interesting to someone, because people keep writing. To those who complain that my selection of comments has given critics disproportionate airtime, the truth is that the incoming ratio is about 20-to-1 critical. 

Policy announcement #2: A little dispute has spilled over to the site of Discover magazine, arising from my claim to Neanderthal heritage. The dispute doesn't directly concern my own lineage but rather the varying competencies of archaeologists, geneticists, etc., to address the issue. You'll see what I mean if you take a look there.

You'll also see why I think this is a good time for me to re-state some operating principles. One concerns quotes from reader mail. For the record, if you send me a note via this site, I will assume I can quote it unless you say otherwise from the start. I will, though, attribute it only to "a reader" or "a doctor from California" etc unless you specify that you would like me to use your real name.
The other concerns the extent of "vetting" readers' remarks. When I am writing a book or a magazine article, I feel an obligation to fact-check claims that people make in quotes I am using. Usually I am quoting people to explain an issue or illustrate a story, and usually there is no point in quoting something that I believe is misinformed or wrong.

Recommended Reading

It's different when I am quoting messages from readers. This is more like an extended letter-to-the-editor section, or a heavily supervised comments forum. I choose comments because I think they're interesting, or to illustrate the range of response I'm getting. On some topics I know enough to referee a dispute, and I will rarely put up a comment I think is completely nuts. But on other topics I sometimes put up a range of views I can't specifically vet one by one. The best I can do is follow the argument as it evolves. You'll see why I restate this point if you look at the Discovery item.

OK, now on to substance. A few days ago I quoted a bartender who had worked at fund-raisers for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the campaign. He argued that, despite obvious differences between a Republican and a Democratic donor crowd, people at both events were notably isolated from workaday reality, for reasons of class. Now three responses.

On the importance of the minimum wage:

The bartender raises an excellent point.  If Democrats/liberals really wanted to help the poor, a good place to start would be raising the minimum wage.  The exact amount is different depending on where one gets their information, but based on what I've read, if we took the minimum wage in 1968 and indexed it to inflation, these workers would make roughly $10.50/hour - not a bountiful haul by anyone's standards, but a lot better than the present situation.

Presuming a household has two full time earners making minimum wage, this equates to roughly $46,000/year ($10.50 X 2 X 2080hours/year).  Again, nobody's living large on this, but at least it's close to the median US household income.

Moreover, most people making minimum wage are not working the kind of jobs which can be shipped overseas either: Wal-Mart employees, convenience store employees, low-level health workers, etc.   Yes, raising the minimum wage would cause prices to increase a bit, but the world isn't going to end if I have to pay a bit more for services which are more a luxury than necessity. 

Fears of inflation are overblown as well.  Australia has a minimum wage of roughly $15.50/hour and it's roughly $17.00/hour in the Canton of Geneva in Switzerland.  Neither of these countries is being rocked by inflation.  Yes, services cost more, but again most of these services are luxuries not necessities.  If I have to pay a bit more to go out to eat, see a movie or purchase consumer goods, I'll be just fine.  I'd rather see people be able to live in dignified conditions, put food on the table, clothe their children and pay for heating, than be able to get LOW LOW prices from Wal-Mart on cheaply made breakable crap.   If I have to pay a bit more for a haircut or eat out less, I'll live.
It also has the benefit of broadening the tax base.

Of course I am presenting an overly simplified picture of a complex economic argument - and plenty of fodder for those who think the opposite - but I've traveled/lived in enough countries which much higher minimum wage laws and they're getting on just fine.

One last point: When I hear small business owners scream bloody murder about how any increase in the minimum wage will impose a tremendous burden, I always want to scream that, in real terms, their labor costs have been steadily decreasing for the past 44 years - to the tune of more than 30%!

And furthermore:

I enjoyed reading the POV of someone who busts their ass for a living. I worked as a union stagehand for 20 years before I got hurt and couldn't continue, and it was always a struggle to make sure I made the minimum every year so I could get the health care coverage. Most stagehands jump from short term job to short term job ("The Bounce"), so getting to your minimum number for coverage is often hard, and scary, especially when work is slow.

This is one of the big reasons I support Medicare for all. There are many other reasons (cost containment, basic fairness, better for businesses and unions to not have to worry about it, etc), but the maze of hoops that working people have to go through to get the coverage now, and the huge out of pocket expenses associated with it for many people, make the current system, and even the Obamacare improvements to the system, an unnecessary waste of our time and resources.

The minimum wage point the reader made is especially important. I worked for minimum when putting myself through college many years ago. My daughter currently works for just a little over minimum. It's a joke. In fact, there's a little game I always tell insensitive rich people, or Glibertarians who would like to eliminate the minimum wage, to play:

That always shuts them up.

Of all the ideas that Willard Romney's had in his life, I found one that I actually liked. Back when he was a slightly reasonable moderate, he proposed tying the minimum wage to inflation. This is a fine idea that we should do as soon as possible. Businesses would like it because the raises would be predictable and timely. Workers would like it because their raises wouldn't depend on getting the Democrats back in charge of the House.... I can't think of a better way to reward work, and help people get out of the so-called "culture of dependence" than actually paying them what they're worth, and giving them regular cost of living raises to boot.

Finally, on whether the bartender was making a "plague on both their houses" false-equivalence-style argument:

I don't think the bartender's comment was an "false equivalence" at all. Rather, it is a telling observation about how too many democrats think like the right these days. He calls the "you'll be sick yourself someday" argument for buying healthcare a "nice argument to make if you get an employer-subsidized plan, not so persuasive if you don't and rely on seasonal and/or hourly wages." Indeed, the retort is a variation on the "personal responsibility"/"stuff for nothing" theme that omits what's happened to middle-and working-class incomes over the past forty years, to say nothing of the the fiscal cliffs families have been pushed over in the past five years.
I don't have the luxury of relaxing in my Ph.D./Lit-Prof bubble because I teach at a fourth-tier, open-admissions university that caters to first-generation, working class students, most of them older and with families; nor do I remember the last time I had a raise - except in my medical deductibles. I do have a subsidized plan, thank god, and it got me into M.D. Anderson when I needed it. But I know there are other kinds of insurance that I should be carrying but don't simply because I cannot afford to do so.
The argument at which your correspondent bridles is not a policy argument, it's a moral argument that scolds while willing away the very real differences among us, and the right has had a very good run of exploiting the resentment that such willed blindness engenders.

Also for the record, I'm not just quoting these readers because I think their views are "interesting." I think they're right.