Still Fighting Over The Minimum Wage

Annette Bernhardt, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A month into the Biden presidency, and already there has been a substantial amount of work done to reverse many of the worst executive orders and appointments by the Trump administration. Thanks to a narrow Democratic lead in both the Senate and the House, legislation appears to be ready to start flowing.

Well, thanks to the ludicrous persistence of the filibuster, flowing might be a bit optimistic. Truthfully, that flow is more likely to be a trickle. It’s unlikely the speed of progressive legislation will harken back to the days of the New Deal or Great Society, but there will be actual bills passed, which is something that’s largely disappeared since January 2011.

One progressive proposal that has been pushed hard by the new Biden administration (and most Congressional Democrats in general) is an increase in the national minimum wage, from the current $7.25 per hour all the way up to $15. This is something that could be passed within a larger COVID relief package (which appears to be increasingly unlikely), or it may end up having to be pushed on its own at a later date. But it’s a targeted goal that has a chance of passing.

And since the topic of an increase in the minimum wage is making the rounds of political discourse, along with it come the bad takes.

There are two particular opinions that appear whenever the minimum wage conversation picks up, and I’ve actually discussed them before on this blog. The most popular piece I’ve written on this blog (by far) was about the $15 proposal way back in 2014.

The first opinion is a bit more excusable, and is primarily economic. There is a school of thought that the minimum wage can hamper employment, and the higher it goes, the more it encourages employers to replace employees with automation. A subset of this argument is that regional variation means that some areas can’t sustain the same wage floors as others.

And this can actually be a reasonable point. As Noah Smith writes quite eloquently, the optimal minimum wage increase might best be indexed to a percentage of local median wages. It’s fair to note that $15 an hour would create a more significant impact on employers in rural Alabama than it would in Manhattan. He also has an interesting suggestion about tying the minimum wage to local rent, which is worth consideration.

The proposal from the Democrats includes a phase-in period, and indexes future increases to local median wages, so that particular issue already seems to be understood, however. As for whether or not a minimum wage increase is fraught with too many problems – we can mostly answer these concerns now. Analyses over the past decade have continually shown that the increases that have already been passed locally haven’t harmed those economies, and most studies no longer predict calamity at the national level.

Up to a certain amount, increases in the minimum wage serve to drop poverty rates faster than they reduce employment. It’s not a perfect solution, but most of the best academic economic arguments support an increase in the current national minimum wage. There’s certainly room to quibble at the margins, but on the whole, $15 an hour (or thereabouts) will be a net positive for the nation.

The economic argument against $15 an hour has flaws, but it’s often made in good faith. And there have been a few studies that have indicated problems with a significant wage increase, even if they represent a minority.

The real problem is the second argument. It’s the moral one, and the one that my 2014 piece mostly addresses. It’s more commonly found in social media memes and Fox News shows, than from academics and economists, and is annoyingly pervasive.

I’ve seen a few versions of it, but it usually amounts to something like, “In my town, teachers/EMTS/firefighters/other noble professions only start out at $14.75 an hour. Why should a cashier or burger-flipper make more than that?”

The argument tends to lean into the idea that some jobs shouldn’t be worth a living wage, and are only for teenagers, or college kids working summer job, and they represent a failure of the employee to find something better.

I discussed the idea that only kids and part-timers work minimum wage jobs back in my last piece on this topic. The abridged answer is that it’s just not true. Fast food and retail jobs earning under $15 per hour (often under $10!) are now more commonly held by household breadwinners and single parents than in the past, and the vast majority aren’t teenagers. Not anymore. The economy of the Reagan economic era has gradually squeezed out many of the old union industrial jobs, high paid vocational positions, and other such staples of American success in the post-war years. For many people, Burger King is the best they can get right now. Do they deserve to suffer for that?

The moral argument against a higher minimum wage makes a handful of serious errors:

  1. To start, it often serves to pit poor people against each other. Telling people at one low paying job they should make less than someone else at a different low-paying job is divisive and unproductive. It’s a way to shift the class war to the poor, keeping it internal, and focused away from those with actual power.
  2. The argument that there are some jobs that are inherently less valuable should have been shattered by the COVID-19 pandemic, when we learned just how important grocery store cashiers and take-out restaurant workers can be. It’s an impressive feat of moral gymnastics to call someone stocking shelves at Safeway a hero, then turn around and tell them they’re selfish to want to earn more than ten bucks an hour.
  3. The argument complaining that “fast food workers will be paid the same as teachers” completely misses the obvious point that teachers (and all the other jobs presented as superior) are currently greatly underpaid, and raising the wages of fast food workers wouldn’t devalue teachers. Instead, we should push to make sure teachers are paid what they’re worth. This should not reflect at all on the wages of others. It’s particularly ghoulish to argue that because one profession is underpaid, everybody should be underpaid.

To be clear, most people with a substantially wide media reach who are pushing against $15 an hour are making economic arguments. Many of these are garbage, but as I mentioned above, they aren’t all worthless points.

My primary concern are those individuals who appear to take the concept of a minimum wage increase as a personal attack. People who believe that those working 60 hours a week at multiple minimum wage jobs are less worthy of a comfortable life than someone who works a more prestigious job.

If that Safeway cashier suddenly starts making an extra five dollars an hour, after more than a decade of largely stagnant wages, it doesn’t mean that a rookie firefighter or a teacher, or an EMT is now less-valued. It will probably lead to an eventual raise for them, instead. “A rising tide lifts all boats” didn’t work for trickle-down economics, but it makes a lot more sense for wages. Studies of increases in places like Seattle have tended to bear this out.

But it also means that we are starting to understand that value has less to do with what job someone holds, and more to do with the humanity of the individual. Working a minimum wage job isn’t a moral failing for the employee. Instead, we should consider why we believe their profession makes them less valuable to society.

About hbreck

Writer, debater, contrarian, storyteller, occasional troublemaker. I'm mostly just making things up as I go.
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