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Reframing the minimum wage

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Reframing the minimum wage

by Eric Ferguson on November 24, 2013 · 7 comments

WAGE-color-3-col-1024x852There was a recent poll showing Americans 76% support an increase in the minimum wage. This last election, New Jersey voters raised their state minimum wage in a constitutional amendment that also will raise it with inflation. This despite easily reelecting Chris Christie who vetoed an increase. They overruled their bully boy governor even as they bizarrely gave him another term. When minimum wage increases are on the ballot, they pass, seemingly every time. I’m hardly claiming exhaustive research here, just noting that if a ballot measure to raise a state’s minimum wage ever failed, I couldn’t find it.


Essentially, raising the minimum wage is a classic instance of good policy being good politics. We should be able to tell candidates for public office that if they can ignore the special interest lobbyists and big donor money, if they can make this their issue and stay on the right side of it, their odds of winning are seriously enhanced. Yes, I know, the fact it’s the right thing to do should be enough, but, you know, there’s that reality thing.


Now when I say “reframing”, I mean that supporters of a wage increase aim too low. I’m not referring to the fast food workers’ campaign for a $15 an hour. Quite the contrary, they have the right idea. I’m thinking more of Pres. Obama asking Congress to raise the federal wage to $9. He’s since raised his request to $10, but he might as well have asked for more for all the likelihood of the Republican majority in the House taking it up. In this year’s session of the Minnesota legislature, the House sought to raise the state wage to $9.50, but the Senate wanted only $7.50. They pushed it off to next year after being unable to agree, but if they had, presumably they would have split the difference around a still paltry $8.50.


When New Jersey just passed its constitutional amendment, it raised the wage only to $8.25. That’s a dollar better, but what a shame the supporters didn’t go for more. In Seatac, WA, however, they raised it to $15 for hospitality and transportation workers around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Yes, the same amount the fast food workers were seeking. Maybe Seatac is unique and $15 is pie in the sky, but Seatac and the fast food workers have raised the range of what can be considered. The sincere supporters seeking something like $9 are asking for what they’ll settle for, as if conservatives won’t oppose an increase no matter what, and the more centrist Democrats will do what they always do, take their party’s proposals and water them down just to prove their centrism. Supporters, by starting with what they consider a reasonable compromise, are lowering the ceiling for what can be considered.


Even at the federal level, though a wage increase won’t be considered by the current Congress, it’s widening the area of politically permissible discussion. Go ahead and seek $15 with all the derision that will bring, because it’s a long game for the day when it’s passable, and the increase can be watered down to a more sensible centrist $10. Maybe in some circumstances, like the Minnesota legislature, where Democrats hold both houses, it should be possible to reframe the debate in a much shorter time, like the next session.


It might feel manipulative, talking about a framing strategy, getting politicians to react to the political benefit of supporting something popular rather than doing it merely because it’s good policy, but there we are. In fact, there was an interesting remark made to me by a legislator, who will go unnamed to avoid giving this person problems with colleagues. This legislator said the House wanted the higher increase because it’s up for reelection next year, while Senators get to wait until 2016. So the popularity has sunk in somewhat — the ones who want to go bigger are the same ones worried about their reelection. Unfortunately, it also indicates some Democratic senators either can’t figure out what’s popular, can’t figure out the facts around the policy, or they’re listening to some special interest. Or at least they’re listening to someone who is wrong, claiming a minimum wage increase kills jobs, which is a claim that has never stood up to scrutiny. The Democrats more attuned to facts will have to pound it into their colleagues heads.
So go for a minimum wage increase, and go for a big one, both because it’s been falling behind inflation and productivity for a long time, and because it’s the smarter strategy for getting a bigger increase. It’s both good policy and a winning election issue, both at the federal and state level. While I’m often sympathetic to the claim that a specific district just isn’t going to support a liberal policy and some specific legislator or congressman can’t go that far, this point needs to be reinforced to any reluctant Democrat: it doesn’t matter which state or district you’re from. It’s popular everywhere.

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