I was on a panel yesterday at a conference of Economists for Peace and Security, and one of my panel mates was Ron Unz, the contrarian conservative who has had quite an interesting and varied career. His big passion these days is the minimum wage, which he has written about with some regularity. On yesterday’s panel, he spent some time on the substantive case, on which I don’t need to be sold. But he also made a very interesting political argument: that a really big increase might be more likely to pass than a more modest one, because it would potentially have a larger and more bipartisan constituency behind it.
On the surface it seems totally counterintuitive that a minimum wage increase to $12 an hour (Unz’s position) could possibly win more support than an increase to $9 an hour, which is what the White House proposes. And maybe it couldn’t. It would probably be such sticker shock to the overclass that they’d dig in their heels. And anyway all this is academic, alas, as long as Congress is filled with these pseudo-populist yahoos who wave Bibles at $25,000-a-year earners while they do the bidding of $25,000-a-day earners.
But Unz says this. An increase to $9 an hour will help only those at the very bottom of the wage scale, and those at the very bottom of the wage scale tend to be Democratic voters, because they’re more likely to be black or Latino (or maybe single white women). So naturally, only Democrats will support it.
Instead, he argues that a bigger increase will have a much greater likelihood of having a positive impact on wages up the scale. There are loads of jobs, jobs that can’t be outsourced—home health care, food services, sales, office and administrative support, non-construction laborers, and more—that he said yesterday could be positively impacted by as much as $5,000 a year, which for a $25,000-a-year job is a pretty hefty increase.
When you start to talk about this segment of the wage scale, Unz contends, you’re starting to talk about white working-class Republican voters. And that could create upward pressure on some GOP legislators to come around eventually to supporting this position.
Realistic? I think the answer is that while this would take years, yes, it is conceivable. It would certainly take years. Two years at least—at least—just to break down the wall of total and comprehensive Republican opposition to any minimum wage increase at all, before a few Republicans start tentatively staking out the position. (A key GOP voting bloc, of course, is not just the 1 percenters who’ll be against an increase, but the small business men and women who’ll say this is going to put them out of business.) It’ll also take time for this class of workers themselves to be convinced that they’ll benefit. Right now, I think most of them believe in a kind of economic, modern-day droit du seigneur in which they think what’s good for their bosses is by definition what’s good for them. That won’t be changed quickly at all.
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