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The Minimum Wage


This is a good overview of where we are at now with the minimum wage. Like everything else, it is a tale of two parties with no room for compromise.

At the national level, the Democratic Party has also adjusted its minimum-wage policy, albeit more slowly. During his 2008 presidential bid, Barack Obama advocated for a federal increase to $9.50 an hour by 2011, which then was a fairly radical proposition. By the beginning of his second term in 2013, he called for a $9-an-hour minimum wage, which congressional Democrats increased to a slightly more ambitious $10.10. With a Republican-controlled House, however, this was mostly an exercise in political messaging. By 2015, congressional Democrats were officially calling for $12 an hour, while more progressive members voiced support for a $15 federal minimum wage. That was a dividing line in the Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton, who backed $12 an hour, and Bernie Sanders, who supported $15.

Today, in the political wilderness, Democrats in Congress have made a $15 minimum wage the cornerstone of their economic agenda. For now, that simply means that the two political parties are more polarized than ever on the federal minimum wage. While the odd Republican or two has quietly come out in favor of a modest increase to the federal minimum wage, Republican leadership has unilaterally kept any minimum-wage legislation from even being debated.

And then there is the Party of Plutocracy.

John Boehner once said back in 1996, “I’ll commit suicide before I vote on a clean minimum-wage bill.” That existential opposition has hardly softened during Boehner’s speakership. Nor has it softened under the leadership of Paul Ryan, who consistently trots out his softer, though equally pernicious, talking points about how minimum-wage jobs are meant as entry-level steps for teenagers—like his first job at McDonald’s in the mid-1980s—on their way to higher-paying jobs, and are not meant for those who need to support families (though the vast majority of minimum-wage workers are, in fact, not teenagers).

Republican hostility to minimum-wage increases of any size are seen most vividly in the states where the GOP is in full control and uses its power to wage a war on minimum wages. As of now, 27 states have laws that preempt cities and counties from instituting minimum wages higher than the state’s. After the majority-black city of Birmingham instituted a $10.10-an-hour minimum wage in 2015, Alabama’s majority-white (and majority Republican) legislature quickly passed a law banning local minimum-wage hikes, thereby forbidding the struggling black workers in the state’s largest city from getting a raise.

More recently, in early June the GOP-controlled Missouri legislature passed legislation that would undo St. Louis’s new $10 minimum wage. Republican Governor Eric Greitens said he’d allow the bill to become law without his signature—almost literally taking money out of St. Louis minimum-wage workers’ pockets.

A couple of thoughts here. First, despite the long history of conservatives demanding state sovereignty over many matters because those governments are easier to control than either localities or the federal government, it would not surprise me in the least to see an increasing move by conservatives to claim that minimum wages should not only not be decided by municipality, as has happened not only in Missouri and Oklahoma, but in supposedly liberal Rhode Island, but that it should not be decided by state at all. This is speculation on my part, but I look at Idaho, with most of its population within 50 miles of Washington and Oregon, two states with much higher minimum wages than that cauldron of frothing reactionaries. Low-wage employers in Idaho have been getting destroyed because they refuse to compete with their higher wage neighbors. Of course they could just raise their wages and to some extent this has happened, but there are lots of Idaho residents working in Pullman and Spokane and Ontario, Oregon. Given the utter lack of even pretending to be consistent any longer, I strongly believe a move toward federalizing the minimum wage is likely as states such as California, Oregon, and Washington push their wages higher.

Second, there is no good reason at all for Democrats to compromise with Republicans on this issue at this time. Like every other issue, middle ground has disappeared, largely because of Republican fireeating. Like on gay marriage, where either you believe it should exist or you don’t and no middle ground really exists, with Republicans now largely opposing the entire idea of a minimum wage and wishing they could repeal it or declare the Fair Labor Standards Act unconstitutional (and don’t be surprised to see a real move toward this by the courts in the next decade, as I strongly doubt Alito or Gorsuch actually sees the FLSA as constitutional, even if they might not say that now), compromise is pointless. You either believe in economic justice or you don’t. While we can argue about what the minimum wage should be among ourselves, there is no purpose having this conversation with corporations or their political lackeys. That’s a very different thing than not bringing minimum wage increases before voters in red states, as such bastions of Maoism as Nebraska and Arkansas have seen voters approve wage hikes in recent years.

Thus, there is no reason to not base our economic message as an expansive welfare state not only includes a robust minimum wage, but a federal guarantee of a job, the forgiveness of student loan debt, and universal Medicare. Sure, the rich might not like it and that matters in the Citizens United era more than anytime since the first Gilded Age. But we are in a nation now of stark choices. Playing reasonable moderate to attract a shrinking number of “moderate” voters makes little political sense. Republicans understand this and act accordingly. We need to give the Americans a stark choice between the New Gilded Age and a robust nation that serves the needs of the working and middle classes. A high minimum wage is only the start.

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