The Oregon law — the first “automatic voter registration” policy to be tested in an election — is notable for a subtle innovation: It is opt-out, not opt-in. Rather than ask eligible residents to take an action like checking a box to register to vote, residents are automatically registered when they apply for, renew or replace a drivers’ license, ID card or permit at the state Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division.
Four years ago this week, fast food workers in New York City took to the streets to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage. A little over three years ago, the city of SeaTac approved a $15 minimum wage for workers serving Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. And in the intervening years, cities across the country (including Seattle, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and New York City and states including California, Oregon, and Arizona) have approved minimum wage increases that will put them well above the federal minimum of $7.50 per hour.
None of that is new to you. It’s fact. It’s history. But we can’t afford to let these substantial victories become something that we take for granted. The truth is, it’s already difficult to remember now how far-fetched the Fight for $15 seemed at the time, but literally every part of the political establishment was dead set against it: business owners, newspaper editorial boards, and elected leaders on the right and the left.
This was an unprecedented endorsement in the history of the Times, a watershed moment for minimum wage advocates, and it turned out to be a significant precursor to a historic moment, too. On election day this year, four states voted to raise their own minimum wage. Some might consider the blue states of Washington ($13.50) and Colorado ($12) to be easy wins, but Maine, which split its electoral votes between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and Arizona, which leaned ruby red in the presidential election, both voted for $12 minimum wages, too.
What started as a fringe movement that was mocked by the establishment has become a foregone conclusion — the National Restaurant Association used to send armies of anti-wage representatives to cities that were considering raising the wage, but now they only put up token resistance, if they bother to show up at all. Perhaps more importantly for our fractured nation, it’s a rare issue that inspires bipartisan support (that is, bipartisan support from average people, not from elected officials — an important distinction that I’ll go into later.) And so in this way, $15 has to be considered a model for progressives who are preparing for the next four years.
So, how did it all come together?
It started with a diverse coalition. Labor leaders (including SEIU 775 President David Rolf, author of The Fight for $15: The Right Wage for a Working America) and business leaders (including Civic Ventures founder — and my boss — Nick Hanauer) formulated a new theory of economics based on years of reading and theory and practice, built on policies promoted by thinkers and leaders including former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. You can get a good sense of the thinking that provided the foundation for the Fight for $15 in this Bloomberg piece from 2013 by Hanauer.
Then the coalition needed to show that they had the will to change a political climate. This is where the fast food workers’ strike came in. At the time, blog commenters and politically moderate columnists everywhere were mocking the workers for demanding a higher wage. But what the naysayers didn’t understand was that even as they mocked the protests, they were giving the workers a microphone, and the workers’ stories inspired thousands of people to take action on their behalf.
Progressive leaders have learned that stories are the best mechanism for inspiring political change in individuals. It worked with same-sex marriage — it’s easy to demonize a group you don’t know and very hard to take away rights from a human with a face and a story — and it worked with the Fight for $15. Once ordinary Americans saw that these fast food workers weren’t the imaginary system-leeching “welfare queens” that conservatives like to bray over, or pimply teenagers looking to buy a new sound system for their hand-me-down car, they understood the importance of raising the wage.
Those stories are essential, but the implementation wouldn’t happen without solid thinking behind it. If you were to look back at older Democratic calls to raise the minimum wage, you’d see a lot of talk about “fairness,” about “spreading the wealth.” And it is true that raising the minimum wage is fair and it does spread the wealth. But more importantly, research indicated that increasing the minimum wage was good for business owners and everyone else, that it was one of the fastest and most significant methods to reduce the widening inequality that all Americans could feel encroaching into their lives. Watch this ad from Maine’s successful initiative to raise the wage to see what that message looks like in action:
Though most Americans favor a significant increase, conservative politicians don’t seem to be budging on the minimum wage. The only two Republican presidential candidates who endorsed an increase in the minimum wage this year were Rick Santorum and Donald Trump. (Although Trump has also made statements against raising the minimum wage and even statements that America’s wages are too high at the present level, so what he truly believes is anyone’s guess.)
It’s pretty easy to figure out why conservatives are opposed to $15: the corporate interests and bankers who fund their campaigns don’t want to pay higher wages for workers.
But as we’ve proven again and again, politicians will eventually go where the people lead. The success of the minimum-wage movement is its inclusiveness: you can’t just pass good legislation with protesters, or just with policymakers, or just with legislators. You need everyone — business owners, workers, activists — to come together, set clear goals, and bring those goals into reality. When more people are involved in political action, guess what? That political action is more likely to serve everyone’s goals.
In the years since we raised the minimum wage in Seattle, we’ve followed that model and seen great successes. We passed a secure scheduling lawwhich protects workers from predatory scheduling practices. Our statewide minimum wage initiative also included a provision for paid sick leave so that workers don’t have to work when they’re ill. Step by step, we’re restoring the rights that made it possible for citizens to enjoy the secure middle-class lives that made America so prosperous in the 20th century.
There’s much to do. America’s middle class needs a raise through increased overtime protections. Parasitic employers continue to make employment a government-subsidized race to the bottom in too many areas around the country. The stratospheric increase in gig economy employment demands bold new thinking in terms of the benefits contract. But now that the Fight for $15 has seen such resounding success, none of these tasks seem impossible anymore. We know how to do this. We’ve got the blueprint, and our successes in red states assure us that not even Donald Trump and his band of cronies can stop our momentum. Now is the time to stick together—all of us—and keep working.
Trump’s supporters don’t necessarily expect the world to get better. However, they are a lot happier about the United States than they were on November 7. Change was enough, it appears—at least for now.
Trump’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the problems of one American community indicates an obsessive focus on boosting the fortunes of working-class Midwesterners — even as his administration’s big-picture policy focus remains on deregulating Wall Street, enacting an enormous tax cut for rich people, and slashing spending on assistance to the poor.
Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.
The development of finance reveals the progressive displacement of market coordination by planning. Capitalism means production for profit; but in concrete reality profit criteria are always subordinate to financial criteria. The judgment of the market has force only insofar as it is executed by finance. The world is full of businesses whose revenues exceed their costs, but are forced to scale back or shut down because of the financial claims against them. The world is also full of businesses that operate for years, or indefinitely, with costs in excess of their revenues, thanks to their access to finance. And the institutions that make these financing decisions do so based on their own subjective judgment, constrained ultimately not by some objective criteria of value, but by the terms set by the central bank.
Humans often fail to understand that what we consider as “normal” is highly subjective. Our minds are crippled by the chains of circumstance and these bonds constrain us from analyzing the consequential assumptions we all make about our lives.
Immanuel Kant once wrote:
Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another.
He was warning us that to live better we must not fall prey to assumptions made by others.
So in honor of independent thinking, here’s a dearly held reality that I believe has handicapped America’s potential: we do not come close to preparing our citizens to be active participants in democracy. Said in another way, Americans live in a politically empty society.
When I surveyed about 200 former exchange students last year, in cooperation with an international exchange organization called AFS, nine out of 10 foreign students who had lived in the U.S. said that kids here cared more about sports than their peers back home did. A majority of Americans who’d studied abroad agreed.
Face it: we live in a society where it is normal (even laudable) to train a child for basketball five times a week and abnormal (even puzzling) to train a child to be an active political citizen. This seems like an odd calculation to make. Culturally absurd, even.
After all, the odds your kid turns out to be a professional athlete are very bloody low. But the odds your kid becomes a citizen that has to vote on complex issues? Very bloody high.*
So why are we emphasizing one and not the other?
The US Department of Education released a booklet in 1993 called, “Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen“ and in it, they made the following observation:
Just as children must be taught to tie their shoes, read and write, solve math problems, and understand science concepts and events in history, so must they be guided in developing the qualities of character that are valued by their families and by the communities in which they live.
When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports…People call in and have long and intricate discussions and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount…On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.
Before you dismiss Chomsky as an elitist prick, read further (emphasis mine):
In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do.
Americans’ lack of practice towards living the political life has consequences. Due to the democratization of our primary elections (they were once controlled by “insider-dominated processes“), we now have a system that is driven by voter participation. Which is good.
Pericles, the father of Athenian Democracy, had a lovely quip on this topic that has aged pretty well and applies here: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
Americans assume otherwise. And it’s because we are immersed in a society where it is normal to dismiss politics as a peripheral concern. If we are to recover any respect for truth and political engagement, we must recognize that America is not properly prioritizing politics in a variety of forms. The good news is, we have the power to change that.
*Before you retort, “Well the point of sports isn’t to be a professional athlete, it’s to stay fit, make friends, and learn leadership skills” — I agree. Could that not be achieved though in a more balanced approach, however?
Question: what does Fidel Castro’s death have to do with the minimum wage?
Well, if you’re a normal human being, the correct answer is “nothing.”
But if you’re an economist named Bryan Caplan, the correct answer…well, it’s still “nothing.” But Bryan Caplan will apparently stop at nothing to advance his anti-minimum-wage agenda. As proof, here’s a post he published today on EconLog. It’s titled “How Castro is Like the Minimum Wage,” which is maybe the clickbaitiest headline I’ve ever clicked on.
So how is Fidel Castro like the minimum wage? Caplan says it’s because Castro was “mild” so far as dictators go but it was morally correct for America to fight him as “a symbol of larger evils.” The same is true of the minimum wage, apparently: Caplan says the minimum wage is “something we must stubbornly decry even though there are far greater ills in the world.” Then he quotes from his own blog post from waaaaaaaay back in 2013:
The minimum wage is far from the most harmful regulation on the books. Why then do I make such a big deal about it? Because it is a symbol of larger evils.
From the standpoint of public policy, the minimum wage is a symbol of the view that “feel-good” policies are viable solutions to social ills: “Workers aren’t paid enough? Pass a law so employers have to pay them more. Problem solved.”…
We need to get rid of the minimum wage. But that’s only a first step. Our ultimate goal should be to get rid of the errors that the minimum wage has come to represent.
Ugh. Caplan’s views apparently hadn’t changed at all in the almost four years since first publishing that post, and that’s more than a little weird, considering how much new evidence we’ve seen in the intervening years.
Caplan constructs a hell of a straw man in that passage, and that straw man doesn’t at all represent the reality behind raising the wage. Seattle didn’t go to $15, and Washington state didn’t go to $13.50, because it felt good. We raised the wage because we understand that when more people have more money, we all do better. The minimum wage empowers workers as consumers, and the money they spend circulates throughout the local economy. It’s not about charity, it’s about increasing the customer base and promoting growth for everyone.
When businesses keep their minimum wages artificially low, their employees are basically frozen outside the economy—all they can afford is housing and transportation, if they’re lucky. They’re not able to spend money on goods and services. This is how we wound up with an economy in which low-wage employers are subsidized by government safety-net programs. Funny, isn’t it, that Caplan seems to be rejecting Castro by endorsing an economic system where the government provides food, clothing and shelter to workers?
And further, Caplan admits that the minimum wage is, in his view, a minor issue. A growing body of evidence seems to indicate that raising the minimum wage does not harm an economy—in fact, quite the opposite. High-wage cities and states are thriving while low-wage states like Kansas and Louisiana are suffering. So if Caplan admits that he doesn’t care about the minimum wage that much, why wouldn’t he support a system through which more people broadly do better? To make a point? It’s just like an economist to forget that the numbers they’re arguing over actually describe reality for human beings, but it takes a special kind of human to use a non-related news item to refresh an ancient blog post on a pet issue. Congratulations, Bryan Caplan! You’ve maybe written the dumbest Castro think-piece of the week, which is no mean feat.
They feel they’ve achieved a mandate. And in a sense, they have. Dark times in America continue.
Happy Birthday Friedrich Engels, born on this day in 1820.
The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in our brains, not in our better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.
I would have never guessed four years ago that trade would become a defining issue of 2016. To his credit, Trump looks to be following through on his campaign promise here. Though, what choice did he really have?