Economics

Andrew Puzder Was Terrible, but He’s Not an Aberration

BYE FELICIA

Carls Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder was supposed to sit for Labor Secretary confirmation hearings tomorrow. The Trump administration repeatedly pushed the hearing back—it was originally supposed to happen over a month ago—and Puzder openly complained about how difficult the process has been.

We should have known things were getting serious when Oprah got involved: Politico reports that four Republican senators who were on the fence about Puzder received visits from representatives of the Oprah Winfrey Network. OWN staffers showed the senators a rare video of Puzder’s ex-wife “level[ing] allegations of physical abuse against him” from a decades’ old appearance on Oprah’s talk show. Politico just made that video public this morning.

And news is breaking that Puzder officially withdrew from the nomination entirely.

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This is not because of the lack of Republican Senatorial support, though that is an issue, but because—poor baby—it’s too much work:

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Good riddance. Puzder was an incredibly bad choice for Labor Secretary. In fact, he was possibly the single worst person in the country to be head of the Department of Labor. Justin Miller at the American Prospect wrote a great explainer on why Puzder is such a bad candidate, beginning with the fact that he “made more in one day ($17,192) than one of his full-time minimum wage workers would make in a year ($15,130.)”

This goes further than Puzder’s stance against the $15 minimum wage or commonsense overtime standards. At Carls Jr., Puzder has cultivated a rampant culture of sexual harassment, of dangerous workplaces, and of wage theft. Previous Labor Departments have led to Puzder’s business paying “nearly $150,000 in back pay to workers and more than $80,000 in penalties.”

I want to make no mistake about this so I’m going to restate: Puzder was quite possibly the worst Labor Secretary nominee this country has ever seen. He openly cheers on automation, saying that robots are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.” He does not have the worker in mind. He is firmly on the side of the CEO and against the average American.

But I have to be clear about another fact, too: Puzder is not an aberration. Now that he’s whined his way out of the confirmation process, he won’t be replaced with a polar opposite. In fact, Puzder was perfectly in line with Donald Trump’s employment policies.

I’m not talking about President Trump’s labor policies; I’m talking about his actual history as an employer. Donald Trump doesn’t pay independent contractors. He cuts corners on his employee pensions. And this week, the news broke that Trump’s organization is hiring foreign workers for his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida:

According to the Palm Beach Post, Trump won approval from the U.S. Labor Department in October to hire 64 foreign workers through the H-2B visa program, which allows eligible U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary jobs… Trump will pay the staff wages comparable to what he offered last year. Though some will make less than they made last year, most will get a 1 percent raise.

So these foreign workers—many of whom will have immediate access to state secrets, if last week is any indication—are getting paid very little, even though Mar-a-Lago recently doubled a significant source of its income:

Mar-a-Lago, the Palm Beach resort owned by the Trump Organization, doubled its initiation fee to $200,000 following the election of Donald Trump as president.

So the rich get richer while the poor get the shaft. That’s Donald Trump’s business philosophy. And even though Puzder didn’t get through the nomination process, that is what Trump’s going to look for in a Secretary of Labor. While today’s news that Puzder can’t stand the heat in this particular kitchen is heartening, we have to remember that the fight isn’t anywhere near over. It’s just beginning.

The Democratic Party Needs a Change in Messaging

Earlier this year, Harvard professor Michael Sandel spoke at the World Economic Forum. I happened to stumble upon his interview this weekend, and ever since watching it I’ve not been able to get it out of my head. During the Q&A, Sandel was asked to give advice to the flailing Democratic Party, which to his mind, has become far too technocratic in their political messaging.

Although the interviewer pressed him to provide bumper sticker policies like “Make America Great Again”, Sandel shrugged off this fascination with abbreviation. “Philosophers are not good at snappy slogans,” he admitted to the audience and then proceeded to show what good philosophers actually do: speak at length. During this fifteen minute back and forth, he presented four political themes which Democrats need to reassess in order to win again.

The first theme he addressed was a need for promoting a sense of national community that was directed towards “a shared common life, restoring public places, public institutions, and class mixing.” Sandel thought Democrats all too often revert to speaking only to urban, elite communities. To take away the conservative movement’s control and manipulation of patriotism, Democrats must develop their inclusive narrative in a way that leads to solidarity, not in a frame designed to end conversations, such as one which frames one side as “progressives” and the other side as deplorable “racists”.

The second theme is one we here at Civic Skunk Works spend a lot of time fretting over: the meaning and dignity of work. “Work is a way of making a living, of generating an income,” Sandel stated, “but is that its only purpose? Or does it confer meaning and identity?” We would argue (and so does Sandel) that Democrats should never, ever think of work as solely an economic concern. We know that “since many of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work, work is a major source of dignity in our lives.” To give the average American worker a sense of self-worth again, Democrats must engender a sense of “recognition and trust, as well as autonomy and self-mastery.”

Thankfully, liberals promote policies that can restore these feelings to the American public. A higher minimum wage and an increased overtime pay threshold strike me as perfect examples of recognizing the importance of all work, while new labor contracts like the Shared Security system would give economic benefits, stability and security to all. That is an effective one-two punch that Democrats should deliver over and over again.

The third theme Sandel elucidated was getting rid of our society’s obsession with meritocracy. “Meritocracy is not an alternative to inequality,” he told the audience, “it is a justification for a certain kind of inequality.” I’m so pleased that he highlighted this, as Americans all too often fall for this myth. A couple of months ago, in fact, I reviewed Thomas Friedman’s latest bookand my biggest criticism came from his faith in hard work and perseverance. I wrote:

Friedman subscribes (a little bit too much) to the myth that life is a meritocracy, where the most adaptable and hard-working win out. In fact, last week when I heard him speak at Seattle Town Hall he remarked, “sometimes no one is to blame but yourself.”

Sandel seems to agree in some ways with my argument. With his finger wagging, he pointed out that Democrats “should shift their emphasis from talking about mobility and perfecting individual opportunity, and instead talk more about solidarity and community and what that means.”

Finally, Sandel’s fourth theme was in relation to inequality and mobility. And in many ways, this connects with his meritocracy theme. He believed that the left needed to think less about mobility and speak about “creating a more equal society where the focus is not on the scramble to the top.” It’s not just economic inequality that Democrats should highlight either. Sandel argued that we need to show how economic inequality is corrosive to our civic life and our public institutions. Unfortunately, he never really developed upon that statement or provided instruction on how to effectively communicate these tensions, which made this theme come off as quite vague.

Nonetheless, I was extremely impressed with his messaging guidance. These broad themes are probably not specific enough (and a little bit too philosophically vague) for today’s focus-grouped Democratic Party. However, if leaders within the DNC listened to Sandel’s prescriptions, the left could offer a much more convincing socio-economic argument to Americans in urban and rural areas.

It’s Time for (Civic) Action

Since we founded Civic Ventures in 2015, lots of people have enjoyed our writings and podcasts. We’ve attracted a loyal audience that’s interested in furthering a progressive, policy-focused agenda. Many of you have gotten in touch over the last two years and asked us how you can help, what you can do with all this newfound knowledge. Sometimes we’d ask you to publicly support secure scheduling, say, or to help debunk some trickle-downers’ bullshit excuse for why the minimum wage should be eliminated. But we were largely happy to spend our time thinking deeply about policy and working behind the scenes to enact change.

Obviously, the election of Donald Trump has changed everything. We can’t just organize and obsess over the future of policy anymore. You know it as well as we do; this isn’t a time to just sit back and read, or to listen to a podcast. The age of passivity ended on November 8th, 2016. People still want to inform themselves, but they also want to take action. You can’t choose one; you have to do both.

Qq1jjVMhThat’s why we’re proud to announce the debut of Civic Action, a new results-oriented partner organization of Civic Ventures. Civic Action is outward-facing and, as the name indicates, action-oriented. If you’re looking for public officials to call, or causes to take up, or information about where to best focus your energy, you’ll want to sign up for our email blasts, or follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter.

For the first few months, we’re going to be figuring out how to make Civic Action the most effective, efficient organizing tool that it can be, but we know what we want it to do. We want to direct people to causes where they can make a substantial difference. We hope to make a big difference in elections by highlighting good work and supporting stellar candidates. We want to continue our efforts to educate people on how the economy really works.

And we want to continue the discussion about what America can be. Resistance is not enough; you also need to rebuild. We have to provide an alternative vision, spotlight the people who are doing positive work, and plan how to recommit to the American Dream for generations to come.

These are confusing times. A person could spend all day every day calling representatives and signing petitions and sharing links. We expect Civic Action to be a signal in the midst of all this noise, a way to direct your energy and make a difference in the world. I hope you’ll follow Civic Action (email, Twitter, Facebook) and let me know what you think.

Is This What Trumponomics Looks Like?

Those eyes, man. They follow you everywhere.

Those eyes, man. They follow you everywhere.

It’s becoming clear in the first week of his presidency that Donald Trump has been telling us exactly who he is for a year and a half now. He did intend to build that wall, unlike what many of his supporters claimed during the 2016 presidential campaign. He really does believe that wealth has direct correlation to intelligence, that the amount of money you have is a perfect indication of your IQ, which is why he has claimed that his cabinet — without question the wealthiest in American history — has “by far, the highest IQ of any cabinet ever.” And he believes that if you cut taxes and regulations, and if you suppress the income of workers, the economy will grow.

 Axios published highlights from a teleprompter-free speech that Trump delivered to a closed-press fundraiser last week, including this snippet where he says exactly that to a room full of wealthy Republican donors:

We’re going to cut your taxes. We’re going to get rid of the regulations that are strangling the economy. [Applause.] … I know the biggest businessmen and the small ones that love me and voted for me, and I love them. … Almost every single person that I ask was more excited about the regulations being cut than the taxes, which is surprising. [Applause.] So, we’re going to do that.

This is not a new philosophy; it’s one that conservatives have been espousing since the days of Ronald Reagan. Regular readers will know that it’s called trickle-down economics, and it’s based on the idea that if you suppress wages for the working class, cut taxes for the wealthy, and slash regulations for business, those wealthy Americans will supposedly then create jobs, that their wealth will trickle down to the poorest Americans. The problem with this economic philosophy, of course, is that it doesn’t work. Democratic presidents create more jobs, for the simple reason that when workers have more money through increased wages, they have more money to spend in their communities. The super-rich tend to sit on their money, keeping it locked up outside the economy, and everyone suffers.

But there’s something especially troubling about Donald Trump’s brand of trickle down economics. In the past, conservatives have generally promoted their trickle-down agenda on behalf of the wealthiest Americans. But Trump’s cabinet is made up of some of the wealthiest Americans — many of whom don’t have any government experience at all — and they’re being placed in charge of the cabinet posts that directly affect them.

I wonder if we’re witnessing the birth of a new stage of trickle down economics. Because when the lawmakers themselves profit from the laws that they pass and strike down and ignore, you’ve passed a simple proxy agreement between politician and power broker. You’ve gone directly into looting territory.

President Trump’s strategy so far seems to be to produce so many moving parts that it’s impossible for anyone to keep track. Are you outraged about the gag orders on the EPA and the USDA? Are you upset about his calls to revive torture? Mad about the wall? Angry that he’s whining about voter fraud and his inauguration attendance? Horrified that he threatened martial law in Chicago? I bet you are. But are you equally mad about all those things? That’s impossible. So your attentions are scattered. And while resisters try to figure out which horror they should focus their energies on, in the background Trump is freezing regulations and raising costs for middle-class home owners by roughly ten bucks a week.

If trickle down economics is entering a full-on looting phase, that can only be bad news for the economy. Because looting doesn’t end organically. You only stop looting at the point when your arms are too full to carry anything else or when the forces of law and order are re-established. The best thing we can do at this early date is to identify what’s going on, and make a lot of noise, and try to keep track of everything that’s happening, so that one day we’ll be able to rebuild what we’re losing.

Study Finds Millennials Earn 20 Percent Less Than Boomers Did at the Same Age

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Josh Boak and Carrie Antlfinger at the Associated Press reported on a new study about generational earning this morning:

With a median household income of $40,581, millennials earn 20 percent less than boomers did at the same stage of life, despite being better educated, according to a new analysis of Federal Reserve data by the advocacy group Young Invincibles. …Education does help boost incomes. But the median college-educated millennial with student debt is only earning slightly more than a baby boomer without a degree did in 1989.

This is important stuff. When we talk about inequality, it’s important to remember that we’re not just talking about a disparity in earnings from the top one percent to the other 99 percent. We’re also talking about a disparity between generations, an income gap that grows over time. It is part of the reason why, though President Obama’s policies did begin to shrink the traditional measures of inequality (link PDF), many Americans don’t feel as though the economy is improving.

This report should serve as a warning to Democrats in the midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election: just because you’re not young enough to feel this inequality, you should understand that it exists. This is a big reason why Senator Bernie Sanders enjoyed the success that he did during the 2016 Democratic primary: he was speaking to a serious problem that most candidates, and most media outlets, didn’t even recognize was a problem.

I realize that I’m not delivering some new insight here. Lots of people—including my colleagues at this here blog—have written extensively about student debt and other economic damages delivered exclusively onto millennials. But this new study is another solid piece of proof that inequality comes in a multitude of varieties, and Democrats need to be able to recognize and address all of them. The future of the party—and the future of this country—is at stake.

When It Comes to Economics, Incoming Labor Secretary Andrew Puzder Is a Raging Elitist

“Hello, yes, how many senses of accomplishment do the chili cheese fries cost?”

“Hello, yes, how many senses of accomplishment do the chili cheese fries cost?”

A particularly damning quote from Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, is making the rounds again. Puzder, in his role as CEO of the Carl’s Jr fast food chain, published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal in 2014 against the idea of raising the overtime threshold:

…Workers who aspire to climb the management ladder strive for the opportunity to move from hourly-wage, crew-level positions to salaried management positions with performance-based incentives. What they lose in overtime pay they gain in the stature and sense of accomplishment that comes from being a salaried manager. This is hardly oppressive. To the contrary, it can be very lucrative for those willing to invest the time and energy, which explains why so many crew employees aspire to be managers.

Of course, we came very close to raising the overtime threshold last year, until an Obama-appointed judge from Texas shot it down and the incoming Trump administration — with Puzder in charge of the Department of Labor — crushed the hope of a lawsuit to save the threshold.

Here at Civic Ventures, we have made no secret of our efforts to promote overtime. Civic Ventures founder Nick Hanauer published a very influential piece in Politico back in 2014 about overtime, and then Hanauer and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich co-authored a piece for the New York Times explaining why overtime was so essential to America’s financial success in the 1950s, and why we sorely need to increase the threshold:

Today, if you’re salaried and earn more than $23,600 dollars a year, you don’t automatically qualify for overtime: That means every extra hour you work, you work free. Under the new proposed rules, everyone earning a salary of $50,440 a year or less would be eligible to collect time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over 40 hours a week.

Reich and Hanauer call increasing the overtime threshold “a minimum wage hike for the middle class,” and that’s about right. It ensures either that workers are compensated for their time, or that workers don’t have to work more than 40 hours per week. Either way, the economy benefits because people either have more money to spend in their communities, or more time to be active members of their communities. These are real results that would happen immediately, as soon as the overtime threshold was raised.

But Puzder instead decided to fight policy with platitude. I’m going to repeat what he said because it’s so impossibly dumb that only through repetition can we understand Puzder’s worldview. Again, this is a CEO talking about his own employees: “What they lose in overtime pay they gain in the stature and sense of accomplishment that comes from being a salaried manager.”

You can’t eat a sense of accomplishment. Stature doesn’t pay the rent. It is frustrating that while Trump boosters complain about elitist progressives, a member of Trump’s prospective billionaire’s cabinet — a cabinet that will likely be wealthier than more than a third of all American households combined — is telling American workers that they are not worthy of payment for hours worked. At around the same time Puzder wrote those words, he was earning 291 times more annually than the minimum-wage employees at his restaurant, according to Forbes.

It’s pretty clear that unless he’s visited by three particularly convincing spirits on Christmas Eve, Secretary Puzder isn’t going to entertain raising the overtime threshold. This is because he knows that the money workers could be earning has, in his mind, a higher purpose: it could be funneled directly into his bank account and the bank accounts of people just like him. It’s pretty clear that Puzder believes he deserves the money more than his employees.

See, Puzder considers himself to be a job creator, even when he openly lusts after the idea of automating his restaurants so he doesn’t have to pay human beings to do work. What he doesn’t realize is that if every Puzder out there — every fast food CEO in America — were to automate their restaurants, their profits would plummet, because nobody would make enough money to frequent the restaurants. Robots don’t eat burgers.

No, it’s Puzder’s employees who spend the money that keep his restaurants open. And if he paid his employees what they deserve, they’d likely spend even more money there. But Puzder doesn’t care about details like that. He’s got his, and his friends have theirs, and everyone else? Eh. Puzder says let them eat their sense of accomplishment

My Dentist, the Free Market, and Moral Cavities

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When my dentist handed me a teeth-whitening pamphlet before I had even reclined in the dental chair, I thought of Michael Sandel.

Not because the Harvard professor has particularly memorable choppers, but because Sandel has spent a considerable amount of time questioning pursuits like this. Specifically, highlighting the drawbacks of a society where market values infect all areas of our life.

“Today,” Sandel writes, “the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.”

My experience with the dentist is a perfect example. There is something deeply troubling about medical professionals treating patients, first and foremost, as consumers. This runs counter to the very promise made in The Dentist’s Pledge, the dental version of the Hippocratic Oath, whose first point reads:

…Let each come to me safe in the knowledge that their total health and well-being is my first consideration.

Yet, in that dentist’s office, dentistry’s primary responsibility had been displaced by profit motive. The norms of the profession have been commercialized—health isn’t the primary goal anymore; rather, making money drives all decisions.

While “economists often assume that markets are inert: that they do not affect the goods they exchange,” this assumption is naive. Market values are some of the most powerful forces on earth. They most certainly reconfigure priorities, and to my mind, they often do so in suboptimal and intangible ways, as dentistry proves.

When there is no respite from being sold something, people are forced to doubt the true motivations behind everything. Intent, from politicians to the dentist, becomes questioned. That’s an undesirable way to live.

Furthermore, in a market society, “where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means.” Inequality is exacerbated, as money becomes the “sole value on which all choices are based.”

And in 2017, that reality hits too close to home for most Americans—the majority of whom have less than $1,000 in savings.

When you perceive the world through this lens, you begin to understand why both political parties endlessly spoke about the economy being rigged against “normal” Americans.

They were attempting to explain to voters why they were feeling so discontent. Trump blamed it on a variety of people and forces which were largely imagined or disingenuous. Clinton awkwardly admonished Wall Street and greedy politicians for the state of things.

Yet, looking back on 2016, Bernie Sanders was the only candidate who seemed to understand that part of our economic anxiety came from a world where everything is for sale. He persistently delineated where markets belong and where they do not. In fact, his “socialism” was in many ways just a repudiation of a society governed by market values. And it turns out that the majority of Americans agreed with his policies that severed the connection between profit motive and “services”—namely, health care.

Progressives (and conservatives) dismiss the effects of a market society at their own peril. They can point to a successful stock market all they like and argue that GDP growth is sensational, but these expressions of economic success do not directly affect most Americans (53% of whom don’t have any money in the stock market, including retirement accounts).

To level with the American people, politicians need to ask Americans, do we want to live in a society where everything is for sale? Is this innate? Or is this a choice? And if it’s a choice, how do we correct this? How can we stop letting the market have the final say on every good and service?

These are not easy questions to answer. I don’t pretend to make it seem that way. But it is important we analyze our societal assumptions. Otherwise, we will be obliged to pay doctors for benefits like unhurried appointments and 24/7 access. Oh wait, that already happens.

The Biggest Problem for Seattle Restaurants in 2017? Too Much Competition.

Does downtown Seattle look like the restaurant-free hellhole promised by minimum wage skeptics three years ago?

Does downtown Seattle look like the restaurant-free hellhole promised by minimum wage skeptics three years ago?

On January 1st, the minimum wage for some, but not all, Seattle workers increased to $15 per hour. Seattlish explains the ins and outs of the law, but the gist is that large employers (defined as businesses that employ more than 500 people nationwide) who don’t provide health insurance for their employees are up to $15. Other large employers are at $13.50, and small employers range from $11 to $13 per hour, depending on the benefits they provide.

And so where are we now? Well, before the minimum wage became law, restaurant owner Tom Douglas estimated that “we would lose maybe a quarter of the restaurants in town.” Now, as Working Washington noted, Douglas has done an about face. The Puget Sound Business Journal interviewed Douglas about the competition he’s facing as a Seattle restaurateur staring down a new year. Douglas replied, “Almost 400 restaurants have opened in the last year. It is a challenge.”

Huh. So which is it? Will increasing the minimum wage kill a quarter of all restaurants, or does Seattle have way too many restaurants since raising the minimum wage? Douglas, who has previously recanted his opposition to the $15 minimum wage, seems to be entirely on the other side of the fence now: the minimum wage isn’t a problem for restaurants, he’s saying, aggressive competition is the problem.

Of course, some folks can promote two opposing ideas at the exact same time. Over the holiday break, conservative talk radio KIRO’s websitepublished a story about the closure of Louisa’s Café on Eastlake. Louisa’s owner, Alcena Plum, is asked about her business’s closure.

“I don’t want to put this all on the minimum wage,” Plum told KIRO, “but it was definitely a factor.” But another factor that Plum says led to the decline of her business is “the huge labor shortage for kitchen staff in this city.” The article says when she placed help-wanted ads, she would get “zero response.”

Again: which is it? Are you having trouble because of the minimum wage, or are you having trouble because of too much competition? Clearly, someone must be hiring; why isn’t everyone having the same trouble with the minimum wage? The piece ends with Plum arguing that people who own multiple restaurants (like Douglas) and businesses with wealthy backers will thrive, but that restaurants “like mine won’t survive this.”

I’ve eaten many times at Louisa’s, and I always enjoyed it — especially the cinnamon buns. But Plum’s last comment there reminds me of the owner of a closing Capitol Hill Z Pizza franchise, who famously warned that she had “no idea where” her employees would “find jobs, because if I’m cutting hours, I imagine everyone is across the board.”

The truth is, there are plenty of other dining options near Louisa’s old space. On the same block, you’ll find the venerable 14 Carrot Café for breakfast and lunch options and Pazzo’s for Italian lunch and dinner. I’ve eaten at, and can vouch for, both restaurants. I haven’t been to Pomodoro, the Italian restaurant across the street, but it’s got wonderful reviews on Yelp. On the next block over, you’ll find Mammoth, a fancy new-ish sandwich shop with a loyal following. None of these are chain restaurants, and many of them have been around for longer than Louisa’s. (The 14 Carrot is 40 years old this year, and Pomodoro is over two decades old.)

I’m not pointing this out to make light of Plum. It’s never easy to close a business, and Louisa’s was absolutely a neighborhood gem. But the trickle-down crowd are using Louisa’s as a symbol of failure for all of Seattle’s minimum wage increase, and that’s a painfully dumb leap to make. You’d have to be a real jackass to claim cause and effect based on a single data point — especially when that data point is from a city like Seattle, with a low unemployment rate, a high number of food service workers, and a high restaurant opening rate.

As I’ve told you time and again, the trickle-down crowd is desperate to tie minimum wage increases to economic devastation. (Why wouldn’t they, after all? If they don’t have to pay employees more, they get to keep that money for themselves.) And they’re getting more and more desperate as time passes, because reality reflects that their position is wrong. The minimum wage is increasing in 21 states in 2017 because Americans are finally realizing that when workers make more money, they’ll spend that money in their local communities.

The fact is that businesses close all the time, for a variety of reasons. Seattle’s rent is ridiculously high. People are moving here at a ridiculously fast pace. And when the next recession hits — which will likely happen sooner than later, given our incoming presidential administration — every business will have to take some cuts.

But let’s not transform our (justified) sadness over one restaurant’s closure into an irrational fear of the minimum wage. The fact is that many more Seattleites are doing better now than they were before we raised the minimum wage. In fact, given that minimum-wage employees are spending their increased paychecks, we’re doing even better than we would be if we hadn’t raised the wage. Anyone who claims otherwise is either manipulating the numbers in an unsavory way or doesn’t have a clear understanding of what’s really happening in Seattle.