Here’s Why the Latest Conservative Talking Point About the $15 Minimum Wage Is Meaningless (and Here’s What You Can Do About It)

Source: @TBPInvictus

If the increased minimum wage killed food service businesses, why do food service businesses keep opening in Seattle? (Source: @TBPInvictus)

So. Let’s talk about the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI is a think tank based out of Washington DC, and though they claim to be non-partisan—all think tanks do—a quick glance at their list of fellows and visiting scholars will give you flashbacks to the George W. Bush administration: John Bolton, Lynne Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz, among other former Bush players, are on the payroll.

And so now the conservative media machine is humming because the AEI has issued a report citing a loss of 1,000 restaurant jobs in May, which they argue is a response to Seattle’s first minimum wage increase. It’s bullshit, and I’m going to tell you why it’s bullshit, but first let me lay some context down for you.

Bear in mind that the conservative media has been on the ropes when it comes to Seattle’s minimum wage for some time now. They tried to refer to the closure of one franchise pizza place as a “spate” of restaurant closings, but that argument lost steam when pizza places around Seattle continued to hire employees. And the argument died completely when it was announced that another pizza place was scheduled to open where the other pizza place closed. They need an argument, but the numbers are working against them. So this AEI report gives them a single data point—in this case, a single graph with a tiny downward tick—on which they can hang their affirmations, which, as we’ve seen, is all they need. But the very nicest and most polite thing I could possibly say about this AEI report is that it’s wholly disingenuous. In coarser language, it’s bullshit.

But don’t take my word for it: take the word of friend-of-Civic-Skunk-Works Invictus, who published an excellent, thoughtful, fact-laden post for Barry Ritholtz’s Big Picture blog explaining why the AIE report is total bullshit. (Invictus is not the only one arguing against this report, and those arguments aren’t solely coming from progressive sources; I’ll get into that soon enough, too.)

You really should read the whole post, because Invictus is funny and a great writer and brilliant with numbers. But the gist of Invictus’s point is that the AEI study centers around numbers culled from the greater Seattle Metropolitan Statistical Area (hereafter MSA). What’s the problem with that? I’ll let Invictus explain:

The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue MSA is rather large. In fact, it is the 15th largest MSA in the country and boasts a population of 3.6 million, covering some 5,900 square miles. The city of Seattle, by contrast, sports a population of about 650 thousand and covers some 143 square miles. The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue MSA counts the following among its “principal cities” – which is to say nothing of dozens of other smaller towns and villages – Auburn, Bellevue, Everett, Kent, Lakewood, Redmond, Renton, Seattle, and Tacoma. Importantly, keep in mind that the minimum wage increase took place only in the city of Seattle. It is the only area of concern in that regard.

So these numbers come from a population five times larger than the population of Seattle, and none of those other cities in the area (excluding SeaTac) have increased their minimum wage. Basically, this data is beyond vague; it’s essentially meaningless.

It’s going to take a long time to fully understand the long-term effects of raising the minimum wage, but the other data points we have indicate that things are going well. To use the same sort of imperfect numbers that the AEI tied a whole report to, unemployment in the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area declined from 4.1 percent in May to 3.9 percent in June (PDF). And as Invictus demonstrates on Twitter, the number of Seattle food service business permits continues to climb, week over week.

Invictus is not the only critic of the AEI’s findings. Media Matters has kept a running tally of how the “cherry-picked” data has been misused by Fox News and other conservative outlets.

But perhaps most tellingly, Jason Rantz—a local conservative radio host on KIRO and a vocal opponent of the $15 minimum wage—today posted a piece calling out Tucker Carlson’s conservative news site the Daily Caller for citing the AEI study. Rantz writes (writez?) about the Daily Caller’s claim that “the $15 minimum wage has caused Seattle restaurants to lose 1,000 jobs:”

First off, [AEI] only based their data on one month’s worth of job losses and the data doesn’t look just at Seattle. It also includes data from Tacoma and Bellevue, two cities that haven’t experienced the $15 minimum wage hike. That perverts the data.

Additionally, the $15 minimum wage hasn’t even gone into effect yet. It’s at $11 and restaurants saw this coming…

…we haven’t seen some mass exodus of jobs. AEI doesn’t even say what the Daily Caller says. They hedge a bit and say that it’s essentially too soon to come to any meaningful conclusion. Why? One month of data isn’t meaningful. That isn’t a trend. It’s one month.

So we have a “cherry-picked” study based on meaningless noise that a conservative radio host has referred to as perverted data. In other words, bullshit. But it’s pervasive bullshit, the kind of nonsense that the conservative media will churn around until it becomes received wisdom in comment threads around the country.

Here’s where you come in: you have to keep your eye open for people who base their arguments on this faulty data. When you see this nonsense circulating on your Facebook feeds and Twitter and in the comments of your favorite blogs, it’s really important that you call it out. Link to Invictus’s post. Link to this post. Explain the huge flaws in the AEI’s study, and why it’s not representative of Seattle. It’s a sad fact that bullshit travels faster than truth on the internet, but if we all work together, we can stop the conservative agenda from drowning out our good news with their meaningless noise.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.