June 4, 2012

Minimum wage fight could be a lose-lose

The Artful Strategist

Most newspaper editors opposed the efforts to raise the minimum wage in Connecticut — not necessarily in terms of impassioned opinion pieces, but in personal, heart-to-heart talks with legislators.

The problem for the editors is that being editor of a newspaper is really easy; almost anybody can do it. In fact, some papers have just shrugged and given the job to an outstanding columnist, to do in his spare time.

The only way that editors can cling to their jobs is for the minimum wage (which most of them get paid) is low enough to justify having a non-productive asset on the payroll.

It's not that editors don't do anything; someone has to tidy up at the end of the day, when beer bottles and cigar butts litter the newsrooms. But the value of the work is modest — and thus, the minimum wage has to be modest as well, to justify keeping the editors on the payroll and training them for more productive work.

This, in fact, is one of the primary academic arguments against enthusiastic raising of the minimum wage: many, if not most, of the workers receiving the minimum wage have jobs that would simply be disposable, or severely cut back, if the pay was raised above what the market thinks editor-type work is worth.

The debate in the Connecticut General Assembly, as in most political arenas, tended to focus on whining from restaurant owners and retailers and the like, as well as the corporate lobbyists who oppose it as a reflex, especially in sluggish economic times, even though very few of their members' employees (especially in a place such as Connecticut) make the minimum wage.

But the more esoteric arguments focus on theory as much as practice. The freedom to operate a business, to navigate the marketplace as a boss or as an employee, is thought to be economic magic that is not enhanced by politicians deciding to raise the minimum wage — which would benefit no one other than the politicians, when they hold their celebratory press conferences and tell each other how progressive they are.

The least intellectual, most fun, of the academic analysts tend to suggest that if $7 or $8 or $10 per hour is the road to Heaven, why not just raise the minimum to $20, if there is no detrimental effect on businesses or hiring of down-on-the-totem-pole workers. They're just kidding. Get it?

Speaking of newspaper editors, they also make an interesting First Amendment argument against an elevated minimum wage. Since editors don't write all that well, they turn to folks such as economics professor Dwight Lee of the University of Georgia to make their case against minimum wage “censorship,” in the Foundation for Economic Education journal.

“Minimum-wage laws censor unskilled youth (a euphemism for “editors”) who would like to communicate with potential employers: 'I have few skills and college is not feasible, so I am willing to work for little now, while I have few financial responsibilities, to acquire the on-the-job training that will allow me to be more productive later.'”

As of this writing, assuming nothing sneaky happens in the legislative special session, a raise in the minimum wage was defeated this year, after enthusiastic debate and political machinations. This, in a strange way, brought Connecticut the worst of both political outcomes.

The editors and sales clerks won't be getting more money, but the state has once again sent out to the world, to the low-end and middling manufacturers and warehouse distributors and the like, the message that Connecticut is unfriendly territory.

Laurence D. Cohen is a freelance writer.

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