The Minimum Wage Shows Why (and How) We Should Vote Today

It is time for the states to lead.

Every once in awhile in the history of this great country of ours, the federal government just can’t get the job done. Partisan gridlock, constitutional uncertainty, public distrust all play a role. But one of the great strengths of the American system is that the states — those laboratories of democracy, as Louis Brandeis called them — can act when Washington will not. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, health care reform, gay rights: All started at the state level.

This is one of those times. Our national system is inert. Our national leaders are mired in the muck of inaction.

And yet there is hope. For today is Election Day, and on this day, we will elect 36 governors. This is no time to stay home when the polling places are open. This is a time to choose leaders who will act where Washington has not.

I can think of no better example of the choice we face as a country today than the minimum wage.

After World War II, Congress set the minimum wage at approximately half the average wage in the country. In today’s dollars, it was over $10 an hour. Earning the minimum wage, one full-time worker could support a family of three above the poverty line.

Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25, less than 36 percent of the average wage. It’s so low that it can’t even keep a family of two out of poverty.

Unlike Social Security or Medicare payments, the minimum wage is not indexed to the cost of living. Only Congress can raise it. The last time they did so was 2009. Democrats proposed raising it again earlier this year, but the majority of senators opposed it.

The feds have failed to act. It’s time for the states to lead.

And we have ample evidence that they can. Twenty-three states already have minimum wages higher than $7.25. Five states — Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota — have an initiative on today’s ballot to increase theirs.

But not everyone is onboard.

“I don’t think it serves a purpose,” said Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker last month.

“I don’t think as governor I want to be the cause of someone losing their job,” said Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor in Texas, in explaining his opposition to raising the minimum wage. Pennsylvania’s Republican governor Tom Corbett made a similar argument when stating his opposition last year.

At least they pretended to know what they were talking about. When Republican Governor Rick Scott was asked what Florida’s minimum wage should be, he said, “How would I know?”

These men are on today’s ballot in four of our nation’s largest and most influential states.

And they are tragically out-of-step with the lessons of economic history. In a recent study, the economists Hristos Doucouliagos and T.D. Stanley survey the vast research that economists have done measuring the impact of the minimum wage in recent decades — 64 papers in total — and they find “little or no evidence” that minimum wage increases caused job losses.

On the contrary, raising the minimum wage is a clear boost to the economy. In another recent paper, the economist Arindrajit Dube found that raising the minimum wage significantly reduces the poverty rate, a finding that is consistent with the other 12 studies economists have published in recent years measuring the same effect in different ways.

Only a politician severely out-of-touch with the modern economy could think otherwise. Today’s corporations don’t have to cut back jobs when wages rise. They have to cut back profits, which are at an all-time high. In the long run, they might not have to cut back anything. Higher wages lead to higher productivity, better health, fewer strikes, lower turnover, and higher consumption, which in turn leads to more demand for their products and therefore higher profits.

Individual companies may not want to raise wages if their competitors won’t, but when everyone does it, everyone benefits.

Trying to save money by keeping the minimum wage low is like trying to improve your health by starving yourself. It’s classic shortsighted behavior, hardly the visionary leadership that we’d like to see in the governor’s mansion.

That’s why today’s election matters. In this age of do-nothing politics, it’s easy to despair, but we must remember the intent behind the design. The same founding fathers who created a federal system that resists radical change also created a state system that encourages experimentation. Today we celebrate their creation, and we direct its attention to the challenges of our time.

If the feds do not act, the states will. We the voters will make sure of it.

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This op-ed was originally published in the Huffington Post.

Geography: The Latest Front in the Class War

Upward Mobility Across America

At the heart of today’s political gridlock is a sense of disconnect. Too many Americans feel disconnected from their government, their economy, and even their fellow citizens.

Gone is the collective bond that united us in war and in peace, the sense that we rise together and fall together. In its place is a deeply divided America.

We talk a lot about the partisan divide in this country, but we don’t talk enough about the geographic divide. The citizens who feel the greatest disconnect from collective institutions are often the ones who live farthest away from them.

The latest evidence of this fact comes from a new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, a team that includes some of the most celebrated young economists in the country. They found that one of the greatest enemies of economic advancement was sprawl.

The more concentrated a city was, they discovered, the more likely its citizens were to climb the economic ladder. Conversely, the lower and middle classes had fewer opportunities to advance in cities that were more spread out.

The release of their findings just happened to coincide with the bankruptcy of Detroit, an episode that illustrated their point quite tragically. Detroit is one of the most spread out cities in America — and one of the most economically segregated. At its core, the average household earns an income that’s half of what suburbanites earn just outside the city’s borders.

This is yet another consequence of the extreme inequality that is rending this nation’s social fabric. Not only have the richest One Percent taken almost all of the income gains in the past thirty years, but they have isolated themselves in communities where they never have to see the pain of the 99 Percent they left behind. Walled up behind their iron gates, they become less and less aware of the struggles of the average American, until one day when the elites who run our country no longer know what our country even looks like anymore.

Nowhere is this disconnect more clear than Washington, D.C., which boasts six of the nation’s ten richest counties alongside one of its poorest cities. Our legislators never seem to notice that the people who need their help the most are in their own backyard.

The famous political scientist Robert D. Putnam made this case beautifully in a sad new essay about his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. He talked of how stable and connected the community once was and how that all disintegrated when the manufacturing jobs disappeared. He marveled at how far his classmates had come and how different their experience was from the poor generation that followed them.

Port Clinton no longer lives as one community but two.

“In the last two decades,” writes Putnam, “just as the traditional economy of Port Clinton was collapsing, wealthy professionals from major cities in the Midwest have flocked to Port Clinton, building elaborate mansions in gated communities along Lake Erie and filling lagoons with their yachts. By 2011, the child poverty rate along the shore in upscale Catawba was only 1 percent, a fraction of the 51 percent rate only a few hundred yards inland.”

In this fractured world, it’s easy to see how the average American would feel abandoned — by the government, by the economy, even by their own fellow citizens — and why they would distrust anyone who asks them to bind together in common cause.

I know whereof I speak. This month marks my seventh anniversary of moving from the country to the city. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and suburban Florida. Since then, I’ve lived in Philadelphia, New York, London, and Los Angeles. I’ve seen the world through two very different lenses, and I don’t blame the one for being suspicious of the other.

But we must overcome this disconnect if we are to rebuild these forgotten communities and resurrect our ailing economy. The more isolated we have become, the more we have all suffered. We must find ways to connect the rural and urban regions, whether through physical connections like high-speed rail or social connections like labor unions. We must work together, and that means we must put our trust where it has always done the most good: in each other.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

How We Stopped Investing in the Future: A Florida Case Study

In June 2009, ten Florida Congressmen sent a letter to the Department of Transportation, requesting over $2 billion from the federal government. They wanted to build a high-speed rail line, shuttling passengers from Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami in only two hours. The money was supposed to come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion “stimulus” bill that newly-elected President Barack Obama signed in February of that year.

Of the ten Florida Congressmen, three were Republicans, and all three had voted against the stimulus: Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Adam Putnam.

This kind of about-face wasn’t unusual. Many Republicans were begging for a piece of the stimulus after they had tried to kill it in Congress. Even party leaders like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor got in on the action.

John Boehner defended this contradiction by saying that the stimulus would fund “shovel-ready projects that will create much-needed jobs.” Only a few months earlier, he had been saying the exact opposite — and relentlessly trashing anyone who dared to disagree with him.

The Tampa-Orlando rail line really did fit Boehner’s definition. It was shovel-ready because almost all the land and permits were already lined up, and according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, it would create 27,000 jobs.

Moreover, it was good fiscal policy. According to two separate reports, the project would produce an annual surplus of $31 million to $45 million by 2026 — and that didn’t include the much more profitable connection to Miami that was likely to follow.

And it was good environmental policy. High-speed rail emits far less greenhouse gas than cars, especially in densely populated regions like central and southeastern Florida, which is why overflowing cities in China, Europe, and Japan have surged so far ahead of us in this vehicle of the future. It saves time, money, and pollution. Unsurprisingly, it’s very popular.

Fifty years ago, this would have been a no-brainer. In the 1950s and the 1960s, politicians were dedicated to investing in new technology and staying one step ahead of the Soviet Union. It’s no coincidence that economic growth was faster and more widespread in those days.

Back then, the federal government spent 2.6 percent of the nation’s income on nonmilitary investment. In the last twenty years, it has averaged 1.8 percent per year. That difference of 0.8 percent may not seem like a lot, but it adds up to trillions and trillions of dollars that could have gone into research and development, education, and new infrastructure — and, if previous investments are any indication, would have yielded benefits many times higher than the costs.

As economist Eugene Steuerle put it, “We have a budget for a declining nation.”

On January 28, 2010, the White House granted Florida’s request. By December, the Department of Transportation had allocated $2.4 billion against a cost of $2.65 billion, and they promised to cover any cost overruns. Had Florida accepted the money, its workers would be laying rail for the Sunshine State bullet train at this very moment.

Instead, Governor Rick Scott rejected the deal, citing cost concerns that didn’t make much sense since the feds were on the hook for any losses.

Thus did the dreams of high-speed rail die in Florida. Thus do many dreams of the future die in the modern political arena.

In Tampa, there’s a street called Bayshore Boulevard. It’s the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. It’s a beautiful walk, with a balustrade that overlooks the water below. It was built in the 1930s by the Public Works Administration, part of the federal government’s response to the Great Depression. It’s just one of many breathtaking feats of construction that dot this great land of ours, each a reminder that, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during the high-speed rail fiasco, “We still know how to do big things in this country.”

I’d like to think that’s true. I’d like to think we still care about the future. I’d like to think we can build a better tomorrow. I only wish Governor Scott and his fellow ideologues felt the same way.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.