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.

What to Read on Rick Perry

In Texas, Perry Rides an Energy Boom — Clifford Krauss

[The] state’s economic health came at a steep price: a long-term hollowing out of its prospects because of deep cuts to education spending, low rates of investment in research and development, and a disparity in the job market that confines many blacks and Hispanics to minimum-wage jobs without health insurance.

When Mr. Perry succeeded Mr. Bush, a barrel of oil was $25. [During] his first term, global market forces began driving oil prices up. They peaked at $147 a barrel in 2008 and have largely remained above $80 over the last two years.

The oil and gas industry now delivers roughly $325 billion a year to the state, directly and indirectly. It brings in $13 billion in state tax receipts, or roughly 40 percent of the total, financing up to 20 percent of the state budget.

The federal government has also helped support Texas. Federal spending in the state, home of NASA and large Army bases, more than doubled over the last decade to over $200 billion a year.

[Before Perry entered office,] the Legislature enacted tight restrictions on mortgage lending, which helped Texas avoid the kind of real estate bubble that devastated states like Florida and Arizona.

The Ten Weirdest Ideas in Rick Perry’s “Fed Up” — Matthew Yglesias

10. Social Security is evil.
9. Private enterprise blossomed under conscription and wartime price controls.
8. Medicare is too expensive but must never be cut.
7. All bank regulation is unconstitutional.
6. Consumer financial protection is unconstitutional.
5. Almost everything is unconstitutional.
4. Federal education policy is unconstitutional.
3. Al Gore is part of a conspiracy to deny the existence of global cooling.
2. Not only is everything unconstitutional; activist judges are a problem.
1. The Civil War was caused by slaveowners trampling on Northern states’ rights.

Rick Perry’s Neocon Friends — Robert Dreyfuss

…Perry declares that “exceptional” America has to be prepared for war with China and India.

Perry is consorting with left-over neocons from the Bush administration,…such as Douglas Feith, the uber-hawk who oversaw the war in Iraq, and Bill Luti, Feith’s compatriot in the Bush White House, who joined with Vice President Cheney to persuade Bush that an unprovoked attack on Iraq was the right thing to do, and Dan Blumenthal, another Bush veteran…

Rick Perry’s Budget Sleight-of-Hand — Suzy Khimm

The Texas governor…used accounting sleights-of-hand that deferred payments and papered over enormous expenditures that will soon come due…though not until the 2012 election is over.

Perry’s budget assumes that the student population will remain constant, when more than 160,000 new students are projected to enroll in Texas public schools over the next two years.

Perry’s budget only covers Medicaid funding through the spring of 2013, coming up $4.8 billion short.

Finally, Perry’s budget ignores a $4.5 billion structural deficit that happens every year due to a 2006 tax reform that’s never generated as much revenue as expected.

Rick Perry’s Environmental Record — Dylan Matthews

[Unlike] Mitt Romney, [Perry] does not believe in the science behind climate change…

He filed a lawsuitagainst the EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions regulations on behalf of the state, a suit widely expected to fail. Perry has said that he prays daily for the EPA rules to be reversed. He has consistently defended oil and coal interests in Texas, notably dubbing the BP oil well blowout an “act of God” and opposing the Obama administration’s efforts to regulate offshore drilling in the wake of the disaster. He also fast-tracked environmental permits for a number of coal plants in 2005, cutting in half the normal review period. His transportation agenda similarly does not reflect any concern about emissions, as he did not compete for federal high speed rail funding and has kept state funds focused on roads rather than mass transit.

Rick Perry’s Medicaid Record — Sarah Kliff

Perry [said] that he’d “like to see the states be given the opportunity to opt out of the Medicaid program that we are looking at today.”

In 2008,…Texas applied for a waiver allowing it to limit the number of beneficiaries and create a comparatively sparse benefits plan, among other changes.

The Bush administration rejected Texas’s…waiver request. There was “no precedent,” an administration official said in explaining the decision, in approving an “annual benefit limit as low as” the Perry administration proposed.

Perry Threatens Bernanke — ThinkProgress

…Perry said, “If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y’all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treasonous in my opinion.” Treason is a capital offense.

What to Read on Rick Perry and the “Texas Miracle”

State Growth Rates: How Was Your Recession? — Ryan Avent

Perry’s Growth Failure in Texas — Dean Baker

A Short Course in Miracles — Paul Krugman

Yes, Texas has added more jobs — but it has to, to keep up with population growth. And bear in mind that if you lose your job in Texas, there isn’t much of a safety net.

The Texas Omen — Paul Krugman

[The] Texas budget gap is worse than New York’s, about as bad as California’s, but not quite up to New Jersey levels.

Among the states, Texas ranks near the bottom in education spending per pupil, while leading the nation in the percentage of residents without health insurance.

Behind the Population Shift — Edward L. Glaeser

If economic productivity — created by low regulations or anything else — was causing the growth of Texas,…then [it] should have high per capita productivity and wages.

Low incomes and productivity in [Texas] strongly suggest that [its] expansion is not driven by outsize economic success.

More on the Texas Story — Paul Krugman

What could be causing that? [There] are two, not mutually exclusive stories: immigration and high birth rates among immigrants, leading to rapid population growth; and workers moving to Texas despite low wages because of cheap housing and a generally low cost of living.

What to Read on State Finances

The Shameful Attack on Public Employees — Robert Reich

They say public employees earn far more than private-sector workers. That’s untrue when you take account of level of education. Matched by education, public sector workers actually earn less than their private-sector counterparts.

The final Republican canard is that bargaining rights for public employees have caused state deficits to explode. In fact there’s no relationship between states whose employees have bargaining rights and states with big deficits.

The Texas Omen — Paul Krugman

Wasn’t Texas supposed to be thriving even as the rest of America suffered? Didn’t its governor declare, during his re-election campaign, that “we have billions in surplus”? Yes, it was, and yes, he did. But reality has now intruded, in the form of a deficit expected to run as high as $25 billion over the next two years.

Some Right, Some Wrong in “60 Minutes” Story on State Budgets — Nicholas Johnson

[States] aren’t guilty of “reckless spending.”  Total state and local spending, not including federal grants, is no larger now as a share of the economy than it was 20 years ago…  State general fund spending in 2011 will be 6 percent lower than it was in 2008, without adjusting for inflation…

Behind the Population Shift — Edward L. Glaeser

Low incomes and productivity in the growing states of the Sun Belt strongly suggest that their expansion is not driven by outsize economic success.

A rich body of research shows that regulation, which is intense in the Northeast and California but lax in the Sun Belt, explains why housing is supplied so readily down South. The future shape of America is being driven not by quality of life or economic success but by the obscure rules regulating local land use.