Thursday, December 12, 2013

Byron Short and the politics of the minimum wage

The recent epiphany of Rep. Byron Short (D-Highland Woods) that the minimum wage increase he kept bottled up in committee last year should now be passed has very little to do with economics or even social justice issues, and everything to do with the fact that 2014 is an election year.

The politics of this are so transparent that it is not amazing that even the News Journal ferreted them out.

OK, let's try this again.

The politics of this are so transparent that even the Democratic Party house organ News Journal had trouble concealing them.

First, Rep. Short admits that raising the minimum wage has two major consequences:  (a) it can help stall out an economic recovery and (b) that it will put "pressure" on businesses to raise not just the minimum wage, but the wages of the next several upward tiers of workers.

Then Rep. Short argues that Delaware's recovery has now become robust enough to stand the strain of raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour, and even--possibly--to index future increases to the CPI.

Ironically, this amounts to an argument that Delaware business owners couldn't afford to have the minimum wage raised last year due to economic conditions (regardless of the hardship that low wage might have had on the people holding those jobs), but that a two-month change in the unemployment rate means that they can now and forever do so, regardless of future economic conditions.


Here's why this has to do with the politics of 2014 being an election year rather than any real moral considerations:

1.  Actual progressives are going to tell you that even at $8.25/hour the minimum wage is not even close to a "living wage"--"This is not a living wage."--Ezra Temko.  They would argue that to make a real difference in the lives of people like Chandra Crippen, a 36-year-old single mother of two living in Wilmington you'd have to double the existing minimum.  Indeed, MIT's "Living Wage Calculator" argues that a "Poverty Wage" for one adult with two children is $8.80 per hour (still above the proposed new minimum) and that Ms. Crippen needs to make $26.47/hour or just over $55K/year to be making a "living wage" in New Castle County.  So the proposed increase won't even bring fast food workers and their peers up to poverty line wages, and won't bring the next couple of tiers of workers even to 50% of a "living wage."  More importantly, EVERYBODY involved in this legislative agenda knows that.

2.  But, we're told, it will do some good and no harm, so why not pass it?  It is here that you get into the cosmetics of the situation.  2014 is a problematic year for the Delaware Democratic Party.  As Celia Cohen has pointed out, it is likely that Congressman Carney, Senator Carper, and Senator Coons will face either no opposition or only token opposition for re-election.  The only statewide races of interest (and I am using the term "interest" in it broadest possible terms, possibly even stretching it out of any meaning whatsoever) are State Auditor and the potential primary for the State Treasurer.  That's actually not necessarily good news for down-ticket Democrats.  Quoth jason330:
Conventional wisdom suggests that it would help the Republicans on the bottom of the ticket. No big races at the top would make it a very low turnout mid-term election.
Interestingly enough, when I delved into this a little further, jason followed with this:
The model you have to look at is a very low turnout election ... My sense is that the GOP has far fewer registered voters, but it may have more zealots. 
While I don't necessarily subscribe to this theory in total, I think it resonates with what the Democratic Party leadership is thinking right now.  And, for the Dems, one-party dominance is becoming an increasingly troubling issue because the "mainstream" of the Delaware Democratic Party today is both corporatist (Carper, Carney, Markell) and/or corrupt (Stewart, Flowers), while the self-styled progressives are on the outside looking in, and the even more fervent environmentalists are starting to desert to the Greens in significant numbers.

Along comes a token increase in the minimum wage which gives those mainstream Dems the chance to beat up on the GOP and pull their farther-Left brethren and sisteren back into the fold without having to ever address any REAL issues ....

3.  The minimum wage is really this year's marriage equality for the Delaware Democratic Party.  Don't get me wrong here:  I was a strong advocate for marriage equality myself, but what it meant to the Dems last year was an excuse to hold victory celebrations and paper over the fact that they dodged all of the hard choices on taxes and the budget.  Catholic theology disdains the evangelical Protestant idea that only faith and not works are necessary to get into Heaven, sometimes characterizing it as "cheap grace."  Make no mistake, a showpiece and essentially meaningless raise in the minimum wage is all about "cheap liberalism" and not at all about economics or social justice.

Do we need to count (again!) the issues that the Delaware Democratic Party continues to ignore or pretend it is powerless to change while nonetheless holding the Governor's Mansion and both houses of the General Assembly?  Issues like corporate welfare, casino subsidies, no raises for State employees, public education that is in an increasing state of shambles, crime and poverty in Wilmington ...

(My favorite piece of selective outrage has been our liberal friends excoriating Republican governors across the nation for not developing their own insurance marketplaces and instead shunting the burden to the Feds, while they live in a Blue state wherein the Democratic Governor with national aspirations did exactly what they are condemning the GOP for.  But I digress...)

Now back to Representative Byron Short (and Andria Bennett, and a few others).  The reality is that Mr. Short has realized that it is not the economic or social benefit that causes him to suddenly champion a meaningless increase in the minimum wage, but the obvious political benefits of showing that (a) he has the power as one of the new "big heads" in the General Assembly to make or break a key piece of legislation, and that (b) this will put Senator Cathy Cloutier (R) in a tough spot eventually for a position that he so obviously covets.

1 comment:

Scott said...