Is it possible to convince workers it’s a bad thing? Yes. Here’s how.
People who are very committed to conservative economic principles recognize instinctively the problem with raising the minimum wage to $10.10 – or for that matter, having a federally mandated minimum wage at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that Republicans are woefully ineffective at talking about the issue, which is why Democrats are so confident they can pivot to the minimum wage and put Republicans on the defensive in the process.
It is one of those issues that presents this seeming contradiction: The Democrats’ policy is a bad one, but there’s no way to put them on the defensive for proposing it because workers like it. The question is: How can you convince workers they shouldn’t like it? And is that even possible when the proposal by its very nature would put more money in their pockets?
I’m convinced it’s possible, but not the way conservatives usually try to do it.
There are generally three arguments made against raising the minimum wage – the Chamber of Commerce argument, the libertarian argument and the logical extreme argument. None of them resonate with working people. Here they are in sum, and why they don’t work:
Chamber of Commerce argument: “Raising the minimum wage will cost jobs because it will raise costs for businesses.” Working people don’t buy this because they simply don’t believe businesses lack the funds to pay them more, and they don’t believe businesses would really have to get rid of people if they were force to raise wages. They might believe businesses would use a minimum wage hike as an excuse to fire people, but they don’t believe the hike would genuinely necessitate it.
Libertarian argument: “The government has no business telling businesses what to pay their workers!” This argument doesn’t work because it’s an appeal to philosophical purity that is irrelevant to most people. If a worker believes he or she would be better off with a higher minimum wage, he surely does not care that it offends a libertarian’s ideological sensibilities.
Logical extreme argument: “Well, then, why not raise it to $100 an hour? Or $1,000? If higher wages are always better, why stop at $10.10?” The idea here is to demonstrate that, at some point, your mandates will cause employers to exceed what they can actually afford. This argument is ineffective because all you have to do is point out that your proposal stops well short of the extreme being suggested, thus proving that you do recognize the limits of what employers can afford and arguing that you think the amount you’re proposing is affordable.
Because conservatives always argue against the minimum wage with one or more of these three ineffective arguments, they always lose the political battle over the issue. I’m not saying any of the three arguments are incorrect. I don’t think they are. I’m saying they’re not effective at persuading working people that a higher minimum wage is really not in their best interests.
So is there any way to convince them of this?
I think there is, and making it work means convincing working people that the broader free-market philosophy is really the worker’s friend. In order to do that, you have give the worker a little more respect in terms of his abililty to understand basic economic concepts. I would make the following two arguments:
1. It’s not true that companies want to pay you the lowest wage they can get away with. Companies want stability in their workforces and they know they won’t have that if they pay too little. Companies want to pay you the wage that reflects the value they receive from you, so the best way for you to earn more is to put yourself in a position to provide more value, such that they see the money they pay you as a good investment that earns them a good return.
2. In order to keep your job, you have to be able to produce enough that your employer believes your wage is justified. Let’s say your employer needs to get $20 per hour worth of productivity out of you to justify a wage of $10.10 an hour. But your experience, your skills and the nature of your assignment only allow you to generate $15 an hour worth of productivity. Now your employer does not see you as a good investment. Over time, they might be willing to work with you so you can produce more, but you’re not at that point right now and yet the government is forcing them to pay you more than your work can justify. You’re better off negotiating a wage that both sides are comfortable with, while finding out how you can get on a path to greater productivity so your wage can rise naturally on its own. By butting in and forcing your employer to pay you more than it would prefer, the government may be making it impossible for you to justify your continued employment.
I understand that these two arguments do not fit in campaign ads or sound bites. But they are true and they make the case that workers are actually better off under conservative policies that take hands off wages and let companies and workers work these things out for themselves.
If Republicans think it’s too hard to make this case, fine, let them continue letting Democrats get away with economic proposals that “sound good” and give them political victories even as they screw both workers and companies.