"What does not change / is the will to change"
--Charles Olson, "The Kingfishers"

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A minimum of logical argument on minimum wage

The state's editorial boards were nearly unanimous in their opposition to today's minimum wage question. Most pointed to the requirement that the wage increase be indexed for inflation annually, and many cited constitutional concerns.

What is striking is how these arguments fail the basic test of logical argument. The constitutional argument, as outlined by the Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the business community, is that adding a wage issue or an employment issue to the state constitution amounts to special-interest tampering with a sacred document designed to protect individual rights.

When outlined this way, it is tough to argue against. The problem is that it is built on a flawed premise. In defining the minimum wage as being just a wage-and-hour or employment issue, it ignores what the wage is really designed to do, which is set a floor on wages that gives low-wage workers a fighting chance to survive. The wage, in this way, is a rights issue -- a way of enforcing the right to a minimum standard of living, of defending one of the four freedoms that Franklin Roosevelt detailed 70 years ago, the right to be free from want.
 This is debatable, of course, but not to the state's editorial boards, which seemed to just buy the business community's constitutional argument without much of a thought or ignore the constitutional question altogether.

Obviously, I support the minimum wage increase and passing ballot question 2, but that is not the point I want to make here. What strikes me and troubles me is the loose logic used by editorial boards around the state not only in their opposition to the wage referendum, but on other issues -- best exemplified, of course, by the Star-Ledger editorial "supporting" Gov. Christie for re-election.

Here I am going to quote from The Record's public question editorial, not to pick on it, but because I think it is pretty typical of the argument being made.
The state constitution should not be amended over the minimum wage. And while inflation has not been a concern for several years, that will not always be the case. Once the constitution is amended, short of another statewide referendum, it is set in stone. Regardless of the economic picture, the minimum wage will rise automatically. We agree no one can live above poverty earning $7.25 an hour. Emotionally, the desire to increase the minimum wage is a no-brainer.

But this is not the way to do it. The Legislature should have fought with Christie on an acceptable compromise. Considering that the dollar amount on the ballot is the same figure Christie countered with makes it obvious that if a compromise was wanted, a compromise could have been achieved. We support raising the minimum wage.
So, The Record opposes the wage hike because it says it should not be included in the state constitution, right? That's true, but I defy any reader to read the full editorial and explain why. The Record says this, but then fails to actually make the case. It's argument boils down to: We don't think it should be there, so therefore it shouldn't be there.

It would have been nice had The Record actually explained why. The Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have made the case -- that the constitution is not meant for employment debates or end-runs around the political process -- so the argument is out there in the ether.

As for its argument against indexing -- I could live with it if the bias of the editorial writers were made more obvious. Inflation is not an issue now, as the board writes, but it could be. And when it is, the board continues, businesses are likely to be screwed. But here is what the Record editorial board has neglected to say: Without indexing the wage for inflation, low-wage workers will see the value of the minimum wage deteriorate as the cost of living rises. If inflation becomes an issue, low-wage workers would get screwed without the indexing feature. The Record has decided to toss its lot in with the business community. Again, this is its prerogative, but it has a responsibility to be more explicit about this bias.

The Asbury Park Press (and the rest of its Gannett sister papers), which opposed the question in a tepid and wavering editorial, and the Ledger, one of the few major papers in the state to endorse the wage increase, are guilty of the same kind of faulty logic. The Press, for instance, is unsure, thinks the wage needs to increase, but not with a CPI provision, so maybe they should go back and start over in the Legislature, but who can trust the Legislature, but we need the increase, but --- well, vote no. And it ignores the constitutional question.

As for the Ledger, it makes a strong (if incomplete) economic case for the increase, but then dismisses the constitutional question -- which is a big one. Its reasoning -- that the governor gave the Legislature no choice -- has nothing to do with whether these kinds of issues should be addressed by the constitution. In terms of its logic, this dismissal actually supports the argument being made by the business lobby that the vote today could open the state's charter to thorny questions on which the governor and Legislature cannot agree. (This would be a good argument for an initiative and referendum process, but not for the current minimum wage vote.)

As my students might say, the state's papers have turned this debate into a "hot mess."

Newspaper editorial boards should weigh in on important issues (as opposed to endorsing candidates), but they need to do a better job of constructing their arguments and being transparent about how they frame those arguments. Editorial writers have a responsibility to readers to provide fully fleshed out arguments that follow the basic rules of logic, to make the premises that underlie their arguments clear and make their biases known. Doing this gives the reader the ability to raise questions and judge the argument being offered by the paper.

The editorials by the state's newspapers over the last few weeks on the minimum wage question have failed to do this.

Send me an e-mail.


Anonymous said...

The controversy over the minimum wage evokes the arguments pro and con concerning slavery in the late 1800s. How the hell could there be any doubt that slavery was a positive evil and should have never happened in the first place in this land of the free, as they claimed. How the hell can there be any doubt that the minimum wage must be raised now and it must be indexed unless you feel that minimum wage workers are dolts, moochers and undeserving louts. For the corporatists and the US Chamber of Horrors, it's never ever the right time to raise the minimum wage. Maybe the minimum wage can be raised in a thousand years in another galaxy in some parallel universe.

Anonymous said...

Whoops, the pro and cons over slavery occurred throughout US history culminating in the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves. The slave holders won the day until the Civil War because their economic well being was more important than the dignity and lives of the slaves. There's always some phony baloney economic argument against raising the minimum wage. What about the economic situation of the working poor, what about them? I guess the interests of the plutocrats are light years more important than the economic concerns (dire straits) of the minimum wage workers. They don't have millions to spend on lobbyists and bought and paid for stenographers called journalists (not all journalists by any means but there are too many corporate lap dogs in the press).