Some software projects go less smoothly than others, and for the last three weeks I’ve been totally preoccupied with a frustrating major overhaul of the website code at The Review, by far the biggest since I originally launched the webzine in late 2013. My intent was to modify the design to accommodate a substantial expansion of our publication, while also building a much better smartphone edition to replace the totally mediocre version that I’d quickly thrown together in just a couple of days last year. This Mobile effort has absorbed the bulk of my time, including over a week of wasted going down blind alleys, though I think I’ve finally solved the key problems.
Fortunately, while I’ve been struggling with frequently fruitless programming, others in America have enjoyed far greater public success. A week ago I opened my morning New York Times to discover that the national lead story was the 14-to-1 vote in the Los Angeles City Council to enact an astonishing $15 per hour citywide minimum wage, phased in over the next few years. With LA Mayor Eric Garcetti fully endorsing the measure, a stunning 70% rise in the minimum wage for four million Angelenos appears a virtual certainly, and the NYT was totally justified in giving their accompanying lead editorial the title “A $15 Wage Bombshell in Los Angeles.” Moreover, this move will surely put enormous pressure on the rest of Southern California and other large urban centers such as New York City to similarly adopt large wage hikes, while giving the national push for much higher wages a huge shot of momentum. Even before this development, the NYT had reported a few weeks ago that support for an hourly minimum wage of $12 at the federal level now marked the lower end of the spectrum among national Democrats. These developments might have seemed almost unimaginable even just a year or two ago, demonstrating the rate at which the issue is evolving.
From a broader perspective, achieving a $15 minimum wage for a million or more low-wage workers in Los Angeles would probably rank as the greatest national success for American organized labor in decades, a period in which the political defeats for unions have come much more frequently. As mentioned, my first inkling of the LA breakthrough came with my morning newspapers and coffee, but despite my total lack of involvement, I’d like to think that I played a significant role in laying the groundwork for these important developments.
Back in 2011, I had published a 12,000 word article which proposed a large minimum wage hike as the surprising solution to a whole range of our serious social and economic difficulties. In those days—less than four years ago—minimum wage advocacy had long dropped off the political radar screen, and even many liberal Democrats no longer championed the idea. As an illustration of where Democrats then stood, Ezra Klein, an influential young liberal pundit, publicly ridiculed my proposal on his television show, suggesting that only the ignorant or the economically illiterate supported raising the minimum wage. Fortunately, others reacted much more favorably, with influential liberal economist James Galbraith endorsing and promoting my idea, as did the late radical journalist Alexander Cockburn.
The following year, Michael Lind of the New America Foundation persuaded me to publish another major minimum wage article under their auspices, which once again produced a flurry of secondary media coverage. Soon afterward, Ralph Nader redoubled his efforts on the issue, and after a year of lobbying finally managed to persuade Nobel Laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz—two of the most prominent liberal economists—to reverse their longstanding opposition, and instead support a minimum wage hike, endorsing President Obama’s call for raising the federal minimum wage to $9.00 in his 2013 State of the Union Address.
During the year that followed momentum shifted back and forth on the issue. I was very pleasantly surprised when writers at both National Review and The New Republic endorsed my minimum wage proposal, but any actual legislation was blocked by the Republicans in Congress and success seemed increasingly unlikely, with the whole issue gradually fading from discussion and being abandoned as politically dead by Fall 2013.
At that point, I suddenly recognized the potential galvanizing impact of a major statewide initiative campaign, and after discussing the idea with James Galbraith and Ralph Nader, launched a last-minute attempt to place a $12 minimum wage measure on the 2014 California ballot, sacrificing all the normal preparatory work for a chance at a sudden end-run of the political process. The initial results were even better than my greatest hopes, with massive coverage of my unexpected, quixotic return to initiative politics after over a dozen years of total absence, with a major article in the NYT opening the floodgates . Soon, I was publishing minimum wage op-eds for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and a wide range of other national publications, using the considerable media coverage to restore attention to the great economic benefits and political potency of the issue. Within five weeks Democratic strategists had suddenly decided to make a large minimum wage hike a centerpiece of their national 2014 campaign, and President Obama joined this effort by proposing a federal hike to $10.10 in his State of the Union Address.
Although I ultimately failed to raise the necessary funds to qualify my initiative, the six months of enormous media coverage I received produced exactly what I’d hoped, and the issue itself developed a great deal of permanent national momentum. Towards the end, even prominent national Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Tim Pawlenty joined together to endorse a minimum wage hike. Democratic operatives eventually noted the overwhelming November victories of five minimum wage initiatives placed on the ballot, mostly in small, heavily Republican states, even as Democratic candidates nationwide were suffering a tremendous drubbing at the polls.
Furthermore, during the half year my proposed $12 initiative seemed to have huge momentum, I repeatedly pointed out to union leaders and Democratic strategists the obvious political benefits of aiming at a higher rather than a lower figure, $12 rather than $9.00 or $10.10. After all, while a small wage hike only benefits only a sliver of workers and helps them only slightly, a large raise greatly increases both the number of beneficiaries and their income gains; and I think they took my arguments to heart. During my early 2014 efforts, I discovered that no liberal-leaning thinktank had even bothered exploring the impact of a federal figure above $10.10, while now just a year later $12.00 has become the minimalist position of centrist Democrats.
And in particular, I may have played a small role in the genesis of Los Angeles’s victorious $15.00 effort. During March 2014 I was twice invited to participate in a discussion of minimum wage issues on Warren Olney’s Which Way LA? radio program, one of the leading public affairs shows in Southern California. In one program, the topic was the fierce lobbying campaign by LA labor unions, which had spent years working to persuade the City Council raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour for workers at large, non-unionized hotels. Perhaps unexpectedly, I was harshly critical of the idea, arguing that it was ridiculous to focus efforts to raise the wages of just 1% of LA’s workers while ignoring the other 99%, who would therefore have no personal stake in the battle; this was exactly the sort of narrowly targeted special-interest effort that tended to give labor unions a bad name. Since a $12 level seemed reasonable for the entire state of California and LA’s cost of living was so far above average, I argued it might be reasonable to set the entire city figure at $15, thereby benefiting all local workers rather than just those at a few large hotels. This suggestion seemed to surprise and shock all the other participants on the discussion.
Which Way LA? regularly attracts a large and elite audience, and nine days after my appearance, two of LA’s most politically influential billionaires, Democrat Eli Broad and Republican Rick Caruso, told the Los Angeles Times that they both supported the establishment of a citywide Los Angeles minimum wage, possibly as high as $15 per hour. When powerful Republican and Democratic billionaires, with a history of anti-union sentiments, suddenly join forces with the Labor Movement, important things may happen, and in little more than a year, that proposal is now on the verge of becoming law.
During the months that I was promoting my minimum wage initiative, I had regularly emphasized to union leaders the obvious benefits of such a broad-front popular strategy rather than the narrowly-targeted emphasis on gaining even higher wages and richer pensions for the small and rapidly shrinking slice of already-unionized American workers. Not only does the latter approach often rightly seem to be special interest lobbying for workers who need it the least, but it establishes those very well paid recipients as an unpopular and seemingly greedy minority, easily vulnerable to the broad-based attacks of conservative anti-union groups. I think this misguided strategy helps to Labor’s plight over the last generation or two, during which the rate of private-sector union membership has collapsed by well over 70%. By contrast, a focus on raising the wages of all low paid workers not only benefits significant numbers of union members but also generates the popularity and broader credibility which the union movement must attract if it is to survive.
Even while the minimum wage crusade was achieving such an important breakthrough, another issue was returning to the national stage, though with no signs of any great progress to date. In late 2012, I had published a 30,000 word article “The Myth of American Meritocracy,” with one of my main points being the strong statistical evidence for the existence of Asian Quotas in college admissions at Harvard and the other Ivy League colleges, a suggestion that quickly sparked a New York Times symposium and numerous other discussions in the media. One of my obvious arguments was noting that although the national percentage of college-age Asian Americans had roughly doubled over the last generation, there had been no corresponding change in their Ivy League enrollments, and at Harvard, even a slight decline. A very simple graph illustrating this point was widely discussed and republished.
Almost three years have now passed and almost nothing seems to have happened, with the top administrators of our elite universities being just as shameless in their stonewalling on the issue as they have been in the past. Speaking at an annual conference of education journalists last year, I pointed out that nearly all of the established Asian-American organizations had been deafening with their silence on this issue, but at long last that may be starting to change, with 64 different Asian-American groups recently joining together in public criticism of Harvard’s unfair admission policies.
This development provided a natural media hook for long-time opponents of Asian Quotas to revive their critiques, led by a major Wall Street Journal Op-Ed column carrying the evocative title “The New Jews of Harvard Admissions.” Numerous other pieces in the conservative or libertarian media soon followed, including Steve Chapman’s syndicated Chicago Tribune column that explicitly cited my analysis. Although public declarations by activist groups and periodic media attacks are unlikely to bring down the heavily fortified Ivy-covered walls that surround our elite universities, they do lay the basis for future efforts, and I’m reasonably confident these will ultimately prove successful.
Last year, during the height of my minimum wage campaign, a prominent Asian-American activist expressed his frustration that my writings on that subject seemed to be making so much real world progress in contrast to my work on Asian Quota issues. I pointed out that it had taken three years and a great deal of effort before my original 2011 article in the former topic had begun to bear any fruit, and so it was hardly surprising that the latter would take some time as well. I also noted that upon publication my Meritocracy article had attracted perhaps ten times the national attention as my original minimum wage article, so he should take comfort in the evidence of a huge potential for that topic.
Transforming policy proposals from the printed page to political reality is always a difficult task in our complex and coagulated political system, and the best chance of achieving success is to somehow find the right point of political/media leverage, at which a reasonable amount of applied effort might be able to produce results. Over the last few years, such an approach seems to have worked out in the case of promoting a large minimum wage hike, but a similar path to success on the Asian Quotas has yet to appear. So I suppose on my personal checklist it’s one down and one to go.
Unfortunately, I must now return to the programming keyboard, doing my best to get the new presentation layer of my website ready for testing. As a bit of interesting news, a couple of days ago the business section of the NYT carried a front-page story about the travails of Fusion, the news/entertainment media outlet and website jointly launched by ABC and Univision in late 2013, at almost exactly the same time I launched The Review. Obviously, any comparisons are difficult and inexact, but based on the quoted figures regarding budget, staffing levels, and website traffic, our cost-effectiveness seems to be somewhere between 100x and 1000x greater. This is certainly quite encouraging.