Although our school textbooks claim we live in a democracy or a representative republic, a more accurate formulation might label our polity a “mediocracy.” Our views and votes as well as those of our elected representatives are largely shaped by the ambient waves of media emanations that wash over us during so many of our waking moments. The media tells us what is real and what is nonsensical.
So if the best way to change the world is by reshaping its media coverage, I am pleased that our campaign to raise the minimum wage for American workers to a much more reasonable figure of $12 per hour is beginning to make some significant headway.
Even just a few years ago, most respectable thinkers, even those on the progressive Left, were quite doubtful about the benefits of a minimum wage hike, let alone a large one. When leading liberal economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz endorsed President Obama’s $9.00 per hour minimum wage proposal of twelve months ago, their public declaration was hailed as a dramatic breakthrough by longtime minimum wage advocates. A couple of years earlier, Krugman had been willing to oppose sharp cuts in the minimum wage or its abolition, but little more than that, while his late 1990s views on the subject were not all that different from those of most present-day Republicans, a fact now eagerly emphasized by his current opponents.
Indeed, many prominent liberals used to regard a minimum wage hike as ignorant populist nonsense, but today the tide is flowing in exactly the opposite direction. Last week, the front-page headlines on the SF Chronicle described the surprising shift of conservative sentiment toward the pro-minimum wage direction, citing my own views and those of Phyllis Schlafly. No sooner had the story run than Bill O’Reilly—one of the biggest conservative voices in America—gave his blessing to the proposed Democratic minimum wage hike, making that statement on his own top-rated FoxNews television show.
So during the past twelve months, public reversals on the minimum wage question have encompassed such names as Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Phyllis Schlafly, and Bill O’Reilly. How’s that for ideological bipartisanship?
Although the O’Reilly Declaration was considered absolutely stunning in mainstream media circles, I strongly suspect that its origins lay in an article that ran a few days earlier in The Daily Caller, one of the most widely read and influential mainstream conservative publications in America. Prominent media figures such as O’Reilly tend to rely upon their research staffs to help formulate and guide their policy positions, and The Caller is high up on the reading lists of those latter individuals. When Neil Munro, The Caller’s White House Correspondent, penned a piece provocatively entitled “$12 an Hour is Conservative Rocket Fuel, Says Ron Unz,” they surely took notice. Indeed, the article constituted a 2,500 word nuclear strike against the entrenched Republican Establishment on that issue, and O’Reilly may merely be the first of many prominent conservatives swayed by that powerful piece of expository journalism, aimed with pitch-perfect effectiveness at its strongly conservative audience.
With President Obama and the Democratic Party having declared their plans to make raising the minimum wage one of their central political themes for the 2014 campaign, liberal media outlets hardly need to convince their troops to support the cause, though rounding up 75 prominent economists, including seven Nobel Laureates, helps give it an academic stamp-of-approval. But in such liberal and mainstream media circles, there exists quite a bit of curiosity regarding my own $12 per hour campaign in California, given that my figure is comfortably higher than that proposed by either state or national Democrats. Slate, oldest of all Internet webzines and these days owned by the Washington Post, filled that void with a very thoughtful discussion of the 2011 origins of my minimum wage effort. Slate and The Caller together bracket much of the ideological spectrum in the world of Washington politics, and to the extent that they both seem strongly sympathetic to a big minimum wage hike, the likelihood of it actually happening, even on the federal level, is greatly increased.
One additional benefit of the Caller and Slate pieces was they each explored the origins of my own involvement in the minimum wage issue and correctly found it in the contentious national debate over American immigration policy, a topic in which I have been deeply involved for nearly a quarter century. I had previously paid relatively little attention to economic issues, and although the general economic case for a $12 minimum wage now seems very strong to me, that was not what originally drew me to the issue.
Indeed, as Slate’s David Weigel correctly notes, I “buried the lede” in my original 2011 article, devoting almost 9000 words to a detailed analysis of the political and economic implications of our immigration policy before using the last 3000 words to propose a $12 minimum wage as the surprising solution to the dilemma. Fortunately, a number of other intellectuals and journalists, notably economist James Galbraith and the late Alexander Cockburn, extracted that crucial nugget from my longer work and begin promoting it within left-liberal policy circles, whence the ideas eventually attracted some Democratic interest in Congress. Later, New America Foundation co-founder Michael Lind solicited me to write a narrowly focused minimum wage paper, published as part of his economic policy project, which received much wider attention and soon brought me into contact with Ralph Nader’s efforts in DC.
But the immigration aspects of my proposal were hardly forgotten, and indeed last March I published a Salon piece whose original title was the descriptive “No Immigration Amnesty Without a Minimum Wage Hike.” A few months afterward, progressive T.A. Frank, a Los Angeles based champion of the working-poor, published a lengthy article in The New Republic endorsing my suggestion, and remarkably enough, conservative financial expert Andrew Stuttaford quickly took to National Review to do the same.
In late October, I debated Prof. Vivek Wadha, a leading free market advocate on the subject of whether to allow totally “Open Borders” in labor, and I was very pleasantly surprised when he repeatedly emphasized my $12 minimum wage proposal as a very necessary component to any loosening of immigration restrictions.
No sooner had I launched my initiative effort, than economist Bruce Bartlett highlighted the immigration aspects of my initiative proposal for the New York Times and reminded readers that several years earlier former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis had similarly proposed a large hike in the minimum wage as the logical solution to our immigration problems.
The reason a much higher minimum wage would drastically reduce illegal immigration is obvious and simple to state. The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants come to America for jobs and just as business lobbyists endlessly claim, they are hired “because they take the jobs that Americans just won’t do.” But the reason Americans won’t do those jobs is because the wages are too low. Raise the wages to a more liveable figure of $12 per hour or higher and millions of Americans would eagerly fill the positions, allowing employers to comply with immigration requirements and avoid risking government penalties.
Given the tremendous emotionality of the immigration issue among many conservatives, I strongly suspect that this immigration argument has been a major driving force behind the new minimum wage positions now taken by Schlafly and O’Reilly, and would be the crucial lever that eventually persuades substantial numbers of other hardcore conservative Republicans to take the same position, perhaps under pressure from their vociferous rightwing base.
What conservative Republicans support, some knee-jerk liberal Democrats reflexively oppose, and former South Bay union leader Amy Dean penned a piece for Al Jazeera harshly critical of my immigration views and therefore skeptical of my minimum wage proposal. Still, considering that as early as 1994 I was a top featured speaker at Juan Jose Guttierez’s historic 70,000-strong Los Angeles rally against Prop. 187, the largest political protest in California history to that date, I’m just not sure that my “anti-immigrant” credentials are nearly as strong as Ms. Dean believes them to be.
Meanwhile, our own campaign moves forward, attracting considerable national media coverage, perhaps because of the man-bites-dog aspects of a conservative Republican supporting a higher minimum wage figure than that advocated by the liberal Democrats in Congress. Just a few days ago I was interviewed for a segment on NPR’s Weekend Edition following an earlier appearance on MSNBC. A lengthy Associated Press feature, mostly prepared in late December, was also released around the same time, running in dozens or hundreds of media outlets around the country. Utah’s leading newspaper ran a major story on the effort, and I’ve been interviewed on a number of national and local radio shows.
Ironically enough, with the notable exception of the San Francisco Chronicle, California’s major newspapers and political columnists have mostly ignored the entire campaign, perhaps because none of our state’s prominent political consultants had been retained to run it. But that tendency to ignore anything not closely tied to generating lucrative fees and commissions for our huge political-industrial complex may be starting to change, with Timm Herdt, a respected Sacramento Bureau Chief, recently publishing a fine column on the campaign, a column that appeared in newspapers up and down the state.
So onwards and upwards and perhaps in less than ten months every couple in California holding full-time jobs will be set to have a minimum household income of $50,000 per year.