Seattle Times editorial columnist Sharon Pian Chan thinks that people like me who support a $15 an hour minimum wage are the worst racists ever:
Raising the minimum wage to this level would be devastating to immigrant-owned small businesses.
Yup, I support a $15 an hour minimum wage because I hate immigrants!
Hey, way to lead off a column ostensibly about economic policy by throwing down the race card, Sharon. But then, as the daughter of immigrants—which gives you street cred on this, right?—you probably guessed that a middle-aged white guy like me wouldn't dare go there. Well guess again! In fact, since you only mention "immigrant" small business owners—specifically "South Asian Americans"—my question for you is this: Why do you hate white people? And black people? And, basically, all people who aren't South Asian? I mean, don't Jews like me have as much right to exploit low-wage South Asian immigrant workers as South Asian immigrant business owners do? You don't have something against the Jews, Sharon, do you?
Oh. I'm sorry. Did I cross some kind of a line there? Did I lead with race in an emotionally charged way that would inevitably distract from any effort to hold a reasoned economic discussion? Exactly.
For Pian Chan's manipulative resort to identity politics is little more than a naked attempt to deflect attention away from the real struggle at the heart of the minimum wage debate: Not a struggle for or against the survival of immigrant-owned businesses, but a struggle between capital and labor. It is (excuse the quaint Marxist cliché) a class struggle. But then, as a thorough fisking of her column reveals, Pian Chan's arguments are so weak and her economic assertions so unsupported by the facts that you can hardly blame her for the rhetorical legerdemain:
And while the current ballot issue only affects SeaTac, the next stop for the minimum-wage campaign is Seattle.
Slippery slope! Domino effect! Chain reaction! Pick your metaphor, because clearly, Seattle elected officials and voters are mindless automatons who can't help but follow tiny SeaTac's lead if voters there impose a $15 an hour minimum wage first, amirite?
Supporters of the $15 campaign say it would help low-income people and families working in these jobs. That presumes poor people are a monolithic group, all of whom want to work those jobs for the rest of their lives.
Um... I'm not sure how you get from point A to point B, but no, it doesn't presume that, Sharon. The $15 campaign presumes that low-wage workers are, in your own words, "poor," and thus unable to adequately provide for themselves and their families. Some of these workers will surely move on to better paying jobs. But the 21st century American economic reality is that many of these workers—disproportionately immigrants—will be stuck in minimum-wage or near-minimum-wage jobs for the rest of their working lives.
Many people who now make a minimum wage, including many immigrants, dream of something bigger. Many want to own their own business, whether it’s a restaurant, a grocery store or Google (Google co-founder Sergey Brin is an immigrant.)
And many of them dream of winning the lottery. You know, just like Sergey Brin. I mean, they can't all eventually own their own businesses, let alone become Internet billionaires. But we're supposed to work the bulk of them at poverty wages so that a handful might someday enjoy a larger serving of the fruits of capital? Is that what you're saying, Sharon?
And raising the minimum-wage dims their chances of ever running a business such as a convenience store or a restaurant.
Dims their chances how? By paying a wage that might afford them the opportunity to better themselves and build up some actual savings?
What determines whether entrepreneurs can start businesses, and expand, is the minimum wage.
Really? That's the determining factor? The minimum wage? You've gotta be fucking kidding. Show me the economics text book that makes this facially absurd assertion. Show me the data that plots business formation to the minimum wage.
No doubt the minimum wage is a factor in penciling out the economics of starting or expanding a business, but "the determining factor"...? That's just plain stupid. And personally, speaking as someone who has actually started a small business, if my business model had been predicated on paying my employees a poverty wage, I wouldn't have been able to muster the lack of empathy necessary to start it.
A higher minimum wage would sound the death knell to entrepreneurs.
Again, show your math.
It would drive them out of SeaTac, Seattle and into the suburbs.
Jesus. First of all, the airport businesses that the SeaTac initiative primarily targets are located in a fucking airport! It's a goddamn monopoly! A captive market! Every other major West Coast airport imposes a substantially higher minimum wage than Sea-Tac, and none of them have gone out of business.
Second, we already have real world experience with this issue, and there is absolutely no record of Washington businesses fleeing across the border to neighboring Oregon and Idaho after we established our highest in the nation state minimum wage.
In SeaTac, a higher minimum wage in the hospitality industry would have a disproportionate negative impact on immigrants.
Maybe. (Not that I'm comfortable accepting Pian Chan's assertions on the predominance of immigrant-owned businesses.) But a higher minimum wage would also have a disproportionately positive impact on immigrants, because they surely make up a disproportionate share of low-wage airport workers.
South Asian Americans dominate the motel industry, as a 2012 Voice of America story shows. The major hotel chains in SeaTac would budget and cut costs to absorb the higher labor costs. But immigrants who own one or two motels would not be able to do this and still turn a profit.
Because Pian Chan says so! No data required.
The Asian American Hotel Owners Association and the Korean American Hotel Owners Association oppose Proposition 1.
Omigod! Breaking news: Hotel owners don't want to pay their low-wage workers higher wages! (But then, these are South Asian hotel owners, and I'm just some middle-aged white guy, so I should probably be more sensitive about honoring their unique cultural traditions, or something.)
If Seattle considers raising the minimum wage, consider the mom-and-pop restaurants in the Chinatown International District operating on wafer-thin margins. Consider the many Korean-owned convenience stores throughout Seattle.
Oh no! I love Chinese food, a mouth-watering cuisine based on an aromatic mix of soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, and the secret ingredient: Crushing poverty! But if we raise the minimum wage, Pian Chan warns us, all of Seattle's Chinese restaurants will shut down!
The city has already pushed some businesses off the edge with the sick-leave policy, and the ban on plastic bags and plastic food containers.
Again, another damning factual assertion methodically extracted directly from Pian Chan's ass.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1975 with two suitcases. My father, who did not graduate from high school, was a serial entrepreneur who started business after business. Some failed, some succeeded. He managed to bootstrap his way to a middle-class life for our family. He would not have been able to start those businesses had he been required to pay his workers $15 an hour.
Some immigrants, incidentally, got their first jobs in the U.S. at my father’s companies and built middle-class lives for themselves. He now owns apartment buildings in Phoenix, Ariz., which provide affordable housing. Many of his renters are Latino immigrants.
This is just one story in a country rich with examples of immigrants starting businesses that helped other immigrants.
Here's another story, Sharon: I too come from immigrant stock, although one or two more generations removed than you. My grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated to the US from the Pale of Settlement, the Eastern European Jewish homeland from which all the friends and family they left behind were eventually exterminated. And like your parents, Sharon, my family came to this country with virtually nothing.
On my mother's side, my great-grandparents started a small retail business which ultimately provided my mother a comfortable upbringing. But my father enjoyed a less fortunate youth. My paternal grandfather was a shoe salesman from his late teens until his mid-seventies, not due to a lack of ambition or work ethic—he saved his money and opened his own store when my father was a boy, and like most businesses, it failed—it was a lack of education and opportunity that held my grandfather back. But although they raised my father in dreary poverty, by the time I met my grandparents they were enjoying a modest, middle class lifestyle, thanks in large part to the Keynesian policies of the 1950s and 1960s that created a rising economic tide that really did lift all boats.
I remember visiting the shoe store where my grandfather worked. His coworkers respected him. His customers loved him. The store's owner treated him with dignity. For nearly sixty years my grandfather just sold shoes, and yet he was the most content person I've ever known.
It was a retail job—today, a minimum wage job—a job for which Pian Chan believes my grandfather should have been condemned to a lifetime of poverty wages.
The argument that raising the minimum wage would have no negative effect on employment does not hold water.
Because I say so.
David Neumark, an economist at the University of California, Irvine, has done extensive research on raising the minimum wage and how research fails to show that increasing the minimum wage has a negative impact on employment.
Finally, 600 words into her piece, Pian Chan cites an actual piece of academic research. I'm not sure she's read the paper (pdf), which, rather than conducting original research, the author describes as a "narrative review" of other studies that "introduces an element of subjectivity into the discussion." But in any case, other economists reach a different conclusion, for example, here, here, and here.
Also, it is useful to point out that even if the minimum wage has a disemployment effect, that cost may very well be worth the benefit. I mean, if thousands of workers are suddenly bumped up to a living wage, but a handful lose their jobs as a result, wouldn't that be worth it?
Stagnant wages, persistent high unemployment rates and a low standard of living are a result of the failure of lawmakers and voters to create and support policies to stimulate the economy. It’s a symptom of the high cost of housing and transportation in the region.
Get that? The private sector creates jobs, but the government creates unemployment. But fortunately, Pian Chan does have a prescription for curing all our economic woes:
Create a dead-simple, friction-free environment for people to start businesses.
Increase the affordable-housing stock. This includes making it easier for developers and property owners to create affordable housing.
Create a true regional mass-transit system as quickly as possible. The cost of owning and insuring a car needed to travel to work makes the region less affordable for workers earning a minimum wage. The years it has taken to open Sound Transit light rail has not helped.
Of course, a "true regional mass-transit system" does not include light rail.
Close the achievement gaps in education and give students the tools, skills and brain power to land the jobs that Washington state is now forced to import workers from outside the state and the U.S.
But whatever you do, don't raise the taxes necessary to pay for it, because that would surely devastate the immigrant-owned small businesses that are already being "pushed off the edge" by paid sick leave, plastic bag bans, the estate tax, the minimum wage, and anything else the Seattle Times opposes.
That a Seattle Times editorialist touts the usual neoliberal economic agenda isn't surprising, but that Pian Chan remains so reflexively dismissive to any challenge to her Reaganist perspective is deeply disappointing. I had hoped that the turnover on her paper's editorial board might bring some fresh new voices to the debate, but alas, in this column Pian Chan proves herself to be yet another corporatist squawk box. She does not even bother to attempt to support her arguments, but rather offers as statements of undisputed fact economic claims that not even Arthur Laffer could present with a straight face.
And worse, Pian Chan wraps this pablum in a fit of identity politics, betting that ethnic ties will trump economic self-interest at the ballot box. But her argument is shameful on yet another level, for it argues that the welfare of a business whose model is predicated on paying its workers poverty wages should have precedence over the welfare of the workers themselves. It is, in fact, similar to the antebellum arguments put forth by Southern slave owners—that abolition would destroy their plantation economy—and as such is just as morally reprehensible. (But, you know, shame on me for bringing race back into this again.)
There is, of course, a genuine debate to be had over how high and how fast to raise the minimum wage—even a devout Keynesian would acknowledge that there comes a point where the economic costs of a minimum wage outweigh the economic benefits. But Pian Chan refuses to have this debate. Instead, if we read her at her word that it is the minimum wage that "determines whether entrepreneurs can start businesses," then we must understand her column as an absolutist argument against having a minimum wage at all.
The irony is that her own ideological rigidity prevents Pian Chan from acknowledging that whatever the disemployment risks, a higher minimum wage would provide exactly the sort of economic stimulus she calls for, putting more money in the pockets of low-wage workers, and through them, into the tills of the small business owners she says she champions. Even the bitterly anti-labor Jew-hating Henry Ford understood that it was in his own economic self-interest to raise the wages of his workforce to a level where they could afford to consume the products they produced. But our post-Soviet capitalists are so enamored of their apparent ideological victory, and so bereft of intellectual nuance, that they cannot even bear to stray from their theory of rational self-interest long enough to pursue its practice.