The C Is for Crank

The Seattle Times' newest editorial columnist, Erik Smith (formerly a writer for the libertarian/conservative-leaning Washington State Wire blog), thinks there's one "rare voice" that hasn't been heard during the minimum-wage debate, and that's the voice of beleagured big businesses like Starbucks, which, Smith says, have remained silent because they fear their powerful opponents in the minimum-wage movement will call them uncaring and mean.

But Smith's here to rectify that. Calling Seattle "a city where no one has spoken for big business on the issue," Smith interviews former Starbucks president Howard Behar, who "at long last ... has had it with that talk of 'sticking it to the man.'”

“First of all, it’s not just the man anymore,” he says. “It’s the man and the woman. [Ed. Note: Profound.] But is that what we think this is about? We’re trying to get somebody?”

This is an example of your classic straw man (or woman): Put words in your opponent's mouth, then point out that those words you just made up are patently ridiculous. No one on the mayor's 24-member Income Inequality Advisory Committee—which included, incidentally, 12 business representatives—ever made the case that the city should adopt a higher minimum wage to "stick it to the man."

The arguments, in reality, were about balancing basic economic justice—the idea that a full-time job should pay enough for a person to live—with the potential impacts to businesses of going to a full $15 minimum too quickly. Hence the phased-in compromise.

But Smith is unbowed. He has anecdotes!

Well, one anecdote, anyway: "A lifetime spent in business," he writes, "tells [Behar] the Seattle plan will hurt the low-wage earners it aims to help by raising the cost of living, and driving light manufacturing and distribution jobs beyond the city limits."

It's pretty rich to hear that the life story of a single business mogul is sufficient proof that the cost of living will rise and jobs will be driven outside city limits, while the literally thousands of minimum-wage workers who have told their own life stories about what it's actually like to try to live on nine bucks an hour are irrelevant, and that it's bullying even to bring them up.

If Smith wanted to go beyond a single anecdote and look at numbers, there are two excellent recent studies he could turn to—from UC Berkeley and the University of Washington—that both demonstrate that higher minimum wages do not, in fact, "hurt ... low-wage earners" or drive jobs outside city limits.

In fact, I'd direct him to his own newspaper, which reported on the Berkeley study back in March. That study, the Times reports, found that in San Francisco, where the minimum wage is $10.74 an hour (plus paid sick leave and mandatory health care), the effects on employment of the higher minimum have been "almost none." 

"Businesses absorbed the costs through lower turnover, small price increases at restaurants, which have a high concentration of low-wage workers, and higher worker productivity, the researchers found."

Meanwhile (also according to the Seattle Times), the UW study, which focused on the characteristics of low-wage workers, concluded that a $15 wage floor would increase the pay of nearly a quarter of Seattle workers. 

Another fact: According to that same UW study, the vast majority of employees making less than $15 an hour in Seattle work in hotels, restaurants, retail, and social and educational services, not light manufacturing or distribution. The workers who would benefit from a higher minimum are the people serving you your fast food and cleaning your hotel room, not manufacturing rebar or loading boxes for Amazon.

Finally, Behar tells Smith that big businesses haven't just been denied a seat at the table next to fast-food workers; they're “scared to death. Because you know in today’s world what happens when they speak up? They are accused of being greedy, they are accused of not caring about people.”

Huh. That didn't stop a dozen business representatives from participating in the mayor's minimum-wage process—sitting down with a socialist, no less!—and coming up with a compromise solution almost everyone could agree on. Big businesses like Starbucks just have more delicate feelings than the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Seattle Association, and the owners of small restaurants like Tutta Bella, Lost Lake, and Ivar's, I guess. 

P.s. And Fizz gave Starbucks' Howard Schultz the mike on the minimum wage just last week. 


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