Conservatives for the Minimum Wage

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 17 2014 9:17 AM

Conservatives for the Minimum Wage

My new piece looks at the very public campaign by Ron Unz, the California software tycoon, to raise the state's minimum wage even faster and higher than the Democratic legislature has required. Instead of rising to $10 in 2016, Unz wants $10 in 2015 and $12 the next year. And as I found, he's been campaigning for this for three years, to little fanfare, waiting for Republicans to run out of wedge issues and rediscover populism.

One of the issues motivating Unz, one of the factors that he thinks should rally conservatives, is the pressure put on wages by immigration. Make a minimum-wage job more attractive to low-skilled whites, says Unz, and it will no longer just be immigrants looking for remittance money who work them. I asked Mark Krikorian of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies whether Unz was on to something.

I sympathize with the goal, but I don’t think on its own raising the minimum wage can do what Ron wants it to do. I think the problem is only partly a matter of pay, especially since many jobs held by illegal aliens (and guest workers) pay more than the minimum wage (which is already $8 in Calif. and set to go up to $9 in July).
That small difference can mean a lot to someone in such a job but its effect in attracting more people is likely to be limited and I don’t see how it overcomes the non-monetary problems – the foreignization of some occupations in certain areas creates a social perception that those jobs are “unsuitable” for Americans (or Saudis, where they have the same problem); also, the recruitment networks that used to connect young people with entry-level jobs have been allowed to atrophy.
Raising the legal minimum without muscular immigration enforcement will just cause some illegal aliens to make more money, and cause others to be unemployed as their jobs are eliminated, but not necessarily change the social and structural problems that make it attractive to hire them in the first place.
Now, you could combine a higher statutory minimum wage with immigration enforcement – that would tighten the labor market, thus leading to an organic, market-driven rise in the de facto minimum wage, potentially making the statutory increase less applicable, but it would also reinforce the message that those are not jobs that are somehow beneath Americans. You’d probably also have to make unemployment less attractive by shortening (or at least not lengthening) the period of time you can receive unemployment payments, and also re-tighten the work requirements for welfare.
I’d prefer raising the minimum wage through market means, but if a statutory increase is the political price that needs to be paid to get support for immigration enforcement and re-tightening of welfare/work requirements, I’m okay with that.
The goal, as Mickey Kaus likes to say, is not money equality but social equality – that Americans aren’t equal only in the eyes of God but in each other’s eyes as well.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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