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The Minimum Wage, Immigration, and Affirmative Action

Earlier this week Washington Post Columnist Matt Miller published an excellent piece making the case for a large increase in the federal minimum wage, including arguments drawn from a wide range of prominent business and political figures, as well as mention of  my own recent New America article on that issue. Given the importance of the topic, it is […]

Earlier this week Washington Post Columnist Matt Miller published an excellent piece making the case for a large increase in the federal minimum wage, including arguments drawn from a wide range of prominent business and political figures, as well as mention of  my own recent New America article on that issue.

Given the importance of the topic, it is hardly unexpected that the column attracted some 600 comments.  But far more surprising was the overwhelmingly negative response of those readers.  Given that the Post is a centrist-liberal newspaper and Miller a centrist-liberal columnist, one suspects that the vast majority of the commenters were similarly of the centrist-liberal orientation.  But I suspect that most of their hostile remarks would have been indistinguishable from what would have greeted a similar suggestion posted on National Review or FoxNews or the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity; and therein lies a tale.

Although the ideological spectrum of American political discourse is casually rendered along a Left-to-Right spectrum, the range of views obviously has high dimensionality; and projecting an idea-space of ten or fifteen independent degrees of freedom onto a single axis is surely absurd, with even the two most prominent dimensions of “social issues” and “economic issues” failing to capture the underlying reality.

Thus in 2008 we saw many of America’s most influential Republican pundits urging Sen. John McCain to select Sen. Joe Lieberman as his vice presidential selection to assuage and reassure distrustful conservatives.  This came despite Lieberman having one of the most liberal Senate voting records on hot-button social and economic issues such as abortion, gay rights, gun control, affirmative action, immigration, taxes, regulations, and almost everything else, while even having served as candidate Al Gore’s loyal vice presidential Democratic pick just a few years earlier.  But in 2008, Lieberman’s enthusiastic support for the continued Iraq Occupation and Bush’s “Great War on Terror” had momentarily eclipsed all other issues among much of the conservative elite.

Similarly, over the last couple of decades, the economic well-being of America’s working- or middle-classes seems to have been relegated to an afterthought, not merely among Republicans and conservatives, but also among their Democratic and liberal opponents as well.  The shocking truth that the average American family is probably poorer today in real terms than they were fifty years ago has been almost entirely ignored by both parties, and therefore ignored by the media as well, presumably under the theory that what people don’t know won’t really hurt them.

Meanwhile, the loud battles over Gay Marriage and Gun Control, whose outcome would directly impact an utterly negligible fraction of our total population, generates front-page headline after front-page headline, perhaps because these issues excite the people who write those headlines or those who fund our campaigns.  As a leading Democratic political consultant in California once joked to me during the late 1990s, no wealthy liberals he knew had any interest in funding a minimum wage increase or any similar meat-and-potato economic issue of the traditional Left; instead, the ideal initiative for fundraising purposes would promise to “Save the Gay Whales from Second-Hand Smoke.”

The near-total intellectual hegemony established by neoliberal economics during the last generation is further demonstrated by the skeptical response to Miller’s minimum wage column by Slate financial columnist and progressive pundit Matt Yglesias (refuted here).  The latter seems to see Federal Reserve monetary policy as the solution to all our economic problems, worrying that the inflationary impact from increasing wages at the lower end of the spectrum would interfere with attempts to keep interest rates low, thereby derailing the desperately-awaited recovery.  Given that five years of exceptionally low interest rates seem to have benefited Wall Street a great deal but Main Street little or nothing, it’s far from clear whether another five years of the same policy would do much different.

In any event, a rise in the minimum wage to $10 or even $12 per hour would simply produce a one-time jump in prices, perhaps in the range of a couple of percent, rather than the sort of continuing inflationary spiral which might unnerve the Fed.  Lower wage-earners would gain vastly more than they lost, the affluent wouldn’t even notice the difference, while hundreds of billions of dollars in additional disposable income for those who spend every dollar might finally jumpstart the economy, being an enormous stimulus package funded entirely by the private sector.

In fact, the AFL-CIO has suggested that a Republican Party which strongly supported a higher minimum wage might warrant a strong second look from the vast number of ordinary American workers who had refused to even consider the plutocratic candidacy of a Mitt Romney.

As it happens, I was recently invited by The Aspen Institute to speak at their DC headquarters on a March 6th panel addressing a minimum wage increase, and perhaps some of these important points will come out during the discussion.


This same bipartisan elite consensus on the harmful effects of raising workers’ wages by law also manifests itself in a wide range of other issues. Leading Democrats and Republicans are now lining up in favor of a new amnesty program for America’s 11 million or so illegal immigrants, planning to combine this legislation with expanded quotas for skilled immigrants and also some sort of guestworker program for the lesser skilled.

It is surely an odd thing for a country’s political leaders to propose substantial increases in new immigration at a time of such high unemployment and so much economic misery among the middle- and working-classes.  Obviously part of the explanation is that our elites are doing very well financially, with the DC area having become America’s wealthiest region. But the political cross-currents are quite intriguing.

Throughout most times and places, business interests have always tended to favor high immigration levels, for the obvious reason that a greater supply of available workers drives down wages and increases profits.  So the responsiveness of Republican officials to their business donor class is hardly surprising, nor is the position of business-funded thinktanks and pundits.

But for exactly the same reason, worker advocates have traditionally been doubtful or hostile to immigration, even if they might often be friendly towards existing immigrants or had themselves originally come from such a background.  It is hardly surprising that America’s leading anti-immigrationist figure throughout most of the 1960s and 1970s was famed labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Given such realities, the eagerness with which the Democratic side of the aisle have embraced a softening of immigration policy without any commensurate protections against job loss or wage decline is surely a sign they too have been captured by the business elites, just as was their widespread support for financial bailouts at the top of the economy and their disinterest in minimum wage increases at the bottom.  As some Internet pundits have noted, President Obama actually traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada to announce his immigration proposal, selecting the highest-unemployment state to roll out a proposal hardly likely to alleviate that problem, but certainly one which would benefit the mega-wealthy employers of the low-wage service workers who staff the local casino-and-hotel economy.  In our current political system, only the views—and dollars—of the latter much matter.

Given the obvious connection between more immigrants competing for jobs and a relentless downward pressure on wages, I would suggest that the easiest way for both Democrats and Republicans to demonstrate that they are not wholly owned subsidiaries of our business class would be to explicitly link the two issues by attaching a large rise in the federal minimum wage to any proposed immigration reform.  After all, the primary force which originally drew those 11 million illegals to America was the attractive availability of so many millions of low-wage jobs in our country, and unless this suction force at the bottom of the economy is eliminated, more border crossers will eventually come to take their places once the current ones are legalized.

As I have argued at length elsewhere, immigration and the minimum wage are deeply intertwined policy issues, and should naturally be addressed together.  Raising our minimum wage to $12 per hour as part of the proposed amnesty legislation would probably do more to solve future immigration problems than would any sort of electronic fence or national ID card.


On a somewhat different matter, on Tuesday I published an NRO op-ed suggesting that the apparent Asian Quota policies of Harvard and its Ivy League peers might undercut the 1978 Bakke decision that has provided the legal basis for modern affirmative action, a timely question given the Fisher case now pending at the high court.  The response to my article was very heartening, including a lengthy comment-thread and with the article itself being tweeted out to a hundred thousand or more mainstream conservatives.  Most importantly of all, my piece received prominent notice at ScotusBlog, the leading blog for Supreme Court legal discussions, and one way or another must surely have now gained the attention of the individuals crafting the Fisher decision, at least if that ruling has not already been finalized.

As it happens, my analysis drew the attention of a prominent conservative hardliner, someone very critical of the Republican establishment, who wondered why my sole focus had been on Asians, rather than on the white victims of affirmative action in college admissions.  Obviously, the latter do exist, since percentages must total one hundred, and the increased allocation of elite admissions slots to blacks and Hispanics are surely not all transferred from Asian applicants.  But this point actually highlights the long victory of rhetoric over reality in conservative circles.

Over the last fifteen years, Republicans have steadily retreated on their longstanding opposition to racial preferences, with Bush’s 2000 public advocacy of “affirmative access” being merely a notable signpost.  Efforts were made to mask this surrender through the gradual replacement of substantive positions by poll-driven phrases, and conservative political consultants soon discovered that although the term “affirmative action” had considerable popularity, “racial quotas” were widely disliked.  Thus, opposition to “quotas” became the sound bite regularly dropped into the speeches of Republican candidates and office-holders, allowing them to check off that particular box on their conservative score-sheet.

The problem with such an approach is that “racial quotas” are already illegal in America and have been for decades, and their use in college admissions was explicitly prohibited under the original Bakke ruling.  So conservatives have been safely attacking what almost no Democrat will publicly defend, which hardly indicates any real desire to change existing social policy.

Furthermore, finding any statistical evidence for the existence of such “quotas” is quite difficult.  For example, if we focus on the percentage of blacks or Hispanics enrolled at the various Ivy League colleges over the last couple of decades, those numbers have fluctuated considerably from year to year with wide variations also from school to school, while roughly growing in line with the underlying populations.  For example, the Hispanic enrollment for Columbia has doubled in the last decade, and is now nearly twice that of Penn; any Ivy League “quota” for Hispanics must be a very flexible one.  Obviously, “affirmative action” in admissions exists—the universities often proclaim the policy on their websites—but that’s really not the same as “quotas.”

The trajectory of white enrollments tells a very similar story, showing nearly a ten point spread between white numbers at Columbia and Princeton, and considerable fluctuations over the years.  On average, white percentages have declined substantially over the last twenty years, but so has the white fraction of the college-age population, and the two trends have generally moved in parallel.  The range of white percentages across the Ivy League in 1990 was roughly as wide as the range today, with no sign of collusion or “quotas” in either case.

Thus, by abandoning criticism of affirmative action for the softer ideological target of minority “quotas,” conservatives actually attacked a straw man, and even a cursory examination of enrollment trends would call their bluff with regard to whites, blacks, and Hispanics, with no quota evidence being visible to the naked eye.

But the Asian situation is entirely different and the statistics for Asian enrollment do indeed show extremely strong evidence of such secret “racial quotas.”  This demonstrates that the top Ivy League have been dishonest regarding their anti-quota claims for decades, perhaps since Bakke, and completely demolishes their credibility on the matter.  This was the central argument of my NRO column.


Thus, we find America’s two major political parties at a strange ideological crossroads.  Over the last couple of decades, the Democrats have totally abandoned their support for a high minimum wage, despite the enormous popularity of that issue both to their own base and to the country as a whole.  During this same period, the Republicans have similarly abandoned their opposition to affirmative action, an issue which had long inspired many of their grass roots supporters and also proved very popular among the working-class blue-collar Democrats who often decide presidential elections.

So what do the people of a country do when both their major parties have abandoned so many of their most important and popular core positions.  Perhaps the phrase “abandon all hope” is the depressing answer…


On a related matter, Scott McConnell attended last week’s Yale Political Union debate on affirmative action, and has provided his own somewhat generous account of how the lively evening unfolded, as seen from a seat in the audience.