Seattle city leaders and others are attacking a study that shows potential problems with the $15 minimum wage, rather than learning from it. This, in a nutshell, is why politics is broken — nobody wants to hear it.
“Bad news for liberals.”
That was how one national news outlet summed up the finding this week that Seattle’s bold experiment in a $15 minimum wage isn’t working out quite as planned.
University of Washington researchers found that forcing wages higher and faster could be hurting the very people it was most supposed to help: the lowest-wage, least-skilled workers.
But the bad news doesn’t have to be either final or fatal. Not if liberals can get out of their defensive crouches and actually be liberal — that is, open to new information that may not square with the program.
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“We have a culture in Seattle that if you’re not on board with the cause 100 percent, then you’re vilified. That’s got to loosen up, or we’re really heading for trouble.”
That’s Dave Meinert, owner of six bars and restaurants in town. He was one of only three on a 24-member advisory task force who dissented as the $15 wage plan was adopted in a progressive cheering parade three years ago.
Basically what he said then was the city was pushing the base wage too high, too fast, without enough flexibility for different types of businesses. Unlike some of the more strident naysayers, who predicted (wrongly) that businesses would fail, Meinert suggested it was the workers themselves who would get hurt.
Which is what appears to be happening to the lowest-wage workers, the UW study found.
As with anything involving the dismal science, the report is complex and caveat-filled. But the main finding is very inconvenient — that near the bottom of the pay scale, wages went up but hours were cut more, resulting in an overall loss of $125 in pay per job per month.
Meinert said he wasn’t surprised, because he has started slightly shaving hours at his bars. Example: One of his places that used to open at 11 a.m. now opens at noon, leading to a reduction of one hour per day, times three workers, equaling 21 fewer paid hours per week.
He’s got spreadsheets that show the productivity by hour in all his restaurants. When labor costs or other factors make a time slot no longer pencil out, he shifts or shaves hours.
“Nobody has lost jobs, but some of the newer hires have seen reduced hours,” Meinert said.
The study found that while this was going on, Seattle restaurants also hired more highly paid employees. The LA Times said it suggests restaurants here are splitting into two models: limited service, like where you bus your own tables, or “lavish, full-service joints, where a salad can cost, say, $25.”
A $25 salad? Well, in 2014 I quoted one pub owner predicting Seattle would become “the city of the $18 hamburger.” He wasn’t far off.
The red flag is that restaurants have been shielded from the biggest wage boosts so far. They have a $2-an-hour tip adjustment (meaning they can pay $2 less than the base wage, which this year is $13 for small businesses.) But in time that tip adjustment will be phased out. The base wage for restaurants is due to go up another 36 percent by 2021, when even tipped workers will get the full $15.
“If I were a Seattle lawmaker, I would be thinking hard about the $15-an-hour phase-in,” David Autor, an MIT economist, told The Washington Post this week.
Are they? I see more rationalizing and propagandizing. That Mayor Ed Murray went out and recruited a labor-friendly Berkeley researcher to bash the UW economics study before it was even released doesn’t exactly suggest an open mind.
Maybe this study is wrong, and more research obviously is needed. But what’s puzzling about City Hall attacking it is that even this bad-news finding suggests only tweaking might be in order.
“They’re putting their heads in the sand, when they could just be adjusting the experiment to make sure it works better,” Meinert said.
Ideological rigidity like this is exactly what’s plaguing national politics. Example: There was an insane story in Politico that U.S. Senate Republican leaders were going around with an “urgent warning” for colleagues: “If Obamacare repeal fails … the GOP might be forced to compromise with Democrats.”
Compromise? Oh the humanity!
Seattle liberals, don’t be like them. Instead, be … real liberals.