By L.D. DAVIDSON
For The Sunday Gazette
Let’s ignore media hype and political bombast for once. Now that the excitement about sensible gun control measures is past, it is high time to refocus on New York state issues of high content value.
No single issue facing our state politicians in the new legislative session will have a greater human impact than raising the minimum wage. An increase is long overdue.
Beyond the public preening of politicians who might wish to run for higher office, no one can really argue that the new state gun control legislation will make a big difference in reducing the likelihood of tragedies. The new gun control legislation makes us feel better, and it certainly gives our ambitious governor a freshened national profile. Now is the moment, though, to refocus on the big issues facing the next session of the state Legislature: campaign fi nance reform, real ethics laws and an increase in the minimum wage.
Right now, the biggest-impact issue is raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour. This is the legislative action for the upcoming year that will have the most immediate positive impact on actual people and on the quality of life in the state.
The reasons arguing for swift passage of minimum-wage legislation are pressing. Moreover, they are central to what should be the main focus of responsible politicians everywhere: promoting the general welfare of real citizens, not interest groups.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the new state Senate power broker, Jeffrey Klein, also deserve some praise for talking about raising the wages of the state’s lower earners.
Putting some extra money in the hands of low-wage earners is a good economic stimulus. It also will raise some extra tax revenue for the state coffers. The $8.75 per hour proposal from Gov. Andrew Cuomo is certainly better than nothing, but it is still wholly inadequate for working families and students. Imagine the diffi culty of raising children as a single parent on $18,000 per year.
The existing rate, $7.25 an hour, is not a livable wage, period.
Just because a vocal, me-first minority of business ideologues resists raising the minimum wage doesn’t mean their complaints are enough of a reason to ignore the necessity of a sizable increase in what low-wage workers are paid. The fast-food chains and discount retailers of the world can handle an increase. They will inevitably pass the cost along to consumers one way or another. Small businesses will, too.
A compelling argument can even be made that it isn’t in the longterm interests of the business community in New York state, or elsewhere, to fuel the growth of a permanent underclass by keeping the minimum wage artifi cially low. Again and again, whenever an arrogant elite ignores a widening income inequality, serious economic and political consequences have eventually ensued. Again and again, it has been the smug business and political elites that lose the most in the end. Think of the fate of the elite in pre-1917 Russia. It happened to the British colonial elite in India. Then, too, think about the French elite in 1789.
More recently, the growth of an underclass and the self-dealing of corrupt elites is also one root cause of the recent instability in the Arab world. If our business and political leaders think this won’t ever be a concern in the U.S, then bless their naïveté. Many must be conveniently oblivious to the precedent of serious unrest in the U.S. in the 1960s.
What we see now in the U.S. is very dangerous in the long run. We see the growth of a disadvantaged and poorly educated American underclass alongside a self-dealing corporate, business and political leadership seemingly incapable of self-regulation. At the same time, we have political stalemate in Washington and widening national divisions along geographical lines.
This cauldron of national developments is the backdrop to the state’s minimum-wage debate. The sooner a minimum wage increase is enacted, the better — and not just in New York.
Businesses will find ways to defend profit margins. The many good business people with social consciences are not going to leave New York state in droves to exploit Mexican or Philippine workers. The unemployment rate will not skyrocket. Other lower-tax states with inferior public services are not going to steal many of the state’s small businesses.
A more enduring solution, of course, is to index the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index. It doesn’t speak well for the political system or for the practicality of our political leaders that indexing was not initiated several decades ago. And why not also fi nally start indexing state legislative salaries and teacher salaries?
Indexing is not only rational policy, but it also clears the state’s political conveyor belt of an array of sub-issues that allow politicians to avoid action on long-overdue political reforms; specifically, on campaign finance law and on genuine ethics reform, both issues that were once again addressed inadequately in the last legislative session.
The best reason for a minimum-wage increase, though, goes beyond any political or economic or historical argument: raising the minimum wage in New York state and elsewhere is simply fair and it is the right thing to do.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.