Rare and happy is the occasion on which one struggles to distinguish between the editorial page of the New York Times and the editorial page of National Review, and yet January 14, 1987, provided such a moment. On that day, Avik Roy recalled this week, the Times’ editors not only declared their opposition to a “substantial” rise in the minimum wage, but went the whole hog, criticizing as “fundamentally flawed” the concept itself and, in policy terms at least, establishing themselves firmly on the side of the free marketeers. “The Right Minimum Wage”? the Grey Lady asked. “$0.00.” This, modern readers will note with amusement, put the paper to the right of President Reagan, who had proposed only “a lower minimum.”
The Times’ reasoning was fairly straightforward: The editors wrote that any meaningful rise — such as, say, the 39 percent increase that President Obama is floating today — would “price working poor people out of the job market,” “increase employers’ incentives to evade the law,” and — a charge that would today yield eye-rolls and general accusations of “racism” or “hate” — expand “the underground economy.” For a brief moment, at least, New York’s arbiter of taste sounded deliciously like Thomas Sowell.
That the paper once held the opposite position is not, in and of itself, problematic. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with an organization altering its views over time. Opinions rightly develop as new evidence is presented, and words must always be evaluated in the context of their era. Nevertheless, the reasons for the Times’ change of heart are not entirely clear. Certainly, in 1987, the paper could fairly observe that “there’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed.” Now, it cannot, as the earnest protestations of Obama advisers Jason Furman and Betsey Stevenson, respectable economists both, made clear this week. But the lack of a consensus does not mean that a proposition is wrong, merely that there is a split on its veracity — or, perhaps, that the study of economics has become more ideologically informed. Why, then, have the editors now come down on the side of risk?
Why, too, have the editors made a different calculation as to the best course than did their predecessors? In ’87, it should be noted, the paper’s editorial went on to suggest various alternatives that it thought might better address the country’s problems. Among these were “wage supplements,” “cash or payments for medical insurance,” “[enlarging] the existing earned income tax credit,” and a variety of ill-defined training and education measures that the board conceded had yielded “mixed results at a very high cost” but that it would be worth attempting to perfect.
Progressives are right to argue that working-class wages have seen anemic growth and that the labor share of the economy has diminished. Still, this does not automatically make the case that the minimum wage is the way to fight the malaise. Sure, if one is happy with the state artificially declaring labor to be of greater value than it is, then one presumably has no philosophical problem with a president standing in front of the country and instructing its businesses to pay their workers more than those businesses believe that they are worth. But the Times once had a problem with the president’s doing so on the grounds that it would have such deleterious consequences for those at the bottom of the barrel that almost anything else was preferable — even policies that had proven to be of dubitable value. What has changed?
Well, what has changed, it seems, is the politics. Not only is “give America a raise” an instinctively attractive proposition to the low-information voters that form a vital part of any winning coalition, and not only does it please a progressive movement that would like to see the government exercise more control over the private sector, but it allows a president who has found himself rendered prematurely impotent in Washington to propose sending more money the way of the citizenry without having to add to the debt or to increase taxation — and to slam his opponents as uncaring while he does. As Reihan Salam argued yesterday, Obama’s presidency was marked at the outset by “dramatic, and in some cases very expensive, policy change and alarmingly high deficits, driven largely by collapsing tax revenues.” Neither the party that runs the House of Representatives nor the public at large is going to allow such a dramatic shift to happen again any time soon. The president is hoping that he can make America’s businesses do what he cannot convince Congress to do: give people “free” money.
What is conspicuously missing from this new push is any serious case that the Times’ original claims have been found to be wanting: that is, that, as it wrote rather embarrassingly just before the CBO found the opposite to be the case, “minimum wage increases [result] in ‘strong earnings effects’ — that is, higher pay — ‘and no employment effects’ — that is, zero job loss.” There’s no such thing as a free lunch, the old saying goes. For a brief moment, the doyens of Eighth Avenue knew this to be true. What happened, guys?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.