Today 75 economists, including 7 Nobel Laureates signed a letter advocating for a higher minimum wage. They sum up what is now the consensus among economists: a modest boost to the minimum wage won’t have a significant effect on unemployment and may boost the local economy. But it strikes me that focuses on the “economics” of the minimum wage is relatively unimportant; it’s the moral question that matters.
If I go to the bank and ask for a loan to finance a the development of technology to turn kittens into car sealant, they won’t ask about the return on investment, they’ll call the police. Similarly, when we banned child labor we didn’t ask if that would reduce GDP. We banned child labor because we aren’t a society that lets children work in dangerous factories. We passed OSHA because we aren’t a society where workers have to worry about dying on the job.
We should raise the minimum wage because we aren’t a society where a full-time worker can’t feed her family. Even if raising the minimum wage caused unemployment (it doesn’t) it would still be the right thing to do. Work should have dignity, and dignity means being paid enough to live.
The minimum wage debate is a microcosm of this problem. Conservatives constantly lament the fact that our society is too materialistic and atomized but when it comes time to give up material pleasure for social gain they run. Is it not a tad materialistic to eschew regulation to save jobs? Isn’t it materialistic to pollute the environment for economic growth? Too often the left falls into the trap of allowing our moral case to be diluted with the economics argument.
We should certainly point out that the minimum wage won’t kill jobs and neither will regulation, but it’s important to remind people that simply increasing GDP isn’t actually a good goal. Robert F. Kennedy put it best when he said of efforts to increase GNP (an economic indicator similar to GDP that measures production based on ownership):
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
Are we proud to live in a country where full-time workers still struggle to eat? Then let’s raise the minimum wage.