Minimum Wage Supporters Need to Learn how to Socialize Conflict

27 Jul 2015 12:42 PM | Deleted user

In his famous work, The Semisovereign People published more than 50 years ago, political scientist E.E. Schattschneider described politics as revolving around conflict. There were two sides to a conflict: those who were actively involved — the actors — and those sitting on the sidelines — the spectators.

One set of actors would seek to socialize the conflict by turning spectators into actors. This, of course, would require convincing the spectators that the issue at hand was one that also affected them too. The other set of actors would seek to localize the conflict by trying to prevent the spectators from becoming actors. Now they would argue that the issue at hand was really a small — perhaps trivial — issue that does not really affect them. Rather it only affects a small and insignificant percentage of the population.

If we look closely at this scenario, it isn’t hard to see how Schattachneider’s analogy applies to the minimum wage. Critics of the minimum wage have been arguing that because only 2 percent of the population earns the statutory minimum wage, and of that 2 percent most are only secondary earners, the minimum wage is really not that significant. Because most earners are secondary — meaning that they are not primary household supporters — they are in fact trivial.

Worse, the use of the term “secondary” effectively represents a negative social construction of the target population, and one very much based on a particular societal ethos. Because they are unimportant, the minimum wage could not possibly be used as a positive policy tool. If they are unimportant or only contributors to a household rather than principal household supporters, then there is no need to raise their wages, especially if there may be negative employment consequences.

They are now cast as being unworthy of wage increases on the grounds that such increases are not necessary to the maintenance of their families. This construction is very similar to the centuries old distinction between the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor. Those who were poor through no fault of their own — widows, the disabled, the elderly, and orphans — were considered to be worthy and were to be treated with compassion and charity. The unworthy were those who were simply lazy and lacked “moral character,” and thus were to be treated harshly The more poor people who can be categorized as unworthy, the less responsibility society has to care for their well-being.

To a large extent, the appeal of the neoclassical ethic regarding the minimum wage clearly has something to do with how defenders of this ethos have been able to successfully localize the conflict. Remember only an insignificant few earn the statutory minimum wage. Similarly if low-wage workers in general can be conceived of as unworthy of higher wages because of their attributes and perceived failings, society then bears no responsibility for their low wages and is thus under no obligation to ensure that their wages rise above a certain level.

Because, they are insignificant and indeed unworthy, the minimum wage is assumed to be inefficient precisely because it isn’t necessary. If the minimum wage has been primarily benefiting teenagers and not benefitting those working to support a family, there is obviously no logic to the minimum wage at all. It is simply irrelevant.

It is pity that supporters of the minimum wage haven’t read Schattschneider, because if they did they would understood that instead of couching it as an anti-poverty measure, they would make an argument that according to political scientist Martin Gilens would be “targeting within universalism.” To target within universalism is to in short socialize the conflict by demonstrating how the issue of the minimum wage isn’t trivial, but is indeed a middle class issue.

At the moment there is growing support for a $15.00 an hour minimum wage. More and more states and localities are legislating it. It would appear that the momentum is growing. And yet, supporters may still be missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. They still couch it as an anti-poverty measure. Without a doubt, the poor will be assisted, but to maintain the momentum requires targeting within universalism. Why? Because policies like social security became widely popular precisely because they were couched as broadly middle class.

Too much of progressive politics appear to be guided by Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals where he advises the demonization of the opposition. I suppose that is one way of socializing conflict. Obviously those misguided economists who stand behind the neoclassical model don’t care about the poor, especially given that they are not poor themselves. Never mind that most progressives aren’t either. But this approach only goes so far because the neoclassical model isn’t evil; it is simply limited in its application.

The support for the $15.00 an hour minimum wage could be stronger still if presented as a middle class issue. Ironically the New York City Chamber of Commerce acknowledged that the proposed $15.00 an hour minimum for fast food workers might actually be beneficial to the local economy because workers will have more to spend, which in turn will fuel more demands for goods and services.

Now if we couple this dynamic with the recent findings from the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley that low wages cost U.S. taxpayers $152.8 billion a year for subsidies to low-wage workers, it should then be easy to socialize the conflict. In other words, the debate over the minimum wage should no longer be presented as the standard Democrats and liberals support and Republicans and conservatives oppose.

Those who care about the middle class will socialize the conflict and indeed demonstrate why it will also benefit them. And those who don’t care about the middle class will continue to dig in as they always have into a pattern of localizing the conflict. What the new momentum for the $15.00 an hour minimum demonstrates is that the issue will not disappear and that supporters have an opportunity to make this a critical 2016 election issue, if they only can get their act together and make the right arguments.

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