Minimum Wage and Public Policy

There’s the Fight for $15, and there’s always been a push and pushback around minimum wage laws. It’s a good example of the problems and failures with public policy debates.

Some jobs should be destroyed

An important problem that the minimum wage deals with effectively is work that should not be done or cannot be done in a way that sustains a worker. We can’t pay someone to cut grass by hand (with scissors), for example. It’s a job that’s not going to happen. Even for a modestly sized lawn, you would have to work seven days a week, using ambidextrous scissors with both hands, working 12 hour days, and you still wouldn’t the the lawn cut before it grew higher still. The wage that would be required, as you would need at least four or six ambidextrous lawn cutters, would be so low that nobody could afford to do the job.

So, any discussion of minimum wage must deal with this first issue. That minimum wage effectively (and graciously) rules out some jobs that we must either find alternatives to accomplish or leave undone or make subsidiary to more pronounced jobs that are economically sustainable.

To put it another way, when an opinion or study talks about “job destruction” from minimum wages, we must not immediately light a candle, but ask if those jobs that might be destroyed (and, one imagines, eviscerated, mutilated, and dumped without a proper burial) are jobs that anyone should be doing. They aren’t economically productive enough to pay someone the minimum wage!

Are there non-economically-productive jobs that should be done? Yes and no. There are jobs that aren’t directly producing revenue, like school teachers and firefighters, but they are either investments or protections against loss. They are very important and those workers, often public servants, deserve at least a minimum wage. Often they are underpaid precisely because of the imbalanced mindset of work, where jobs that aren’t moneymakers are seen as inferior and undeserving of better wages.

The same problem in carbon

We see the same problem in carbon that we see in the minimum wage. You have what is effectively a negative externality to nonregulation—that in the case of minimum wage is the allowance for undesirable work to be performed at a substandard wage. In the case of carbon, you allow for the release of CO₂ for industrial processes that don’t merit the release (this also extends to other forms of pollution).

But then you start getting into what constitutes useful work and what doesn’t. People say they don’t want the government to pick winners and losers. Instead of gatekeeping, though, the beauty of a price floor is that it makes no moral or aesthetic judgements. It simply lets things that can’t cross the boundary bang their heads and fall down. They could either become efficient enough to cross the boundary, or they could be subsidized by charity or other arrangements (e.g., through advertising or alternative monetizations).

This sans-judgement approach is one of the reasons so many people see value in UBI or freedom dividends or whatever you’d like to call them. They similarly come without strings, and they supplant a lot of other programs (which either come with strings by their nature or because nanny-state Republicans seek to impose their morals on the poor).

The same problem in prisons and detention centers

The costs of holding people is already high, but often the conditions are lousy. Overcrowding, in particular, is a chronic problem. If the standards of conditions were higher, and if the costs of holding people were higher, it would force society to make smarter decisions about who should be imprisoned and for how long.

In lieu of prison or jail, some crimes would be decriminalized, or some sentences would be curtailed. In other cases, rehabilitation would be improved to lessen the chance of recidivism. But when conditions are poor or the costs too low, society tends to overincarcerate.


The bottom line is that for capitalism to work, it must have guard rails. If you don’t have minimum wage, fine, but then you need some alternative that basically sets down an ante that firms have to meet to hire people. (In poker, antes and blinds are used to make playing cost something so that action is forced; it can and should have similar effects in other capitalist systems.)

In general, one would prefer to find ways to make the basic flows and forces of capitalism work to the advantage of the whole system. The current regulatory systems often fail to do that, but the Republicans tend to take the wrong approach to redress this: simply eradicating regulation (while their other hand puts up regulations, but only on things they don’t like that benefit the poor or other groups they dislike, including women). Until we have a party that both recognizes the necessity of guard rails and the existence of in-built forces to erect those rails, we’re stuck in a limbo of misregulation or nonregulation.

Word Salad for the Fourth

Just some random thoughts. Like, don’t put flags on sneakers. Shoes wear out, the flag’s supposed to endure, man. And what the hell are they spending all this money on flying planes over stuff, like it’s some trick. Planes are supposed to fly. Jump a motorcycle over the Lincoln Memorial if you want to impress me (would cost less, too).

They just spent weeks on emergency funding to (hopefully) improve conditions (Republicans said no to actually requiring them to, which is already part of the law and part of the Flores agreement and part of our treaty obligations), and now let’s just waste a bunch of money on a stupid pep rally for the president’s ego.

And now they’re trying to save the citizenship question on the census. If they had done it properly from the start, doing the required study period and all that, we could maybe have a question, but you can’t just break the law to suit a bunch of partisan donors who want to feel like they can buy our governments (state and federal). Not at all how it works.

“And on your way home from Japan, honey, could you cross into enemy territory for a political stunt for me?” Why in the hell did the president go to North Korea? And did he have a visa or did he visit illegally?

The conservatives are usually the ones that oppose messing with the flag. They always call for amendments against flag burning. But putting flags on sneakers is so patriotic, I guess. In other countries they think shoes are insulting, like that guy who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush. Somehow the corporations made Americans believe shoes are cars for your feet and should be flashy and expensive and have sound systems and hydraulics.

Anyway, only 69 weeks until the 2020 election. Just enough time to have a bunch of primary debates, a bunch of primaries, two conventions, some general election debates, some (probably, unfortunately) Russian government disinformation about how. . . who knows? They want it to be a surprise, I guess. “Surprise, we aren’t busy enough making miserable the Russian people, so we want to spread the misery around you see.”

But still deserving of compassion. Dictators are the saddest people. They can trust nobody. They can help nobody without the person thinking they now owe a favor to the dictator. I mean, if they see a person trying to open a jar of pickles and they help, now that person thinks they might have to go infiltrate the NRA because of the pickle jar thing.

They are utterly trapped because if they give up power they will be killed by the next dictator or the people whose families they murdered. Best case scenario for a dictator is a long life in prison, and outside of a few countries most have awful prisons, especially the dictatorships. It is a very sad thing, dictators.

The question is, naturally, whether it is that set of circumstances that makes dictators so awful, or whether the dictators are awful to begin with. Nature or nurture? The answer is obviously a combination, like with everything else.

But maybe we should have a dictator awareness day where we recognize how shitty it must be to be a dictator, so that nobody in the future will make the mistake of being one. “Just say no thank you to being a dictator.”

And in some ways, in the USA, we do. It’s Independence Day, where we remember that it’s worth it to tell dictators to fuck right off. It’s not easy, but it can be done. We’re living proof that they stay away, at least awhile.

Anyway, happy belated Independence Day.

2020 Democratic Primary Debates 1.1 & 1.2

Not who won or lost—when I watch debates, that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for personality, honesty, ideas. There are some notes of strengths/weaknesses, below.

Climate Realism

During 1.1 there was a question whether Inslee’s plan would save Miami, which he basically had to say yes to. You can’t stand in front of a city and tell them their city is going to go bye-bye. At least not yet. But it’s likely to, as seas rise enough.

There was a little bit of acknowledgment of that in 1.2 with Buttigieg differentiating between mitigation and stopping further climate change, but the general attitude of politicians seems to be focused on limiting the future damage without pointing to preparedness for the damage that will surely come.

Broad Agreement on Healthcare

The question seems to be whether to shoot for Medicare for All or let a public option evolve into Medicare for All. The differences of all sizes are moot at that point—they are all smaller than the differences that would exist in actually passing any bill change the healthcare system.

There seemed to be some slight nods to the bureaucratic friction in healthcare—one of its worst features is the difficulty of selecting insurance, understanding it, etc. But even those nods seemed very slight, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Half the pain of health conditions for a lot of folks is jumping through all the damned hoops.

US-Middle-East Relations

Everyone seems to agree war sucks, which is nice. The broader question of how to move the Middle East toward a better place wasn’t addressed. Some talk, especially in 1.1 about the Iranian agreement and tensions there. Indirect references to the potential for a peace dividend from a few candidates, without much to say about how to get there.


It’s a healthy field, as my report last week indicated. It seemed like there were more policy differences during 1.1 than 1.2. 1.2 felt much more about positioning than positions. Whether that’s because they saw how 1.1 went and strategized more, because of the contenders present, hard to say.

It felt like climate change was still an afterthought, and although there are only 11 more primary debates, it seems like getting more into the issues of climate would be helpful.

Over the two nights the strongest performances seemed to be (in alphabetical order):

  • Booker
  • Castro
  • Harris
  • Warren

Booker held his own on 1.1, not a complete stand-out, but certainly a contender. Castro had a few stand-out moments (also 1.1) and certainly showed himself to be worth a closer look. Harris, the only one I note from 1.2, seemed well-prepared and personable, but also had more time to speak so that probably helped. Warren has that professorial poise about her, and she’s always well-prepared.

The weakest performances came in 1.2, which may have helped Harris by providing more contrast. Swalwell jumped in with “me, too!” at several points and has some thing about the youth taking over, and Williamson apparently falls into self-help dictation mode whenever she is given a chance to speak.

Sanders (1.2) did alright, but at this point he’s fairly repetitive (if on message). One of his strengths and weaknesses is the fact that he seeded the ground so well with his 2016 rhetoric. That same rhetoric has been broadly adopted by 2020 candidates, both because they want to appeal to Sanders’ 2016 supporters and because it’s become part of the vernacular of the party (itself an oddity—Sanders still isn’t a Democrat).

Biden’s approach (1.2) seems to focus more on his record than is useful at points (doesn’t help that others want to remind us of negative aspects of his record). Others point to their records, but since Biden was around for so long, some of it feels like ancient history (for both the good and the bad). Harris rightly called Biden out for his anti-busing stance, but the electorate back then was more racist and the issue more visible (in 1972 it was largely seen as toxic that George McGovern proudly stated his pro-busing stance).


As the next debate (2.1 and 2.2) is about a month away, there will be some time for everyone to regroup and practice. They all got a chance to see how everyone else did, so the second round should be more informative as to who’s ready to rock and who isn’t.

Trying to get a Grasp on the 2020 Candidates

Cannot do it. Too many of them of various levels of notoriety. I fear we have entered some kind of Bermuda Triangle of candidates, from which we will never emerge.

The debates will be held next week, which means we all have to be able to get this straight in our heads so we can know which people said what and, assuming there’re gaffes, at whom to be outraged.

Meanwhile, Trump ran a rerun of a 2016 rally to “re-launch” his campaign and thought nobody would notice, there’s crazy tension between the USA and Iran, and several glacial regions are racing to see which will melt the fastest. . .

OK. 2020 Candidates. Focus. Oh, God. There’s about a billion of them just with last names starting with the letter B. Bennet, Biden, de Blasio, Booker, Bullock, Buttigieg. And that’s not counting the ones who are known by B-names, like Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke.

I’m going to write a full sentence about my perceived zeigeist of each of the candidates, in alphabetical order. People with more knowledge of these candidates are free to differ with my perceptions, which are based on entirely limited research and passerby hearsay. (Those with an × did not qualify for the first debates. Otherwise it’s 1 for first-night, 2 for second night. Also, I’ve helpfully omitted Mike Gravel entirely.)

  • 2 Bennet, Michael; Got in a little late to the race, this Colorado senator is moderate, and seems to prioritize foundational reforms like campaign finance.
  • 2 Biden, Joe; After missing the boat in 2016, this former vice president is the fast food joint of the race: a known quantity, not great food, but dependable for what he is.
  • 1 de Blasio, Bill; Also a latecomer, this New York City mayor is repeating the grand tradition of that city’s mayors to consider (Michael Bloomberg) and possibly run (Rudy Guiliani) for president in a way that nobody really expects to go anywhere.
  • 1 Booker, Cory; New Jersey senator seeks to run a calm, building tide of a campaign that seems to focus on social justice.
  • × Bullock, Steve; Governor of Montana who is running on the basis of his ability to win in a part of the country that’s been supportive of Trump.
  • 2 Buttigieg, Pete; This mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is an up-and-comer who has attracted attention for being a sophisticated mayor of a mid-sized city.
  • 1 Castro, Julián; This former HUD secretary is running on meat-and-potatoes, chicken-in-every-pot kind of general good-governance.
  • 1 Delaney, John; This former representative from Maryland announced back in 2017 with a focus on cooperation and bipartisanship.
  • 1 Gabbard, Tulsi; This representative from Hawaii seems focused on an isolationist foreign policy.
  • 2 Gillibrand, Kirsten; This New York senator campaigns on helping to reinforce the safety net.
  • 2 Harris, Kamala; This California senator is running on her bona fides as a former prosecutor.
  • 2 Hickenlooper, John; This former Colorado governor seems to be running as a kind of generic progressive with a track record.
  • 1 Inslee, Jay; Governor of Washington who has squared his hole as the climate guy.
  • 1 Klobuchar, Amy; This Minnesota senator emphasizes her ability to win with rural voters and progressives alike.
  • × Messam, Wayne; This mayor of Miramar, Florida, apparently wants to cancel student loan debt.
  • × Moulton, Seth; This representative from Massachusetts is running as a kind of new-core Democrat.
  • 1 O’Rourke, Beto; This former representative from Texas is best known for his 2018 senate race, but hopes to use his popularity from that race to give him a leg up in this broad field.
  • × Quimby, Joseph; This Springfield mayor is fictitious and is not running for president.
  • 1 Ryan, Tim; This representative from Ohio is running on a new manufacturing and new industry message.
  • 2 Sanders, Bernie; This Vermont senator ran a major challenge in the thin 2016 field and hopes that momentum can be renewed in a far denser field.
  • 2 Swalwell, Eric; This representative from California seems to center his campaign around particular policy proposals for a handful of issues including gun safety, college education, and neurological and chronic diseases.
  • 1 Warren, Elizabeth; This Massachusetts senator probably should have run in 2016, but now the professor is at the lectern and she has lesson plans for everything.
  • 2 Williamson, Marianne; This self-help book author wants to pay direct reparations to the descendants of slaves.
  • 2 Yang, Andrew; This entrepreneur wants to give everyone a monthly check that’s larger than Ms. Williamson’s reparations checks would be.

In any case, there’s way too many candidates, so hopefully the upcoming debates will help put the ranking in a more stark contrast and let us begin to speak of a more limited field with confidence that field is solidifying.

On the other hand, trying to pin down even a single sentence for each candidate gave me something to grasp for most. But still a lot to keep in the old noggin at one time.

Could have gone for tag-lines instead. Like Booker seems kind of an anti-Chris-Christie, because Christie went out of his way to be pretty ascerbic where Booker goes out of his way to be fairly calming.

Anyhoo.

Democracy and Faith

Not the pulpit and pew kind of faith. The ideas-have-utility kind. That the basic promise of science and reason and democracy are strong enough that you don’t have to pack the court to make it work. That you don’t have to rig elections, gerrymander, or shoe-horn racist questions into the census to get your way. That kind of faith. Faith that your positions are meaningful, and generally right, and if they turn out to be wrong, you’ll change them rather than changing the subject.

Faith that we don’t have to be 100% on the first draft of a law. That we can use statistical process control to make our systems work better than trying to thread the needle. We are not Luke Skywalker, and we don’t need to be.

Faith that the people want change. And that change is easier when it’s a step at a time. That we don’t start walking. We crawl first. We can be guided by the wisdom of evolution, of experimentation.

This is a starting-point problem, in many ways. That there is a false premise that’s been introduced to our collective system. The false premise is that we should ever be acting like someone like Trump acts—not his biting insults, not his bravado, but his mere conviction is his greatest flaw. His idea, and the idea of anyone, who says they hold some special key, some Rosetta Stone. Be it the wall, or tariffs, or whatever it may be.

And that is exactly what makes Trump so sad to a majority of the nation. He rejects our system. He acts as though he has joined a dictator’s club, believes in winning at all costs, believes in none of the things most of us spent at least twelve grades learning about. The American system, imperfect, seeks out perfection. The Trump system, fatally flawed, seeks nothing beyond the next win, the extra scoop of ice cream, the adoring headline. And then lashes out when it doesn’t get it.

We should all reject that, whether it’s in the guise of a golf resort and luxury brand heckler extraordinaire or whether it’s those who say that the GND is the only and holiest of grails rather than a sketch of some things that might work. Or those who say Medicare for All, rather than let’s figure out this healthcare thing, and if it is Medicare for All, great, but if not, great. The important thing is the result and not who had the idea or that it conformed to some chant or slogan or fever dream.

Faith in democracy means pain. It meant pain when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, signing their names and risking their lives. It meant pain for generations who endured slavery waiting for the country to wake up and have a war to put an end to it. More pain struggling to gain the vote. The pain of forever knowing we hesitated in answering the call, turning away refugees and interning citizens, while Hitler took power and took land and took lives. Our nation is founded upon pain, but of faith that that pain will not be for naught. We may be stupid and slow, but we will arrive.

That’s not to say no action is necessary. Just the opposite. But it does underline the type of action. Reform does not mean retaliation. It means girding the system against wrongdoing no matter who would enact it. If the courts do become rotted by neglect of the Senate, rather than packing them, enact reforms on the nomination and confirmation process, enact changes to court procedure, and impeach any judges (and only those) who are not well-behaved.

Similar reforms in other areas, always following the lodestar of a better system and not naive interests of the moment. The destination in our common sight is not “Democrats win” or “Republicans win,” but remains “America wins, and in doing so, earth and humanity win besides.”