Poverty: Giving a Damn

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Greg Kaufman of The Nation reports from a House hearing on poverty  which was billed like a technocrat’s version of a summer blockbuster: “War on Poverty: A Progress Report”:

[O]ne of the three Republican witnesses—University of Maryland professor Doug Besharov, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Social and Individual Responsibility Project—was there to discuss incentives to help people get out of poverty. So it was surprising that he was unsure what the current federal minimum wage pays.

“The current federal minimum wage is $7.25, correct?” said New York Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, trying to pivot to a discussion about good jobs as the best anti-poverty program.

“Uh, it could be,” said Besharov. “I—I don’t know the exact number. It’s around there.”

Texas Republican Congressman Roger Williams described himself as “a job creator” who has owned and operated his family car business for forty-two years.

“Don’t you think a lot of this debate is the fact we’ve lost our family values? We’ve got single parents and so forth and we need to get back to that?” Williams asked Sister Simone.

You’ll hear, often from Paul Ryan and his fans, that rightwing economic policies aren’t just morally superior to left-liberalism, but are operationally superior too. The idea is that the free market is the best way to solve poverty, if only liberals and Democrats would let the nation try it.

Why Democrats and liberals won’t, which seems like a pretty important question, is left vague, but often amounts to “Because then they’d have no one to vote for them.”

So, because they’re evil, basically.

Anyway, it’s just awful hard for me to take the technocratically-minded conservative arguments especially seriously when it’s so evident that many conservatives — high-up ones, not just low-level activists — really don’t give a damn about poverty. I mean, how much work does it take to find out the minimum wage, especially when it’s ostensibly part of your area of expertise?

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209 thoughts on “Poverty: Giving a Damn

  1. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “security theater” for stuff like the TSA throwing half-squeezed tubes of toothpaste into a 55 gallon drum full of half-squeezed tubes of toothpaste.

    “Well, it could be more than 3.4 ounces of binary explosive.” *THUNK*

    Today I heard the term “compassion theater” as a term used to describe liberal policies to deal with the poor, minorities, etc.

    “Let’s raise the minimum wage to $15 bucks an hour at multi-national corporations!” *THUNK*

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    • I think “theater” describes most major policy initiatives, period. National Democrats make a show of doing things for the poor, for minorities, for labor, but the plight of the poor, minorities, and labor is for the most part (with a few real exceptions) pretty much the same, at least from a policy perspective, as it has been for most of my lifetime. Except a few more X-Boxes.

      On the other hand, I’m not sure anything national Republicans have suggested in my lifetime has really helped any of those groups (with no exceptions), so if generally underrepresented groups are stuck between Scylla and Charybdis, politically speaking, Scylla looks much less scary, and may actually be slightly less so.

      Of course as underrepresented groups, no one in national politics has any real incentive to actually help them. It’s enough for national politicians to make people who aren’t in these groups, but who care about these groups, at least when talking politics over lattes and Perrier at Starbucks, think that they’ve done something, or really wanted to do something if the meanies on the other side wouldn’t keep getting in the way.

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      • “the plight of the poor, minorities, and labor is for the most part (with a few real exceptions) pretty much the same, at least from a policy perspective, as it has been for most of my lifetime.”

        Sad Irons before your time, I guess?
        Same thing with folks wearing paper bags on their heads?

        America looks a ton different than it did 30 years ago (for one thing, increasing urbanization).

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      • However much you can come up with, I suppose. Either way, “I heard this term” doesn’t add up to much of one.

        Elias’ argument is that the guy doesn’t care, and that, unlike the actual proposals from the right which might be argued come from a place of caring, just being too uninterested to know what the minimum wage is does show that one doesn’t care (I don’t know that I agree, but that’s neither here or there). It doesn’t follow that all proposals to help the poor are therefore just about showing that one cares (even if they may show, and may be partially about showing, that one cares), which would need to be the case to be compassion theater.

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      • I’m not sure that I understand the importance of caring when it comes to policy.

        I understand the importance of goals. I understand the importance of measurable.

        “Caring”, it seems to me, is a way to argue that “my way is the right way and the only reason it hasn’t worked is because people who don’t care oppose me.”

        You don’t have to measure anything at all and, if someone does measure something, it doesn’t matter. Why? Because you, unlike them, care. And outcomes need never, ever enter into it.

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      • Chris,
        I agree, ideally, but the way the political world works seems to me to be as Jaybird’s describes. It’s not uncommon to see people who care resist real measurement of outcomes and criticize those who press for measuring as obvious uncarers, who are only looking for an excuse to gut the program, else they wouldn’t be questioning it. Cases in point: HeadStart; NSA surveillance (as a political behavior, it’s certainly not limited to social welfare programs, although it may be most frequently noticeable in that context).

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      • Asking is someone cares seems to be asking if they are even considering whether their actions are negatively affecting a group. I can’t see how that is not a reasonable question. Libertarians ask that all the time. Re: James’ comment about how the world really works i think leads to where discussions get tricky. When one person asks to measure something or consider the cost-benefit ratio what othre people often hear, quite rightly in many cases, is the beginning of an argument to get rid of whatever is in question. So if a frequent critic of public schools says we need to measure teacher performance better, that will be seen as the lead in for an attack on public schools not just a reasonable request to measure teachers better. If that person also owns a private, for profit school company it will be seen as part of drive to get himself more business and money.

        Its mostly about people trying to infer where a debate is going. Sometimes they are wrong and sometimes they are right. Often people are overly defensive or dismissive.

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      • Jay, up above I said something about caring over lattes and perrier. That comment reflects how much I think people saying they care matters.

        Really, if people genuinely cared about poverty, minorities, labor, etc., they’d be doing things very differently. People don’t care.

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      • I know, I know. I intended it rhetorically.

        I just find the argument from caring to be fundamentally a distraction from policies that actually work and, hell, a distraction from the discussion of what “actually work” would actually mean in practice. What kind of time horizon are we talking? To what extent is culture something that we have a right to attach strings to? If not culture, behavior?

        Instead we’re talking about feelings. Shit, we’re not even talking about feelings, we’re talking about communicated feelings.

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      • Really, if people genuinely cared about poverty, minorities, labor, etc., they’d be doing things very differently. People don’t care.

        Doesn’t this require a level of knowledge – both objective as well as held by the individual – which is impractical or impossible?

        Also too, are you saying that caring is an action rather than a sentiment? I’m not sure I agree with that there are lots of (instrumental) merits in thinking about it that way.

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      • Still, I’d say that genuine caring leads to action.

        Jay, I think our politics could benefit from an infusion of empathy, not because empathy, or caring, looks good, but because genuine empathy and caring motivate action.

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      • I’m not sure that I understand the importance of caring when it comes to policy.

        I’m not saying it is important. I’m just saying that if someone says caring is important, that doesn’t mean that they only propose compassion theater or only propose things that amount to nothing more than compassion theater, or, even less, that any proposals others make that they support are compassion theater. I’m also saying that hearing someone use the phrase compassion theater doesn’t make it exist.

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      • I care and to show it I’m going to spend someone else’s money to prove it. Wal Mart can pay folks 15 bucks an hour but the the DC gov’t won’t do the same. I guess it really is compassion theater.

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    • Lets not pretend liberals have even had a remote chance of enacting any major policy attacking policy in a few decades. O could barely some mild stimulus through let alone a major jobs program. Today the R’s held their 40th vote on repealing the ACA and are actively trying to sabotage it. Just getting HC reform was a massive effort. In fact D’s have had to fight to keep the HC for the poor before the ACA. D’s haven’t been great on poverty and do plenty of their theater. But they do actual tangible things for poor people.
      “Compassion theater” as a phrase is its own bit of theater. Liberals would be more than happy to try to do things, but who the spork will support that. R’s…lol. Plenty of moderate D’s won’t go there either.

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    • Yeah. Democrats haven’t controlled the House, Senate, and Presidency in a couple of years now. No way they could have done anything positive. They were too busy throwing people onto food stamps.

      Reagan brought about his epic changes with a Democrat House run by Tip O’Neill (and a Democrat Senate for the last two years and all through George W. Bush’s Presidency and Clinton’s first two years), while Clinton slashed the welfare roles and the deficit with a Republican Congress.

      We can’t expect Obama to meet the high bar set by all of his predecessors, although Bush might call that the soft bigotry of low expectations.

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      • Obviously, you “care” so much when someone points out that your policies are putting millions of people on food stamps.

        Thus the term “compassion theater.”

        Democrats don’t actually give a fig how many lives their policies destroy as long as nobody can accuse them of “not caring enough.”

        But when we are hurt, in pain, and desperate, we’d really rather have a half-way competent staff of medical professionals than a bunch of incompetent college idiots “who care”.

        The problem is that Democrats are clueless about business and economics. That’s why they joined the poor people’s party, made up of, by, and for people without any business or economic skills, or ones gaming the system.

        When you add barriers to job creation, mandate high salaries and lavish pensions, expand the the public sector without bound, you don’t get utopia, you get Detroit. But every elected official in Detroit “cared” about the poor. They cared so much that they made everyone poor, out of what was the city with the highest standard of living in the Western world. Needless to say this didn’t phase them, because they “cared” really hard the whole time they were driving people into poverty.

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      • Obviously, you “care” so much when someone points out that your policies are putting millions of people on food stamps.

        Wait… I thought we still had a mostly free economy. Didn’t the financial collapse put people on food stamps?

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  2. How much work does it take to know not to vote for health care policies that cut minimum wage workers back to 30 hours a week and pretend that it doesn’t do any harm?

    Democrats have established themselves as the poverty party, with record numbers leaving the workforce, record numbers on welfare, record sustained high unemployment (since the Great Depression), record numbers on foodstamps, and the most rapidly widening gap between rich and poor in modern US history.

    Their latest push is to prohibit employers from checking the criminal records of job applicants, because despite their best efforts, a few poor people still slip through the cracks and land a job.

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    • Let’s not pretend that economic cause and effect doesn’t exist, or that rule changes don’t affect behavior, otherwise why would Democrats devote so much effort to changing rules to make things “fair”? If you ban logging, you can’t blame logging companies for firing all their workers. If you raise the minimum wage to $20 an hour, you can’t blame employers for firing all the employees whose productivity is less than that. A business that loses money on every sale isn’t going to make it up in volume.

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      • Well, at least we’ve got the actors straight here. The employer is reducing the workers’ hours. That’s an improvement on the former statement. A business which is making so little money that it can’t afford to pay its workers isn’t selling anything worth buying. Cause and effect dictate profitable businesses can afford to pay their employees. Sounds to me as if you’re trying to make the employees carry the dying business on their backs.

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      • They can pay their workers, they just can’t pay for the health care costs of millions of people who they never hired, never employed, and who retired a decade ago. Obamacare is trying to shift the heath care costs of the most expensive medical demographics onto young healthy workers. The administration and Democrats in Congress admit that if the young healthy people aren’t brought into the program, it can’t succeed.

        All the companies with close ties to the administration wisely got waivers exempting them from the program because they knew that under it, they couldn’t make a profit and would go bankrupt. If you’re selling products for $10 and it takes you $9 in labor to make each one, and the government raises your labor costs to $11 per each to pay for one of their pet projects, you lose $1 on every sale and the company closes its doors the next day, before it bleeds white.

        But I’m sure you never bought a product whose labor costs could be artificially raised above the market price, because no such products are worth buying. Considering that the set includes all products ever made, I have to ask if you have ever bought anything, or whether you’re wearing banana leaves and sitting in a public library.

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      • Better and better. Now we’ve gotten as far as Capitalism 101, where goods and services are sold for a profit and workers are paid on that basis.

        Or have we? I’m never quite sure, when folks like you start po’ mouthin’ and saying how they have Obligations to their workers. People should make enough money to buy their own health care insurance: my clients don’t pay my car insurance or home insurance, either.

        And what is this about Young Healthy Workers? What should we do with the Older and Less-Healthy? When they were working, they were supporting society. I’ve paid a lot of attention to Obamacare. Part of my job. You’re wrong about Obamacare shifting the burden onto anyone: two grand and you’re in like Flynn.

        Don’t lecture me about capitalism. It’s annoying from a guy as obviously smart as you. Capitalism raises prices as high as it can and depresses wages as low as it can in favour of capital formation. I have no problem with that. But any corporation which can’t afford to extract profits from its enterprise and pay its workers needs to shut down, George. That’s capitalism, too. Don’t forget that.

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      • : Henry Ford, that wily old capitalist, certainly thought so

        There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.

        You say it’s an economic win for everyone but the wage-payer. I understand your sentiment but can’t agree with it. It’s a huge win for the wage-payer. He’s buying employee loyalty. An employee who understands the employer treats him decently will not seek employment elsewhere. Nor will he steal. Employee theft is a huge problem in retail. It’s a win for everyone and has nothing to do with Do Gooderism.

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      • Henry Ford was a socialist in the Robert Owen model, thinking he could arrange every aspect of his workers’ lives, who of course were good little laboring serfs in his fantasy, and build a socialist industrial utopia. That’s made him the darling of the Nazi party (along with his vicious antisemitism), and caused him to fall out with the Dodge brothers who sued him for malfeasance and nutbaggery and won in the US Supreme Court.

        He tried his hand running as the Democrat candidate for one of Michigan’s Senate seats, but was narrowly defeated in a contest so ugly (and when his opponent is running against a man who was funding the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, how could it not get ugly?) that it caused calls for campaign reform. His opponent eventually stepped down because of all the illegal campaign spending that went on.

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      • Henry Ford had some rum ideas, all right. Not all of them were as smart as others. But it doesn’t address the point I’m making; paying workers as well as possible makes perfect business sense. I’m tired of hearing all this whinging and croaking and question begging. I know you well enough by now to refuse to accept it. You’re not some crank or idiot, which is why I won’t.

        Capitalism is a powerful enough engine to pull the entire world forward. Centuries of messing around and experimenting have led every intelligent person to the conclusion nothing else will ever beat capitalism. Took us a while to get to the concept of money as a species and it has never once been improved upon. There is no excuse for poverty anywhere in the world if there’s a free press and enough good government to keep order in the world through the rule of law. Everything else comes in a very distant second: give me those two and capitalism will thrive. Human rights, all that fluffy stuff — all nice to have — and capitalism has a role to play in bringing them about — but we are talking about Giving a Damn About Poverty.

        The Democrats are far from perfect. The GOP is a collection of maniacs who aren’t interested in maintaining good order and even less interested in the rule of law. And you know it. The Democrats do want to regulate markets — and the GOP wants to deregulate them.

        We did things the GOP’s way. Didn’t work out so well. The GOP must learn from its mistakes and start acting like Actual Conservatives, people who understand the consequences of chasing deregulatory rainbows and get serious about Law ‘n Order and quit playing with fire. as did a host of bankers and industrialists in a certain European Country back in the 1930s. 27 January 1932 to be exact.

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      • Um, no. Paying your workers so they’ll be your rich customers doesn’t make any sense at all. What’s in company A’s interest is for every other company to pay their workers enough so that they blow tons of their money buying company A’s products.

        And in fact, if you go to an American auto company what you’ll find in the parking lot are a bunch of cars made by the company’s competitors, especially Japanese cars. Ford pay doesn’t return to Ford.

        Assembly line work is commodity labor. It is repetitive. Even Mexicans and Chinese do fine at it. Paying them more than you need to for good performance makes no more sense than driving around town trying to find unleaded premium for 30% more than any other gas station is charging.

        The place where it makes sense for companies to spend more for labor are the people with specialized skills or services, where the quality of their labor differentiates the product and its delivery. The people Ford should have been throwing money at are automotive engineers, production engineers, car designers, researchers, marketers, factory representatives, and the like. If they instead blow that money on their factory people, they’ll have a bunch of overpaid factory people making shitty cars, which is the story of Detroit.

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      • “Assembly line work is commodity labor. It is repetitive. Even Mexicans and Chinese do fine at it”

        Ahh i love a good george performance piece. come for the LOL’S, stay for the casual racism.

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      • Yeah, because we all know Chinese are rich but stupid and Mexico’s problems are because they’re Spanish (a former European superpower)… Not.

        Pointing out that they’re from economies that were extremely poor and largely agrarian would be raciss.

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  3. On a related tangent…

    Some people are almost incapable of retaining details. I know because I am one. I read and study six or more hours a day on topics such as history, economics, science, whatever. But I remember zero details. I can explain the main concepts, trens or patterns I’ve learned, but usually haven’t a clue what the name of the book is or the author that I am reading. I have to write my zip code, phone number and such in my wallet, because I routinely forget them. My system of remembering my mom’s birthday is to ask my wife. I didn’t know my salary when I worked, and couldn’t guess it within 20% or so. I always knew how to take actions necessary to optimize profitable growth, but couldn’t recite a single number on my region’s scorecard.

    I retain only patterns. Not details. Are there others out there like this?

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    • Yep. That’s me too. It became apparent to me in high school history class. I could write a decent essay on the causes and ramifications of such and such, but the names and dates? Fuggetaboutit!

      It also explains how I have a decent grasp of math and physics but subjects like chemistry (particularly organic chem) and the earth sciences were a real struggle. Also I barely got through materials science class while I was aceing other courses.

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    • I’m having a very difficult time remembering all the passwords and pin numbers that I need to. Especially if I don’t use the passwords and PIN numbers often.

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    • Roger, I am totally like that.

      And I’ve made enough gaffes when lecturing to make a practice of telling students to have some generosity to politicians who make simple blunders when speaking off the cuff–if they (the students) had to spend that much time talking they’d probably let some hilarious gaffes slip, too.

      Maybe that’s why this post bugs me so very much. We got a breathless introductory post to this new subblog promising the best and most insightful analysis, and then we get this petty cheap shotting. I don’t know if the subblog’s principals are in a class to give us the best analyses but I hope to god they’re in a class to do better than this.

      Hopefully we’ll look back on this post as their own muff of the type we’re discussing.

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      • Yeah, speaking is a lot riskier than writing. I usually can’t google mid sentence.

        I knew this lady that worked with me who would learn a topic from an expert and turn around and speak more authoritatively than the expert. People new to the topic all assumed she was the expert. It was just the way she talked. She acted confident, BS’d her way through details. Odd.

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      • We got a breathless introductory post to this new subblog promising the best and most insightful analysis, and then we get this petty cheap shotting.

        Dude. Elias has been blogging here for years. If you expected more, you haven’t been paying attention.

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  4. “I mean, how much work does it take to find out the minimum wage, especially when it’s ostensibly part of your area of expertise?”

    And, most important – it is CENTRAL to the argument of ending poverty, because, you know, a lot of poverty comes from people that earn minimum wage.

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  5. Is there really anything to this, besides pouncing on a gaffe?

    I mean, I recall lefties getting all defensive when people like me mocked “you didn’t build that.” Seems like — sure — what goes around comes around. But a window into the non-lefty soul it’s not.

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    • “what goes around comes around” leaves the whole world blind.

      This seems to me like a simple gaffe and very weak evidence of being either uncaring or wrong. There are a lot of tidbits of knowledge that an outsider might expect an expert to know, but in fact the expert knows less because the research he does doesn’t really call upon that kind of thing.

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      • Example: find 10 chemists and ask them exactly how many elements have been discovered as of now.

        (Maybe they would actually get this all right, but I would be unsurprised if most of them gave incorrect answers, and I wouldn’t assume they were bad chemists because of it.)

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      • No, Vikram’s analogy is much better. For one, the atomic number of oxygen is fixed, whereas the minimum wage has changed several times in a middle-aged person’s life, most recently in 2009. The minimum wage also has more significant digits.

        More importantly, the importance of oxygen and its properties to chemistry is incontrovertible. The importance of the minimum wage to the study of poverty is…not so much. At best, it’s a poorly-targeted band-aid that does nothing to address the root causes of poverty. It’s one thing to say that it’s good policy anyway, but this analogy hugely exaggerates its importance as an anti-poverty program.

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      • Chris, I really don’t think so. If the guy is focused on promoting a fundamentally different set of policies and sees the minimum wage as unhelpful and rather pointless, then its precise value really is irrelevant to him. I think you underestimate the extent to which the value of the minimum wage simply doesn’t matter to (what I assume are) his set of policy preferences.

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      • Would his criticisms of the minimum wage be valid of its actual value (in the US) was $1.00/hr? It seems to me that there is a point at which the effects of having a minimum wage become irrelevant to wrt other metrics or variables. If so, then the actual number matters when criticizing the policy.

        If the specific (contingent) value doesn’t matter, then the argument is purely a priori.

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      • First, if you don’t know the minimum wage, you haven’t been paying attention to policy, simple as that. I know the minimum wage, you know the minimum wage, my 15 year old son knows the minimum wage, the privileged hipster woman next door who’s never worked a day in her life (and she’s probably been out of college for 4 or 5 years) knows the minimum wage. That an expert on public policy who’s testifying about poverty, which presumably includes people with low-income, doesn’t know the federal minimum wage is not a gaffe, it suggests he’s not a very good expert on public policy.

        Second, while it’s true that oxygen’s atomic number is fixed, the point was that it’s a pretty basic piece of knowledge, as would be the federal minimum wage for people who study the effects of public policy on poverty. That’s true whatever you think of the minimum wage’s effects on poor and low income people (Roger and I disagree, but there’s no point in rehashing our previous discussions on the matter).

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      • James, it seems weird to be critical of something without knowing what you’re critical of. I mean, if you or Brandon or Roger told me you thought the minimum wage was counterproductive, and someone asked you what the minimum wage was, and you couldn’t say, I’d take that as indicative that you didn’t know what you were talking about. (And I wouldn’t feel bad about it. Roger’s fond of telling people who disagree with him about economics that they don’t know what they’re talking about.)

        Let me just reiterate, though, that this has nothing to do with caring.

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      • No, this is a bit more like knowing the current average retail price of 87 octane gasoline. The federal minimum wage doesn’t even apply to a whole lot of states. When you figure those in and adjust for population, the average US minimum wage in 2012 was $7.49, while back in 2007 the average minimum was $6.35 instead of the federal $5.15.

        Of around 73 million hourly workers, only 1.7 million are paid the federal minimum wage, and half of those are under age 25. Less than a fourth of hourly teen workers make just the minimum wage.

        It’s changed ten times since I’ve been working (for a long time it changed every year), and since hardly anyone makes just the minimum wage, and those that do see a big hunk of it disappear on their pay stubs to a bewildering variety of taxes and insurance programs, why would they keep constant track of it down to the penny unless they were in the middle of a wage debate?

        What’s perhaps more interesting is that at the time of the housing collapse in 2007, the US federal minimum wage in was $5.70 in constant 2012 dollars. It went up linearly to $7.63 in just three years, a 34% increase (which ranged from 9 to 12% per year for those three years, while the rest of the economy tanked). That’s a faster rise than the two-year period between 1996 and 1998 during the dot-com boom under Clinton.

        Gee, during a recession, why would skyrocketing minimum wages cause heavy and sustained unemployment among the working poor? It’s almost like the poverty pimps were planning it.

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      • That an expert on public policy who’s testifying about poverty, which presumably includes people with low-income, doesn’t know the federal minimum wage is not a gaffe, it suggests he’s not a very good expert on public policy.

        No one in Sweden, Finland, or Denmark knows what their country’s minimum wage is. Not even the poverty experts there have a clue. Either they don’t care about poor people or social equality, or they think the minimum wage is so irrelevant that they don’t even bother with it.

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      • Chris,

        I’m a policy guy and my favorite class to teach is political economy. But I don’t know the exact minimum wage. I consider that knowledge trivia, because it’s precise value doesn’t mean much, policywise. it’s the kind of factoid talking heads on TV can recite while they’re simultaneously persuading me they don’t actually understand a damn thing. As Roger says below (I think), do they just know the number or do they understand the dynamics?

        If the guy is way off, ridiculously off, then maybe there’s a point. But not having the precise value at the forefront of his memory? I need persuading that we’re not arguing over the significance of factoids. If he’s said,”No, it’s $15/hour,” then maybe we’ve got something to talk about. If he said, “I think it’s $7.30/hour,” would it really be a big deal? I think not. So he said “It’s around there,” so I think it’s not a big deal. A factoid. Seriously, would you think whether it was 7.20, 7.25, or 7.50 is very significant policywise? If so, why aren’t those the numbers people who propose changes are bandying about? No, anything not fundamental to understanding if the subject–like the atomic weight of hydrogen–allows for numbers within what might colloquially be called the margin of error. Absolute precision in such cases is a mere factoid, useful primarily for smug grandstanding, a useful tool avoiding a debate opponent’s substantive claims by putting the focus on his marginal error–as Elias has ably demonstrated for us.

        To that extent, of course, it does behoove the expert to be precise on the details to avoid this sort of substanceless attack. But that’s mere self-preservation against the chattering classes.

        I do hear you that you’re not saying this has anything to do with caring. On that we’re of one mind.

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      • James, eh, again to me this is pretty basic.

        What if we were talking about raising the the minimum wage to $15? Would the current minimum wage be something you’d want experts to know before they expounded on the potential consequences of such a raise?

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      • It’s fun to see so many people cite the atomic number of oxygen as something everyone should know. It makes me wonder how many do. Me, I’d be happy if 10% of the people who refer to Goedel’s Theorem or the Uncertainty Principle had any clue what they actually meant.

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      • I used to chat with a Norwegian political blogger a couple of times a week. He loved whale meat and I was frustrated because he wouldn’t send me any. It sounds delicious.

        I also used to chat with an Estonian all the time, whose father was a Minister of Parliament. He learned to speak English so he could watch Star Trek, since Estonia could pick up Western TV stations.

        However, that’s not why I’m sure Fins, Swedes, and Danes don’t know what their country’s minimum wage is.

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      • Chris, it would matter if the person thought it was already $12 or only $4, sure. If he thought it was currently $7? $7.50? Are you kidding me? If we were talking about roughly doubling or halving the number of nuclear weapons in our arsenal would the precise number we currently have really matter in the debate or just a good close approximation?

        My cell phone is dying, so I may not be able to continue participation. My bottom line, though, is that excessive precision is a hobgoblin, and being close within reason is more than sufficient for meaningful discussion. Lord knows I’d also scoff at a conservative for sneering at a liberal who slightly understated the actual minimum wage. Such sneering is just signaling, a type of identity politics, an immature game, and has jack all to do with substantive discussion.

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      • George, you are the king of non sequitur. You just non sequiturred your own non sequitur.

        James, if he were going to talk about the effects of a change in minimum wage, as an expert, I would expect him to know what the minimum wage is currently. In such a discussion, it would be an important detail. I think in the current discussion, the one within which this guy was testifying before congress, understanding the conditions on the ground for the poor, particularly the working poor, is a pretty important thing. So yeah, I consider it an important detail here too.

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      • Chris, you’re just making assertions. You haven’t constructed an actual argument for why absolute precision is require, rather than just being within some reasonable +-. Especially in the context of a discussion of anti-poverty measures, because I’m sure you’re not going to try to persuade me that $7.50/hour or even $8/hour versus the actual if $7.25/hour is a critical anti-poverty measure. You keep saying it matters, but to persuade me you’ll have to show why that level of precision means anything in terms of a substantive anti-poverty policy.

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      • Chris, the Scandi countries don’t have a minimum wage. That way, their policy experts aren’t distracted by something irrelevant and none of them face such “gotcha” moments.

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      • James, I am making an assertion; I would expect an expert on public policies affecting the poor to know the details of those policies, particularly if that expert is going to testify before Congress. Now Brandon and Roger can argue all they want from their a priori positions that the minimum wage either hurts the poor or doesn’t help them, that’s fine, but it does affect them in that it determines their precise wage level (because most entry level, unskilled positions, which many of the working poor are going to be going for, won’t pay above it). It affects budgeting for the working poor. It affects how much they need in various social services. Etc. The amount matters to them, and if it matters to them and you want to testify about public policy and the poor, you’d better know what you’re talking about. “Something around there” means he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, to me. I might not stop listening to him, but I’d take everything he said from that point on with a grain of salt.

        And just to be clear, once more (in case someone comes down here and reads this without context), I think this shows that someone picked bad experts, not that this particular expert, or Republicans, or conservatives, or whoever, don’t care. I don’t think it says anything about caring.

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      • George, like I said, non sequitur king. Thanks for making the case.

        By the way, I’d be happy to accept the arrangements that the three countries you mentioned have, which means basically universal union membership and the government taking collective bargaining very seriously. If I could trade that for minimum wage laws, I’d be a happy camper.

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      • James/Chris,

        I generally agree with James on the precision question in the case of a guy like this, though I agree with Chris’ reasons on the why-should-he-know. I’d say I’d want an expert on the working poor to know what the minimum wage is if he’s going to choose to talk about it. But this guy didn’t – the exchange in question is a poor demonstration of what his views on it are. He was asked and given the value – he basically just said, ‘Sure.’ I don’t have a problem with the clip per se – it actually doesn’t show what he did or didn’t know, and as it didn’t seem to an area of interest for him, I’d be fine so long as he could have told us within, probably, forty cents of what the value is, given his field.

        But basically, if you’re an expert on low-wage work and the working poor (poverty per se I think is actually a somewhat different topic, and if that’s his area, then I’d be a little more forgiving still), I think you oughta know within a quarter what the minimum wage is for the reasons Chris gives, not because it’s the difference between poverty and comfort. Just to have familiarity with the lives of the people you’re studying. And if the MW is a part of your research or you ever choose to bring it up on your own, you ought to know it cold, at least nationally, and then in any localities you choose to speak of.

        But that’s just where I come down; this isn’t one of those things where I don’t think anyone else should come down somewhere else.

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      • the Scandi countries don’t have a minimum wage.

        In other words the minimum wage is zero, and I’m sure many of the folks there know that. If you’re going to condescend to people, it helps not to be so awful at it.

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      • By the way, I’d be happy to accept the arrangements that the three countries you mentioned have, which means basically universal union membership and the government taking collective bargaining very seriously. If I could trade that for minimum wage laws, I’d be a happy camper.

        Obviously minimum wage laws aren’t really important to you, since you’ll jettison them at the first opportunity to get more people into labor unions to boost Democrat’s voter turnout. Then not only is it okay if the minimum wage isn’t raised, not only can it be slashed, it can be done away with entirely! Screw all the poor people who can’t get a good union job. BTW, only 9.5 million Scandinavians (Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark) are in unions, and the numbers keep dropping. One of the reasons for the high rates of union membership, aside from historical, is that unemployment benefits in those countries is distributed through the unions, not directly to the unemployed.

        This is generally the way union membership goes, whether from UAW members who went on violent strikes to keep blacks from working beside them in Detroit, or the racist Swedish unions who don’t want to accept immigrants. They’ve got theirs. Screw the tired, the struggling, the huddled masses yearning to get even a small paycheck.

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      • Focusing on working folks’ budgets still doesn’t get you there, Chris, because there’s a huge difference between a rounding error and being off by an order of magnitude, especially since the rounding error is meaningless in terms of the actual topic, poverty, whereas an order of magnitude might be. Are you going to reject an “expert” who incorrevtly specifies the minimum wage as $7.35/hour with the same vigor you would reject one who incorrectly specifies it as $10.50/hour? Doesn’t that strike you as being a bit silly? Pointlessly pedantic?

        As to “bad expert,” are you suggesting that not knowing the precise minimum wage is a reliable indicator of someone’s understanding of poverty and the effects of various anti-poverty policies, proposed and real? Are you staking that claim? Because it sure sounds like it, but I’m struggling to see you putting that much weight on a single factor.

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      • ,

        Exactly…well, close at least, because I don’t know if the target range should be 25 cents, 40 cents or what, exactly. But that’s the idea. And of course I wouldn’t hold your feet to the fire on those precise amounts, either. But we can agree that being off by 25 cents may not mean much, whereas being off by several dollars would be a serious warning sign about the person’s claimed expertise.

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      • Obviously minimum wage laws aren’t really important to you, since you’ll jettison them at the first opportunity to get more people into labor unions to boost Democrat’s voter turnout.

        Now you’ve gone full dumbass. Never go full dumbass. No one will buy it. It says to everyone that not only are you trolling, per usual, but your hearts not really in it.

        Union membership is going up in Finland. You know why? Wages are determined through collective bargaining. On top of getting rid of the information imbalances that allow employers to screw employees, wage-wise, this also means that a minimum wage is likely unnecessary. It’s not like an organized labor market is going to settle for lower wages than they can reasonably get.

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      • James, to me that makes it worse. If you don’t even have implicit memory of the number, such that when you hear it you recognize it as correct, but instead think “Eh, that sounds like it’s in the ballpark,” you’ve demonstrated you probably haven’t even hear the value. Which, for someone who is supposed to be an expert on this sort of thing, would be pretty bad.

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      • James:
        My cell phone is dying

        How many coulombs were left in the battery at the time you wrote this? I can’t take your judgment of this situation seriously if you can’t answer that question.

        it’s the kind of factoid talking heads on TV can recite while they’re simultaneously persuading me they don’t actually understand a damn thing.

        For example, that speech where Elizabeth Warren went off on a rant about how the discount rate was 0.75%—0.75 percent!. She might have known the exact value, but she clearly had zero understanding of the topic beyond that—that nobody was using the discount window because it was an above-market rate, why short-term interest rates are different from long-term interest rates, etc.

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      • JH –

        I mentioned 40 cents only because I think I wouldn’t be cool with a poverty expert (even one who doesn’t focus on or choose to talk about the MW) thinking the MW is fully half a dollar higher than it is and then just not caring that it’s half a dollar lower than that. So I’d want him to know it within (i.e. within less than) 50 cents. Forty cents, though, I guess I could deal with. I guess that’s my cutoff.

        I actually mention this only because it’s one of those rare times where a seemingly rationally ineffable cutoff point seems to suggest itself pretty clearly to me in practice.

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    • “I mean, I recall lefties getting all defensive when people like me mocked “you didn’t build that.” Seems like — sure — what goes around comes around. But a window into the non-lefty soul it’s not.”

      Well, those incidents are a bit different. In the one case, Obama didn’t make a gaff. He made a pretty precise point about infrastructure, and maybe by implication a broader point about how government actually does some things that private actors don’t, can’t, or won’t do. But the response–not necessarily yours, Jason, because I don’t remember it–was “he’s saying business owners don’t contribute anything,” or some such. The gaff in that case was on the side of the people who do the misinterpreting.

      Here, we have people pouncing on someone who doesn’t know a certain figure, and as Brandon says, it might not be a gaffe (I’d think of it rather as just something he didn’t know the precise details of), but it’s much closer to a gaffe than Obama’s staement. I side with you and others who think this is mostly nitpickiness.

      I’m not sure what’s worse, deliberately (or even carelessly) misinterpreting what someone says because the misinterpreter is so caught up in not liking statists, or claiming that not knowing a precise figure demonstrates, somehow, a lack of caring for the poor because the one doing the claiming has an almost knee-jerk opposition to those who dare oppose the minimum wage or l’etat providence.

      Probably they’re both in the same ballpark and comparably bad. But as you point out, the lefties here aren’t the only ones who’ve done it. So now most of us here are reducing ourselves to mutual name calling (and in the process sliding in the epithet “gaffe” for something that wasn’t).

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  6. The GOP seems to be between a rock and hardplace right now:

    They had to pull the Transportation and HUD bills because the funding cuts were so severe that some Republicans and no Democratic congress person would vote for the bills. Yet there was not enough Republican support because other conservatives thought that the cuts did not go far enough…

    Sadly they might be gerrymandered into the House for a while. I don’t know how to read the Tea Leaves for the Senate. I think Democratic voters are aware of 2010, I don’t think it will be a tea party year (at least I hope not) but we might have a tough time in places like Montana, Arkansas, etc.

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    • Whatever happens in 2014, they’re not going to end up with veto-proof majorities nor are they going to get a filibuster-proof Senate if they take that house.

      Gridlock as far as the eye can see.

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      • Obamacare is exhibit A to a certain group of people with a certain ideological mindframe.

        There are still plenty of people who think it will work and make healthcare more accessible to all.

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      • ND,

        The ideologue charge seems to imply that I don’t have extensive knowledge of insurance mechanisms and regulatory interference with insurance. For example, I might ideologically be against just any old ten thousand page bill which tried to manage a complex industry via networks of politically driven, bureaucratic, master planners. In the case of insurance, my opposition comes from my knowledge that it violates many of the fundamental principles of insurance.

        I wonder if ANYBODY could walk into a room of fellow insurance experts of every political persuasion and not be laughed out of the room by trying to sell us on Obamacare.

        I could design a better system on a napkin. And by better I mean a system which provided universal protection AND which efficiently managed costs and stimulated continued innovation.

        Are you sure your support isn’t ideological?

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      • Roger, I’d love to see that system.

        Not being a fan of “Obamacare,” I wouldn’t mind scrapping it, but what I’d put in its place probably won’t look like your system. Mostly because mine won’t involve insurance at all.

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      • This is the only time I may agree with Roger. Obamacare, as passed, is a dog’s dinner. But It’s a start, mind you, I think it’s a good start. But it’s woefully incomplete and needs serious overhauling over the next few years. Everyone ought to be covered and it all ought to be paid for — and market forces ought to be brought to bear on the cost of health care, forces which cannot be said to exist at present time.

        But health care will require insurance of some sort. Auto insurance or home insurance or literally any other viable insurance industry — exists to cover catastrophes. If these were things which could be covered out of pocket, selling policies would be pointless.

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      • Here is what I wrote on my napkin…

        1) I would recommend exploring ways to establish catastrophic care for extremely serious and expensive medical conditions. I would allow people to opt out of this with some very onerous requirements. This would be paid for via payroll taxes unless the fool opted out.
        2) I would recommend people buy their own insurance that meets their needs for routine, non catastrophic care. I would choose a high deductible and low premiums and few frills. Others can get low deductibles, high premiums and all the frills they would like. I would allow any company to sell any policy that people will buy as long as the company is honest and has proper reserves.
        3). I would encourage experimentation with guaranteed insurability and portability, so that people would not be harmed on their routine care premiums if their health status changed.
        4). I would subsidize the poor and elderly and possibly the sickly so that they could purchase the underlying coverage policy and pay their deductibles. Catastrophe coverage would be free or cheap as they do not work much or at all.

        I would add choice, competition, experimentation and all that wherever possible, and if this doesn’t work, I would just follow Singapore’s model.

        Hence, universal coverage and incentives for cost control and innovation. And no coercive monopolies. Is there any person of any political persuasion (other than a true ideologue) that would not prefer this over the Obamacare mess?

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      • “3). I would encourage experimentation with guaranteed insurability and portability, so that people would not be harmed on their routine care premiums if their health status changed.”

        I would quibble with this, only because I think it needs more teeth. Not encourage, but require. Yes, yes, I know market forces may ultimately establish this as the norm, but how many people get dropped from their coverage after paying in over 5, 10, 20 years because they got cancer, can’t afford new coverage, and are left to die?

        Potentially, I would also seek to shift the burden in disputes over coverage to the insurer. They must demonstrate why something is not covered/unnecessary rather than the patient demonstrating the inverse. The power differential between the insurer and insured is so great I have no problem putting the onus on the former.

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      • I’m fine with Obamacare but my fantasy solution, because it will never happen, is an American equivalent of NHS. I even have a name for it, the United States Public Health Service. I’d also like PBS to be funded through taxes like the BBC. Give them a decent budget to make their own comedies and drama rather than having to show British stuff for that.

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      • Roger,

        On 1), I assume you mean a single-payer like system for catastrophic care, since it is tax funded? Well, I’m with ya there. Though you say free or cheap later on, so I’m not quite sure that’s what you mean.

        2) and 4) Without 4, your 2 doesn’t approach the universal coverage that you want, and in fact without 4) being pretty expansive, it still won’t be close to universal. So I’m assuming 4) will cover not just the poor, but even some people in the lower middle classes? And without 2 being universal, or at least nearly so, your system is going to end up being pretty inefficient, is it not? Since it would mean a substantial number of people would go without basic and preventative care, meaning a lot of people are going to end up costing the part of the system that pays for 1) a lot of money that could have been avoided, right? I know that you’ve separated 1) and 2) to bring the costs down on 2), but I’m not sure this is enough.

        3) This requires more than exploring to get anything like universal coverage, doesn’t it? We’re going to have to require that pre-existing conditions be covered, and that they not be used as reasons for denying coverage, right? In fact, we’re probably going to have to make it so that pre-existing conditions don’t affect 2) at all, if this system is going to end up looking much different than it does today.

        Anyway, if your system is so obviously superior to Obamacare, or to any system that either of the major political parties have offered, I wonder why no one has suggested it. You worked in insurance for years, and we know that the insurance companies lobbied really heavy for systems that would be beneficial for them. Did anyone like you, who’s worked in insurance and knows the lay of the land, lobby for a system like yours?

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      • “how many people get dropped from their coverage after paying in over 5, 10, 20 years because they got cancer, can’t afford new coverage, and are left to die?”

        I am under the impression that companies cannot cancel insurance due to changes in health*. If this is not the case, I would support not allowing such a policy to be sold. The problem with health care portability is that people do not buy coverage themselves, they tend to get it with employment due to unintended consequence of statist meddling. Thus they get stuck in a job.

        I would settle for insurers must offer the option of portability. I do not know exactly how this would work though, so massive experimentation and competition is needed to discover what works.

        I would not recommend drastic changes in proof. I am just guessing, but I would bet that there is incomparably more fraud from consumers than from carriers. Those with a political axe are working full time to paint insurers as unusually evil. Granted they are not saints, but lopsided anecdotes doesn’t make a convincing case.

        In my system, catastrophic care is handled by catastrophic plans. It is just routine stuff that is not. Drastic changes to proof will cause fraud and costs to skyrocket.

        * I have never worked in health insurance, just P&C

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      • I am under the impression that companies cannot cancel insurance due to changes in health*.

        This is true. So what they do is continue to raise your premiums until you drop them because you can’t afford it anymore. I’ve seen this happen a few times: a person gets sick, say cancer or a chronic heart condition that is survivable but will require life-long treatment. The insurance company immediately raises the premiums by 100%, but you’re still in the time of the most expensive treatments, so you have no choice to pay the higher rates, if you are able. Then the most expensive treatments are over, but treatments of considerable price remain for the foreseeable future, if not the rest of your life. So they raise your premiums 100% or more again. If you’re lucky, you can still afford this, but they want you to drop, so they raise the premiums by 100% a third time. And they will continue doing so until you drop them.

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      • : It’s true, health insurers are cancelling policies. I don’t know P&C but I do know health insurance. It’s a huge, ongoing issue. The insurance firms are even retroactively cancelling policies.

        It is illegal to cancel but this doesn’t stop them. Here’s how they manage it: once an insured looks as if they’re going to cost the health insurer a lot of money, there are entire departments for “retroaction” which begin to look through the paperwork for even the remotest inconsistency. If they find one, they retroactively cancel. You’d think, again, I don’t know P&C, but usually once the policy is written, the insurer is stuck with it. Are there outs like this in P&C?

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      • Catastrophic care would be automatically deducted from paychecks let’s say at a set percent of wages. People could choose which carrier they went with. Those not working (unemployed and retired) or making very little (min wage) would thus be partially or totally subsidized by higher earners. Thus universal coverage, with redistribution. A progressive dream.

        “… without 2 being universal, or at least nearly so, your system is going to end up being pretty inefficient, is it not? Since it would mean a substantial number of people would go without basic and preventative care, meaning a lot of people are going to end up costing the part of the system that pays for 1) a lot of money that could have been avoided, right?”

        The poor would get subsidized basic care too. But I do not believe preventative care does much to lower long term medical care. Nor do I believe it makes much of a difference on health or lifespan.

        “…we’re probably going to have to make it so that pre-existing conditions don’t affect 2) at all, if this system is going to end up looking much different than it does today.”

        People must not be allowed to only purchase non cat coverage (or better non cat insurance) after they get sick. I can envision lots of ways to fix this problem. Penalties for every year without insurance (aka a prior insurance discount). Guaranteed portability within a coverage class. Do note though that MAJOR illnesses are still all handled by the universal cat coverage. This makes the portability issue much less severe. I could go into more details, but it is off topic.

        I cannot explain why nobody looked at Singapore, or presented a reasonable alternative. I think my recommendations are ideologically incompatible with progressive thinking, and politically incompatible to conservatives playing the “no” card.* I have no friends or contacts in the health care market, and despite my comment to Kazzy above would not trust them to recommend good regulation.

        * only Nixon can go to China

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      • Roger, I think I see why your system will be highly inefficient (it’s definitely not going to look any better than the current system, which is also highly inefficient), but i want to think on it a bit more. Until then, let me ask what you think of the systems in Italy and France.

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      • I assumed your plan involved a decoupling of insurance from employment. To me, that is one of the biggest boondoggles. If it is as you say it is, that people can’t be dropped for changes in health, that’d work fine by me.

        On the insurance/employment front, we are potentially approaching a pickle. Right now, we get our insurance via Zazzy’s work because they offer a better plan with better rates. She may (fingers crossed!) be moving to a new company, which would be great for her career development and mental health (nothing major… just better work environment). However, the new company has a 3-month waiting period before insurance benefits kick in. That’d mean going over to my work’s plan for 3 months. That will likely cost us at least $4000. There might be some other options that mitigate the cost, but it is going to be a big one and a transition from Insurer A to Insurer B to Insurer C in a very short time frame. So, now the question becomes whether their offer will be high enough to justify the move and, if it isn’t, how we swallow that hit.

        Because schools have a pretty sit contract length, I’ve never worked at one with a waiting period for insurance. It seems odd to me that so many employers institute one. What is the fear? Someone is going to take a job just to get insurance? I can imagine that possibly being an issue in certain fields, but not all. Maybe there is something I’m not thinking of, but it really throws a wrench into the gears and makes it harder than it ought to be for people to change jobs.

        Decouple health insurance and employment. Plain and simple. Hopefully, employers will respond to this change (if and when it happens) by paying employees in wages what they had previously paid in benefit premiums.

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      • Because schools have a pretty sit contract length, I’ve never worked at one with a waiting period for insurance. It seems odd to me that so many employers institute one. What is the fear? Someone is going to take a job just to get insurance?

        My stab at why might have to do with the fact that employers have many new employees on a certain probabionary period, often 90 days, during which time the company makes it easier for itself for fire people (of course, it’s usually an “at will” situation, so legally the company can fire whomever of its not-under-contract employees for whatever reason not prohibited by law, but even in “at will” work, the company often binds itself with certain HR practices). In the meantime, while the company is trying out its new employee, it doesn’t want to front its share of the insurance premium.

        That’s my guess, at least, although I suspect it’s too much management’s version of why it ought to be done this way.

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      • To all

        I have startedmy annual beach camping so will be off line.

        Final comments … Kazzy I understand and empathize and agree 100% The payment is collected like SS and withdrawn from wages. Carrier choice is up to the person. It has nothing to do with the employer Sorry for confusion.

        If any company raises prices post sickness then I suggest policies which do not allow this feature. My policy does not allow this which I bought in Illinois

        To deal with cancellations after sickness due to fraud I recommend the well established practice of giving the insurer a set period to underwrite and then lock in the policy.

        The fact that these features don’t exist somewhere today shows how perverted this market has become.

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      • I wonder if ANYBODY could walk into a room of fellow insurance experts of every political persuasion and not be laughed out of the room by trying to sell us on Obamacare.

        Whose interests would such a salesperson fail to show the system serves which failure would cause such mirth among this group? Would they all be laughing at the failure to show the same group or parties’ interests are served?

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      • Well, yes, , but that’s simply because insurance is a terrible model for provisioning healthcare.

        It’s not what I would choose or design either, but my choice wasn’t on the table any more than yours was.

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      • Rod: there are two aspects to the problem: one is catastrophic in nature, the other is routine maintenance. Think of it as you might with vehicle insurance or home insurance.

        Used to be most old people die of pneumonia or something like it. We’re draining the lake: now most elderly people die of heart conditions or cancer, maybe complications of stroke. The old causes of death haven’t disappeared, they’re just not the cause of death any more. Old guy I know just got heart valve replacement surgery, it’ll add many years to his life. Soon enough, we’ll be able to deal with cancer more effectively. We’ll drain the lake even further.

        We can do the stats and prob, saying a heart valve replacement will give a 77 year old man another 10 years. Without it, he’ll die in six months. It’s an expensive surgery and not everyone will get ten more years. Lots of complications. Physical therapy, loads of incidental expenses, drugs and such.

        But in a 90 year old man, is that heart valve replacement surgery worth the risk of losing him on the table? Is he going to get ten more years of life? Maybe, probably not. That’s where the insurance paradigm breaks down. Things get messy at that level.

        I’d approach health care reform in a stepwise fashion. Deal with the biggest problem first: catastrophic insurance coverage and how to pay for it. Get the employer out of that proposition entirely: the little employers are being scalped in the current paradigm. The insurers are playing con games with everyone: the employer, the employee, the government, the physicians, the hospitals — everyone.

        But I don’t trust the government to administer these policies. Look at what’s going on in Medicare, all these scams. Insufficient oversight, Medicare is now a magnet for crooks. Every time we turn on the lights, the cockroaches are scuttling away into the shadows. We simply must make these health insurance and health care markets competitive. That means putting the physicians in charge again — and keeping an eye on them.

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  7. Not knowing the current minimum wage is proof of not caring about poverty? I think there’s rather a leap of logic there–perhaps an existing belief looking for any possible supporting evidence. But if we knew nothing about some person other than that they didn’t know the minimum wage, would we feel confident in concluding they didn’t care about poverty?

    The real person in question doesn’t share Elias’s assumptions. He probably thinks the minimum wage is not the appropriate way to address poverty. Likely he sees it as a bandage at best, possibly a self-defeating policy because of what he sees as its negative economic effects. So from that perspective, knowing the exact current minimum wage is mere trivia, not meaningful knowledge.

    He could be dead wrong in his assumptions, beliefs, and conclusions, but that wouldn’t mean he doesn’t care about poverty. And it’s possible that in fact he doesn’t care about poverty, but not knowing the current minimum wage wouldn’t suffice as evidence of it.

    If we’re really going to have a healthy commotion here, it’s going to require more thoughtful arguments, not cheap potshot analysis. This isn’t any more sophisticated than what I can get from talking heads on TV. This is “Obama thinks there are 52 states so he’s not fit to be president” quality analysis.

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    • He probably thinks the minimum wage is not the appropriate way to address poverty. Likely he sees it as a bandage at best, possibly a self-defeating policy because of what he sees as its negative economic effects. So from that perspective, knowing the exact current minimum wage is mere trivia, not meaningful knowledge.

      If the minimum wage were $22.15/hr, I bet he’d know the number. I just bet he would.

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      • Well, yeah. Because then it would be relevant. As it is, the minimum wage is neither particularly helpful nor particularly harmful. It’s low enough that the disemployment effects are negligible, or at worst small and confined only to very-low-productivity workers.

        I’m not sure why you think it’s to his discredit that he would be more likely to know the minimum wage’s exact value if it were high enough to be a real problem.

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      • I didn’t say it discredits him. If true, I would say it lesser credits him though, because the standard you suggest simply privileges one way of looking at the issue. Sure, it might be the right way. But once you make the minimum wage a topic of your interest (and from this, to be fair, it’s not clear that he has, but as I said my bet is that he’d become interested if he thought it was too high – and I’d fully accept turning out to be wrong about that), it speaks better of you IMO to know of it from various angles. For him, it might become relevant only when it becomes a problem from being too high, but it’s also of interest to a person who’s in a position to have to take a minimum wage job just what that wage might be. That’s a thing a person like him could take the care necessary to also be aware of. A person who becomes interested in the minimum wage only when it becomes a problem from being to high by definition isn’t interested in that. I don’t know whether that discredits him, but it’s a thing that can be noted. It’s a thing about him.

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    • “If we’re really going to have a healthy commotion here, it’s going to require more thoughtful arguments, not cheap potshot analysis. This isn’t any more sophisticated than what I can get from talking heads on TV. This is “Obama thinks there are 52 states so he’s not fit to be president” quality analysis.”

      I agree, but I also think that Elias deserves a little bit of slack. I’m willing to criticize this post, and sign on to others’ criticisms of it, here because it does seem like kind of cheap shot. But Elias, in my view, is not a cheap-shot artist. He has a pretty singular perspective, but in almost every other of his posts, his analysis is indeed at least thoughtful.

      I say this because I realize that I myself have a pretty thin skin. And if every blog post I wrote on my own blog were subject to such scrutiny, I might be a little wary. I’m not saying this as a criticism of the critics here–my blog is just a place to spout my own thoughts, this blog is mostly (with the exception of one person who doesn’t allow comments) a place for discussion. I’m just saying we all probably have off days.

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  8. I didn’t know off the top of my head the exact value of the federal minimum wage, either. I knew it was seven and change, You know why? Because it’s a bad but relatively harmless policy that neither receives nor deserves much of my attention.

    Your notion that someone needs to know this to be taken seriously on poverty issues assumes that the minimum wage is an important anti-poverty program, which is very much begging the question.

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    • I cannot tell you what the minimum wage is, but I know that it is a TERRIBLE way to address poverty. First, because only a minuscule percentage of people make the minimum wage, and second, the vast majority of those few that do make the minimum are not members of poor households. Add the fact that higher prices reduces demand thus leading to unseen negative externalities bouncing right back at those making the minimum.

      I wonder how many progressives know the dynamics of minimum wage rather than something as trivial as the absolute number? Forest for trees comes to mind.

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      • For the record, I have worked for minimum wage. Like the great majority of minimum wage workers, I was young, not a head of household, and did not remain in a minimum wage job.

        Now, how many of the liberals here worked minimum wage, and how do your experiences compare to mine? If we’re going to hint at cheap attacks like this, let’s have full confessions by both sides, eh?

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      • james, first, I’ve already said in this thread that I don’t think most liberals care, or have a clue, about poverty and the working poor, or minorities, or labor generally. So let’s not lump me in with liberals. I ain’t one, and I’m not particularly fond of them.

        Second, I’ve worked minimum wage jobs 4 times: once in high school, once (actually for two summers and two Christmas breaks) in college, once starting in my junior year of college, and finally, while still working that job from college (but then making close to today’s minimum wage, in 1998) when I graduated, I started a minimum wage job as a second job for the time between undergrad and grad school. I worked that job for almost a year, and I think when I moved to go to grad school, I’d gotten 3 wages, each of a quarter, so I was making around $5.90 at the second job when I left (I believe at that time I was making $8 or $8.50 in the first job, plus working a lot of overtime on the weekends — I worked 7 days a week that year).

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      • Ok, so I’ve worked minimum wage, you’ve worked minimum wage, and presumably at least one of the real true liberals here has worked minimum wage. And iirc, Roger has stated that he once worked minimum wage (but he’ll have to confirm or deny that). So what does having worked minimum wage or not tell us? Jack shit, apparently. So can we close off this ad hominemish line of attack right here and now, I stead of pussyfooting around whether we’re really going to pursue it or not?

        My whole purpose in these threads has been to point out bad argumentative methods. This subthread was threatening to introduce yet another, so I just wanted to give it a hard kick in the nuts before my mobile device loses all its juice.

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      • James, I made a snide comment saying that I was trying to hide my disdain for wealth. My main reply to Brandon, in fact the only one I need, is that he’s not an expert testifying before Congress, so I wouldn’t expect him to know things. Honestly, I couldn’t care less whether he’s ever worked a minimum wage job. I suspect he’s out of touch with poverty and the poor, and I know Roger is, but I’ve taken Roger seriously enough to have multiple conversations with him on these topics. That he doesn’t know what the federal minimum wage is doesn’t bother me. But again, he’s not testifying before Congress.

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      • So…you worked minimum wage jobs when you were a student, but not since, same as the rest of us. Clearly you’re not qualified to have an opinion on the topic.

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      • Brandon, you should read what I’ve said. Or rather, don’t bother. There’s a reason I rarely converse with you here (and given how much I comment, that’s sayin’ something). This response reminds me of that reason.

        Roger, pretty much everything you’ve said here, ever. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t know what you’re talking about on the subject of the affects of minimum wage. I think you’re wrong, of course, and I think the data backs me up, but like I said, we’ve had that conversation many time. I’ve paid attention each time, which suggests I take you seriously, regardless of how in touch I think you are with the poor.

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      • Chris:
        That was a tongue-in-cheek reference to your comment above:

        Still, I admit my first thought was that they probably haven’t worked minimum wage or anything close to it since they were teens, if ever (I suspect never), and will never have to work minimum wage jobs or anything close to it.

        If you say you didn’t mean to insinuate anything by that then sure, I’ll take your word for it, but it’s not unreasonable to read it that way. Meanwhile, your experience with the minimum wage is, in fact, roughly the same as mine, although mine was shorter since I didn’t go to grad school.

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      • Brandon, I apologize for the vitriol. I was riled up, and it was unfair to you.

        My point about not working minimum wage is that, because a.) you’re not an expert, and therefore don’t study this stuff, and b.) you’re not anywhere close to having the minimum wage affect your life in any way, your knowing the minimum wage doesn’t seem important, either for the purposes of this discussion or for you, personally. Neither of these things holds for someone testifying before Congress on policies affecting the poor.

        Me, I know the current minimum wage, because it is relevant to the issues that I’m concerned with politically and personally. Maybe I am just unusually good at remembering details, because it’s part of my training or whatever, but I could tell you the minimum wage now, what it was before (for at least a few iterations, going back to the 90s), and I make sure I know when it’s changing or even when serious conversations that may lead to changes are in progress, and so on. I would expect an expert in issues affecting the poor, including the working poor, to know the same, but maybe I’m just asking too much.

        I will say that I do not think that a different set of policy preferences would excuse such an expert. I try to know and understand the sorts of things that people who favor different policies than I have proposed, and if the current policies are different from what I favor, I try to have a pretty good idea of what those policies are. And again, I’m not an expert testifying before Congress. If I can know this much relatively easily, and it’s outside of my area of expertise (way outside, though I have done a fair amount of work, some volunteer and some for pay, on labor issues), it doesn’t seem like much to expect the experts to know it inside theirs’.

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    • I find it interesting that we have two people – BB and the Kook – who are opposed to the minimuim wage, who admit they don’t know what it is, and also have made/are making upper percentile income.

      Noting, not judging!

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      • Still, I admit my first thought was that they probably haven’t worked minimum wage or anything close to it since they were teens, if ever (I suspect never), and will never have to work minimum wage jobs or anything close to it. Hell, they probably don’t even work around people who have worked minimum wage jobs anytime recently.

        But I’m trying to be more guarded about my disdain for wealth. ;)

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      • It’s interesting because I think both BB and Roger have the best interests of everyone in mind – I have no doubt about that – but that the calculus justifying their beliefs is established only by considering collective outcomes. And that’s the irony that often jumps out at me. They both oppose “collective” (non-individual) thinking as it’s currently constructed or proposed, but their solutions to perceived problems require individuals to subvert their own individual interests and think collectively (non-individually).

        Personally speaking here, I think there’s something worth considering about that.

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      • I find it interesting that those that seem oblivious to the dynamics and negative consequences of interfering with the free movement of prices are able to recite the minimum wage. They see the trees with clarity. The forest, not so much.

        I fail to grasp how anyone could think knowing a piece of trivia is more important than the dynamic of interference.

        And it isn’t personal. I already admitted to having no clue what I earned when I did earn money. And my guess is none of you have made minimum wage in a long time either.

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      • Not sure what you mean.

        How am i opposing collective thinking? And what is collective thinking? Which individuals am I supposed to be requiring to subvert their individual interests?

        You might be right on all these. I don’t know though, as I am not sure what you mean.

        I think substantially higher minimum wages is a bad idea. It is counterproductive. It is a bad set of rules to play under longer term for pretty much everyone that plays. I certainly think it makes rational sense for a person currently making minimum wage in a secure job for hoping short term for a higher minimum. Just like it makes rational sense for hoping the cashier at the grocery store gives you too much change. In both cases I believe it is wrong to benefit from either.

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      • Y’all drew first blood.

        On a more mature level, what do you think the effects of a higher minimum wage will be?

        I believe the effects will be virtually no impact on poverty. A small number of mostly non poor people will get slightly more wage per hour, work slightly fewer hours, experience slightly higher unemployment, get slightly fewer non wage benefits, get slightly more demanding job requirements, for a company making slightly less profit, charging customers slightly higher prices.

        In general the economy will be slightly less efficient, though not necessarily measurably so.

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      • Roger, I’d love to have this conversation with you, but I’ve had with you several times — to the point that I could probably write your comments for you — and aside from the fact that it never gets anywhere, I get genuinely angry that you inevitably resort to saying that the people who disagree with you, like me, just don’t know economics very well. So, instead of replying with my position, I’ll just refer you to our several conversations on the topic from the past. I believe Still participated in those too, so I bet you can get his views from them as well.

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      • Oh yeah… Sorry. That must have been the one where you said something about not understanding how anyone could support free enterprise considering the recent trends and I responded something about “you mean the unprecedented historic trend of over a billion people emerging out of severe poverty in the past generation?”

        Chris, I know you know everything I will say, but I still don’t understand why you believe some of the things you do. Part of why I come here is to probe.

        How could anyone support a materially higher minimum wage considering the expected dynamics? Do they expect different dynamics? If so, what? Are they correct? Is my understanding wrong? Or are they pursuing different ends?*

        * I suspect a few people are politically tribalistic and support positions because it is good for their tribe. This is not in any way true of you or Stillwater though.

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      • Roger, maybe you’ll recall that one of the things we disagree on, in this discussion, is what the empirical evidence says. I don’t think it says what you think it will say, I think it says that minimum wage tends to benefit low wage earners. In fact, I think it says that in the medium and long term, it benefits everyone. You disagree. We’ve gone over it at least half a dozen times. We’re not going to come out of the discussion with different interpretations of that evidence. If you wonder why I think the way I do, your answer probably lies in there somewhere.

        Also, as I said above, I’d be happy to do away with minimum wage in favor of Scandanavian level unionization and union power. But I know your position on unions as well.

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      • Also, I don’t think I said I don’t understand why someone could support free enterprise. I understand perfectly why they would. I think someone else said that. I just made some comments about the best system ever comment that you made in response to someone else saying that.

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      • You don’t need to guess, what I think higher minimum wages do.. I spelled it out above. I said it increases hourly wages for those few people in minimum wage jobs, most of which are not poor. I then listed what it is also expected to do in terms of hours worked, unemployment, prices, profits, mechanization, and working conditions. I can supply extremely liberal sources which say just this. I agree that small changes tend to have statistically immeasurable secondary effects. It basically becomes a policy shift toward seen effects (higher hourly wage) to lots of scattered, and usually unfavorable unseen effects.

        Do you believe it does something which I don’t? Do you believe minimum wage workers tend to be poor?

        What is the source or argument which leads you to believe higher minimum wage leads to long term prosperity? What is the argument that stronger unions lead to prosperity?

        I think the libertarianish side of this discussion tends to be pretty explicit with our arguments and data. Granted we don’t convince everyone. However, could the progressive/socialists please lay out their explicit arguments with their explicit data?

        How exactly will a substantial increase in minimum wage help the poor when you consider immediate and secondary effects, short and long term?

        How will stronger unions help the poor when you consider short and long term, direct and secondary effects?

        And, what makes you so sure I am the one out of touch with the poor? (answering “everything I say” doesn’t help, because I have also laid out very explicit arguments on how my recommendations help the poor and yours hurts them.) Granted we can disagree on my conclusions, but if I am right, then I am the one most in touch, not you.

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      • I know precisely who makes minimum wage, demographically. It’s not hard to find.

        And in these conversations, I have probably given you 2 dozen studies, published in scholarly journals, perhaps more than that, that support my position. I don’t think you’ve given me a single one. So cut the shit about being explicit with your data. You have an ideological position, decided beforehand. Data never entered into it.

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      • I am sorry. Like I said initially, my memory is terrible.

        I would love to see a study which convincingly argues higher minimum wages help just about everybody over the medium and long haul. What is their logic?

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      • roger, now you’re just being patronizing. Seriously, I was just saying that I suspect you’re a nice guy, you just rub me the wrong way, and then you go and rub me the wrong way again.

        Also, given how many studies I’ve trotted out in our conversations, I suspect “convincingly” is doing all the work there.

        The logic is pretty simple, and not unlike the logic you use to argue that markets make everyone better off. Basically, wages go up, money goes into the economy, wages go up on other parts of the latter, money goes into the economy, and so on. There are usually relatively small, short-term increases in low-wage unemployment, which are pretty rapidly corrected (fast enough to be covered by unemployment insurance and other subsidies). And the relationship between minimum wage hikes and inflation is complicated, but probably not what you think it is.

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      • I really did not mean to be patronizing. I really, really do not remember the studies you have linked to. And I really do not get the logic of how raising wages arbitrarily increases long term prosperity.

        I remember someone linking to an article arguing that we should raise retail sales wages to $20 per hour last year. I remember someone arguing that living wages works in cities. I remember people mentioning the C&K studies. I have mentioned before that the IGM consensus has a majority of economists agreeing that moderate increases may not be bad.

        Obviously I am bothering you, but feel free to mention some identifying characteristics of the research on using higher wages to increase overall prosperity, and I will google it and promise not to bother you any more.

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      • I oppose the minimum wage, well I oppose a ginormous increase in the minimum wage. Add me to the list. I am no where near any upper percentile of anything and have worked for the minimum wage while at the same time being head of household.

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      • “The logic is pretty simple, and not unlike the logic you use to argue that markets make everyone better off. Basically, wages go up, money goes into the economy, wages go up on other parts of the latter, money goes into the economy, and so on. There are usually relatively small, short-term increases in low-wage unemployment, which are pretty rapidly corrected (fast enough to be covered by unemployment insurance and other subsidies). And the relationship between minimum wage hikes and inflation is complicated, but probably not what you think it is.”

        Just spitballing it… it seems to me that min wage earners can’t possibly make up more than one percent of total wages. An increase to this can’t add more than a negligible infusion into the economy, even if we assumed no changes to hours worked, employment, etc. in addition, the wages have to come from somewhere else in the system (lower profits, less R&D, higher prices).

        I would rather go with the guaranteed market based income approach. I think it could be a better and bigger impact.

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      • Roger, do you use Google scholar? Look up minimum wage, inflation, and unemployment. Read a bunch of stuff (recent and older). I’d give you cites, but I’ve done it several times before, and don’t feel particularly motivated to do it again if none of it sank in those other times.

        Spitballing is not a libertarian being up front with data; it’s precisely the opposite.

        Also, since incomes aren’t determined by “the market,” or rather, they are, but by a market with serious power and information imbalances, I’m not sure how things would look under your system. I’d say a guaranteed minimum income, regardless of work status, and wage levels determined by collective bargaining, would be acceptable.

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      • I have read dozens of research papers and responses on minimum wage. I have a log where I summarize the findings. My take away is just as I summarized. Small increases make virtually no impact on the poor and probably lead to low level market inefficiencies throug
        h the system. Large changes would probably be extremely counterproductive.

        I am fine with a market test. Lets set minimum wage at $20 in half a city and eliminate it in the other half and give it five years.

        Over and out

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      • The logic is pretty simple, and not unlike the logic you use to argue that markets make everyone better off. Basically, wages go up, money goes into the economy, wages go up on other parts of the latter, money goes into the economy, and so on.

        Increased aggregate demand given a relatively fixed supply in the short-term may lead to increased prices so I don’t think higher wages automatically translates into increased purchasing power.

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      • I think Chris would clarify with: wages go up for the section of the working class who are most likely to spend, rather than save then more money goes into the economy.

        Or, more precisely, no “more money goes into the economy”, but “liquidity increases at the purchasing of base goods” level. Since the price of base goods is affected by a number of other governmental interventions, this effectively frees up money to move from base goods purchasing to low price luxury purchasing.

        I’m not sure he’s correct given the current makeup of the economy, but it’s a credible theory, I’d guess.

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      • Increased aggregate demand given a relatively fixed supply in the short-term may lead to increased prices so I don’t think higher wages automatically translates into increased purchasing power.

        Maybe not at $1 : $1. But it would have to be a pretty robust effect to get it to net to zero added PP. Increasing wages in a limited segment of the economy is likely to result in higher purchasing power for those workers in the short term, especially on the inflation track we seem to be stuck at.

        Moreover, any robust recovery we experience will come with a degree of inflation (that’s what the whole discussion about “tapering” is about; if we say we’re going to nip any movement toward higher prices in the bud, that effectively makes any possibility of strong growth a fleeting hope at best). A strong recovery will be good for people working at lower wages and those trying to; if we could bake into that cake increased lower-scale wages, that would be better than leaving open the possibility of a recovery that doesn’t result in significantly improved wages for lower-income workers, which is certainly a possibility. Not that I know a good way to do this necessarily, as significantly raising the minimum wage certainly has its drawbacks. But suffice to say, if we;re just stipulating it happening certeris paribus, in that case in current conditions the inflation concern relating to the interests of low-wge workers from having their wages raised is basically a non-issue.

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      • …Well, not a non-issue. But the inflation concern from raising low wages isn’t such that we should go around thinking we’re probably doing people favors by denying them increases that would likely more than be eaten up by inflation. That could be true in some worlds, but it’s not at this time in this world.

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    • It seems to me that there are two ways to argue both for and against minimum wage laws (and raises to the minimum wage): ideologically and empirically. The two can compliment each other in some cases, of course, but if your position is either a.) a living wage is a moral imperative or b.) mandating how much employers should pay people is morally wrong, then empirical arguments are pretty much unnecessary.

      For me, I think that if working is a necessity for everyone who is able to do so (I don’t think it should be), then it should be possible for everyone who is able to work to earn a living by working. I think a minimum wage, or better still a living wage, is a highly imperfect way to achieve this, but given the current political and economic makeup of our country, a necessary one. This requires some empirical data on my part in a way that it doesn’t for the people who are making a strictly moral case for minimum/living wages in particular.

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      • if working is a necessity for everyone who is able to do so (I don’t think it should be)

        This seems to assume some facts on the ground, most notably, the fact that “there is a surplus”.

        Empirically, this will work until it stops working… at which point the conversation turns into discussions of how “we’ve always done it this way!” and if I were to sum up “ideological arguments in a nutshell”, I could do a lot worse than “we’ve always done it this way”.

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      • Ugh, that was meant as a reply to you above. Dunno how it got down here.

        Anyway, the only thing I’m assuming in that is that, in order to make a living in our society today — to have a roof over your head, enough weather-appropriate clothing, food, water, electricity, and a phone — you have to work, unless you are unable to do so (where not being able to do so might include having children and no access to childcare).

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      • Within our current system (I always feel like I have to say that, because man, our current system sucks), I’d go for a guaranteed minimum income. Of course, since this has to end up being funded by taxes, I’m not sure it’s going to accord with the libertarian streak of not just libertarians proper, whatever extension that has with its fuzzy boundaries, but also a lot of both liberals and conservatives in this country. I imagine we’d have a better shot at single-payer than this. But my finger’s not really on the pulse of the electorate, so what do I know?

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      • Yeah, I’m sure there’d be no side effects to basically telling people that their work isn’t even worth the cost of a 20 ounce soda an hour. But, I’ll take that deal only if employers can only make in profit the amount they pay. So, if they pay $1/hr, they only can make $1/hr in profit.

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      • Yeah, I’m sure there’d be no side effects to basically telling people that their work isn’t even worth the cost of a 20 ounce soda an hour.

        How do you think the ones who can’t get hired for $7.25 feel?

        “If the minimum wage was 5 bucks, I’d get hired… and I feel much better about that.”

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      • Anyway, the only thing I’m assuming in that is that, in order to make a living in our society today — to have a roof over your head, enough weather-appropriate clothing, food, water, electricity, and a phone — you have to work, unless you are unable to do so (where not being able to do so might include having children and no access to childcare).

        I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with this. I mean, sure, I am 100% in support of a social safety net, etc, and all that stuff but I don’t necessarily see the problem with people working in order to pay for their own necessities.

        I might even see something approaching “dignity” in doing so.

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      • Well, we can have a discussion about the dignity of work, and I suspect in many ways we’d agree with each other, but the necessity of work, the fact that I have to work, and not just work but in the vast majority of cases, work for someone else, in order to survive, creates some serious issues of inequality, freedom, even coercion. It’s a long discussion, though. We should all read some Marcuse. All this plays out there.

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      • , the real issue as I see it is that “ought implies can”. IF we’re to hold a general ethos that able-bodied adults provide for their own needs* THEN if follows that our economic system needs to be structured so that such is readily achievable for anyone willing to cowboy up. If such is not the case for a particular society with a particular economic system then so much the worse for the ethos, the economic system, or both.

        At the risk of presumptively speaking for others, this is what I take as the core Liberal critique of contemporary American Capitalism. That on the one hand you have that normative ethos of self-sufficiency while at the same time, the very same people who are most loudly and firmly asserting that ethos are seemingly doing everything in their power to make meeting it as difficult as possible for as many people as possible.

        I understand that businesses don’t want to pay any more for labor than they can get away with, in the same way they don’t want to pay any more for any factor of production than they can get away with. But a business that insisted on paying less than the cost of production for any other input–electricity, lumber, steel, grain, whatever–would clearly be insisting upon an unjust and economically perverse subsidy. Wouldn’t you agree?

        And that’s where the concept of a “living wage” really comes from. An accounting of the true cost of that factor of production we call “labor”. But what of market pricing? If the price of, for instance, steel were to fall below the marginal cost of production then less steel would be produced until the market price rose to cover that marginal cost. What would it look like to follow that principle for labor? Obviously, the workforce has to shrink until the reduction of supply causes the price to once again rise above the cost of production.

        People, and lots of them, have to literally die to make that work. And long before enough people die, the bulk of the population will be living in miserable poverty. Worse, the equilibrium condition is precisely that: The bulk of the population living in abject poverty. And that also happens to be the normal state of affairs over the long sweep of human history.

        We can do better, and we have… but only in certain places and times and only temporarily. You and I have been privileged to be born and live in such a place and time. But the interregnum is coming to a close and without deliberately engineering something better our progeny will not be so fortunate.

        And that’s where giving a shit is important.

        * I take this to mean that an able-bodied and able-minded person, over the course of a reasonable lifetime of work, say 50 years (18 to 68), and not necessarily possessing extraordinary skills, can reasonably earn enough to support him or her-self over that work life–food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, necessary transportation, communication, etc.–plus enough to save for a reasonably comfortable and dignified retirement and support a child from birth to age 18 (to account for your own childhood, paying it forward, so to speak). I realize that words like “reasonable” are doing a lot of work here, but that’s because what counts as reasonable in the U.S. or Europe is going to differ from what counts as reasonable in Burkina Faso or Zimbabwe.

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      • , what I’ve seen, though, is that the minimum wage is used primarily by the under-25 set. What happens after that? They get skills. Someone who works minimum wage for even a few years should, ideally, master the whole “show up on time” and “shower” and associated bs with having a job. After that, you’re part of the experienced (if unskilled) workforce and you’re going to find yourself doing more and better (if unskilled) work. Team Leads, Assistant Managers, and so on.

        When I was arguing with Freddie, the main thing I noticed is that, year after year after year, the numbers for the most folks getting the minimum wage were unchanged: kids (yes, legally adults, blah blah blah). Once they had experience, they found themselves making more than the minimum wage.

        When I was in college, I made minimum wage… and, after I graduated, I went through a story that I’m sure everybody is familiar with (if not being able to tell a similar one): first “real” job made a hair more than minimum wage, then got kicked upstairs, then got kicked upstairs, then got kicked to another building, then got promoted, then given more responsibility, then made team lead, then kicked to another team, and so on and so on and so on until I was actually skilled labor with certifications and such.

        Now, I was able to keep up with my tuition working a minimum wage job. My thoughts on “how can we best help the poor?” would be with cheap college.

        Let them make minimum wage when they’re kids. Then they will find themselves accumulating skills despite themselves and commanding more and better responsibilities and that will come with more money.

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      • Let me be clear , I’m not really expressing support for the minimum wage, or living wage, or increases to either. My post was intended really to lay some theoretical foundation for the concept of a living wage and what it means for someone to be earning at less than that rate.

        Yes, I’m aware of the typical pattern of earning over a lifetime. If for no other reason than my own experience. And to the extent that that works out, then fine; it works out. But I think if you take a hard-eyed look at what a genuine, no-help-from-the-state-or-charity, self-sufficiency actually entails and compare it to the median wage level for adults, which I would take to approximate a person’s lifetime average earnings, do the numbers line up?

        What I’m asking is: Is it actually the case that the lifetime earning pattern of most workers is such that self-sufficiency is a reasonable expectation given that ought-implies-can? And by “most” read that as “all able-bodied and minded people willing to give it an honest shot”.

        Your observation re the typical earnings pattern doesn’t really answer that question. Instead it seems to be deployed by the typical libertarian to assert that there isn’t really any problem here and “can we please talk about what I want to talk about now?”

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      • But I think if you take a hard-eyed look at what a genuine, no-help-from-the-state-or-charity, self-sufficiency actually entails and compare it to the median wage level for adults, which I would take to approximate a person’s lifetime average earnings, do the numbers line up?

        Well, I’m not really arguing for “genuine, no-help-from-the-state-or-charity, self-sufficiency” as a beginning state. I do think that that is an achievable *MIDDLE* state, though. If we provide everyone with something approaching a useful education, most people will get enough skills to no longer require reliance on the state… I’d hope, anyway. I imagine that it’d be tougher to live in San Fran or Manhattan as a vaguely unskilled worker than just outside of Branson.

        Is it actually the case that the lifetime earning pattern of most workers is such that self-sufficiency is a reasonable expectation given that ought-implies-can?

        It seems to me that “the history of the world” indicates that this is the case. It seems tautological, uninteresting.

        Is it that what “sufficiency” means now is so much more than it used to mean that makes this interesting?

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      • Let me add as well that I’m munging some thoughts in here that are really more appropriate to the prior post about whether and/or why an employer should be responsible for paying wages sufficient to ensure self-sufficiency of the workers.

        I honestly don’t know where I come down on that question, but I think it’s important to be clear about what we’re really talking about. I can see the value of wages at less-than-sufficiency for certain workers: teenagers, etc. Call it a training wage or whatever. But when you have some of the largest corporations in the world paying that kind of wage to virtually it’s entire staff with the exception of upper management (and truck drivers for some reason), then I have to ask why they deserve electricity at half-price. And if they don’t deserve to purchase electricity at less than cost, why do they deserve to purchase labor at less than cost?

        I see a problem there but I’m not claiming that raising the minimum wage is the appropriate remedy. I’m not sure what the answer is but not knowing the answer doesn’t make the issue moot.

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      • It seems to me that “the history of the world” indicates that this is the case. It seems tautological, uninteresting.

        Is it that what “sufficiency” means now is so much more than it used to mean that makes this interesting?

        By “the history of the world” do you mean “history of the Post-WWII U.S.”? Or maybe history of the industrialized West mid-to-late twentieth century? Because outside of some specific periods, periods that typically have names like “the Renaissance” and “the Enlightenment” the economic history of the world has been pretty damn miserable for most folks. In each of these cases you had some event, generally a plague or war, or perhaps the opening of a rich new frontier, that either restricts the supply or creates an unusual demand for labor. Wages rise and a middle-class is born. Otherwise, the normal pattern is a tiny privileged aristocracy, a smallish (10% or so by population) mercantile, clerical, and professional class, and a groveling mass of peasants.

        The modern Libertarian movement was born in 1970 by privileged children growing up in one of these unusual eras, brought about by the close of WWII. The biggest mistake in libertarian thought is imagining that those conditions were “normal” and that somehow things could be even better if only we did away with many of the things which made that prosperity possible in the first place. Things like unions and massive government infrastructure spending financed by high marginal tax rates.

        As to your second question: Yes. We have higher expectations here and now. And for good reason. We know a happier state of affairs is possible because that’s the world we grew up in–at least I did in the ’60s. In another time and place, most other times and places in fact, we would likely be much more satisfied with the meager existence which is all anyone ever knew.

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      • Things like unions and massive government infrastructure spending financed by high marginal tax rates.

        Also: destroying the industrial base of Europe and Japan. Also, having scarcity premiums attached to both high school diplomas and college degrees. We might ask questions about the level of legislation/regulation involved with opening a business or being hired to one.

        How much of America’s Awesomeness is due to scarcity premiums attached to damn near everything White America did? How much of the stagnation we now see is due to the rest of the world reaping the benefits of modernity?

        A couple of wars in Asia spilling over into Europe would do *WONDERS* for the American Middle Class… assuming the US decides against interfering with them… because destruction of enough of what used to be called “Capital” will result in the scarcity premium being re-applied to America’s workers.

        In the absence of that, we’re stuck looking at the dynamics of what was actually happening when everything was so good and asking whether that was the result of the stars aligning themselves perfectly and what’s going on now is a return to a normal state of affairs with regards to how lucky we are or what the dynamics of a booming middle class actually entails.

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      • ” In each of these cases you had some event, generally a plague or war, or perhaps the opening of a rich new frontier, that either restricts the supply or creates an unusual demand for labor. Wages rise and a middle-class is born. Otherwise, the normal pattern is a tiny privileged aristocracy, a smallish (10% or so by population) mercantile, clerical, and professional class, and a groveling mass of peasants.”

        I disagree with your history, totally. I agree that elites and bandits have exploited 90% of humanity for 99% of history. The modern breakthrough of extended cumulative per capita growth has occurred exactly once. The breakthrough event occurred with the advent of modern liberalism. People like Adam Smith began to notice that wide scale prosperity was possible by setting up institutions which enable voluntary division of labor and exchange. This allows specialized, highly efficient, highly knowledgable production in a positive sum fashion. Value can be created and productivity can be enhanced, but only if exploitation (win/lose behavior) is prohibited from within (free riders and rent seekers), without (bandits and invaders) and above (people wearing uniforms and people using those in uniforms to tell others what they can and cannot do).

        Wages have risen throughout the liberal free world whenever they have adopted these institutions and insights (property rights and relative freedom of economic interaction). It is not inherently dependent upon labor scarcity. It is dependent upon productivity and the “miracle” of comparative advantage, and the relative restriction of exploitation from within, without and above.

        “The modern Libertarian movement was born in 1970 by privileged children growing up in one of these unusual eras.”

        I am not familiar with the movement. The sources of inspiration for classical liberals is Locke, Smith, Darwin, Mises, Hayek, Friedman and such. It is an intellectual movement, not a political one. Politics to a libertarian is like violence to a pacifist. Wrong tool.

        “The biggest mistake in libertarian thought is imagining that those conditions were “normal” and that somehow things could be even better if only we did away with many of the things which made that prosperity possible in the first place. Things like unions and massive government infrastructure spending financed by high marginal tax rates.”

        If you can explain in detail how unions lead to prosperity you will be my new hero. I have repeatedly challenged progressives to explain this. Their narratives to date have been naive, IMO.

        Unions succeed for their members by beggaring non members, consumers, R&D, and capital. Capital responds to lower returns and investment by moving elsewhere, thus starving out union industry. Union coercion is a zero sum game. You cannot increase prosperity via a zero sum, rob Peter to pay Paul process. Why are progressives blinded by zero sum logic?

        Government infrastructure doesn’t require high marginal tax rates. Very little of our taxes goes to infrastructure. Our taxes go to wars of adventure, and inefficient redistribution. I suggest efficient safety nets and no more adventures and substantially lower taxes for the productive members of society.

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      • Also: destroying the industrial base of Europe and Japan.

        Yep. Essentially we were the last industrialized economy (well, Canada and Australia, too) left standing. And the Mashall plan was an incredible stimulus to our industrial sector. As was all the pent-up demand unleashed by returning GI’s starting families. For a couple of years during the war it was impossible to buy a new car because the factories were devoted to making jeeps, tanks, and planes. A couple years ago I ran across some old newspapers from the era describing the housing shortages and, of course, the construction boom to meet that demand. The suburbs were born!

        Also, having scarcity premiums attached to both high school diplomas and college degrees. Meh… remember the GI Bill? It seems to me we came a long way toward democratizing the college diploma back then.

        We might ask questions about the level of legislation/regulation involved with opening a business or being hired to one.

        Certainly less than now, I suppose. Depending on the type of business and where you are. Quantifying that impact is beyond me.

        How much of America’s Awesomeness is due to scarcity premiums attached to damn near everything White America did? How much of the stagnation we now see is due to the rest of the world reaping the benefits of modernity?

        And how much is from allowing countries like China to practice Mercantilism against us?

        A couple of wars in Asia spilling over into Europe would do *WONDERS* for the American Middle Class… assuming the US decides against interfering with them… because destruction of enough of what used to be called “Capital” will result in the scarcity premium being re-applied to America’s workers.

        In the absence of that, we’re stuck looking at the dynamics of what was actually happening when everything was so good and asking whether that was the result of the stars aligning themselves perfectly and what’s going on now is a return to a normal state of affairs with regards to how lucky we are or what the dynamics of a booming middle class actually entails.

        Understand the dynamics, certainly. But perhaps instead of aiming for “booming” middle-class we should just aim for “decent and sustainable” middle class. A country like China, given where it’s at development-wise, can show growth of 5 or 10% annually because it has a lot of room to go up. A fully-developed economy like the U.S. shouldn’t expect to be able to do that. And if we’re depending on that kind of growth to sustain a decent middle class then we’re ignoring reality.

        Understand well that the folks at the top of the pile understand the dynamics quite well. That they’re saying something else shouldn’t be surprising. Enlightened self-interest and all that. If twentieth-century American Awesomeness was a consequence of accidental occurences, then it behooves us, IMHO, to figure out how to simulate as much of that dynamic–deliberately engineer it–as possible. It’s about making political choices; a fish can’t change the water in it’s own tank.

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      • “Unfettered free enterprise will build a society where everyone has the capability to achieve wealth and self-sufficiency, the way it did before the modern welfare state.”

        “You mean, like in the 50s and 60s?”

        “Exactly.”

        “Then why is there so much more insecurity and stratification than there was then?”

        “Because the 50s and 60s were a total fluke.”

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      • Meh… remember the GI Bill? It seems to me we came a long way toward democratizing the college diploma back then.

        What was the percentage of folks with a high school diploma back then compared to today? Was it surprisingly lower?

        If we look at the numbers for bachelor’s degrees, are the numbers also surprising?

        allowing countries like China to practice Mercantilism against us

        What?

        Understand well that the folks at the top of the pile understand the dynamics quite well.

        If we’re looking at the dynamics globally, even America’s poor are at the top of the pile.

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  9. Elias, the reason people do not ‘care’ about ‘poverty’ is that we live in a country where the poor are commonly fat, commonly have home appliances which were novel or unknown in the agreeably bourgeois suburb in which my mother was living ca. 1942, commonly own automobiles, commonly sport footwear that would have been considered fancy in 1970. Your real problem is seldom a deficit of consumer goods. A deficit of public order, poor public services, considerable levels of economic insecurity, the cloying though haphazard presence of the social work industry, and sclerotic and dysfunctional labor markets are all problems. La Gauche in the last fifty years has acquired almost no history of promoting any practical ameliorative schemes and doing so would irritate various and sundry vested interests which make use of the Democratic Party as their vehicle. Before you go on a whinge about other people not ‘caring’, you might show some indication that you all have a policy other than leave-no-social-worker-behind (and fellating the teachers’ unions, the trial lawyers, and Hollywood). A great deal can be done to improve the quality of life in the slums. One rule of thumb: ask yourself what Coleman Young would have done, and then do the opposite.

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  10. The ignorance recounted in the OP reminds me of Vikram’s recent post. The venue is slightly different–public testimony instead of a TV interview–but I could see myself being publicly interviewed and asked a question about something, even something I’m supposedly an expert in, and not knowing the precise answer. I might interject that someone giving such testimony ought to do their prepwork a little better, and the decision to do so *might* reflect a certain flippancy and disconnect on the witness’s part. Or it might not. Still, it’s a mistake to make too much of his ignorance.

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  11. “Now, how many of the liberals here worked minimum wage, and how do your experiences compare to mine? If we’re going to hint at cheap attacks like this, let’s have full confessions by both sides, eh?”

    I realize this is part of a discussion that by now has become pretty….acrimonious (and needlessly so, in my opinion, because I think there is a much more charitable way to read and respond to Chris’s points here). But I’ll put my two cents and corresponding observations in.

    My experiences compare mostly with Aitch’s. I had a high school minimum wage job and as an undergrad, I had one, too. Both jobs quickly became slightly higher than the then-current minimum wage. During my high school job,I believe the minimum wage was $3.35, and I was eventually paid something like $3.90. Then, if I recall correctly, the wage was raised to $4.25. So it helped me (but eventually, I got small raises and my employer(s) needed to offer higher wages to attract workers).

    Now, I was in high school for the first job, and I grew up in a relatively affluent household. My rent, food, and clothing were subsidized by my parents. So I probably fall into that stereotypical category people talk about when they say “most” people who work minimum wage aren’t poor.

    Not being familiar with the statistics, I sometimes wonder if “most” means something closer to 51% or something closer to 95%. If the latter, then the minimum wage is probably mostly a non-issue. If the former, then there’s still a heckuva lot, although not a majority, of people on minimum wage for whom what that wage is might be something important.

    But to return to my anecdata. There were other high school students who lived in the trailer park next to the mall where I worked and who worked with me. They had to give their parents part of their salary for rent. I got the impression that some of these high schoolers would probably have the same (or similar) fast food job (I worked in the food court) for the rest of their lives, although some, maybe even most, would probably acquire more skills or be able to leverage their youth and strength to work jobs that paid more.

    There were also others, both at my first job and subsequent fast food jobs I worked up to and through college, who were adults and would probably be working that job, or very similar jobs, for the rest of their lives. A couple were shift managers and although they got paid very poorly, they were paid above minimum wage. A few others, some on food stamps, some with perhaps some mental or substance-abuse challenges, earned a wage that was (I imagine) closer to the minimum wage, and they might have been helped by subsequent increases in that wage. Some were probably undocumented workers, and they, too, might have been helped by an advance (the restaurants I worked at were corporate enough that they couldn’t get away with paying under the table, at least as far as I know).

    Now, none of what I say here answers the objection about the way raising the minimum wage might lead to higher prices for the ultimate consumers and how it might, if too high, distort the labor market so as to decrease the number of jobs available to people who might need them. Those objections, especially the second one, are objections I take very seriously, although I wonder how extensive they are in practice (how many people really are thrown out of work? are there countervailing forces in the labor market that in some ways yet unexplained actually lessen or even nullify such an effect?)

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  12. It is fair, isn’t it, to say the libertarian argument for helping the poor boils down to “let them help themselves”?

    We could have an argument about the best way to help the poor, but first we have to establish that we even want to. That it is a societal priority, not merely a beneficial side effect of other policies that we really want.

    Because to say that helping the poor is a societal priority, means accepting that there is in fact such a thing as society, that society has a purpose, and that purpose is expressed through collective action.

    Simply asserting that the best outcome for poor people is to passively allow them to be unmolested doesn’t do any of that.

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    • No, the libertarian argument for helping the poor is that there is a proven track record of what kinds of policies do help the poor. Labour regulations don’t. At the same time there are other unrelated reasons to put constraints on public policy up to and including side constraints that prevent us from helping the poor to the fullest extent possible. Hell, even Rawls (who is definitely not a libertarian) puts down some very hard constraints on what may be done to improve the prospects of the worst off

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    • “It is fair, isn’t it, to say the libertarian argument for helping the poor boils down to “let them help themselves”?”

      If we’re talking about libertarians as a political constituency, which seems to boil down to “the libertarian streak in the Republican party,” then there is something fair about that statement.

      However, if we take libertarians at their word and actually listen to their arguments, I think it’s fairer to say their argument for helping the poor boils down to “empower them to help themselves,” in part by leaving them unmolested by government.

      The libertarians in this thread, and others, seem to be arguing that the minimum wage doesn’t in fact help the poor, and some of them offer alternative solutions, like guaranteed minimum income. I have my differences with the first claim and my suspicions that the second seems too x-factorish to be practical. But these are not “let the poor help themselves” arguments.

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      • Jason, what does a libertarian mean by “it sucks”?
        It sucks to get a flat on the freeway- thats wholly different than asserting that there is a societal imperative to eliminating flat tires.
        When I- and Christian theologians- use the word “imperative” it means that easing the plight of the poor ranks above other values- in some cases above others such as property rights or self-autonomy.

        Am I misreading libertarians to think they are not ok with that idea?

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      • “Empower them to help themselves”?

        I think I’d agree with that.

        Many of my criticisms of public education as it exists today is that it doesn’t do a particularly good job of teaching people to empower themselves (though, granted, it does a great job of doing that on my side of the tracks).

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      • LWA, you’re not misreading, but don’t conclude from that that helping the poor is a non-value for libertarians, or even that it ranks very low on the scale for them. A mere rank-ordering of values does not tell us anything about the relative distance between them, right?

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      • Not to get all patriarchal or anything but isn’t the job of the parent to raise a child and help mold said child into a moral agent capable of such things as feeding him or herself?

        Why might it be worth condemning if we (as a society!) said that we want a handful of institutions that would do the same?

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      • James, I can agree that libertarian theory promotes helping the poor- but the ranking is exactly what I am aiming at.
        For example, in Christian social theory, coercive schemes like mandatory wealth transfer are completely acceptable, since the obligation to human dignity ranks above property rights.

        Thats quite a distance from “lets empower the poor”.

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      • LWA,

        I’m not bothered if you critique the ranking. I’m only concerned about it being misrepresented for rhetorical advantage.

        Think of Sophie’s Choice, to take an extreme example. She made a choice, so we can say she rank ordered her children. But how much does that us about her feelings for the child she sacrificed?

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      • P.S.,
        For example, in Christian social theory,

        You might be able to get a sense of my view of social theories based on mythical supernatural beings by considering your own reflexive response to libertarianism.

        That’s not just snark, but gets to the heart of the irreconcilable disagreement. You say “Christian social theory,” I say “libertarianism,” and we both respond “oh, so you’re talking nonsense?” So you say, “value ordering Q, X, R,” and I say, “value ordering X, R, Q,” and then what are we left with on which to base a persuasive defense of our ordering (persuasive to the other, that is)?

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      • , @J@m3z

        that’s why political justification cannot rely on value judgments. Especially the more contested ones. When I try to justify my ordering to you, I must be able to provide reasons that are for you significantly weighty and in terms that you appreciate.

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      • that’s why political justification cannot rely on value judgments. Especially the more contested ones. When I try to justify my ordering to you, I must be able to provide reasons that are for you significantly weighty and in terms that you appreciate.

        But it seems to me that there are always (or at least usually) going to be value judgments that provide the occasion and reason for the policies we prefer. Even the admonition that the reasons must be “significantly weighty and in terms that you appreciate” seems to suggest that some value judgment has to be made.

        I do think I understand what you’re saying. And if someone just appeals to “Christian social theory,” then they’re trading either on their interlocutor’s prior acceptance of that social theory, or perhaps the prestige that theory enjoys as part of “our western heritage.”

        I’m not sure how much traction such an appeal gets in Singapore, however :)

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      • Yup. No value judgments is perhaps a bit too quick. But what I was thinking about was the way we tend to justify religious liberty. Church-state separation is something that everyone has good reason to want because it secures for each and every person a personal jurisdiction where they can pursue some of their most important commitments regardless of what those commitments may be. While this trades on the value people attach to their religious commitments (which not everyone may share and which not everyone may be equally committed to), it does not require us to make a judgment about whether those commitments and activities are genuinely worthwhile or not.

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