Why don’t we have a clear discourse in policy debates? Politicians and pundits alike are always suggesting we “have an honest conversation about [insert issue].” Well, having an honest conversation involves some basic understanding of the issue at hand – and in particular, an understanding of the complexities and tradeoffs involved in the issue. (This last one especially applies to economic issues, since many economic policy debates could easily be categorized as wicked problems.)
Take the proposal to increase the federal minimum wage. Nearly all economists (as well as most introductory-level economics students) recognize that an elevation in the minimum wage is a policy which involves a clear tradeoff. The proposal would benefit those workers who are able to maintain work at this higher minimum wage – but would be damaging to firms (who are forced to pay more). Firms are likely to pass this damage on to some workers who may see their hours reduced, or even lose their jobs, as firms face higher labor costs.
The question worth debating, therefore, is whether this tradeoff is worthwhile. That is – do the benefits outweigh the costs? This question does not have a clear answer. But, this is precisely where constructive debate can occur. We should be discussing how those benefits stack up against those costs and where we feel our priorities should be as a society.
So, here’s Jennifer Rubin, with a list of questions she would like liberals to be asked which includes:
If raising the minimum wage is good for the poor, why not raise it to $20 per hour?
Let’s face it – asking this question is not productive. It’s a kind of snarky, slippery slope argument meant as a philosophical dig at the “benefits” side of the proposal of an increased minimum wage. I am fairly certain that an overwhelming majority of economists would agree that at such a high level, the costs would outweigh the benefits. But, instead of introducing the real source of debate, and asking liberals to consider reframing their view of costs vs. benefits, Rubin glosses over it in favor of garbage.
No one would suggest a minimum wage so high. Rubin gives a poor representation of an issue in which productive debate can occur. Instead of contributing to that conversation, she is merely inflaming. Issues are complex. And we may need to ignore pundits like Rubin if we want to get to the heart of them.