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A Fleeting Moment of Substance

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On Thursday, Wendy Davis said that as governor, she would fight to raise Texas’s minimum wage to $10 an hour. This was probably the best single policy proposal her campaign has put out to date. If she had stuck with it, it could have triggered the most substantive debate of this year’s gubernatorial election–and although gubernatorial elections aren’t necessarily won on the basis of policy, Davis would, at least, have won that argument.

First, on the substantive merits, raising the minimum wage is a good idea, especially in Texas. I’ve written about this before at greater length, but the short version is that for a variety of reasons the usual national arguments about the benefits of raising the minimum wage are extra-pronounced in Texas, and the usual arguments about the risks of doing so are less ominous. Texas has a relatively low cost of living, for example; the expanded income would go further. And a modest increase in the minimum wage would pose little risk to Texas’s overall employment numbers. Minimum wage jobs are in largely in the service sector, and largely driven by population growth; the Wal-Marts of the world might object to such a policy, but they wouldn’t really threaten to move their stores to Arkansas.

There are arguments Greg Abbott and the Republicans would have raised against Davis’s proposal. I know that because I wrote the piece linked above around the time that my book came out, and the book also argues that raising the minimum wage would make sense for Texas, so in the spring of 2013 I was talking about the minimum wage with a lot of different people and audiences. The most compelling objection I heard came in a chat with the Dallas Fed’s Richard Fisher, who said that it would be dicey to raise the minimum wage at the same moment that businesses are already facing higher costs–and some uncertainty over how much higher those costs would be–as a result of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which was pending at that point.

Beyond that, though, none of the objections I heard were particularly robust. Perhaps more saliently, I actually didn’t hear that many objections, even when I was speaking to a conservative audience. If anything, conservative audiences seemed to approve my pitch nearly as much as neutral or Democratic ones. None of my other suggestions went over so well. For example, when I suggested an annual week-long mini-session to true up the budget process, conservatives looked bored (this was true of audiences across the ideological spectrum). When I suggested that Texas should allow gay marriage, if only for the stability an expansion of marriage would confer on the thousands of children being raised by same-sex couples in our state, conservatives looked stoical; I could tell some people didn’t agree but that they had figured it wasn’t worth arguing the point with a young scamp. When I said that Texas should tax soda–which would bring in some revenue and hopefully slightly discourage consumption–listeners objected, every time, as if I had just suggested the most unwarranted violation of personal liberty this side of Michael Bloomberg. And when I said that Texas should raise the minimum wage–because if people are holding up their end of the bargain by working full-time they shouldn’t end up below the federal poverty line–I would see half the people in the room nod at me or occasionally give me a thumbs-up.

Looking back, I was a little surprised by the vehemence of the objections to the soda tax. I wasn’t surprised at all that conservatives would cotton to the minimum wage idea. That was in fact one of the reasons that raising the minimum wage struck me as a better idea in Texas than it would be in other states, even though it’s probably a good enough idea there too. Texans, perhaps especially conservative Texans, have a cultural commitment to the value of hard work, determination, bootstraps, etc. The minimum wage is a form of labor protection, not of labor coddling; it’s the minimum wage, not the minimum welfare handout. And so I think raising the minimum wage would have been a winning argument for Davis. It would have been a winning argument for Abbott if he had proposed it too.

Unfortunately, barely a day had passed until the Davis campaign had lapsed back into identity politics. That approach may win more media attention.  

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