The Alcove

How Should We Think About Inequality?

Research on Seattle’s new minimum wage has cast doubt over whether $15 an hour really gave a raise to low-wage workers. An article in Boston Review offers unconventional advice for progressives arguing over that finding: Change the subject.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged InequalityLaborminimum wage

The comprehensiveness of the Democrats’ defeat has so weakened faith in the party leadership that internal debates about how to refashion the party’s agenda are taking place in plain view. Recently, much of this intra-left debate has focused on the not-very-important question of slogans; some of it has focused on the more important question of framing (populist or not); less has focused on the much-more-important question of policy choices (on infrastructure, antitrust, health care, and more); and hardly any has focused on the most important question of all: how to understand inequality in a democratic society.

In popular debate, the language used to discuss inequality sometimes suggests a problem that is straightforwardly economic: Inequality occurs when some people have more money than others. Of course, this way of thinking isn’t entirely wrong, but it has drawbacks. For one thing, it suggests that the way to solve deep and persistent inequality is by redistributing money. Redistribution is obviously part of any reasonable approach to ameliorating inequality, but in addition to facing steep political obstacles (to say the least), it would not by itself dismantle the larger structural forces which have created our current era of inequality. Perhaps more importantly, this focus on income and redistribution is vulnerable to powerful counterarguments. Critics might simply reply that there’s nothing intrinsically unjust about some people having more than others, especially if the system that produced those divergent outcomes is fair; or they might say that even if there is some unfairness in economic inequality, it’s not a political issue, something that must be addressed by the state. Some may be rich, and others poor, the argument goes, but all are equal under the law; all have one vote; all enjoy the rights of citizenship.

Clearly, then, this simple view needs to be supplemented—by pointing out, for instance, that the system which produces inequality is neither natural nor fair; and that inequality has both political causes and political effects. These arguments are common on the left and center-left, but they change the subject away from what some figures­—including a certain social media magnate who is definitely not running for President—would prefer to focus on: poverty, not inequality. When billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg promote universal basic income, they are trying to find a receptive center-left audience for Silicon Valley’s favorite policy idea. But strictly speaking, UBI is not a proposal to address inequality; it merely creates a floor beneath which no American can fall. That’s a laudable goal, but it’s also (by design) not a solution for addressing the outsized political and economic clout of its proponents.

I want to draw a contrast between these approaches in order to emphasize what’s intriguing about this Boston Review piece on Seattle’s recent minimum wage increase. A study of the city’s new $15 minimum wage found that it may have, on the whole, cost the average low-wage worker $125 a month. The study, which is an outlier among research on the effects of minimum wage increases, has not been peer-reviewed and had to omit important data that might have changed its findings. “Nevertheless,” as Brishen Rogers writes in the Review, “it still raises a thorny question: if minimum wage hikes lead businesses to eliminate jobs, should progressives still support them?” Rogers faces the question squarely and answers: “absolutely. Even if they reduce employment levels, such laws help reduce class and status divisions within the labor market that can be toxic in a democracy. Indeed, some job losses may a good thing, since many minimum wage jobs are not worth saving.”

This answer is not one you’re likely to hear from politicians, but it’s of a piece with an emerging view that the egalitarian left needs to think more squarely about the nature of work, not just the distribution of money. Among other things, this means that standard mechanisms of redistribution, or even an ambitious UBI scheme, are not enough to combat some of the biggest problems with low-wage work. As Jeff Spross recently wrote in these pages: “a job is not merely a delivery mechanism for income that can be replaced by an alternative source. It’s a fundamental way that people assert their dignity, stake their claim in society, and understand their mutual obligations to one another.” This is not only an argument against solving poverty and inequality with cash transfers alone; it’s an argument against forms of work that undermine the assertion of dignity and corrode our sense of mutual obligations.

Rogers acknowledges that, the Seattle study aside, the left generally has the support of empirical research when it comes to the income benefits of a higher minimum wage. But even so, he insists that this is the wrong argument. “A just state will not simply guarantee equal rights and a fair distribution of material resources, but will also combat pernicious forms of ‘private’ power that lead to oppression and rigid status hierarchies.” Raising the income of low-wage workers is a worthy goal, but even higher wages leave many workers stuck with menial and degrading jobs. The challenge that lies before us is not only to reduce the appalling gap between the richest of us and the rest of us; it is to come up with ways of instituting what Rogers calls “economic citizenship”—finding paths by which people can not only provide for themselves, but interact as equals in the diverse settings that make up an active democratic society.

Narrowing the vast gap between the rich and the rest would be a good start, but this is a project that will require more than (say) raising the minimum wage, which can still leave some pernicious status hierarchies untouched. To put it simply: On its own, a fatter paycheck for the janitor doesn’t mean the CEO will make eye contact with him. Rogers’s essay is a useful resource for thinking about the debates to come—not only over the selection of (gag) the right slogan for the 2018 midterms, but over how the opponents of inequality should respond to these less-visible but far more important challenges.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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