If you want to make some new friends and just as many enemies, here's a helpful shortcut: take a position on raising the federal minimum wage. The question of how much workers at the bottom should be paid is fast becoming one of the most divisive issues in Washington. Liberals say a wage hike is the most immediate and fair tool we have to address growing inequality; conservatives argue that such a move would destroy jobs, throwing America's wobbly recovery off its axis for good. Get ready to hear a lot more about it between now and the November midterms as Democrats and Republicans fight over the merits of an increase, which 76% of Americans favor, according to Gallup.
To really grasp why the minimum wage has become the mother of all policy fun-house mirrors--big is small, small is big, and our economic future depends on how much the guy who assembled your Big Mac is making--consider what happened on the morning of Feb. 18. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report assessing a Democratic proposal backed by President Obama to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25--a nearly 40% increase--over two years. The report sent politicians on the left and right scrambling to find the nearest network camera.
The CBO estimates that the Democrats' plan would eliminate 500,000 jobs by the end of 2016 while also lifting some 900,000 families out of poverty. Jason Furman, chairman of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, parsed the CBO's results by saying it was reasonable to conclude that the impact of the measure on employment would be "zero." Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell threatened that Democrats driving for a higher minimum had better be "prepared to explain why up to a million Americans should be kept from having a job." And Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi dismissed the CBO's prediction on job losses even as she touted its estimates on the benefit to the poor.
But the voice that may matter most is one many Americans have never heard of: Richard "Rick" Berman, a public relations guru and former lobbyist who claims to speak for the small-business owners who run the nation's diners and corner stores. Berman has been arguing against the minimum wage for years on the grounds that it destroys jobs. He's used a network of nonprofits to bludgeon his ideological opponents.
Dubbed Dr. Evil by his enemies, Berman uses rhetoric so brash that it polarizes even within the industry he's been hired to defend. The television and newspaper advertisements he devised on behalf of industry have helped lay the groundwork for the minimum-wage fight in 2014. In a debate that lends itself to spin, Berman may be the most vilified spinmaster. But he may also be the key to understanding how disagreement over raising a wage earned by a mere 4.7% of the hourly workforce can send politicians into a paroxysm of recrimination and contradiction.