Missing the forest for the trees

In the course of my work I engage a lot with the ongoing public policy debate around raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. And the deeper I get into the innumerable studies, blog posts, and media coverage the more I’m convinced the issue represents pretty much a textbook version of how political debates have tended to play out over the past 30 years or so.

On one side, you have an assorted coalition of low-wage workers, activists, and trade unions who see raising the wage floor as a natural way of improving material conditions for much of society. On the other, there’s the Chamber of Commerce and the usual right wing wonks and movement conservatives.

Both are acting in a sense on the basis of self-interest, but much of the official debate (in the press especially) is played out in fairly dry and wonkish terms. Officialdom on both sides states that their favoured policy direction “makes good economic sense”, trotting out various statistical studies and analyses to bolster their claims. The thing is then waged on an academic level and through a competition for standing and media legitimacy.

Now, obviously these things are going to be important components of any political campaign from the left or the right. I work at a social democratic think tank that does this kind of work (with, dare I say it, quite lethal effectiveness) and I believe strongly in what we do. Professionalization can’t simply be dismissed (overprofessionalization, of course, is a problem – but that’s for another post altogether). 

But what’s sometimes missing from the public policy foray is any implicit sense that the debate represents an actual struggle between two competing visions of the world. In reading this stuff it often seems like there’s minimal awareness from the interlocutors involved that power dynamics are at play, or that the arguments produced are a kind of formalized agitprop designed to make publicly legible or respectable a position that’s ultimately ideological. Even the worst ideologues on the right seem to have internalized their truisms and talking points so thoroughly that they’re unable to extricate themselves from the morass.

This is one reason why the minimum wage debate is so interesting and instructive. Because while I think left wing economists and others have been very effective at combatting the familiar right wing rhetoric and spin, we’d doubtless be a lot further behind without the organization done by activists, community groups, the Fight for 15, etc., which has helped lay bare the struggle for power at the heart of this whole thing.

No special insight here, but I think it’s important for anyone who spends their time thinking about, debating, or covering public policy to remember that what’s ultimately at stake is who wields power in our society and to what ends it’s applied.

Let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

Photo: 15 and Fairness.

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