New York Times
I was profitably job slumming, much as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg did when he worked college summers as a parking lot attendant. And like him, I had the luxury of a middle-class life, an intact family and a college degree at the end of my labors.
My jobs also came with a union card, which ensured me a salary scale that defined livable.
Many fewer New Yorkers obtain such jobs today. Salary scales have dropped and unions are defanged cats. All of which has been fuel on the fire of the Living Wage movement, which seeks to force developers who receive deep city subsidies to pay a wage of $10 or so an hour.
In my Gotham column this week, I focused on Kimberly Ortiz, who like many New Yorkers works full time yet lives in poverty. She makes a dollar or two over the minimum wage, and supports a son and daughter, and helps pay the rent on her mother’s two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. Ms. Ortiz sleeps in the living room.
Mayor Bloomberg, as I noted, views the living wage as a violation of the laws of market fundamentals, among other sins. Our mayor has a sharp mind, but here his rhetoric is pure 1955 retro. “The last time people tried to set rates basically was in the Soviet Union, and that didn’t work out very well,” he said last week.
All of which called to mind the Grandmaster Flash of Overheated Mayoral Rhetoric, Rudolph Giuliani. In 1996, a coalition of unions and citizens’ groups, led by the Industrial Areas Foundation, pressed for the city’s first living wage law. Advocates — whom the mayor had worked well with in the past — tried to convince the mayor that city security guards, clerks, food service workers and others who worked on city contracts deserved a wage of $12 per hour.
“They are trying to rebuild the Berlin Wall,” Mr. Giuliani said. When the Council passed the bill anyway, the mayor was not amused. These groups, he said, are “sacred cows” and “sacred cows make the best hamburger meat.”
That sentiment, no doubt, brought little comfort to the city’s growing Hindu population.
So we’ve established that any and seemingly all discussions of the living wage involve trench warfare and howitzers.
Mayor Bloomberg’s aides, to that end, pushed back hard on my Monday column. It was predictable, it was unfair, and Ms. Ortiz might not even qualify for a living wage job.
O.K., cool enough (for the record, I never claimed that Ms. Ortiz would or would not qualify for such a job).
The mayor’s aides lean heavily on a report commissioned by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which paid $1 million to Charles Rivers Associates to examine the living wage, now in effect in over 100 cities and towns. The report, long and worth reading, forecast job losses far in excess of those workers who might see a modest rise in wages.
The mayor’s aides argue that this firm and its academics are reputable. This is true. It is also true that that the firm’s authors have written often and critically of the federal minimum wage, which has been in effect since 1938. It is a perhaps not unreasonable inference that if $7.25 an hour troubles you, a $10 living wage might strike you as catastrophic.
At the least, the absence in their study team of a single academic who harbored pro-minimum wage leanings was striking, as this is a congenitally contentious subject.
Hizzoner’s aides also argue that other cities provide an inexact comparison. New York’s proposed law would affect some, although not all, of the businesses that roost in malls and industrial areas that are deeply fertilized by city tax and monetary subsidies.
Boston’s living wage law, by contrast, affects contractors who do business with the city.
This is a fair point. Laws differ from city to city. The scope of Boston’s law, however, is indisputably greater than that now proposed for New York. In Boston, about 21,000 workers are covered by living wage laws. On a per capita basis, that would be the equivalent of covering more than 200,000 New Yorkers.
The Bloomberg administration complains as well that the proposed penalties for noncompliance in New York would be tougher than in other cities. (Aides claim, incorrectly, that the living wage legislation in Los Angeles is voluntary, and that companies can opt out.)
That is a singularly curious criticism: If, for argument’s sake, New York City decides to enact a law, why would city officials balk at 100 percent compliance?
For a critique of the Bloomberg consultant’s report by a group of liberal economists, see this. They argue that Charles River overstated the impact of the living wage by lumping in tax abatement programs not targeted by living wage legislation. See here, too, an argument for the Living Wage.
In the end, of course, none of this is likely to prove definitive.
Economists love to talk of the science of this and the law of that. I have great respect for the profession and its disputatious ways. But the fact that liberal economists tend to find that the living wage works while conservative economists find that it does not is a tip off that “science” lies beyond their grasp.
Finally, among the many arguments tossed up against the living wage, one surely sticks. The mayor and the business community say that advocates seek to wedge a work-shoe in the door. The goal is to gradually expand the law.
City Council sponsors of the living wage bill complain that this is unfair, but that is almost certainly disingenuous. The living wage movement, much like the minimum wage movement of the 1930s, is a national one, and grows near every year. If New York adopts this latest proposal, we likely will see attempts to broaden it in years to come.
City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn has spoken of this likelihood. All of which perhaps argues that if the council passes a law, and overrides a mayoral veto, the speaker and mayor should empower an ideologically balanced panel to take a careful look at the results a few years down the road.