For the last generation or so, the political fight over the minimum wage has been fairly narrow. Both parties broadly supported the concept a minimum wage, but argued over the details: how much it should be, when to increase it, whether to index it to inflation, etc.
Just over the last few years, as the radicalization of Republican politics has intensified, the nature of the debate itself changed. Prominent GOP lawmakers – Marco Rubio, Lamar Alexander, Joe Barton – have been willing to admit they not only reject Democratic calls for a wage increase, they believe the minimum wage should be lowered to zero. The law itself, they argue, is a mistake.
It’s a fairly risky posture for a politician take. The minimum wage is very popular with the American mainstream, as are Democratic calls for an increase. Republicans generally feel like they can get away with blocking wage increases – though even that’s a dodgy move in an election year – but usually hedge before calling for the law’s destruction.
Which brings us to an interesting interview last night between Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Wolf Blitzer, shortly after President Obama’s State of the Union address.
BLITZER: He announced on increasing the minimum wage, the federal contractors would get an increase immediately to $10.10 an hour, which is not a huge amount of money by any means, but it’s a little bit more than the current minimum wage. Are you with him on that?PAUL: If you increase the price of something, you’ll get less of it. So, all of the studies, virtually all of the studies show that if you increase the minimum wage, you get higher unemployment, particularly teenage unemployment, particularly black teenagers –BLITZER: Do you believe in a minimum wage?PAUL: Well, I think when you look at raising it, all of the studies show that if you raise it, you get more unemployment. So, really, the market place does a better job at determining what….
You’ll notice that Paul didn’t answer the follow-up question. Asked whether he believes in a minimum wage, the senator talked about why he opposes an increase. (He’s spectacularly wrong, by the way about the economic research on wages and unemployment, but that’s another subject for another post.)
And that’s when the interview got a little more interesting.
BLITZER: So, there shouldn’t be any federal minimum wage?PAUL: I’m not sure I’m saying that. But I think what I am – I’m not sure I have an answer as far as whether there is a right or wrong –BLITZER: You’re a United States senator. You thought about whether or not there should be a federal –PAUL: Not necessarily.
As a Senate candidate four years ago, Rand Paul, at the time a self-accredited ophthalmologist, was asked about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Pressed for his position, the Kentucky Republican eventually conceded he opposed the civil-rights law because it prohibited discrimination in the private sector – and he has an ideological objection to government intervening in the free market, even to prevent a system of white supremacy.
Paul seems to have learned a lesson from this: hide controversial positions from the public. The senator has given countless speeches about government and the economy; he claims to be deeply familiar with economic studies on the relationship between wages and the labor market; and he has firm, unshakable positions on the economic effects of a minimum wage increase.
But should the minimum wage be eliminated altogether? Paul would have us believe he’s never given the question a moment’s thought. Heaven forbid.
Blitzer eventually asked, “There’s a philosophical division you have there, that you’re not sure you even support a minimum wage?” Paul responded, “Well, the discussion really isn’t about whether you have one or not.”
Sure it is, that was the discussion Blitzer was trying to begin. Several congressional Republicans have said the minimum-wage should be lowered to zero. Does Paul agree or disagree?
He claims to have no opinion on the matter. Sure you don’t, senator, sure you don’t.