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The Devil's advocate: Think about Tucson ballot props before you vote, unlike someone I know

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What the Devil won't tell you

The Devil's advocate: Think about Tucson ballot props before you vote, unlike someone I know

  • Tucson may join a national movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, depending on what voters decide by Nov. 2.
    Dylan Smith/ Tucson may join a national movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, depending on what voters decide by Nov. 2.

How about the least popular column ever put forth in my canon?

Up for it?

Remember my column dissing resistance to the zoo expansion? Pshaw. That’s like opining favorably about the utility of golden retriever puppies compared to the mental and emotional neck-wrench I’m going to suggest.

See, I think the Tucson City Council needs a raise and the minimum wage should maybe stay where it is for a while. Again, hear me out.

Yeah, feel free to forgo the story of a husky befriending a kitten in a vulgar display of fissionable cuteness but I've just linked the story at the end. 

But if you are up for a little bit of contrarianism, just read on. I promise this won’t take long and you might fall for that again.

The full slate of Democrats is almost certain to win in the 2021 city elections and get their four-year terms on the City Council. 

The real drama (if there is any) involves Propositions 206, a minimum wage hike, and 410, a raise for the mayor and Council members.

Prop. 206 would incrementally increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2025 and then peg it to inflation thereafter. In five years after that, at 3 percent inflation, Tucson could be closing in on $20 per hour. The federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 per hour and hasn't been raised since 2009.

Prop. 410 would raise the mayor's pay from $42,000 a year to $54,000 and the Council members from $24,000 to $36,000.

That's kind of nuts.

Ol' Doc Horsedewormer

I want you to pretend we’re back in the Old West days. We’re a bunch of pioneers starting up a town.

We needed a town doctor. We hired a town doctor. And now our doctor makes Dr. Frank Burns look like Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester III (look it up kids).

I mean our doctor is bad. He treats the flu with amputations. He prescribes Tide Pods for back aches. His idea of referring you to a specialist is to send you to Old Clyde at the end of the bar who will always tell you what’s what. We’re talking about a doctor who would give you horse dewormer to fight a lung disease. I mean this guy is terrible.

So you send that doctor packing to Kingman and hire another doctor and she’s no better. She thinks you can fight emphysema with Pall Malls and tells you colon cancer will magically go away if you just ignore it.

But you signed a four-year contract with this doctor. It’s iron-clad and you can’t get out of it. So you and your fellow town elders decide you need another doctor and hopefully this one won’t tell you that bronchitis is caused by demon sperm.

Then one of you suggests: “Maybe our compensation package for town doctors should be better than 'three chickens and a van down by the Rillito.'”

Ah, but you say: “I’m not going to pay that doctor any more money until she goes to medical school.”

And herein lies our problem: No one wants to pay the current doctor under contract more money. But we want the job of town doctor to receive interest from physicians who have heard of germ theory.

You want a better class of doctor, you gotta pay for them.

You want a better class of Tucson City Council members? Offer them more than $11.55 an hour.

Not well done

I’ve had the argument that public leadership should be about service by those who have already proven themselves worthy by finding success in life. We’ve been doing that for a while now. Does Tucson or Arizona or the United States seem more happy with the quality of elected leaders these days or less? Really? Wanna give them a raise?

I’ve bought into the premise that serving on the City Council shouldn’t be something you do for a raise. It’s one of those arguments that makes sense until you think about it. Why shouldn’t it be? You think Kyler Murray worked so hard to be a professional quarterback because he loves being chased around a field by 300-pound defensive linemen running at Mach 2? I’m sure he loves to compete, but he ain’t playing rugby in Glendale.

Are you good at your job? Would you do it for $24,000 a year? Or put it this way: Is there a job out there that’s good for the community that you would do if you didn’t have to suffer financially to do it?

Under our current collective logic, that job is exactly the gig that someone like you should not do.

Plus we can end up with people who don't have a real understanding of what it is to hack out a living here. We get a bunch of people who've done well who don't feel the need to do much other than protect others who've done well from people trying to get there.

It’s a bit lazy to say our City Council is full of ne’er do wells and miscreants. On balance, it’s a pretty good Council and I haven’t always been able to say such a thing.

This job is to serve as a boardmember overseeing a $2 billion corporation and being vested with the coercive powers of the Leviathan. It’s a big deal. It deserves a good wage.

I know there’s no gosh-dang way that Prop. 410 is going to pass because no one wants to give those Council members more money. So Tucson will ignore me and prove my point all at once.

In defense of the minimum wage

It’s fascinating that we don’t apply that same logic to burger-flippers, and we shouldn’t.

If I were a betting man, I would say that this minimum wage increase will pass because they almost always do.

The logic we apply there takes the form of “Well they need to be able to make ends meet.” Yes they do. Of course they do.

So ordinarily I would be OK with raising the minimum wage. My personal druthers lead me to figuring out how to get the median-wage earners more money through outlawing noncompete agreements and providing access to continuing education. That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to lifting from the bottom.

We are eventually going to reach a point where the doomsayers are correct. Economically speaking, an increase in the actual minimum wage will result in lower employment or much higher prices.

This is just cause and effect. One can price labor out of the market.

It’s just that for this to happen the minimum wage has to be the actual low-end strike price for labor. It’s where inflationary and deflationary forces find equilibrium at the bottom end of the wage scale.

For this to happen, one must assume there are inflationary pressures at the bottom of the wage scale. Usually none exist. There’s no great back and forth negotiation between McDonald’s corporate and the kid asking “Would you like fries with that?”

The worker applied for the job, jumped through the hoops to get the job and only after taking the job do they typically ask “What’s it pay?” The answer has been a form of “minimum wage because that’s what I can get away with paying you, you slimy tadpole.”

OK, I’ll start Monday.

We know the equilibrium point has not been reached because there has been no fallout. Still, although we hear cries of impending horror and doom about the minimum wage going up a few pennies, they never come to pass. Right here in Arizona, the big business players tried to warn us that passing a wage hike in 2016 would turn the state into an economic no-go zone.

A year after it passed, those same leaders were touting the state as a great place to do business, and said the economy was booming.

These wage increases have not yet reached a point where they threaten to overtake the actual base wage an employer can afford to pay. These hikes are just increasing the legal minimum that business can get away with paying.

We’re seeing this in how, post-COVID, those businesses that were so broke they couldn’t afford a survivable wage a couple of years ago are suddenly finding they have the cash to break out signing bonuses.

The highest minimum wage in the country is in Emeryville, Calif., at $16.86 an hour. And despite some early buffeting, Emeryville is now above the state average in hours worked, overall employment and labor participation.

No new restaurants started up there between 2015 and 2019, so that’s a warning sign but the minimum wage hasn’t cratered the economy.

And please, do not talk to me about inflation with the the Federal Reserve Board holding interest rates below 0.25 percent to help assets become bubbles. It would be easier to teach the basics of monetary policy than it would to teach a rugby player the rules of American football. It’s really not that hard even with a quick tutorial about “fractional banking” and “velocity.” I’m just not going to do it here.

Not to mention, the talking points by some of the (organized in Oro Valley) groups who oppose the wage bump are just.... absurd. Many of them focus on how people won't be able to pay undocumented workers under the table anymore if it passes. That's what we call, um, illegal. Others complain about having to pay at least the legal minimum wage to the people you hire to clean up your backyard. Don't ask me what we call that practice.

Really? Now?

My issue involving the minimum wage, that I would ask you to consider, involves place and time.

One problem with a $15 per hour minimum wage is that it’s bumper sticker policy. Why $15? It sounds good. But Emeryville’s economic picture is different than, say Benson’s. And it may be different than Tucson’s. Different communities have different costs and different needs, insofar as wages go.

So long as the minimum wage is ridiculously low, we can raise it nationally. But once we start getting closer to 20 bucks an hour then we have to think more about where we are.

A $15 minimum wage today works out to a $9.38 per hour minimum wage in 2001, when the actual minimum wage was $5.15 per hour, which had last been raised in 1997. So what we are really talking about is a reset of the minimum wage to something higher than it has traditionally been.

And I’m OK with that except … does it have to be right now?

The unions and workers-rights advocates started putting this measure together well before we started to have all these problems ramping back up as the coronavirus retreats, regroups and attacks again.

We’re getting hit with price spikes, shortages and a labor market that suddenly doesn’t want to leave the house. Turbulence is continuing almost two years later, as a lot of the Tucson businesses that would be forced to eat the wage hike are just starting to almost recover from the extreme precautions taken in the early days of the pandemic.

In Tucson, Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show the city is still 21,000 jobs short of the employment levels in December 2020. And it’s been persistently short with the numbers of job holders bouncing between 370,000 and 380,000 for the last year.

That’s kind of making the minimum wage issue moot because the labor shortage works as a price signal to employers to increase pay all on its own. On the other hand, having fewer wage earners hurts our economy overall — and individual businesses in real but different ways.

So I just ask you, dear reader, to ask yourself: Is this the right time for this?

Finally, I can’t get around how the mom and pop local businesses struggling the most are the ones who did the good thing and kept their workers on the payroll as the pandemic tore up sectors of the economy. That leaves them in a more vulnerable position now. They don't have the resources of a big national chain.

New facts, new opinions 

See, people can still modulate their opinions based on changing facts. Are you one of them? Or did you learn all you needed to know about this sort of thing when Grandpappy sat you on his knee and said “The problem with The Man is …”

Now, in full disclosure of total hypocrisy, I already voted “aye” this week on the minimum wage hike and sent imy ballot (or was it multiple unsolicited ballots, which I gave to a dog to give to a guy?). I did what most of you will probably do and said "minimum wage? Yeah. Why not?"

I kinda wish I had it back to think some more. Yeah, see, I’m not above voting and then thinking it all the way through.

So maybe someone can vote no just to balance mine out.

But if you vote yes on the minimum wage hike and no on the Council pay raise, realize that you are telling potential elected leaders that their work is worth less than minimum wage.

And now onto your kitten mothered by a pointy-eared husky.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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