Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Minimum Effort

With Seattle set to raise its minimum wage to fifteen bucks an hour and the Democrats making a rise in the minimum wage a campaign issue, the debate seems to have been won by those who think it’s a good idea for the government to mandate a minimum level of compensation for workers. I’m not sure it is; I’ve written about this before, arguing that jobs are lost at the low end of the scale, i.e. among the neediest and most vulnerable workers, when a minimum is imposed. A lot of people agree with me; a lot of others don’t. Everybody’s got a study or two supporting their point of view. I’m not sure the question can be settled by studies; with a large, dynamic system like an economy it’s easy to cherry-pick data and hard to control for variables. People find data to support what they want to believe. That doesn’t mean there’s no right answer; it probably means it’s yet another messy real-world issue involving trade-offs.

The Congressional Budget Office came out with a study earlier this year that both sides are citing. To summarize, the study concluded that there is a trade-off between job losses and raised income levels for people who keep their jobs, with more people raised above the poverty line than lose their jobs. In both cases the percentages we’re talking about are relatively small; a high minimum wage will neither solve the poverty problem nor throw everybody out of work.

I’m glad to see acknowledgement of the trade-off; many advocates of a high minimum wage refuse to acknowledge any negative effects at all. If we’re talking about weighing costs against benefits, we’ve made progress. Too often, anybody expressing doubts about a high minimum wage is demonized as not caring about the poor.

I’m well aware that a lot of people with jobs have a tough time making ends meet. This could be because stingy employers aren’t paying them as much as they deserve, or it could be because they’re in a low-skills job at a low-margin business and there just ain’t enough money in that line of work. When the Chicago Tribune asked a cafe owner what his response to a higher minimum wage would be, he said, “If they raise the minimum wage to ten dollars, I’ll have to close.” Take that, you robber baron.

I think the best thing to do for people who think they are not paid enough is to ask around and find out whether they really have a case. If so, if it looks like their employers are raking in the money while not paying the workers enough to live on, then the best thing to do is good old-fashioned labor action. Organize. Strike if you have to. Call me a left-wing firebrand, but that’s a better response than a government-imposed minimum, because local conditions vary, and there’s no reason to assume that there’s one correct wage level for the whole country.

So I’m not opposed to workers getting the maximum they reasonably can from employers. I’m not even opposed to unions taking up their cause. I am dubious about legislative fixes that require us to decide if raising 900,000 people above the poverty line is worth throwing 500,000 people out of work. (See the CBO study.) There are better ways to keep employers honest than a law that undermines its own credibility by including an extensive list of exemptions. (Here is the one for the federal minimum wage.)

In any event, I suspect we’re about to get another data-gathering opportunity for rival studies as the pendulum swings toward rising minimum wages. I don’t have the numbers to say it’s wrong, and I’m willing to look at the evidence. All I ask is that reporters work just as hard to find the people who lose their jobs to the minimum wage as they have worked to find people who have a hard time living on it.

Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Freedom and venom

Steven Salaita is having his fifteen minutes of fame. Salaita is a Palestinian-American college professor whose academic field is Native American studies. Last summer he was offered a faculty position at the University of Illinois in Champaign and then had the offer withdrawn because of some sentiments he expressed on Twitter during the Israeli attack on Gaza. The university board of trustees was alerted to the tweets and decided Salaita was not a good addition to the team. The rescinding of the offer set off a firestorm of debate over academic freedom, freedom of speech and related matters, not to mention the usual mutual insults between supporters of Israel and Palestine. Salaita is now suing the university and has embarked on a speaking tour, having achieved martyr status.

I took a look at the tweets, out of curiosity. There are a lot of them. It’s clear right away where Salaita stands, with regard to Palestine and with regard to the big picture. He is pro-Palestine, anti-Israel; he also espouses an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial world view that sees this conflict as just another chapter in the long-running struggle of indigenous peoples to free themselves from corporate-sponsored imperialism.

That’s not a particularly new or unusual viewpoint; it’s well-represented in our universities. So why did the U. of I. trustees pull back? Well, consider this tweet from July 19: Zionists: transforming "antisemitism" from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. Hmm... We begin to see what raised those trustee eyebrows.

Immediately there were the usual accusations of anti-Semitism and the usual indignant denials. It should go without saying that criticism of Israel is not tantamount to anti-Semitism; it is also true that people who don’t like Jews find convenient cover among Israel’s critics. You have to take a look at cases.

So I took a look. It wasn’t much fun, because it’s no fun reading hateful speech. I don’t know if it was hate speech by the definition the left uses, but it sure was hateful. Even allowing for genuine anguish as children died in Gaza, Salaita sounds a little unhinged. If Adam Lanza joined IDF he would be considered a hero by the US. Uh, OK. (Adam Lanza was the guy who killed all those school kids in Connecticut.)

Fuck you, #Israel. And while I'm at it, fuck you, too, PA, Sisi, Arab monarchs, Obama, UK, EU, Canada, US Senate, corporate media, and ISIS. You sure you didn’t miss anybody? Salaita is not shy about the f-word, in one tweet addressing a critic as “motherfucker.”

That last one shows that Salaita casts a wide net; here’s what he thinks about the U.S.’s role: The US is knee-deep into both #Israel and #ISIS, along with every other armed outfit in the Arab World. This sectarianism isn't spontaneous. Yeah, we’re behind ISIS, too.

OK, the hysterical edge aside, this is fairly standard stuff. As support for #Palestine increases, let's remember to situate our analyses in broader frameworks of class, race, and state violence. Most of what Salaita posted wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with the farther reaches of the political left.

Salaita is even careful at times to make clear that he’s not mad at the Jews: I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs. And a few of his tweets are downright rational: Solutions to #Israel/#Palestine are complicated? How about, "Everybody gets treated equally under the law"? Doesn't get simpler than that. Once he even conceded something astonishing: The mass suicide "Hamas" is curating in #Gaza will soon surpass the death toll at Jonestown.

But too often Salaita just misses rationality or spoils it at the last second: I don't seek community with others based on fixed identifications: race, religion, culture, etc. You're either cool or a dick. That's all. Oh, well, then. Cool or a dick? And dick is defined politically? Who the hell does this guy think his audience is? Did he think this would impress the U. of I. trustees? And at a time when pro-Palestinian protesters in Germany are shouting “Hamas, Hamas; Jews to the gas!”,” even joking that anti-Semitism is honorable is edging perilously close to the hate speech the left claims to abhor.

Look, the problem is not Salaita’s views, though that’s the narrative he’ll be peddling for the rest of his time in the spotlight. There are plenty of people with his views on American university faculties. The problem is that, in a moment of crisis when even many people who support Israel were agonizing over its actions in Gaza, Steven Salaita dashed to abandon the high moral ground and vent an all-too obvious hatred that has to call into question his ability to engage in the dispassionate rational discourse that ought to be the stock in trade of a university.

I have a number of Palestinian friends. Several of them were active on social media during the Gaza war. Their anger and anguish were evident, but I didn’t see hatred in the things they were posting and sharing. There were any number of pro-peace and pro-Palestinian groups frantically spreading news of what was going on in Gaza, but I didn’t see anything that looked to me like hatred-- until I looked at Steven Salaita’s tweets.

My Palestinian friends may well hate Israel, for all I know, but they are rational enough to know that that’s a private matter. It has no place in public debate. Salaita doesn’t know that. He is a poor mascot for free speech, since he is clearly not interested in what anybody else may have to say. It’s not his views that disqualify him; it’s the abuse.

He is, of course, free to express those views; he’s even free to indulge in the abuse. Nobody is questioning his right to send out those tweets. But the University of Illinois is not obliged to hire a man who is clearly incapable of respecting opposing views. Steven Salaita will have you believe that he is the victim of a Zionist conspiracy to silence dissent, but the truth is that he is a victim of his own intemperance.

Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com