Raising the Minimum Wage for Working Men and Women in California and the Rest of America

Ron Unz’s Campaign for a Higher Minimum Wage

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Jennifer Medina of the New York Times profiles Ron Unz, the software entrepreneur and political activist who has had one of more interesting and unusual careers in modern American political life. Unz first came to prominence as a libertarian-leaning candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in California in 1994, and he later led a series of political campaigns against bilingual education and in favor of English-immersion. After leaving the political fray, Unz served as publisher of The American Conservative and he pursued a wide array of small-scale philanthropic projects, supporting controversial scientists and public intellectuals through his foundation, building ambitious web archives of long-defunct political periodicals, and even offering prizes to people who proved particularly good at improving Wikipedia articles, a strategy that arguably has more potential for improving society’s collective well-being than, say, giving money to an elite private research university. Unz has also found the time to write about a wide range of issues, including Asian American underrepresentation at elite U.S. universities. But Medina focuses on Unz’s latest effort:

[A]fter decades in the conservative movement, Mr. Unz is pursuing a goal that has stymied liberals: raising the minimum wage. He plans to pour his own money into a ballot measure to increase the minimum wage in California to $10 an hour in 2015 and $12 in 2016, which would make it by far the highest in the nation. Currently, it is $8 — 75 cents higher than the federal minimum.

Using what he sees as conservative principles to advocate a policy long championed by the left, Mr. Unz argues that significantly raising the minimum wage would help curb government spending on social services, strengthen the economy and make more jobs attractive to American-born workers.

“There are so many very low-wage workers, and we pay for huge social welfare programs for them,” he said in an interview. “This would save something on the order of tens of billions of dollars. Doesn’t it make more sense for employers to pay their workers than the government?”[Emphasis added]

Though I am an admirer of Unz, this argument is among the least persuasive for raising the statutory minimum wage, for reasons Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute has addressed. Banning low-wage work won’t suddenly raise the value of less-skilled labor, and if less-skilled individuals remain a large share of the population, social welfare programs designe to increase their purchasing power will continue to have a place. Unz’s argument makes more sense if we assume that raising the statutory minimum wage will lead to a reduction in the size of the less-skilled labor force — and indeed, Unz maintains that a higher minimum wage, vigorously enforced, would reduce the influx of less-skilled immigrants, and it might even encourage some number of less-skilled immigrants to return to their native countries:

• Category: Campaign, National, Notable • Tags: Major Item, Reihan Salam