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Deceptive minimum wage rhetoric won't help working poor

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Over the past year there have been many discussions surrounding the minimum wage, and whether now is the time to raise it. Fast food workers went on strike in an attempt shine a light on this issue and increase their pay. President Barack Obama has also made it a key element of his fight against income inequality.

In Michigan a group called Raise Michigan started a petition drive to put the question of increasing the minimum wage before voters.

Concern over this ballot measure forced the Republican- controlled Legislature to provide a workaround that cuts voters out of the democratic process similar to their work that dissolved the voters will on Michigan's emergency manager law, their efforts to remove local control over schools, and their continued use of minor budgetary considerations that prevent residents from voting on referendum to repeal controversial or unpopular legislation.

Not surprisingly, for some conservatives, this government overreach went too far. To them, if the government was going to screw the people of Michigan out of the democratic process, the least they could do was stick to true Republican ideology.

For The Detroit News editorial board, the concern is that raising the minimum wage will hurt teens and businesses.

"With teen unemployment at near historic highs, this proposal will dim their prospects even further," The News wrote, and "by artificially increasing the annual cost of labor, without corresponding raises in productivity or prices, the impact of this legislation could crush small- and mid-sized businesses."

It should be noted that the teen employment rate has fallen precipitously since 2001. It should also be noted that changes in the minimum wage occurred in 1997 and 2007. It is a massive leap to insinuate that a full four years after being enacted, the minimum wage hike of 1997 suddenly resulted in a sudden drop in teen jobs.

It took less than six months for Republicans to saddle the president with the economic woes created by his predecessor, yet minimum wage has a four year gestation? Perhaps the real culprit for the considerable loss of teen jobs was Republican policies.

Teen employment numbers have been falling for over a decade. If conservatives were really so concerned about the teen employment rate, why did they stand ideally by while the number of teens finding jobs reached 30 year lows on their watch? Wasn't six years of controlling the executive and legislative branches of government enough time to offer even one solution to what we are now supposed to believe is the catastrophic result of an increase in minimum wage?

For years, we have had a different set of rules for teen employees than other employees including a lower minimum wage. If the biggest concern with an increase in the minimum wage was the number of job opportunities for teens, shouldn't Republicans just extend the reduced minimum wage rate for teens that is already on the books?

The reality is the pseudo outrage over teen employment shows just how tenuous the Republican opposition to minimum wage really is.

As far as businesses are concerned, it is certainly possible that some people may lose their job with an increase in the minimum wage, but there would also be a considerably larger number of people who benefit from the increased wages.

The idea that the minimum wage is some artificial increase implies that companies have no ability to artificially restrict wages. Let's say that we did as the editorial board suggests and we had tied higher wages to increased productivity. If that were the case, American workers would have already seen an increase in pay much larger than the proposed $10.10, since data shows that while productivity has risen steadily since the mid 1970s, the real, hourly compensation for employees has not. Which is to say that for nearly 40 years now, businesses have kept wages artificially low.

It is also curious that many conservatives believe an increase in the minimum wage will crush businesses, however they hardly bat an eye at the millions upon millions that many CEOs make.

If employee wages affect product pricing, then that is true at all levels of a company, not just for those at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder. Instead of firing employees, how about these companies just cut top management wages by a few million dollars?

Then there are other Republicans, like my colleague Dan Calabrese, who believe we should just let the free market take care of itself.

This has been the thought process in many European countries where there is no minimum wage. The reason these countries can operate without a minimum wage is because they have some of the highest rates of union membership in the world. Instead of the government providing a baseline for wages, workers organize and work with companies to establish wages that allow everyone to prosper. This system also lowers the income inequality that has become increasingly a problem in the U.S.

The Republican position on unions represents one of the greatest hypocrisies for their free market argument. Supporters of a truly free market wouldn't simultaneously argue against government intervention in the case of minimum wage but for government intervention to restrict workers rights. Like it or not, free market principles apply to corporations and individuals equally. Anything less is an example of government picking the winners and losers.

In the end the fact that the best talking points Republicans have to offer are so dubious says an awful lot about their motives. They want to use the power of government to protect the profits of corporations while Democrats hope to use the power of government to force companies to provide employees with a greater share of the spoils. Either way some people win and some people lose. Perhaps rather than manipulating the democratic process and using various groups as pawns in a rhetorical battle it would be best to just let the people decide for themselves.

Previously published in the Detroit News