The New York Times and the minimum wage

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: Jul 27, 2004 12:00 AM

 In academia, when scholars change their minds about something, they admit it publicly and explain why, even if it causes a bit of embarrassment for having erred previously. Thus we recently saw renowned physicist Stephen Hawking say that he was wrong in his theory of "black holes." He knew that it was a necessary, if painful, thing for him to do so that research on these celestial objects can move forward.
 
I believe that public opinion leaders have the same responsibility to explain themselves when they switch gears. If I were suddenly to endorse a higher minimum wage, after having opposed it for many years, I would owe my readers an explanation. I would have to say that the facts had changed or that new research had caused me to change my mind or whatever. It would irresponsible for me to pretend that my new position was consistent with my old one and just ignore the contradiction.

 This is a view that is not held by the New York Times. For decades, that paper had carefully and consistently editorialized against the minimum wage. But five years ago, for no apparent reason, it reversed a policy dating back to 1937 and suddenly endorsed a higher minimum wage. Its latest editorial on this topic appeared on July 24, in which legislators in Albany were urged to agree on a "much-needed increase in the minimum wage" for New York State.

 When I first began clipping Times editorials on the minimum wage back in the 1970s, they were unambiguous in their condemnation of it as misdirected, inefficient and having negative consequences for most of those it was supposed to help. For example, an Aug. 17, 1977, editorial stated, "The basic effect of an increase in the minimum wage ... would be to intensify the cruel competition among the poor for scarce jobs." For this reason, it said, "Minimum wage legislation has no place in a strategy to eliminate poverty."

 In the 1980s, the Times became even more aggressive in its denunciations of the minimum wage. Rather than simply argue against increases, it actively campaigned for abolition of the minimum wage altogether. Indeed, a remarkable editorial on Jan. 14, 1987, was titled, "The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00."

 Everything in that editorial is still true today. "There's a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed," it said. "Raise the legal minimum price of labor above the productivity of the least skilled workers and few will be hired," it correctly observed. In conclusion: "The idea of using a minimum wage to overcome poverty is old, honorable -- and fundamentally flawed. It's time to put this hoary debate behind us, and find a better way to improve the lives of people who work very hard for very little."

 Even in the 1990s, the Times remained skeptical about the value of raising the minimum wage. An April 5, 1996, editorial conceded that a proposed 90-cent increase in the minimum wage would wipe out 100,000 jobs. It said that Republican critics of the minimum wage as a "crude" antipoverty tool were right.

 By 1999, however, the nation's newspaper of record had completely reversed itself. In a Sept. 14 editorial, it endorsed a sharp increase in the minimum wage, arguing that it would have no impact whatsoever on unemployment. "For millions of workers, a higher minimum wage means a better shot at self-sufficiency," it stated.

 Gone are all the old arguments that higher minimum wages cost jobs, are mainly promoted by unions to stifle competition, that most of the benefits go to the children of the well-to-do rather than the poor and that legislating higher wage costs would be inflationary. Now the Times accepts the justification for a higher minimum wage as given and doesn't even try to marshal any facts or analyses in favor of its new position. It simply says the minimum wage should be raised, as if its opinion on the matter is all that anyone needs to know.

 I think the Times owes its readers some explanation for its about-face. After all, there has been no change in ownership at the paper that caused its editorial policy to change, as was the case at the New York Post and the Daily News. The Times is still owned and run by the same family and has had the same liberal editorial policy since the 1930s. So what gives with the minimum wage? Why was it bad for 60 years and now has suddenly become good? Inquiring minds want to know.

 I won't hold my breath waiting for an answer. In the meantime, I recommend the book, "Times Change: The Minimum Wage and The New York Times" by economist Richard McKenzie for those curious about this case of editorial apostasy.