Progressive doublespeak

Bruce Bartlett

1/4/2006 12:05:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett

According to a Dec. 25 report in the Boston Globe, the Democratic Party is joining forces with the activist group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) to place initiatives on state ballots this fall to raise the minimum wage. The idea is to energize the poor to vote for Democratic candidates, as well as the initiative.
 
 ACORN's involvement in this campaign is amusing because a few years ago the group sued the state of California in order to be exempted from its minimum wage requirement, which was higher than the federal government's. In its appellate brief, ACORN acknowledged that the more it had to pay each worker, the fewer such workers it would be able to hire. Of course, the same thing is true for businesses, as well --  something minimum wage advocates refuse to admit.

  Furthermore, ACORN argued that paying its workers less than the minimum wage aided its organizing efforts. Said the brief, "A person paid limited sums of money will be in a better position to empathize with and relate to the low and moderate membership and constituency of ACORN." Somehow I doubt that a business catering to those with low incomes would get any sympathy from ACORN if it made the same argument.

  Indeed, ACORN has a history of denying its workers rights that it demands from corporations. For example, its "People's Platform" says that all workers have the right to organize. Yet, when its own workers have tried to do so, ACORN strenuously fought them.

  In 2001, all of the workers in ACORN's Seattle office signed cards stating a desire to join the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union with a long history of radicalism. ACORN's management refused to recognize the union and locked out the workers. Eventually, ACORN relented and paid a $20,000 settlement. Afterward, an IWW organizer said, "This underscores further the doublespeak that causes their workers to unionize or resign in disgust, and it shows that (ACORN's leaders) have learned nothing about workers' rights."

  That same year, ACORN intimidated and fired workers in its Dallas office for threatening to organize. In 2003, the National Labor Relations Board found that it had violated the law. Said the NLRB, "By interrogating employees about their union activities, by informing employees that other employees have been discharged because of the union, by threatening employees that selecting the union to represent them will be futile and by threatening employees with discharge, respondent has violated section 8(a) of the act."

  Liberal doublespeak on the minimum wage has a long history. According to a fascinating article in the fall 2005 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, early advocates of the minimum wage knew perfectly well that it would lead to job losses. Not only that, the loss of jobs was actually a prime reason why they supported the minimum wage.

  As Princeton University economist Thomas Leonard recounts the story, liberals of a century ago were strong supporters of eugenics -- the idea that the quality of the human race could be improved by weeding out, even killing, those deemed to be unfit. The great novelist D.H. Lawrence expressed an appalling but typical view. Said Lawrence on one occasion, "If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace ... and then I'd go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick, the halt and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile at me."

 Even President Theodore Roosevelt shared this philosophy. "I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding," he wrote in 1914. Criminals should be sterilized, he said, and the feebleminded should be forbidden to leave offspring.

 Sadly, many states enacted laws imposing forced sterilization on such people, a practice even approved by the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927).

  The minimum wage fit in with this philosophy, according to Leonard, because its advocates thought that inferior races and ethnic groups would be priced out of the labor market and become unemployed, thus reducing immigration and reproduction by such people. "This unemployment is not a mark of social disease," wrote famous socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, "but actually of social health."

  Interestingly, minimum wage supporters of the Progressive Era also believed that it would price women out of the labor market, forcing them to marry and have children. Eugenicists were obsessed with reproduction because they feared that whites of Northern European stock were not having enough children and would eventually be overwhelmed by faster-reproducing groups in what we now call the Third World.

  Today, we rightly condemn eugenics as racist. But many people still support policies such as the minimum wage that were originally planted in its soil.