WASHINGTON -- A federal minimum wage is an idea whose time came in 1938, when public confidence in markets was at a nadir and the federal government's confidence in itself was at an apogee. This, in spite of the fact that, with the 19 percent unemployment and the economy contracting by 6.2 percent in 1938, the New Deal's frenetic attempts had failed to end, and perhaps had prolonged, the Depression.
Today, raising the federal minimum wage is a bad idea whose time has come, for two reasons, the first of which is that some Democrats have a chronic and evidently incurable disease -- New Deal Nostalgia. Witness Nancy Pelosi's ``100 hours'' agenda, a genuflection to FDR's 100 Days. Perhaps this nostalgia resonates with the 5 percent of Americans who remember the 1930s.
Second, the president has endorsed raising the hourly minimum from $5.15 to $7.25 by the spring of 2009. The Democratic Congress will favor that, and he may reason that vetoing this minor episode of moral grandstanding would not be worth the predictable uproar -- Washington uproar often is inversely proportional to the importance of occasion for it. Besides, there would be something disproportionate about the president vetoing this feel-good bit of legislative fluff after not vetoing the absurdly expensive 2002 farm bill, or the 2005 highway bill larded with 6,371 earmarks, or the anti-constitutional McCain-Feingold speech-rationing bill.
Democrats consider the minimum wage increase a signature issue. So, consider what it says about them:
Most of the working poor earn more than the minimum wage, and most of the 0.6 percent (479,000 in 2005) of America's wage workers earning the minimum wage are not poor. Only one in five workers earning the federal minimum live in families with household earnings below the poverty line. Sixty percent work part-time and their average household income is well over $40,000. (The average and median household incomes are $63,344 and $46,326 respectively.)