Opinion | These Days, ‘Help Wanted’ Has So Many Meanings

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By Gail Collins and Bret Stephens

Ms. Collins and Mr. Stephens are opinion columnists. They converse every week.

Gail Collins: Bret, let’s relax and talk about long-term goals that we totally do not share. For instance, how would you feel about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour?

Bret Stephens: Why not raise the standard of living for everyone by making the minimum wage $100? Just kidding. I think the correct figure is $0.

Gail: If your goal is a self-supporting populace that doesn’t depend on government aid, you’ve got to make sure employers are shelling out at least minimal survival salaries. The current bottom line is $7.25 an hour. Nobody can live on that.

Bret: I’m taking my $0 cue from a famous Times editorial from 1987, which made the case that “those at greatest risk from a higher minimum wage would be young, poor workers, who already face formidable barriers to getting and keeping jobs.” The editorial may be old but the economic logic is right. Raising the minimum wage is a well-intentioned idea that won’t help its intended beneficiaries. It will hurt them by giving companies like McDonald’s additional incentives to move toward even more automation.

Tell me why I’m wrong ….

Gail: Well, I could quote an editorial from 2020 that said raising the minimum wage “ought to be a priority of economic policymakers …”

And you know, I was once the Times opinion editor, and the editorial page does evolve in its outlook. Back when the Civil Rights Act passed in the 1960s, our editorial writers made fun of the idea of applying it to gender employment discrimination, theorizing that federal enforcers “may find it would have been better if Congress had just abolished sex itself,” and warning it could lead to male Bunnies at the Playboy clubs.

Bret: I’m sure we agree that The Times has been wrong about many things in the past — and might even be wrong about a thing or two in the present. I’m still not seeing how the economics have changed since the 1980s ….

Gail: A higher minimum wage might cause some employers to reduce the number of jobs, at least temporarily. But the danger there is always way overplayed, and those higher-paid minimum wage workers will be spending their new money to lift the economy.

Bret: We are living through a period of deep labor shortages, especially in service industries, that allows workers to bargain for higher wages. That makes raising the minimum wage a faulty solution to a fading problem. But I see your point, and this is one of those issues on which conservatives and liberals will argue forever — or at least until automation and robots make it moot.

Gail: Meanwhile, on a totally completely different subject, last week we missed the chance to converse about The Slap. Any lingering thoughts about Will Smith hitting Chris Rock at the Oscars?

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