John Boehner’s Rotten Jobs Paid Well

John BoehnerSunday night, I wrote about the pathetic 60 Minutes segment that allowed John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to come on and pitch their talking points unmolested, Shameless Republican Ad on 60 Minutes. I wanted to add one more thing to that. In the discussion of the minimum wage, Boehner began to wax poetic about his days of working his way through college. This appears to be the case. Unlike most politicians, Boehner really is from relatively modest circumstances. But that doesn’t make his argument any stronger.

He gave the same old apologia for allowing the poor to work for next to nothing:

I’ve had every kinda rotten job you can imagine growing up and getting myself through school. And I wouldn’t have had a chance at half those jobs if the federal government had kept imposing higher minimum wage. You take the bottom rungs off the economic ladder.

There are many things wrong with this. The biggest theoretical problem is that it depends upon a widely held myth about the way that business works. According to this theory, businesses hire people out of some sense of beneficence. That’s just not true. Businesses hire because they have to. They have work that needs to get done. So the idea that companies are going to cut workers because the minimum wage goes up is just madness. What will happen in a very small number of cases is that really badly run, inefficient companies, which are only profitable because they pay their works starvation wages, will go out of business. But these are just companies that are currently gaming the system and they deserve to go out of business.

But more important is the practical matter of just what the minimum wage was when little Johnny Boehner was working himself through college. He was born in 1949. So what was the minimum wage worth in the late 1960s? According to work by Dean Baker and Will Kimball, if the minimum wage had just kept pace with inflation, it would be $9.66 today (that’s with my adjustment from 2012 up to 2015). In addition, if it rose with productivity (which it always did until that time), it would now be almost $17.50. And if we look at just non-farm productivity growth, it would now be worth more than $23 per hour.

Real Value of Minimum Wage - Time Series

What Boehner did in the 60 Minutes interview is common among people his age. They look back on their own youths — when pretty much only youths had those kinds of jobs — and claim that they were just fine. Well that may be. But those jobs paid a lot more back then. If we use the non-farm productivity figure, John Boehner was earning three times what a minimum wage worker is earning today. And as I noted: these jobs are not for kids working their way through college; they are for adults with kids just trying to get through the month.

If Republicans and other conservatives want to stop the minimum wage from increasing, that’s fine. But don’t pretend that the minimum wage of today is the same as it always was. It isn’t. And until 1970, it always went up with the rate of productivity growth. It is no coincidence that when the minimum wage stopped growing, so did the wages for the rest of American workers. The current minimum wage simply adjusted for inflation is 67% of what it was in 1968, when John Boehner was doing “every kinda rotten job you can imagine.” The imagination problem is not with us; it is with him and all his conservative allies who can’t see that things have changed a lot since they were at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “John Boehner’s Rotten Jobs Paid Well

  1. As humans, we are all myopic to an extent. However, conservatives tend to really overvalue their own experiences when it comes how they view the economy, public policy and the lives of others. Their own youth, their one brief conversation with a cab driver or their undocumented gardener or their neighbor’s account of a teenaged son’s 10 week long stint in retail are all thought of as superior to facts and statistics coming from the pen of some light-in-the-loafers “Atlantic” writer or some Harvard egghead.

    In conservative epistemology, anecdotes do not merely buttress statistics, anecdotes supplant hard data, provided that those anecdotes confirm that trickle down economics invariably works as promised.

    To make matters worse, conservatives often times cannot even recall their own experiences and anecdotes correctly. Thus John Boehner’s “rotten” jobs, effectively, paid thrice the current minimum wage. Joni Ernst wore plastic bread bags on her shoe but she forgets about her whole family received paper envelopes full of government checks. My dad took near zero tuition college classes in California in the 1970’s but now he swears that he did not get any “government help” when he went to college.

    For conservatives, narrow personal experience trumps facts and most of the time, they cannot even recall those narrow personal experiences with accuracy. It is a recipe for being wrong so damn often. It would be comical if those views did not so much political power behind them.

    • It really is a question of what you want to think: does it further what you want to think or not? When I went to junior college in the mid-1980s, it was free. By the time I left, it started charging $50 per semester. That wasn’t very much, but people argued that having any fee at all would put pressure to raise more money. And they were right. The cost went up rapidly. But the bottom line is that I managed to get a BS, MS, and PhD without incurring a single dollar of debt — through no special effort on my part. Good luck doing that today.

      Traditionally, the wealthier the person receiving welfare, the less it looks like welfare. During my college days, they were still hiding much educational welfare in a way they don’t today. I think the only reason that the mortgage interest deduction is not exposed for the massive middle class welfare program that it is is because that would expose all the welfare programs for the rich.

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