Sunday 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:
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.
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.