Opinion

The Great Debate

The minimum wage fight: From San Francisco to de Blasio’s New York

In his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama urged cities and states to bypass Congress and enact their own minimum wage increases. “You don’t have to wait for Congress,” he stated.

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the president’s advice. De Blasio announced, in his State of the City address, that he plans to ask Albany next week to give the city the power to raise the minimum wage.

The New York mayor is not the only elected official putting Obama’s words into action. Cities across the country, from New York to Seattle, are moving aggressively to confront rising income inequality and falling real wages for low-paid workers. These cities can learn important lessons from San Francisco’s bold experiments over the last 15 years.

San Francisco has now passed nearly a dozen laws to raise low-wage workers’ pay, expand access to healthcare and extend paid sick leave to every worker. These laws include living wage policies for workers at the San Francisco International Airport, on city economic-development projects and for city contractors; an across-the-board minimum wage — now $10.74 an hour; a broad paid sick leave ordinance, and an employer healthcare requirement.

These laws have brought substantial improvements in compensation and access to healthcare for tens of thousands of low-wage workers and their families. Over the last decade, as real wages for low-paid workers stagnated and then declined nationally, San Francisco stood apart. Real wages rose for the lowest-paid workers and maintained their value because of indexing in the minimum wage law. During these 10 years, the minimum wage law alone has put an estimated $1.2 billion into workers’ pockets.

Troubled Ties: The Clintons and populism

What’s behind the sudden outburst of populism in the Democratic Party?

Partly the weak economic recovery. Most economic indicators have turned positive — economic growth is up, unemployment down, the housing market is in recovery. But ordinary Americans are not feeling it. In last month’s CNN poll, two thirds of Americans said the nation’s economy was poor. More than half expect it to remain poor a year from now.

People at the top of the income ladder have been raking in the money while wage growth for working Americans has stagnated. That’s a recipe for a populist explosion.

Remember the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that started in 2011 and spread across the country? Most pundits don’t believe it had any impact, especially compared with the Tea Party. They’re wrong. In a stroke of marketing genius, the Occupy movement introduced the phrase “1 Percent” into the nation’s political vocabulary. That’s what defeated the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney was Mr. 1 Percent.

Why do New York politicians hate small business?

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed a commission to figure out how to make the Empire State more business-friendly and change its reputation for high taxes. The New York state government is now running commercials on national television touting the tax breaks that businesses can get by relocating there. “Small Business Saturday” – the annual post-Thanksgiving event encouraging folks to patronize small businesses — was heavily promoted in nearly every media outlet.

However, there may be no place in the country that treats small businesses worse than New York. Harmful policies come out of both City Hall in Manhattan and the State House in Albany. The commercials, narrated by Robert DeNiro and set to Jay-Z’s iconic song, Empire State of Mind, may look cool, but what New York needs to make itself more conducive to investment, job creation and economic growth, is better fiscal policy. Not more glamour.

Though it’s great to see Cuomo own up to the fact that New York’s tax climate is inhospitable to employers — and events like Small Business Saturday are nice — this doesn’t change the fact that New York’s political class is uniquely hostile to small business. To the detriment of the entire state economy.

Bill de Blasio, the Not-Bloomberg

Bill de Blasio, whose strong support in New York City’s Democratic primary for mayor may have averted any runoff, had a secret weapon — and I speak not of his delightful Afro’d son, Dante, but of the very man he wants to succeed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Yes, if anyone handed de Blasio a win — besides de Blasio, his campaign and his feckless opponents — it was Bloomberg. He has never fully understood the art of politics, governing stubbornly with his head, never his heart. He has been substantive and steady, he has had many successes. But his inability or unwillingness to empathize with the public, especially on such gut matters as the policing policy of stop-and-frisk, gave de Blasio an opening. The public advocate campaigned as the anti-Bloomberg — and it worked.

The mayor can be persuasive, one on one. But it is a Bloomberg the public barely glimpsed. I recall thinking this a few months ago, when I was visiting a friend at Bloomberg News, and the mayor walked in. Within seconds he was lecturing me about the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk, urgently defending the policing policy, making his familiar arguments about deterrence, the importance of reducing gun possession through the police stops, which a federal judge has since said violates the constitutional rights of minorities.

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