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A $12 Minimum Hourly Wage: Trading Cheap Happy Meals for a Happier Future

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All right, I've got my lanyard whistle around my neck, and I'm set for a session here. Let's hustle up out there, Lawners. Time for today's knee-jerk calisthenics.

Remember our interim motto: A knee-jerk reaction is better than not being able to feel your feet. (I'm working on shortening that.)

In today's New York Times is a long essay called, "Inequality Undermines Democracy," by Timesman Eduardo Porter.

You may recall that we used this same topic barely five days ago as a jumping off point for a big kneezercise freak-out, based on my own half-assed reading of a new book by UT-Austin (LBJ School) economist James Galbraith.

In keeping with the ethos of kneezercise, many of you were able to offer reactions that were every bit as half-assed as my original assessment, and some of you left me in your half-assed dust. I gotta tell you, we have some great knees out there in Lawnland.

Ever since Occupy, somebody somewhere talks about income inequality just about every day -- proof positive that Occupy changed the political landscape, if not for good, at least through the next election. So why get all kneezy about today's additional offering?

Well, it's a good example of how the best intentions go awry on this topic. Porter is writing from a much more balanced perspective than my own. As you known, my own point of view would always be progressive, nanny-state, bleeding-heart as hell if my heart had more blood left. But for all his greater probity, Porter still manages to toss off some unproven assertions that I think we could all get our knees into here today.

Speaking of a sharp trend toward greater income inequality in America today, Porter writes:

"There is little reason to think the trend will go into reverse any time soon, given globalization and technological change, which have weighed heavily on the wages of less educated workers who compete against machines and cheap foreign labor while increasing the returns of top executives and financiers."

Umm, maybe not so fast there, Timesy. In his new book, Galbraith brings an awful lot of math to bear on knocking down that very assumption -- that it's all about technological advances, globalization and our own crappy public schools (everyone please do two quick knee-jerks and a forehead-slap).

By looking at other economies around the world, especially in northern Europe, Galbraith is able to show that nations can absorb a whole lot of iPads and cell phones without trending toward wage feudalism the way we have here. It's not like your iPad tells you to go out and snatch some money away from a homeless person every day.

Galbraith has been writing stuff for more than a decade to argue that using education as a whipping boy just doesn't fit the facts, either. He also poses some tough questions about the globalization argument.

The lowest wages in our economy go to people whose jobs can't be off-shored, he says. "You can't run a deep-fryer in Terre Haute from Bangalore," he has said.

God, I hope not.

By comparing us with other economies that have managed to maintain strong growth without an increase in inequality, he comes to the conclusion that our own trend is the result not of some inexorable randy-Randian force but of deliberate policy decisions -- bad decisions -- especially the big one in the 1970s when we decided to give up full employment as a national goal in order to fight inflation, trashing unions in the bargain.

OK, knees ready? Here is my tweet on the whistle: Galbraith says the big solution to all our woes -- everything from immigration to unemployment to what in the world to do with Sarah Palin now -- is a $12 minimum wage and stronger labor unions.

Wages. Full employment. People doing better by working. That's how the Greatest Generation did it. That's how Germany does it. That's how we can get back to glory.

Maybe Porter didn't mean this. He doesn't say it right out, but I get the feeling from his piece he thinks critics of income inequality are champions of income redistribution through tax policy as a principle solution.

Galbraith is not. In fact he has been pretty caustic about it for a long time. In 1998 he wrote: "An economy of tax slaves and debt peons is an economy of frightened and frustrated people."

But he does think public policy is the answer: "Without public solutions to the problems of life on the treadmill, and without the political parties, platforms and organizations to put them into effect, it is not surprising that people become open to the appeal of every man for himself. Ultimately, the power of this appeal will become irresistible. It is already nearly so: Witness the allergy on all sides of our politics to expanding welfare and to public investment; witness the accelerating and dangerously bipartisan assault on Social Security."

Higher minimum wage. Strong unions. Full employment. Social Security. That's the way to go. And finally -- let's get those knees up a little higher, please -- he addresses the question whether all this may raise prices:

"Would prices go up? Some would. But rich people can afford it -- and workers would have extra income to pay the higher prices, so most of them would come out ahead."

Did you hear that, Missy Rich Knees? He's talkin' about your patellas, baby! I wanta see those knees up high in the air now, people. Jerk!

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