- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 27, 2004

In academia, when scholars change their minds about something, they admit it publicly and explain why, even if the previous error causes a bit of embarrassment. Thus we recently saw renowned physicist Stephen Hawking say he was wrong in his theory of “black holes.” He knew it was a necessary, if painful, thing for him to do so research on these celestial objects can move forward.

I believe public opinion leaders have the same responsibility to explain themselves when they switch gears. If I were suddenly to endorse a higher minimum wage, after opposing it for many years, I would owe my readers an explanation. I would have to say the facts had changed or new research had caused me to change my mind or whatever. It would irresponsible for me to pretend my new position was consistent with my old one and just ignore the contradiction.

This is not the view of the New York Times. For decades, the paper carefully and consistently editorialized against the minimum wage. But five years ago, for no apparent reason, it reversed a policy dating to 1937 and suddenly endorsed a higher minimum wage. Its latest editorial on this topic appeared last Saturday, in which New York state legislators were urged to agree on a “much-needed increase in the minimum wage.”

When I first began clipping Times editorials on the minimum wage back in the 1970s, they unambiguously condemned it as misdirected, inefficient, with negative consequences for most of those it was supposed to help. For example, an Aug. 17, 1977, editorial stated, “The basic effect of an increase in the minimum wage … would be to intensify the cruel competition among the poor for scarce jobs.” Therefore, “Minimum wage legislation has no place in a strategy to eliminate poverty.”

In the 1980s, the Times’ denunciations of the minimum wage became even more aggressive. Rather than simply argue against increases, it actively campaigned for abolishing the minimum wage altogether. Indeed, a remarkable editorial on Jan. 14, 1987, was titled, “The right minimum wage: $0.00.”

Everything in that editorial is still true today. “There’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed,” it said. “Raise the legal minimum price of labor above the productivity of the least skilled workers and few will be hired,” it correctly observed. In conclusion, “The idea of using a minimum wage to overcome poverty is old, honorable — and fundamentally flawed. It’s time to put this hoary debate behind us, and find a better way to improve the lives of people who work very hard for very little.”

Even in the 1990s, the Times remained skeptical about the value of raising the minimum wage. An April 5, 1996, editorial conceded a proposed 90-cent increase in the minimum wage would wipe out 100,000 jobs. It said Republican critics of the minimum wage as a “crude” antipoverty tool were right.

But by 1999 the nation’s newspaper of record had completely reversed itself. In a Sept. 14 editorial, it endorsed a sharp minimum wage increase, arguing it would have no effect at all on unemployment. “For millions of workers, a higher minimum wage means a better shot at self-sufficiency,” it said.

Gone are all the old arguments that higher minimum wages cost jobs, are mainly promoted by unions to stifle competition, most of the benefits go to children of the well-to-do rather than the poor and legislating higher wages would be inflationary. Now the Times accepts as given the justification for a higher minimum wage and doesn’t even try to marshal facts or analyses for its new position. It simply says the minimum wage should be raised, as if that is all anyone need know.

I think the Times owes its readers some explanation for its about-face. After all, there has been no ownership change at the paper that caused its editorial policy to change, as was the case at the New York Post and the Daily News. The Times is still owned and run by the same family and has had the same liberal editorial policy since the 1930s. So what gives with the minimum wage? Why was it bad for 60 years and now has suddenly become good? Inquiring minds want to know.

I won’t hold my breath waiting for an answer. In the meantime, I recommend the book, “Times Change: The Minimum Wage and the New York Times” by economist Richard McKenzie for those curious about this case of editorial apostasy.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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