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Originally published Sunday, March 30, 2014 at 8:03 PM

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New movement shaking up how we think about wages, wealth

The growing movement for a higher minimum wage, with Seattle leadership, is writing a new story of how the economy should operate.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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People sometimes have to unlearn what we think we know, and that can be a difficult thing to do.

The Great Recession shook up some long-held ideas about the economy, but it didn’t entirely dislodge all of them. We saw middle-class Americans losing their homes because of predatory lending, or losing jobs because of decisions made at the top. Then we saw stocks lift the wealth of the already wealthy and corporate profits soar while workers continued to lose jobs and benefits.

And yet we are divided. Some still say businesses and markets will lift all of us if we wait, but the pain of the recession ignited a growing call for direct action against growing inequality, and Seattle is an important part of the chorus. Those voices for change are the ones we ought to listen to.

Last week, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said, again, that he wants Seattle to be a leader in addressing inequality by increasing the minimum wage. He was speaking at a daylong symposium on the topic that he co-sponsored with Seattle University and Local Progress, a national network of progressive local officials.

Among the speakers were researchers from Seattle University and the University of Washington of course, but also from the University of California, Berkeley, and Columbia University.

There were Seattle City Council members among the speakers, but also city officials from Chicago, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, New York City and Philadelphia.

Business people and social-activist groups were also well represented.

What is happening here is bigger than Seattle. And it is about more than a wage increase. I went to listen because I believe this is one of those movements that is about realigning our national values to make them fit our truest ideals. That always has costs that should be weighed against the gains.

Seattle is a progressive city, but it is also a city driven by commerce, and it is the main economic engine of this region. No one wants to undermine that role. So Seattle is carefully hashing all this out, as is its habit. There will be an increase in the minimum wage, but how much, and which businesses and nonprofits will be affected, are still questions in search of answers.

The mayor wants Seattle to be out front on addressing inequality as it has been on a number of other progressive issues, and the symposium reflected that position of leadership and also gave a sense of the growing momentum behind using government to encourage a fairer distribution of the wealth that working people create.

Government already plays a big role in shaping wealth distribution, through tax policy and its regulatory authority, but that role has favored the wealthiest few Americans in recent years, often at the expense of the middle class.

Some at the symposium worried that if the minimum wage is increased to $15 an hour, Seattle businesses will suffer and many may die. The statistics say increases around the country haven’t hurt business, but $15 would be the highest yet, so it should be thought out.

The mayor put together a group representing a range of interests and tasked them with recommending a way to raise the minimum wage without creating an undue burden on businesses or nonprofits.

With a month to go before that committee’s recommendations are due, the mayor convened Thursday’s symposium, at which speakers poured data down from the podium with the intent of eroding persistent but inaccurate ideas about how the economy functions.

A chart on the screen in the big room at Seattle University showed wages rose in tandem with prosperity from 1947 into the 1970s, when the lines began to diverge. Most income from productivity gains since the late 1970s has gone to the top income groups, while wages of average American workers have largely stagnated.

Speakers said that disparity of outcomes was not some natural occurrence, it reflects policy decisions that put a higher value on wealthy individuals and corporations than on the majority of working folks, such as deregulation of labor markets and the economy, and reduced taxes on investment income.

Government has been part of the problem and can be part of the solution.

What have we learned to value? If it’s an economic system that makes the American dream unreal for most people, then maybe we should think again.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com



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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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