Thursday, May 12, 2005

Geographies of compromise and contradiction

More hometown news. Here in my state of Wisconsin, where economically-conservative lawmakers lament (without reason, I frequently believe) that the state needs a more "business friendly" climate, local areas from towns to municipalities to counties are frequently urged to offer tax reductions, infrastructure subsidies, and outright grants in order to attract capital in the form of fixed investment in production, distribution, or retail spaces. Neighboring cities fight for the right to build new campus-like headquarters for global software development firms; neighboring counties compete to be the first to have a regional Wal-Mart distribution center; neighboring regions compete in the supposedly zero-sum game of attracting in-state and out-of-state tourist dollars with increasingly elaborate water parks, sports stadiums, and casino resorts. Any short-term local "incentive" is deemed proper if, in the long run, there is a chance of growing the area's tax base and employment rate through the attraction and retention of mobile capital. Usually the rhetorical framework for such projects is one valorizing "local control" over "big centralized government".

But apparently once localities push on the other side of the equation, with efforts to attract and retain increasingly mobile labor (though that labor, tied to family and community in a myriad of ways, is nowhere near as mobile as financial and even fixed capital), the same economically-conservative lawmakers quickly reverse their logic and rhetoric. Efforts on the part of three economically crucial Wisconsin cities -- Madison, Milwaukee, and LaCrosse -- to locally raise the minimum wage for workers within their jurisdictions has met with such startling resisistance from the economically-conservative state legislature that opponents of any wage floor have actually agreed to a compromise allowing a short-term statewide raising of the minimum wage to stave off the long-term implications of local laws like Madison's which would have institutionalized the notion of a socially-just wage floor which rises with inflation and thus the cost of living:

After a year of haggling, Republican leaders of the state Legislature and Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle are in the heat of agreement over raising the state's minimum wage. The end result will look like this: Beginning June 1, the minimum will increase from $5.15 an hour to $5.70, then rise to $6.50 an hour on June 1, 2006. Madison, which approved a higher increase, will have to abide by the new statewide limits, a condition insisted upon by Republicans.


Although grateful the minimum appears to be heading up, Madison officials said Doyle is trading the one-time increase for local governments' ability to leverage future increases. Under Madison's law, the minimum wage would go up to $7.75 an hour by 2008, with increases for inflation each year thereafter. "It's just not worth it," Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said.


The compromise illustrates several things, I think. First, local social justice movements such as the Madison minimum wage effort (which I prefer to think of as a "living wage" effort, meaning that a head of household working full-time should not earn a wage that puts the worker's family under the poverty rate) actually can "scale up" to achieve some success at a higher level of government. However, at the same time, that larger-scale success might come with costs that make further local innovation on equity and justice issues harder in the future.

Second, it is clear that regardless of the recent wave of analysts who argue that growing, attracting, and retaining a highly skilled, highly educated, and highly productive (even if highly paid) workforce is crucuial in order to preserve local "competitiveness" in the new global information economy, the current generation of economic conservatives in power across the nation still apparently believe that "building a strong economy" equates to "public subsidies to private firm owners" but not public assistance to (or even public protection for) the laborers employed by those firms.

Finally, the economic conservative rhetoric of valuing "local control and innovation" against "centralized big government" once again rings hollow. If economic conservatives truly believe that Madison will suffer economic ruin by raising its minimum wage to a living wage and thus somehow driving away businesses, then why not let Madisonians make that mistake on their own?

It is hard for me not to suspect that other agendas are at work here, including the fear that cities which not only raise but institutionalize their minimum wages to living wages would actually prosper in the long run, putting pressure on competing local governments and higher-scale governments to do the same. Whether economic conservative lawmakers fear such a scenario because it might counter their own utopian free-market visions, or because it might threaten key firm owners who fund their political campaigns, I can only speculate.

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