For many years now, I've maintained several fictions about myself. One is that I will one day finish one of the six books I'm writing in my head — or maybe even actually start one. Another is telling myself for years that nothing surprises me anymore.
So, this state of nonchalant calmness — yes, despite what everyone may think, I'm actually always very calm — received a jolt last week when I read that North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey had announced plans for a wage increase for city workers. Over the next three years, the lowest pay for a North Charleston employee will be increased to $15 an hour. The mayor didn't specifically say this was better than trying to pass a minimum wage law affecting all of North Charleston's workforce, public and private, but he hinted that this would be the case.
Summey laid the case out as well as any activist possibly could: current wages simply are not enough, in North Charleston or anywhere else, to expect people to be able to support themselves adequately. And it just isn't enough to say, "Well, go better yourself and get a better job," especially when you're talking about people performing essential public service functions in your town.
Now, one could expect a cynical curmudgeon such as myself to explain how all of this is just a distraction from some of North Charleston's other problems — and maybe it is. But it's also a pretty amazing end-run around some of the roadblocks set up to keep people from at least getting closer to escaping poverty. After all, in North Carolina it's now illegal for towns to set any sort of wage laws that go against the state's own minimum, which mirrors the federal government's own paltry idea of a minimum wage.
Then again, cynicism isn't always a lot of fun these days. It's cheap and almost anyone can do it and most people, frankly, do it really poorly. The first set of cynics are those who for years have maintained that minimum wage jobs aren't meant to be "real jobs" in the first place and that raising wages there would just somehow reward laziness. Of course, the closer you get to an actual wage increase taking place, the cry of these lost souls changes to "Look! Look! See? The fast-food places are turning to robots and apps!" And so the conservative free marketer turns into a pro-labor Luddite.
Another type of cynic will issue a Vox.com-style piece explaining what a bad idea this wage increase is, claiming — as that "liberal" site has repeatedly done in response to positions taken by the Bernie Sanders campaign — that "many, even liberal, economists" see a problem with this sort of wage increase. (Note: the average Vox piece only cites a few economists.)
That's cynical, right there, albeit a different cynicism than that of Hillary Clinton, who recently claimed the $15 minimum wage law in New York was a great success despite having never once spoken for it in the past. She told an Iowa town hall late last year that she favored a $12-an-hour wage; that's only $6,240 a year difference, so close enough, right?
But perhaps worse than the cynics are those who might go too far in their praise of Mayor Summey's plan. Don't get me wrong, for Mayor Summey to even suggest this wage increase, and to frame it as showing the way to private businesses, is definitely praiseworthy. But the sort of glowing commentary heaped upon it by The Post and Courier's token liberal columnist Brian Hicks is a bit too much. Hicks' piece "North Charleston shows its progressive streak again" lauds the city as the "progressive hub of South Carolina," which, in this case, is technically true but overall not terribly accurate.
A $15-an-hour, minimum wage isn't progressive. It's barely even "catching up," and it's certainly not at the forefront of progressive, not to mention radical, thought on where wages should be going in America, or even in other countries.
After all, a minimum wage that hasn't budged for 20 years even as the economy has grown (and, despite the near-collapse in 2008, the economy has indeed grown, if only for the very rich) is an indictment of a system that has left behind the vast majority of its constituents, and not just the minimum wage workers. Productivity across the economy is higher than ever, yet wages remain stagnant across the board.
So, Mayor Summey's plan might not be terribly progressive in the grand scheme of things, but it's a good bit better than what anyone else in South Carolina has offered up. And that's worthy of some applause and support from the community.