Those good ol’ battles: seat belts, minimum wage

DC

David Crisp

With the national political uproar leading to an unprecedented rise in the use of “unprecedented,” it was almost comforting this week to see the Montana Legislature fight familiar battles.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted down a bill that would have allowed law enforcement officers to stop and ticket drivers who have committed no offense other than failing to buckle their seat belts. The House Business and Labor Committee killed a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Votes in both committees were cast along strict party lines. I don’t suppose I need to mention how each party voted.

While it’s a relief to see Montana politics play out in predictable ways, it’s also a vaguely disturbing reminder of how disconnected from actual debate politics has become. It also shows how differently Democrats and Republicans think.

Much of the case against a so-called primary seat belt law was based on the God-given right of Americans to crush their bodies into mangled bits in fast-moving vehicles. But that really isn’t much of an argument at all.

The U.S. Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to establish post roads, a term that has become understood to mean just about any public road suitable for travel by postal vehicles. The people who establish and pay for those roads certainly have the right to impose rational restrictions on members of the public who wish to use them: speed limits, traffic lights, vehicle standards and so on. Those restrictions reasonably can require drivers to protect themselves and others by wearing seat belts.

If you don’t like those restrictions, go build your own roads. Or sit at home. Just don’t expect the rest of us to pay to scrape you off the pavement. According to testimony at the hearing, Montanans paid $37 apiece last year to clean up after unbelted fools. The Senate committee, so sensitive about spending our tax dollars, had no problem making us pay for that.

While no serious person claims that it’s safer to drive without seat belts, raising the minimum wage is less straightforward. Perfectly reasonable people can disagree about what minimum wage, if any, makes sense. James Kwak provides a good summary of the argument at the Atlantic.

Most political discussions don’t really get into all of the interesting and complex, often contradictory, evidence about effects of the minimum wage. Kwak argues that most of us, including many politicians, are victims of Economics 101 thinking. There we learned that when you increase the cost of something, you get less of it; therefore, if wages go up, employment must go down.

The world outside the classroom is more complicated. As Kwak notes, small businesses may not be able to afford to cut staff. Larger businesses may have enough flexibility that Economics 101 doesn’t fully apply. In either case, putting extra wages into the pockets of low-wage earners may spark the economy enough to offset any job losses.

Little of this surfaced at the hearing in Helena. The arguments didn’t get much past Economics 101, and I got the impression from news accounts that the real argument didn’t even get that far. The real argument is that businesses, not government, should decide what wages to pay.

Fair enough. The counter argument is that government’s broad powers to regulate commerce include discouraging commerce that generates too little income to pay workers enough to keep them off food stamps and welfare.

That would make for an interesting debate that we will not have. During an insomniac news binge a couple of years ago, I found myself watching an early-morning discussion on cable news between a minimum-wage advocate and a minimum-wage opponent. Both were knowledgeable and articulate.

Just as I was settling in, the news talker announced he was out of time. Time for what? I wondered. It was 6:30 in the morning. Perhaps a tenth of 1 percent of the nation’s TV audience was tuned in, most of them as nerdy as I am. Yet the network still felt obliged to spare us the tedium of an in-depth discussion.

Maybe I’m the one who is off base here. After looking over an Economist/YouGov poll taken in December, I suspect that thinking we could ever see a meeting of the minds is like thinking elephants and donkeys could successfully interbreed, just as soon as we decide whether to call the offspring elephonies or donkephants.

Among the findings:

♦ Even after Donald Trump admitted President Obama was born in America, 52 percent of Republicans still said Obama was probably or definitely born in Kenya. Twenty percent of Democrats agreed.

♦ Sixty-two percent of Trump voters think that millions of illegal votes were cast in the election, but only 9 percent think Russia tampered with vote tallies. Half of Hillary Clinton voters suspected the Russians tampered.

♦ Nearly 90 percent of Trump voters prefer “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.” Only half of Clinton voters agreed.

♦ Seventy-four percent of Trump voters said the proportion of uninsured Americans has increased over the last five years. Even 39 percent of Clinton voters agreed, although the actual number of uninsured has declined by about 20 million people.

♦ Eighty-six percent of Clinton voters said that climate is changing because of human activity. Only 36 percent of Trump voters agreed.

To imagine that Clinton could have papered over these differences with a couple of extra campaign stops in the Rust Belt is to imagine that plaids and polka dots don’t clash.

Yet so determined are we to believe that opposing political views are just a negotiating session apart that a Billings Gazette story on Tuesday spent nearly 50 inches of newsprint trying to balance on the head of a pin a story about Washington partisanship. Republicans are to blame, half the story said. Obama is at fault, the other half carefully countered.

In 2013, the story reports, immigration reform “narrowly passed the Senate, but died without a vote in the House.” Actually, the Senate vote was 68 to 32, including 14 yes votes from Republicans.

Less than four years later, a bipartisan past seems so distant that we have to rewrite history to even begin to understand it.

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