The extended recession of the Obama administration and the sluggish economic recovery have spawned something of a faddish parlor game among the liberal intelligentsia; whether American capitalism has run its course and it’s time to usher in a socialist model of government. After all, with stubbornly high unemployment, workforce participation at historic lows and myriad compounding factors contributing to our economic woes, it must certainly mean that capitalism is dead. Or so we are told.
One of the latest manifestations of this is the recent election of Kshama Sawant to the city council of Seattle, Washington. The 41-year-old native of India who came of age as a product of that nation’s caste system is a self-described socialist and a former local organizer for the Occupy movement who rode to victory in the 2013 election touting a $15 per hour minimum wage.
After winning her first election last November and settling into her $117,000 job as an entry-level councilperson, she went about the business of promoting her brand of socialism with the authority and power of her new position. Educated, articulate and well versed in the recitation of neo-Marxist agitprop, she clearly has read many books and been taught many things that aren’t so.
Such is the case with Sawant’s core mission of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour because she believes it helps poor people. She is convinced that she can, by decree, override the laws of economics from her perch on Seattle’s city council. “Victory in the fight for $15 an hour will mean a substantial improvement in the standards of living of working people in Seattle,” Sawant confidently told PBS in a recent interview. “A real class struggle like the fight for $15 in Seattle will energize and empower workers, raise their confidence and morale and make them realize that this is what we need to do.” Brava! All that is missing is a red cape and a blue leotard with the letter ‘S’ emblazoned across the front.
Problem is, her proposal is destined to deliver a lower standard of living for the people who brought her into office and raise unemployment among those who most need a job. True, she was a student of the economy and received a doctorate degree in economics from North Carolina State University but there’s evidence that she may have missed class the day they taught supply and demand.
In 2012, a team of researchers from Cornell, the University of Oregon, and San Diego State University studied the effects of raising the minimum wage in New York State between 2004 and 2006. Their conclusion was about as close to unequivocal as a reputable researcher can get. “We find robust evidence that raising the New York minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.75 per hour significantly reduced employment rates of less-skilled, less-educated New Yorkers,” they determined. Their findings are not isolated and have been replicated time and again in similarly rigorous research.
While Sawant might be tempted to dismiss this as employers merely seeking “revenge” by hiring fewer people, it’s little more than quantifying human nature and business behavior; the more expensive something becomes, the less of it we consume. Alas, this fact is lost on socialists and other social engineers like Sawant.
So far, Sawant’s biggest civic achievement is that she was able to persuade 3,151 more people into voting for her than her opponent. But her goal of raising the minimum wage as a means of closing the wage gap between slingers of hash and those in other career fields has at least some traction with young voters in Seattle. She wants very much to convince young Americans that capitalism harms them, that they cannot aspire to anything more than a minimum wage job, that socialism is the path to their salvation.
No doubt Sawant’s philosophies were shaped by her upbringing and proximity to the tragically squalid ghettos of Mumbai, the city in which she was raised and later studied computer science, earning a degree from the University of Mumbai. As a young woman myself, I understand the impact those experiences must have had upon her, giving me pause to reflect upon my own family’s circumstances.
My grandparents were poor and ill-educated; my mother’s parents had a third-grade education and my father’s parents studied through grade school. But by their efforts, they provided opportunities for my father and mother, he serving in the Navy and she working her way through college and earning a degree. My parents similarly worked hard and provided opportunities for their children; my younger sister becoming an officer in the Army, my older sister happily engaged in entrepreneurship, and I receiving a graduate degree from the University of Oxford in England.
My family’s story is not unique. Quite the contrary, it is the embodiment of American capitalism, a system by which a family — any family — can rise from abject poverty to success within a generation or two. How this precept is lost on Sawant is puzzling. The rise of capitalism in her native India is responsible for lifting millions from poverty, not that products of the antiquated caste system can so quickly throw off its inherent prejudices and accept the fact that one can, through hard work and perseverance, escape the low circumstances of one’s birth.
Sawant is something of an endearing figure of the left, representing a slice of the electorate in the sometimes quirky confines of Seattle. But in a larger sense, she represents the sort of societal perversion that is emerging from the policies and rhetoric of President Obama and his administration. Sawant, Obama and others cut from that cloth have concluded that because the statist economic policies of the past five years have failed to bring about prosperity, we must have more statist economic policies like the $15 an hour minimum wage. It is utter nonsense but a frighteningly large number of people are beginning to buy into this folly.
To which higher office Sawant might aspire is anyone’s guess but she’s building a portfolio not dissimilar to that of a former community organizer from Chicago. (As a native of India, she cannot set her sights on the White House. For now.) But for that reason if no other, she and the ideology she promotes must be countered at every turn.