Photo by A. R. Dieselducy
In 2014, Seattle passed an ordinance that incrementally raised the minimum wage in that city from the state minimum wage level of $9.47 per hour to $15 over a period of seven years.
The last couple of weeks, news has spread far and wide that Seattle's first step toward $15—from $9.47 to $11 dollars an hour—has been a bust.
According to a Wall Street Journal Sunday editorial "researchers at the University of Washington" have found that Seattle raising the minimum wage was "reducing employment.” The paper crowed that those silly "progressives keep expecting different results" even though every time they pass a minimum wage law, it is "thoroughly dismantled by reality."
And it's not like the findings are from a right wing think tank like the Manhattan Institute. No, this is from the University of Washington. It doesn’t get more trustworthy than that, right?
The study's Principal Investigator is a guy named Jacob Vigdor. He has been a professor of public policy at the University of Washington since 2014. However, he also serves as a fellow for...drum roll please...the Manhattan Institute.
This the same Manhattan Institute that recently came out with a report on the minimum wage in July, titled "Counterproductive," which predicted that raising the minimum wage would lead to reductions in employment. (Wow -- what a coincidence!)
Vigdor is also an adjunct scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, another Koch and dark-money-funded-right wing think tank that also really, really, reallllllly hates the idea of raising the minimum wage—or even having a minimum wage at all.
So clearly, the messenger seems to have an ulterior motive. But what about his message that the minimum wage is "reducing employment"?
It turns out that is dubious as well.
In a Washington Post op-ed, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' Jared Bernstein points out that although the press coverage has been roundly negative, in fact "after Seattle raised its minimum wage, low-wage workers’ employment, hours and wages all rose substantially." Bernstein goes on to say that the University of Washington study's "omission of key statistical information" is at least partly to blame for causing many in the media to have "erroneously declared" that "employment went down" or that the minimum wage raise "did little to help workers."
Why is the media getting spun so badly?
Maybe it's because the study's principal investigator—Jacob Vigdor—is the one spinning the study’s results. "We think the minimum wage is actually putting a little bit of a drag on the Seattle economy, and holding back growth and jobs and hours," Vigor told one media outlet.
This isn't Vigor's first rodeo. Over the past decade, Vigor has flitted from issue to issue, leaving the waters muddied in his wake.
In 2012, Vigor authored a report for the Manhattan Institute boldly titled, "The End of the Segregated Century." Historian Carl H. Nightingale, an expert in segregation and author of Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities, panned the report in an op-ed, bluntly saying the report's motivation was to get people like him to "stop talking about racial injustice in America."
"Using a sensational title, a few moderate-seeming phrases, and a raft of scientific-seeming “segregation indexes,” the report has distracted us into a statistical battle over how much segregation there is. Its goal is to close our eyes to what really matters: People continue to practice segregation in America—often illegally—and those practices leave behind real and stark racial inequalities."
The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education also pushed back against the Vigor report in an article entitled, "Experts Attack Manhattan Institute Study Claiming End to Segregation in U.S. Cities." The article quoted Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, who described it as an "insidious misdirection," and Roderick J. Harrison, an urban sociologist at Howard University and former head of the Racial Statistics Branch at the U.S. Census Bureau, who termed the authors “almost intellectually dishonest.”
The public (and the media) deserve to know that a study conducted by Jacob Vigdor isn't the benign product of the non-partisan-sounding "University of Washington." It was a committed right-wing ideologue conducting the study and spinning the results.
And that's a problem: Never once in all the media stories covering Vigdor's minimum wage study is Vigdor identified as a well-known conservative who moonlights for rightwing groups adamantly opposed to raising the minimum wage.
Jud Lounsbury is a political writer based in Madison, Wisconsin and a frequent contributor to The Progressive.