Income Inequality Symposium: Those alien business people

(Previous posts on the symposium are here, here and here.)

In the afternoon, there were two breakout sessions that occurred at the same time. The one I attended was titled “How have other cities addressed income inequality? Views from experts and elected officials from cities across the U.S.” It was moderated by Eric Liu, who wrote a progressive book (The True Patriot) with Nick Hanauer. The “expert” on the panel was Paul Sonn of the National Employment Law Project, a group that advocates for minimum wage increases. The elected officials were all Democrats, save for the Socialist Kshama Sawant, a Seattle city councilmember.

Liu noted that DC has become less consequential in making the change people want; instead, change is happening in cities. This was a panel about how to make this happen here in Seattle and everywhere (because of course everyone agrees on the premise).

Sonn said that the driving forces behind the movement in cities to increase the minimum wage are: high regional living costs, the need to build momentum for state increases, and that the reforms are hard to win at the state level. He claimed that there is substantial research that job effects are minimal, and that wage increases are always less controversial than expected—according to him, business finds out it’s not so bad after all.

Sawant said that no matter the political views of the audience, if they were listening earlier in the day, the “conclusion presented by economists is conclusive”—no negative impacts from increasing the minimum. Don Rocha, a San Jose city councilmember, said the sky hasn’t fallen in San Jose since they increased their minimum wage.

David Alvarez is a progressive city councilmember who ran for mayor of San Diego recently. He lost, but he said that progressives there have had victories nonetheless, as the city is now talking about a minimum wage increase. Sometimes, he said, it’s important to lose to win. He said that people said he lost because he didn’t moderate his views. But, he said, earlier this week he met with the restaurant association in San Diego who told him that if the city council moves on an extreme increase in the minimum wage, they would move their own initiative calling for a more moderate increase. “That to me is already a victory,” Alvarez said.

Liu asked the panel how they talk to business people (as if they’re from another planet). Sawant said (I’m paraphrasing), “we agree on many things with small business in that capitalism rewards the biggest businesses, and small businesses find it hard to survive. Big business is gaining at the expense of consumers and small business.” John Arena, a Chicago alder, said “I listen. They have a lot of fear coming out of the recession. Then I try to introduce new information.” Alvarez echoed him.

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