The idea of “representative government” is that the people’s representatives should represent the interests of the people who elect them to office. But it doesn’t always happen that way. Professional politicians can become skilled at hiding who they’re really serving.
Take the example of what Mark Obenshain – who represents our district in the Virginia State Senate – proudly told the people of this district about why he helped block the effort to raise the minimum wage in Virginia.
This served the people, according to Obenshain, because raising the minimum wage would kill many jobs, raising unemployment. And, in particular, it would hurt teenagers who comprise so many of the workers covered by the minimum wage.
He represents himself there as a stout defender of working people. But let’s look at some facts.
The fact is that in the United States fewer than one-fourth of minimum wage workers are teenagers.
But what about the idea that raising the minimum wage would kill jobs?
That’s an idea that the economics profession left behind quite a while ago. A now-famous study showed that when New Jersey raised its minimum wage, the result was actually a small increase in employment. In any event, the idea that paying low-wage workers more will lead to some big jump in unemployment has now been discredited.
So, when Mr. Obenshain trots out that discredited idea, the question arises: whom is he serving?
Not the workers, and not their families.
Studies show that higher minimum wages help the children of minimum wage workers: raising the minimum wage reduces families’ reliance on safety-net programs like food stamps, improves infant health, and leads to fewer hard-working families living below the poverty line.
So whom does it help to keep wages low? (And the minimum wage now is more than a third less – in constant dollars — than it was when the federal minimum wage was instituted 50 years ago. And that’s while our national income per person has almost doubled.)
The history of minimum wage legislation shows that – not surprisingly — it is the big companies who oppose raising the pay of their workers. It was big employers who opposed the whole idea of a minimum wage to begin with, and who have opposed raising it at every turn.
If Mr. Obenshain’s working to block a raise in the minimum wage really reflected a concern for workers, as his message to his constituents suggests, one would expect that his record on other issues would reflect that concern. But the fact is that Mr. Obenshain gets a rather low rating from those groups most concerned with workers’ well-being.
The people whom Mr. Obenshain is supposed to be representing should ask him if he can point to a single instance – where the interests of working people have been in conflict with the interests of the big companies who employ them — when he’s sided with the workers. I’ve been unable to find any such examples.
So it looks like Mr. Obenshain’s choice here is not to serve the interests of the working people of the valley – whose “valley values” he claims to represent – but of the richer interests that want cheap labor.
That kind of choice is never a noble one, which is likely why this skilled professional politician dresses himself up as the protector of those who have the least. But Obenshain’s choice seems especially unjust now, in an era where all the gains of our economic growth have been going to the richest, leaving the rest behind, and the wealth gap in America is the greatest it has been in living memory.
“Who is Mr. Obenshain serving?” That’s the question that the people of this district need to be asking, and one that I will be raising — not only with respect to this issue but also to other important issues facing our state. Issues like “regulating” Dominion Power, supposedly in the public interest. Like making affordable health care available to more Virginians. Like meeting the challenge of climate change. Like protecting Virginians from poisons in our air and water.