Economics class disappointed in wage forum

At my urging, members of my labor economics class attended the Living Wage Forum with a panel of four TCU faculty members (one each from social work, religion, political science and management) last week. We have spent weeks exploring the causes and consequences of growing income inequality in the United States as well as policies, including the living wage, directed at compressing the income distribution, so my students had valuable insights to contribute. However, their voices were not welcome at the forum. They were intimidated into silence by a panel and audience that overwhelmingly and uncritically supported the living wage. Apparently, it was preordained at the outset of the forum that the living wage was the “right” policy. Any criticism of the living wage itself was misconstrued as criticism of the goal of the living wage, greater equity.

According to the minutes of the meeting, which I asked all my students to take as evidence of their attendance, there was no discussion of other policies that might improve equity with fewer unintended consequences than the living wage. Professor of management Stuart Youngblood, the only person in the room raising concerns about the living wage, commented to me in an e-mail that “the living wage proponents are very passionate about their beliefs.” I am all for passion, and the absence of passion on campus concerns me greatly (see the story in Wednesday’s Skiff about how little activism takes place on our campus). My students probably want to knock me off my soap box every time I tell them all the reasons they should be dissatisfied with the status quo. However, passion uncoupled with reason is dangerous. My students felt strongly as though the forum fostered an “us versus them” mentality instead of encouraging an intellectual exploration of this important and poorly understood topic.

Organizers of the forum did not succeed in creating a panel representing a variety of views on the living wage (apparently it never occurred to the organizers that economists, particularly labor economists, think about this issue quite a lot). More importantly, though, the faculty involved were unsuccessful at sustaining an intellectually safe environment where a critical examination of the topic could take place. Rather, they reverted to stereotypes of economists and other opponents of the living wage as simply “failing to consider the human factor,” demonstrating how little they understand about what economists actually do.

In my mind, the most important goal of the faculty at a liberal arts institution like TCU is to help students make sense of a world presented as black and white by the media and politicians, but that in fact is rarely so simple. I am disappointed that the teachable moment presented by the Living Wage Forum was not capitalized upon to identify yet one more situation where people tend to see only black and white, but miss the shades of gray which are so important.

Dr. Kristin Klopfenstein is an associate professor of economics and a labor economist.