HOW WOULD BLACK AMERICA FARE IF PROGRESSIVES GOT THEIR WAY?
Good intentions, bad outcomes
What would happen if a magic wand were waved and the progressive wing of the electorate suddenly gained the power to enact its agenda? Though many items populate the progressive wish list, let’s focus on how certain of these policies might affect the black community: raising the minimum wage, offering free college tuition, awarding reparations to the descendants of enslaved people, reinvigorating affirmative action, instituting a CRT-influenced curriculum in our schools, and defunding the police.
But, if enacted, what would these reforms change for black people? And by change, I mean long-lasting, non-trivial alterations in the social and material conditions of most black people. Would the economic, educational, and social problems facing the black community disappear or fade to the point of irrelevance? Or would things stay roughly the same? Would granting all these wishes really help black America?
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These questions are worth asking because of the high stakes involved—the future of the black community—and the vital need to determine the best strategies to adopt to make life better. In that spirit, let’s look at these progressive wishes and imagine what would happen were they to become reality.
Raising the minimum wage is a longstanding progressive demand, as is related talk of paying a living wage. Progressives argue that paying people $15 an hour (or more) would provide them money to pay for necessities and have some left over. Recipients would be economically better off, and their increased consumption would stimulate the larger economy. This sounds good on paper, but how would it work out in practice?
One specific progressive claim is that minimum wage increases reduce poverty. Yet this claim enjoys little empirical support. According to economists Richard V. Burkhauser and Kevin Corinth, “Most workers who gain from minimum wage increases do not live in poor (or near-poor) families, while some who do live in poor families lose their job as a result of such increases.” These two claims enjoy independent support. Burkhauser and Corinth’s first claim finds support in a study by economists from American and Cornell University, who analyzed the 28 states that raised their minimum wages between 2003 and 2007 and found no associated reduction in poverty. Their second claim is supported by the Congressional Budget Office, whose median estimate is that a $15 an hour minimum would cause 1.7 million people to lose their jobs, and it could cost as many as 3.7 million at the high end.
Beyond the many people who would lose their job because their employers could not or would not pay them $15 or more an hour are those who wouldn’t be hired in the first place. Raising the minimum wage gives employers less incentive to hire workers with lower levels of education, experience, and useful skills. Unfortunately, too many young black people—especially young men—fall into one or more of these categories. Even an employer who isn’t racist will likely pass on hiring black potential employees if it requires paying them at a rate that exceeds their qualifications and productive capabilities, and which could decrease the company’s efficiency. Why pay someone $15 an hour when his level of production equals only $12 an hour? Running a business is not social work.
Some progressives argue instead that without a floor for wages, there would be a race to the bottom on the part of many employers, especially in areas with large black populations. Freed from minimum wage requirements, these employers would pay employees next to nothing.
Such arguments hold little water. As the economists Donald Boudreaux and Walter Williams have written, “no employer can afford to pay a worker more than that worker’s services are worth to the firm. Importantly, though, no employer who wants productive employees can afford to pay less than that worker’s services are worth to the firm, either. Wages in market economies reflect each worker’s productivity.” In short, no employer who wants to remain in business will drive away highly productive employees by underpaying them.
One reason to oppose setting a floor on what workers can be paid is that it strips them of bargaining power. Because the state mandates the minimum they can be paid, workers can no longer voluntarily offer to accept a lower wage—say $13 an hour—in exchange for employment or more hours. Minimum wage laws thus prevent workers from being hired in the first place, which makes their wages literally zero, deprives them of valuable work experience, and blocks those already employed from earning extra money by working additional shifts. Rather than being empowering, minimum wage laws do just the opposite: they deprive workers of a potentially effective bargaining chip.
Minimum wage advocates also overlook the powerful role that technology plays in business. Over time, technology becomes cheaper and more sophisticated. This is close to an iron law. But when you pair increasingly cheaper and better technology with increasingly costly but not necessarily more skilled workers, you are virtually forcing employers to opt in favor of using more technology to do the work. Rising minimum wages make automation more cost-effective. Indeed, many service industry CEOs warned this would happen. Young black men will likely be among the main casualties. Why minimum wage advocates fail to recognize this dynamic is a mystery.
Far from being a fringe belief, opposition to a $15.00 per hour minimum wage is a mainstream view among economists. Indeed, the University of New Hampshire Survey Center conducted a survey of U.S.-based economists, and a majority of them believe that a $15.00 per hour minimum wage will have “negative effects on youth employment levels (83%), adult employment levels (52%), and the number of jobs available (76%).”
Making college free is another item that progressives propose. To be sure, the cost of college education has skyrocketed, consistently exceeding the rate of inflation. Colleges and universities deserve a lion’s share of the blame for these rising costs. Adding layer upon layer of bureaucratic entities of dubious educational value that are run by an army of highly paid deans contributes to the ever-growing price tag.
But free college tuition is a misnomer. As Milton Freedman pointed out, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Somebody has to pay for this free tuition, and that somebody is the taxpayer. Yet because the economically well off are more likely to attend college and university than are those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, free tuition would largely be an inter-class transfer of money. Those of modest means would subsidize those people who reside on the higher rungs, who will in turn land jobs that pay them more handsomely than their less well-off compatriots. Given economic realities, many black people of relatively modest means would be subsidizing economically better-off college students. This amounts to a regressive tax, which progressives routinely rail against. Somehow making the wealthy pay their fair share doesn’t count when it comes to higher education.
To make matters worse, free college tuition could potentially drive up costs. Notwithstanding college and universities’ current overspending on academically unnecessary items, being forced to rely primarily on tuition-generated revenue, donors, and modest state subsidies enforces some degree of fiscal responsibility. Freeing colleges and universities from these fiscal restraints could encourage them to spend even more freely. It’s easier to stick to a budget when you have to rely on your own means than it is when someone else is footing the bill.
Moreover, offering free tuition doesn’t let students and their parents off the financial hook. They will still need to pay for books, room and board, and other expenses. For example, the estimated annual cost of a public four-year, in-state, on-campus education for the academic year 2021-2022 is $27,330. Tuition and fees account for $10,740, which is much less than the $16,590 needed to cover other costs. Spending four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree adds up to $66,360. But only 41 percent of students overall graduate in four years; for black students, it is 21 percent, which is the lowest of any racial group. Ironically, free tuition will still require black people to spend a lot of money.
Affirmative action is another progressive goal. Progressives argue that it is a useful tool to correct for historic inequality of opportunity. They say that affirmative action opens doors otherwise closed to black people and other legally protected classes of people.
But while affirmative action may provide entry to higher education to more black students than otherwise, it does little for them once they get inside the campus gates. For instance, the development of students is ostensibly the main goal of institutions of higher learning, but the results for blacks have been disappointing. Despite the many resources devoted to affirmative action, the racial achievement gap has not budged in decades.
One reason for this achievement gap is that affirmative action places many black students in academic settings in which they are less prepared than classmates who did not receive affirmative action. As a result of this “mismatch” between student and academic setting, black students are, on average, less likely to graduate, and those that do often face post-graduation setbacks. Strikingly, black college students are more likely to need remediation than any other group, while black law school graduates fail bar exams at four times the rate of whites. The harm caused by this strategy is incalculable.
Despite its touted value to society, affirmative action has been falling out of favor for years. Judicial and public skepticism over aspects of it has grown. According to a 2022 Pew Research survey, 74 percent of Americans say colleges and universities “should not consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions.” The same survey indicates that even 59 percent of black adults say race or ethnicity should not factor into admission decisions. (Those figures were 73 percent and 62 percent, respectively, in Pew’s 2019 poll. Opinion remains effectively unchanged over 4 years.)
In addition, affirmative action was originally meant to be temporary, operating only until its goals were met. Giving black Americans a permanent racial dispensation is unlikely to earn them continuing sympathy from the rest of the country.
Truth be told, no group anywhere has ever progressed by relying mostly on special handouts. Instead, successful groups have historically gotten ahead by working harder and smarter. They have invested in their own social capital and avoided making unforced errors. This is a lesson that is lost on some progressives.
Obtaining reparations for “American descendants of slaves,” or “ADOS,” is yet another progressive goal. H.R. 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, was introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) in 1989. However, it remained in legislative limbo, finally moving out of committee on April 14, 2021. In the meantime, Randall Robinson raised the issue of reparations as a political project in 2001. The idea picked up steam in 2014 when Ta-Nehisi Coates published a widely-read article in The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations.” In the ongoing debate, the actual amount of reparations payments proposed range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to over a million dollars.
The logic for reparations is straightforward. Enslaved people from Africa or of African descent were dealt a very bad hand (to say the least) in America, and they had to play it far too long. Even after emancipation, black people had to confront Jim Crow, redlining, segregation, and a host of other insults. Racial inequality continues to exist despite the great progress that has been made. Black people would be much better off economically today had they been able to produce wealth in the past like other groups and pass along this capital to their descendants.
Now, targeting black Americans who can demonstrate direct specific harm is one thing. This is what was done for Japanese Americans interned during the Second World War. But to dispense reparations uniformly among ADOS could produce great unfairness while doing little to provide real help. Why should Jay-Z, Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey, and other uber-wealthy black people receive reparations? Even a million dollars means little when you’re a billionaire or multi-millionaire. Though middle-class blacks would certainly benefit from a large influx of cash, they would likely not see massive changes in their lives. They’re already doing relatively well.
For the 19.5 percent of black Americans in poverty, however, reparations would be akin to winning the lottery. But anyone familiar with the fate of those who win the lottery knows that it can too often be fool’s gold. While the already well-off winners generally fare well because they have experience handling large sums of money, the poorest recipients’ lack of experience and low financial literacy would leave them vulnerable to a host of dangers. Some would quit their jobs and others would purchase very expensive items. Still others might be unable to resist the pleas of those begging for help. Within a couple of years, the recipients of reparations might find themselves back where they started, if not worse off. This has often been the case with lottery winners. Why would we expect a different outcome for the poorest recipients of reparations? That is simply the quicksilver nature of money—especially sudden bonanzas.
And would the loudest voices in the progressive camp be satisfied with this historic windfall? Would they say, “Well, America has paid its debt to its black citizens, so we can stop complaining and focus on other things.” Would those voices who have made lucrative careers stoking racial tensions and capitalizing on black misery step away from the television camaras, turn off the microphones, and declare victory? It seems doubtful; they have their careers to lose.
CRT in schools
Instituting a Critical Race Theory (CRT)-influenced curriculum in the nation’s schools is also a progressive ambition. Though not a carbon copy of the critical legal studies movement launched by Derrick Bell, today’s version of CRT was given a big push by the New York Times 1619 Project. Despite its creators’ subsequent denials, the initial premise of the 1619 Project was “understanding 1619 as our true founding.” The 1619 Project has become very influential. In fact, the Pulitzer Center is bringing a 1619 curriculum into the classroom.
However, a CRT-influenced curriculum focused on grievance and victimhood and based on a project plagued by historical errors does nothing to build the skills black students need to successfully navigate an economy that places increasing emphasis on cognitive excellence. History is a key building block of a solid education. But the goal of an education is to help people move forward, not remain stuck in the past. One day black students will tire of being portrayed as the punching bags of a never-ending history, just as white students will reject being depicted as the authors of crimes committed by the long dead. It’s a counsel of despair, not a tale of uplift.
Defunding the police
Ever since the murder of George Floyd, defunding the police has become a rallying cry of the progressive camp. In its most moderate form, defunding the police means redirecting funds to social services. In its most extreme form, it means eliminating the police budget. However, the police department in Minneapolis saw its budget cut in the wake of Floyd’s death, and predictably crime there has spiked. The results of defund the police are obvious, even to many Democrats.
Ironically, defunding the police ignores the wishes of most black people. Despite the black community’s mistrust of the police, they routinely reject efforts to reduce funding for policing. They realize that without the police, they are at the mercy of criminals. Homicide is the number one cause of death for black males ages one to forty-four. A police department hobbled by extreme budget cuts lacks the resources needed to prevent crime and arrest perpetrators. Defunding the police increases the risks for the nation’s most vulnerable.
To be fair, some progressive strategies—like increased access to birth control, reforming the criminal justice system, and ending the war on drugs—stand to directly benefit black people. It should also be noted that conservatives (as well as libertarians) have their own problems concerning race. Too many non-black conservatives have been indifferent to the fate of black America and have failed to recognize the way in which race can, even today, affect one’s chances in life. Too few conservatives reach out to the black community in a sustained way. For the conservative movement, racial inequity has often been a blind spot.
However, progressives consistently present themselves as possessing greater awareness and understanding of racism in all its forms, and insist that their ideas are vastly superior to those of conservatives. Although he campaigned as a centrist, Joe Biden has embraced a more progressive agenda as president. During a May 2020 interview with Charlamagne tha God on “The Breakfast Club,” Biden clarified what he thought was at stake for black Americans: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain't black.” Progressive politicians also assiduously court black support. In a bid to win black support, Hillary Clinton suspiciously claimed that she “always” carries hot sauce with her. As a result of such posturing, progressives have invited closer scrutiny on the subject of race.
But even allowing for these caveats, none of the progressive strategies listed above solve the most serious problems plaguing black America: illegal drugs, gun violence, poor skill development, unemployment, substandard healthcare, and broken families. While most black people have steered clear of these problems, they remain sufficiently prevalent in the black community to be serious sources of pain and concern.
The best way to avoid a dystopian future—the enactment and continuation of policies that harm black people—is to stop being silent, ask questions, and don’t take nonsense or evasion for an answer. Don’t let political loyalty or partisan politics blind you. Not everything that glitters is gold. People who look like you don’t necessarily think like you. Well intentioned ideas aren’t necessarily good ideas; some are very bad indeed. And the only way to defeat bad ideas is to expose their weaknesses and propose better ones. This is the first step toward achieving a positive political agenda for black America.
Michael H. Creswell is Associate Professor of History at Florida State University, the author of A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe, and an executive editor at History: Reviews of New Books. A specialist on the Cold War, Creswell is currently writing a book that examines the increasing difficulties Americans have in communicating in socially and politically productive ways. He has published previously in the Journal of Free Black Thought here and here.
Journal of Free Black Thought is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
With respect to minimum wage. The point about automation is well made.
A typical entry level job is at a fast food restaurant. Robotics to automatically run the its component jobs are available. With progress in AI and robotics, we will soon lose the French fry center, grill center, burger build table, etc. , jobs to smart robotics. Any increase in minimum wages will only accelerate this.
A huge loss from this is that even though these jobs may not be very fun or financially rewarding, even at low pay those who work them build soft skills. It is the lack of requisite soft skills that employers say is the biggest challenge in bringing on new workers. At a minimum, Mc-jobs make entry level workers more employable in better jobs...
This is so good. Loury-esque! Thank you!!