By Benjamin Wallace-Wells
When Kshama Sawant won election to the Seattle City Council, in 2013, running under the banner of the Socialist Alternative party, she seemed in the assembly of American politics a genuinely new figure: a forty-year-old Indian-born engineer and economist, a defector from the technocracy in that most technocratic city, a socialist too young to project the factional mustiness of the City College cafeteria. Her highest-profile endorsements were from grunge musicians, and much of the moral outrage that Sawant channelled had to do with gentrification. She ran on the platform of a fifteen-dollar-per-hour minimum wage and then, in office, pressed the issue. When the cause seemed to her to be drowning in overly large and platitudinous meetings, Sawant told reporters that if the city council and mayor did not adopt the issue, she would take it to voters as a ballot initiative. Soon they did.
Seattle’s minimum wage is now rising toward fifteen dollars per hour (for some workers, it is already at thirteen dollars), and during this election season the Fight for 15 has suddenly become not a fringe movement but a mainstream one. Bernie Sanders has made the fifteen-dollar-per-hour minimum wage a central part of his platform. Hillary Clinton now supports a twelve-dollar-per-hour federal minimum wage, and has said she is in favor of cities and states going further. In December, Rahm Emanuel, the embattled Chicago mayor, signed a law that will push the minimum wage to thirteen dollars per hour by 2019. And yesterday, California lawmakers passed a measure that will lift the state’s minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour by 2022. Hours later, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators announced that they had reached a deal to get to fifteen dollars an hour, and by as soon as 2018 in New York City. Combined, the New York State and California labor forces are roughly as large as France’s.
Trace an arc from Sawant’s election through the present Presidential campaign to the negotiations in California, and you have a picture of the Democratic Party, hurrying to the left. When I spoke to Sawant, she noted that, though cities have long been friendliest to the left, her preferred Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, has run up his biggest winning margins in rural places. Sawant sees it as a mark of the “uneven growth” since 2008, as cities like Seattle have thrived, while less populated places have “never come out” of the recession. If you share Sawant’s general bent, then to see a map of the United States is to recall the French economist Thomas Piketty’s formulation r > g: you see the bright accumulations of capital in a few districts of a few coastal cities, and a vast spread of wage-earners everywhere else. When Sawant gave me what she called “the bird’s-eye view” of the Fight for 15, the focus wasn’t on the suffering of workers but on a more basic rebalancing against global trends: “a three-billion-dollar transfer of wealth,” she said, “is significant.”
The first increases in Seattle’s minimum wage came last April, and Sawant said that she has heard about workers who were able to drop a second job because they were being paid more at their main one. She has also heard about the anxieties of small business owners, who have worried that higher wages will mean higher prices that will drive customers elsewhere. Sawant said she thought that was absurd. “These are the poorest workers. They are going to spend their money locally. What are they going to do, fly to Paris for the weekend?”
As Seattle’s minimum-wage experiment has begun to unfold, partisans on both sides have rushed—fingers on the trigger, ideologically speaking—to insist that things are going either beautifully or awfully. Last February, the Washington Policy Center and the American Enterprise Institute suggested that several Seattle restaurants were closing in anticipation of having to pay their staff more, though when a Seattle Times reporter went out to interview the owners she found more mundane causes: a bad location, a rebranding. Then this fall came a study showing that the restaurant industry in Seattle has grown only slightly since the first wage increases, while restaurants in outlying areas of the state have boomed. There may be something to this, though it is hard to tell, the restaurant economy in Seattle being very different from the one on the Olympic Peninsula, for instance. Researchers have been tracking the prices in Seattle supermarkets and suburban ones (cauliflower against cauliflower, grape against grape) and have noticed no great effect.
These are only small observations, but they are something close to the sum of what we know: so far, so good, on the whole. Jacob Vigdor, who teaches public policy at the University of Washington, is running a more thorough study of the effects of the wage increases, and plans to release the preliminary findings next month. Vigdor’s emphasis has been not just on the top-line numbers of jobs and wages but on mapping the shifting strategies of both businesses and workers: the changes in working hours, and the different choices owners make about what margins they will seek and what kinds of businesses they will run. Vigdor said his group had found that restaurant prices had gone up by between seven and eight per cent, and perhaps that change will force adjustments in the market, or maybe it is just a statistical blip. In their interviews with workers, Vigdor and his researchers have been surprised by the amount of “pessimism,” he said. Many families were so far below water, financially, that “there often was not a lot of optimism that their quality of life would really improve.”
These are strange days in American politics, and also experimental ones. A decade and a half ago, a third of Americans identified themselves as lower or working class; now, as of last year, half do. It makes sense that the West Coast, where the energies of the Occupy movement seemed to stick, is where this piecemeal movement toward a different idea of social democracy has, however incrementally, begun. So a minor irony has asserted itself these past few days, as the campaigns have started to head west. Sanders has continued to talk about a political revolution that would make the United States look more like Denmark, but the most urgent experiments have already begun, much closer to home.