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JBE agenda:

Gov. John Bel Edwards ran on a pledge to increase the minimum wage in Louisiana and pass comprehensive “equal pay” legislation four years ago. Both items have been on his priorities list since taking office, but neither has gained much traction at the Capitol. Edwards says he will again push his pay legislation in the final year of his first term, but both continue to face resistance from the business community and business-friendly legislators.

More: House Republicans continue to challenge Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration on budget priorities

Stephanie Grace’s recent commentary on the popularity of minimum wage legislation among voters suggests that she favors rule by poll (“Do lawmakers care about minimum wage support?”). Her argument reduces to, “Polls show the people want it, so why don’t the legislators give it to them?” I wonder if she has thought through the consequences of such a standard of governance. One can only imagine what our country would be like if the Founding Fathers (i.e., those “privileged, white men”) had adopted the same standard. They would likely see little difference between rule by poll and rule by mob, which would make the idea of representative government superfluous.

Even if such a standard were adopted, wouldn’t consistency require that the reverse be true? Yet I don’t recall Grace objecting to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, despite poll after poll showing the majority opposed it.

Stephanie Grace: Higher minimum wage has wide support. Do lawmakers care?

That Grace is more concerned with political fallout rather than economic consequences is apparent from her commentary, but a full-blown discussion of the economic consequences of minimum wages is best kept for another day. The point to be stressed here is the reliability of polls as a guide to political action, a subject on which Grace barely scratches the surface.

Polling is not a science. Even the best-constructed poll contains selective bias, and must be interpreted carefully. How questions are worded is crucial. Responses to the question “Are you in favor of a higher minimum wage to help the poor?” will be significantly different from a question, “Are you in favor of a higher minimum wage that would raise the price of items purchased by 24 percent?” — even though the latter is a likely consequence of an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ new target.

In general, people will respond positively to what they perceive as a good outcome as long as it involves little or no cost to them. And politicians will promote schemes that promise big benefits while spreading the cost among many, so that the individual burden is small. These are not abstract principles. They are rooted in human nature.

A cynical view is that all of politics is about convincing enough people that they can get what they want without paying for it — hence the “generosity” of Uncle Sam (or “Uncle Edwards,” as the case may be). Economists can repeat the mantra, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” until they’re blue in the face, but to no avail where the naive and/or gullible are concerned.

Robert Hebert

economist

Baton Rouge