Dr. Ben Carson with Vanita Boulware Sansom (left) and others at a campaign event in Montgomery, AL

Dr. Ben Carson with Vanita Boulware Sansom (left) and others at a campaign event in Montgomery, AL

Dr. Ben Carson’s Minimum Wage Proposal
| published September 18, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

All things considered, it was a remarkably un-Republican comment to make, especially when it was tossed right into the middle of a major GOP debate in the Ronald Reagan Library & Museum in Simi Valley, California. But it was also such an out-of-the-box idea that hardly anyone had the cojones or the presence of mind to pounce.

How did it start? Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker gave a solid, standard Republican answer when the issue of the federal minimum wage came up: Walker said deftly and predictably that as President he would expend his energies not toward worrying about that wage benchmark, but concentrating instead on raising skill levels for all Americans so that higher-paying jobs become the norm.

But when the same question went to retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, and CNN’s Jake Tapper sought clarification on Carson’s recent statements on the U.S. minimum wage—a $7.25 rate which has not seen an adjustment in more than five years—Carson offered a qualifying “probably” and a “possibly” that he would support a modest increase.

Nothing too radical there. After all, some mainstream Republicans support an increase, slight or otherwise, in that rate—a low figure which most people can agree is not enough to sustain paying for a car, a home, and the routine expense of electric and utilities and health care. Other Republicans take the traditional stance that the free market is fully capable of adjusting to the forces wrought by changes in the cost of living.

But Carson took it a step further, clearly separating himself from the crowded pack of more than a dozen major candidates. Carson suggested that as President he would convene the best minds of business and government to work out the new wage, and then he told Tapper and the audience that he also strongly supports indexing the federal minimum wage “so that we never have to have this conversation again in the history of America.”

By “indexing,” Carson means simply linking the federal minimum wage to inflation and other measurable economic factors, presumably—according to those who know Carson—on a recurring timetable such as once every two years (there is internal debate within the Carson camp as to whether that proposed scheduled adjustment would take place once each year, or only once every two-to-three years).

Carson’s proposal, presented as it was in his trademark soft-spoken and thoughtful style, caused no fireworks and sparked no outrage. On that same stage were Governors and Senators and at least two former heads of major corporations, including Carly Fiorina, for whom controversy remains on the table as to her legacy at her former stomping grounds of Hewlett-Packard—which just last week announced that it may cut up to 25,000 employees this year and next. But also on that stage were seven or eight other Republicans deeply proud of their fidelity to conservative principles, among those the notion that free markets are sufficiently dynamic and elastic to self-correct when wages require adjustments, up or down.

What Carson proposed, in fact, might be more at home in the speeches of some Democrats than Republicans. But Carson didn’t make the suggestion based on his placement on some spectrum of conservative rankings or free-market fidelity; for the neurosurgeon and now first-runner up in the GOP polls and Trump’s closet anti-Washington rival, it seems logical and even businesslike. Why waste time every couple of years debating the issue, only to have one Congress kick the can down the road for the next set of legislators to worry with? And why link wages to endless epic budget battles, threats of government shutdowns, and the always present leverage of inside-the-beltway lobbying by corporations? Carson’s plan: save all that drama and just tie that wage to the cost of living.

Sounds good, some would say, but what’s to stop Congress from simply going right back in a few years and uncoupling that minimum wage from the inflation curve, and locking it in again at some new level? In fact, this very thing has been proposed before, as recently as 2013. The so-called Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, introduced in the spring of that year, requested that the new minimum wage be set at $10.10. The bill also included a provision to then link that wage to the rate of inflation; the wage would not go down, mind you, but would if needed be raised automatically based on any major changes to the cost of living, as measured nationally using figures provided by the Congressional Budget Office.

That 2013 bill died a slow death from inaction. Carson is in essence asking that we reconsider the 2013 proposal, albeit he makes no commitment to take the current minimum from $7.25 all the way up to $10.10, a jump which even many liberal economists agree could be disruptive to the economy, and might even spur the unintended outcome of lost jobs when some smaller and medium-sized companies find themselves unable to manage a nearly $3 jump (President Obama that same year proposed raising the minimum to only $9.00, not $10.50, as Congressional Democrats wanted).

That Carson offered a position which can be sometimes sharply at odds with many Republicans’ positions is no particular surprise. Carson, with the arguable exceptions of Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump, is the most out-of-the-box candidate in the GOP race currently. Among Democratic candidates he has no parallel, save for the recently-arrived author and Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, whose primary political narrative would be to surgically extract from Congress its seemingly ever deepening pipeline of debt to lobbyists and special interest groups.

But Carson’s response to Tapper’s question may also reveal the doctor’s vision of a Presidency and a Congress free of the usual partisan wrangling, bullying and threats, and a Washington with a seemingly endless aversion to negotiation and compromise. In this sense, Carson may be deliberately distancing himself from some of his GOP rivals by suggesting that Washington can work, if only it can uncouple itself from brinksmanship and drama, and settle some issues using basic math.

Arguments about the minimum wage often split along deeply partisan lines, which is why Carson’s soft-spoken proposal may yet reverberate in the campaign talk of other Republican candidates.

As far back as early 2014, some GOP strategists have said that Republican candidates for President should make income inequality a front-and-center issue, though traditionally Republican candidates shift the narrative from minimum wage increases toward improving the quality of both jobs, education, and employee training.

One thing to watch: other Republican candidates, who will no doubt be closely following Carson as he sharpens his message regarding the minimum wage. Dr. Carson has moved into a solid second place behind Donald Trump in most polls, and according to a recent WBUR survey Carson is now within 4 points of Trump in New Hampshire.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Is There a Gipper in the House?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 17, 2015.

First GOP Debate: Playing the Trump Card; R. Alan Clanton ; Thursday Review; August 7, 2015.