By PETE GOLIS
Let’s begin this morning with a show of hands.
Raise your hand now if you think everyone should be paid a living wage.
I thought so. Except for the guy in the Ebenezer Scrooge T-shirt, we all share the belief that every last one of us deserves the wages necessary to provide food and shelter for his or her loved ones.
Now, raise your hand if you think government can make this happen.
This is the problem, isn’t it? It makes everyone feel good to demand jobs that pay a living wage, but it doesn’t move the needle. It’s more symbolism than substance, more politics than real-world economics.
In Sonoma County, these familiar controversies also become a distraction. Right now, we don’t need politics as usual. We need a grown-up discussion about our economic future.
Last week, the Santa Rosa Planning Commission was asked to reconsider approval of a Target store because a spokesperson for the retail chain admitted that he overstated the percentage of full-time jobs that the new store would provide.
Enter the usual suspects.
The Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County declared that the store shouldn’t be permitted until the city completes something called a community impact report.
The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce endorsed the project with a spokesman saying, “We support any and all jobs.”
We are left to ask: Does the Living Wage Coalition think it would better to have 250 people unemployed than to have have them working at a Target store? Does the Chamber of Commerce think prosperity is around the corner if we just build enough chain stores?
Are we going to keep hearing these same simplistic arguments over and over again?
On Thursday night, the Planning Commission approved the Coddingtown project but not before another contentious debate that brought more heat than light to the choices the city will face in the coming years.
It is in Sonoma County’s interest to have all of its workers fairly compensated. Income inequality is on its way to becoming a national scandal. Higher wages mean more money circulating through the local economy. More people with health insurance means fewer uninsured patients who become a financial burden on health care providers and the community-at-large.
But saying it doesn’t make it so. The best of intentions alone cannot create wealth or repeal the basic laws of market economics.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Target company agrees to pay its local employees $25 an hour and to buy their health insurance, too.
What would happen? The store would raise prices to cover the cost of higher rates of compensation. Faced with higher prices, shoppers — many out of necessity — would take their business to a chain store that doesn’t pay as well but charges lower prices. Wal-Mart, perhaps. Or maybe an online store that doesn’t pay any wage, living or otherwise, to local workers.
So here we are, left to a lousy choice — between a store that doesn’t pay as well as we would like, or a store that can’t survive, leaving more people out of work, plus an empty building gathering dust and casting a long shadow on its neighbors.
How is this a good outcome?
While locals were arguing about living wages, a Field Poll last week found that Californians are profoundly discouraged about their economic prospects. In a state that once embodied optimism about the future, 88 percent believe the state is living in “bad times,” the survey said, and only 31 percent expect the economy to improve in the foreseeable future. Twenty-four percent expect things to get worse.
In Sonoma County, fewer people are employed today than were employed a decade ago. In a world that is reinventing itself at light-speed, we need to organize to help workers wherever we can, but we don’t have the luxury of revisiting the same old controversies.
If we are serious about standing up for the rights of workers (and business, too), we will find a middle ground. For conservatives, it may mean embracing new taxes that pay for the improvements necessary to make local communities competitive with the rest of the world. For liberals, it may mean agreeing that a reflexive opposition to every kind of viable economic activity won’t make life better for working people.
We also must go to work on building the foundations of an economy that rewards workers. That means a school system that prepares kids for 21st century jobs. That means transportation and communications systems that allow hometown employers to compete with their rivals around the world. That means learning to make it on our own, independent of the train wreck we call state government.
And that means creating a common-sense, hometown government ready to move beyond the old politics and look a new world square in the eye.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.