Vox, Concern Trolling for the Powerful, Shows Us How NOT to Write About the $15 Minimum Wage

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Vox, Concern Trolling for the Powerful, Shows Us How NOT to Write About the $15 Minimum Wage

There’s something very strange happening at Vox this election cycle, and it goes beyond any notion that the site is biased in favor of one candidate or another. (In fact, after accusations flew that they were functioning as the neoliberal intellectual wing of the Clinton campaign, they seem to have taken pains to post a series of anti-Hillary articles recently.) Instead, there’s this odd trend of poor research combined with a subtle—but palpable—journalistic dishonesty.

Jacobin may have been the first to notice it, in a feature pointing out how Matt Yglesias had bizarrely argued against a past version of himself when he took Bernie Sanders to task for a lack of policy specifics—something he had trumpeted eight years earlier. This, Jacobin argued, came off like a “dishonest exercise in managing the Democratic Party base.” Then you had Zack Beauchamp with his heinously under-researched essay on free trade, which argued that reversing harmful agreements like NAFTA would doom the global poor—when in fact free trade has had almost nothing to do with any uptick in third-world standards of living, and has, in fact, had a detrimental effect on many countries.

These are just two of many examples, and it’s been a bad look for a site full of purported policy wonks. But today, in an article about the feasibility of a national $15 minimum wage, Timothy B. Lee took this combination—pro-corporate fear-mongering mixed with a severe allergy to analytical rigor—to a new, unprecedented level.

Before we get into what he wrote, I’d like to note that yes, there is a debate to be had about how a $15 minimum wage would affect American workers and small businesses and local economies. It’s quite possible that what works in higher-income areas—San Francisco, New York, Seattle—may not function so well in rural Tennessee, where, who knows, that kind of standard could put people out of business and cost jobs. But it’s also important to know that we have no concrete evidence of this, and also that even the most bullish wage candidate, Bernie Sanders, wants to achieve the $15/hour goal “over the next several years”—not overnight.

How do I know that? It says so on his website, which is the first result if you Google “Bernie Sanders minimum wage.” This is important because a slower transition will allow for time to study the effects of a rising wage, and adjust accordingly. But it seems as though Lee either didn’t perform that simple Google search, or ignored the information when it didn’t fit in with the rest of his article. So let’s examine what he did write, point-by-point, and maybe we can learn something from his failure.

Lee’s words in bold, mine following.

Hillary Clinton knows a national $15 minimum wage is a bad idea. She endorsed it anyway.

This is Lee’s headline, and I want you to notice how it conveys an emphatic conclusion. There is no wiggle room here—the $15 minimum wage is bad, bad, bad, and Hillary is bad for endorsing it. Just like Bernie was bad for advocating for it in the first place. There are several journalistic tics that Vox writers seem to employ, and this has become a prominent one of late: State your point unequivocally in the headline, pre-emptively eradicating any gray area.

Which, of course, would be fine, provided there was supporting evidence to follow. But just as in Beauchamp’s free trade piece, this tough-guy posturing gives way almost immediately to ambiguity, uncertainty, and the kind of argumentative flailing that leaves the reader befuddled at the self-assurance of the original conclusion.

We go on…

The “Fight for 15” movement to raise the minimum wage has had tremendous momentum in recent months, winning $15-per-hour minimum wages in several cities and then statewide in California and New York. The movement has apparently become so popular that even Hillary Clinton — who had previously refused to endorse a minimum wage higher than $12 — said at Thursday’s presidential debate that she’d sign a national $15 minimum wage bill if it reached her desk.

Yes, this is what Hillary does—adopt Bernie’s popular positions. It has nothing to do with what she’ll actually do when in office, so it’s a pretty flimsy premise on which to build one’s argument, but that’s less important right now.

That’s unfortunate, because Clinton’s first position was the right one. Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would mean gambling with the livelihoods of millions of Americans and could produce widespread unemployment in parts of the country where wages are below average.

Here, for the first time, we see the confidence of the headline begin to erode. It’s subtle, but it comes across in the word “gambling” and “could,” both of which signify that we’re about to hear an apocalyptic prediction that might happen, should some policy be pursued. And this gets us to our second patented Vox journalistic tic—proclaim the possibility of a disaster, and then paint in the gory details, as a way to cut short any rational debate on the topic. This is no different from writing, “rescinding free trade could kill poor people!” It’s totally alarmist, and utterly lacking in nuance and fact.

Here’s what Lee is essentially saying, already: “If we go to $15/hour overnight, it could destroy our economy.” The fact that the second part of his statement is unproven, and that the first part is a total lie (remember, even the most liberal candidate says this would happen “over the next several years”) is ignored in the service of doom-and-gloom blather.

But she’s facing such strong grassroots pressure on the issue that she can’t bring herself to clearly articulate the implication of that preference: A nationwide $15 minimum wage is a bad policy that could cost millions of low-wage people their jobs.

Could, could, could. We’ve yet to get to any actual evidence, but that’s coming soon. And don’t worry—it’ll be just as disappointing as everything else.

Economists disagree about whether these more modest minimum wages have produced significant job losses. One recent study, for example, found that the most recent national minimum wage hike — between 2006 and 2009 — “reduced employment among individuals ages 16 to 30 with less than a high school education by 5.6 percentage points.”

Other economists dispute that. A comprehensive study of state-level minimum wage hikes between 1990 and 2006 by economist Arindrajit Dube and two co-authors found “no detectable employment losses from the kind of minimum wage increases we have seen in the United States.”

In other words, there’s no hard-and-fast evidence for the conclusion Lee had already drawn. What Lee fails to mention is that the original study he cites was looking at the pay raise from $5.15 to $7.25/hour, which almost every major politician agrees is still tantamount to a starvation wage. Lee believes it too—later in the article, he comes out in support of the $12 minimum wage, saying it “makes more sense.” So unless his actual aim is to reduce the minimum wage back to $5.15, this is not exactly the best supporting argument he could muster.

That being said, that research was a “working paper,” which FiveThirtyEight describes as “papers [that] aren’t peer-reviewed, so their conclusions are preliminary (and occasionally flat-out wrong).” As Lee himself notes, there are many economists who already disagree, and even if there are growing pains with an increased minimum wage, I have to reiterate: Contrary to the framework Lee has set up for his argument, nobody is saying this has to happen overnight. The idea of a sudden jump to $15/hour and ensuing economic chaos is Lee’s fantasy alone; in reality, there will be time to evaluate the much-needed climb up the wage ladder.

But when I asked the lead authors of both studies about California’s recent move to boost the minimum wage to $15, I found they were on the same page: The increase was so large that the effects are unpredictable. Neither man could rule out the possibility that a $15-per-hour minimum wage would cause dramatic job losses.

“We don’t really know, because it hasn’t been done before.”

That’s what the economists are saying. What Lee is saying, based on their statement of uncertainty, roughly translates to: “THE SKY IS FALLING, THE SKY IS FALLING!”

I hate that I even have to say this, but the fact that there may be risk associated with certain policy movies is absolutely, 100 percent, NOT a valid argument against that policy. It may impart a bit of caution about the speed at which it should be implemented, but, once again, even the democratic socialist is calling for relatively gradual change.

One more point here—we’ve just encountered the third Vox journalistic tic, which is the “can’t rule it out!” fallacy. You see this trick over and over, and it’s more frustrating each time. By asking experts whether they can rule out a certain outcome, even though it’s never happened before in American history, you’re ensuring a very specific answer. Of course they can’t rule it out! It’s never happened, and no economist worth his salt would ever be caught dead in that trap. But that doesn’t mean the worst is going to happen! This, then, is a useless question. Let me demonstrate:

Reader, based on what you know of household safety, can you guarantee that I won’t fall headfirst into the dishwasher the next time I’m loading it, impaling myself on a steak knife and suffering the kind of brain damage that leaves me repeating the word “gobble” for the rest of my miserable life?

No, you cannot. But this doesn’t mean I should destroy my dishwasher with a sledgehammer.

One of the most prominent left-leaning economists in the minimum wage debate is Alan Krueger, co-author of a widely cited 1993 paper finding that a modest minimum wage hike in Pennsylvania didn’t cost jobs. Krueger has served in the Obama administration and supports raising the national minimum wage to $12 per hour. But in a New York Times piece last fall, he warned that “a $15-an-hour national minimum wage would put us in uncharted waters, and risk undesirable and unintended consequences.”

“Yes, a new situation comes with some risk. Maybe we should go slow, like everybody wants.”

A big concern with California’s minimum wage hike was that California is a large and diverse state. Some parts of the state — like the city of San Francisco — have high wages and a high cost of living; in these areas, a large majority of workers are already making more than $15 per hour, and employers paying less than that may not have much trouble finding the money to comply with the new wage.

“May.” Minus supporting evidence.

Let me remind you of the headline: “Hillary Clinton knows a national $15 minimum wage is a bad idea. She endorsed it anyway.”

Lots of qualifiers for such a certain conclusion, right?

But other parts of California aren’t so affluent, and in these areas the higher minimum wage could cost a lot of jobs. Small businesses in cities like Fresno could be forced to shut down, as customers just aren’t willing to pay the higher prices needed to cover the higher wage costs.

“Could.” Minus supporting evidence.

In fact, if I’m not mistaken…yes, that’s the rare double-could! Vox probably gave him a special badge for this paragraph.

In March I asked Dube — generally seen as a supporter of a higher minimum wage — if it was a mistake for a state as large as California to try such a big increase. Would it be better to let $15-an-hour experiments in San Francisco and Los Angeles play out? “If you’re risk-averse, this would not be the scale at which to try things,” Dube told me.

And nobody wants to try things at that scale. What they do want is to improve the lives of American workers. And thankfully, outside of essays that read like a press release from a corporation who would rather send that minimum wage money to the CEO instead, most people understand that certain quality-of-life measures, responsibly implemented, are worth the risk.

If imposing a $15-per-hour minimum wage on cities like Fresno is a gamble, imposing it on states like Mississippi and West Virginia is an even bigger one. More than half of employees in these states will be affected, and while we can hope most of them will get raises, a significant number could get pink slips instead.

“Could.” Minus supporting evidence.

The more cautious position Hillary Clinton took earlier in her campaign — to raise the minimum wage to $12 while waiting to see how the California experiment works out — makes more sense. Boosting the incomes of low-income workers is a worthwhile goal, but it’s not worth the danger of throwing millions of people out of work.

See, I don’t think Lee actually does believe that it’s a worthwhile goal. In fact, I think he’s blatantly on the side of corporate interests, because otherwise he’d know that there is no single beneficial political policy on Earth that doesn’t carry at least some risk.

Really, imagine you had commissioned a PR flack at McDonald’s to write this article. What would they say? The answer is that they’d follow Lee’s blueprint: Scaremonger about the possible downsides, claim to be on the side of working people, ruefully conclude that the risks are just too great. Unfortunately, this is a recurring pattern for Vox:

So what’s really happening here, under the surface? It’s one thing to write a bad essay, but when it keeps happening, over and over, there’s something more than meets the eyes. There’s a term for this kind of writing: “Concern trolling.” Here’s the definition:

“A concern troll is a person who participates in a debate posing as an actual or potential ally who simply has some concerns they need answered before they will ally themselves with a cause. In reality they are a critic.”

What Vox is doing is not full-on concern trolling, because they don’t purport to take the opposite position. Still, the alarmist rhetoric fits right in with a concern troll’s modus operandi.

As I said, there are reasonable ways to address worries about these issues. But if you ignore the plight of the underpaid American worker and dismiss a $15/hour minimum wage outright while simultaneously misrepresenting the proposed timetable for its implementation, you have an agenda. If you ignore the disastrous economic effects of free trade deals while constructing a paper-thin argument about benefits to the global poor, you have an agenda. And with this particular website, that agenda always seems to favor one group: The neoliberal corporate establishment.

Essays like Lee’s are nothing but modified concern trolling on behalf of the rich and powerful. And even though this is just one article on one website, it’s sickening to see America’s working poor thrown under the bus by callous, ill-formed intellectual arguments made by glorified apparatchiks. Vox promised to be so much more than this—what the hell happened?

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