Do states that are good for business have to be bad for workers? George Pyle asks

Utah has room to prove it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The American Legislative Exchange Council holds their annual meeting July 28, 2021 at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

A nice older lady (well, about the age I am now) once went to some pains to explain to me that astrology really worked. That the position of the planets and stars at the moment you were born would influence how the rest of your life would go.

I explained — patiently, I hope — that, by the inverse square laws of physics, the gravitational influence of the physician or midwife attending your birth was greater than the pull of any planet, much less that of any distant star or constellation.

“Oh, phooey,” she responded. “I don’t believe in astronomy.”

What you believe before you begin to think matters a lot. Consider another example of an inverse relationship. One that’s not as firm as Newton’s physics, perhaps, but certainly more sound that any astrological chart.

Utah’s political class likes to brag about how wonderful the state’s economy is. Among the studies and reports state leaders like to cite is something called the ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index, aka, “Rich States, Poor States.”

That’s a tome issued annually by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group of state lawmakers in which Utahns are particularly active, and a group of economists led by none other that Arthur B. Laffer, the charlatan who was the intellectual father of Reganomics and brains behind the tax-cutting experiment that just about put the state of Kansas out of business a few years ago.

Its ratings are more or less based on how many things a state does to protect the rich from the poor. States get high ALEC ratings for things such as low minimum wages, tax structures that are not just low but pointedly regressive — putting greater tax burdens on low-income households than higher-income ones — and laws that make labor unions powerless.

On that scale, no spoilers here, Utah was No. 1 in economic outlook, as it had been for the previous seven years, and No. 2 in economic performance.

Now, compare that to another report on the relative economic health of the 50 states (52 if you count the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) issued August 31 by Oxfam, a global organization concerned with poverty and inequality.

Called, bluntly, “Best and Worst States to Work in America,” Oxfam’s criteria comes up with a list of the states that looks a lot like ALEC’s, only upside down.

It is not a straight correlation. But there is a lot of overlap between the states ALEC says are the best and the states Oxfam says are the worst.

Being the top on the ALEC list didn’t make Utah the worst state on the Oxfam list. It’s only the eighth worst. The relationship is a little more direct for North Carolina. ALEC says the Tarheel State is the second-best place to run a business. Oxfam says it is the worst place to be a worker.

Five states are among both the 10 best places for business and the 10 worst places for workers. In addition to Utah and North Carolina, that list includes Texas, Oklahoma and Idaho.

Oxfam’s ratings are based on things that affect people who are trying to get by. For example, it specifically downgrades states that, like Utah, have so-called “right-to-work” laws. Laws that might be better described as right-to-a-starvation-wage-and-no-economic-power laws.

Oxfam also dings states for having low wages relative to the local cost of living. In Utah, for example, the $7.25 minimum wage covers not quite 20% of what it costs a family of four to live hereabouts. And Utah is a bad place to be a worker, Oxfam says, because it doesn’t let local governments set their own, higher, minimum wages, doesn’t require paid sick leave or paid family leave and doesn’t offer workplace protections to domestic workers.

ALEC’s ratings are clearly centered around the trickle-down theory — or, more accurately, superstition — of economics, based as it is on the idea that efforts to make sure that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer amount to economic superiority.

As I say, the relationship between states that are good for business and bad for workers, and vice versa, is not a straight correlation. But it is close enough to suggest that states that brag about their economic health may be a paradise only for people who already have money and would very much resent being made to give any of it up for purposes that would support a decent life for others. Like progressive income taxes that would put the burden of education and other public services where they rightly belong.

Correlations like these don’t have to be zero-sum games. It doesn’t have to be a choice between only eating food you hate to avoid dying of heart disease or only eating food you love to avoid dying of boredom.

Utah doesn’t have to choose between the economic policy versions of raw cauliflower or pure chocolate. With a much more progressive tax system, better funding for education and more outright support for deeply affordable housing, it can be a nice, tasty apple.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, tips his flat cap to the Salt Lake City edition of Axios for calling the Oxfam report to his attention.


Twitter, @debatestate