Political analysts and former state senators Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman discuss increasing the minimum wage.

Ethan: The Maine People’s Alliance announced that they are gathering signatures to take a $12 minimum wage to the ballot. Maybe the wage stagnation of our lowest paid workers and much of the middle class will finally reverse.

Phil: You do know that many people, small business owners in particular, have seen their net income decrease due to health insurance, energy, daycare, tuition… need I go on?

Ethan: I do. On average, only the top 10 percent have seen an increase in their earnings. No one should work hard all week and still be unable to feed their family. Besides being good economic policy that will spur job growth, raising the minimum wage is a matter of simple fairness.

Phil: Why don’t you believe in choice when it comes to these issues? Why isn’t it up to us to determine our earning potential? Let employers compete for our services in the form of hours, wages, benefits and other perks the employer offers?

Ethan: I am not sure what world you live in, but very few have the luxury of determining what you suggest. But heck, if you are endorsing stronger unions to help workers negotiate for better working conditions, count me in.

Phil: Here’s a true story. I was in Calgary, Canada, enroute to Banff to give a speech. The economy was vibrant. When I stopped for coffee and saw a sign offering $15 per hour, I thought, “Why doesn’t Maine create an environment where competition for workers is so fierce that $15 was the minimum wage?”

Ethan: We might just get that in Portland, but you do know that Calgary’s minimum wage is a full $3 above ours? And you do know that their unemployment rate is 20 percent lower? If you are looking for America to adopt more economic policies like Canada (Free healthcare. Free education. Corporations bearing more of the tax burden.), I am willing to listen.

Phil: I should have known you would take the slice of reality I witnessed and turn it into a tome for liberalism. My point is that government should believe in creating an environment which attracts investment and innovators who in turn create a mecca of economic possibilities like Calgary.

Ethan: Sorry Phil, but Canada’s economy is way more centralized than ours and that’s one of the reasons their income inequality is well below what we have in the United States. If you are looking for the our government to regulate businesses the way they do in Canada, your party may have a few issues with you.

Phil: Are you moving to Canada?

Ethan: You’re the one who sounds like he wants to live in a socialist country! But I thought we were debating whether Maine should raise the minimum wage. From your perspective, should we?

Phil: It appears likely voters will decide, and I am glad they will. This has been a political fist fight for ages, so go ahead and force a vote by the people.

Ethan: It’s unfortunate that we now have to use the referendum, but since our government has failed us, I am glad it is happening. Sometimes you have to force those in power to listen.

Phil: The difference between us is that I trust workers to decide what they should be paid, because they are educated and enthusiastic about their chosen endeavor. They know they can grab a better opportunity if they choose.

Ethan: Man, you live in a economic class few would recognize. Most workers are simply not able to demand higher wages with the threat of walking out the door. Most are not in the economic position to up and move their family, nor does our economy support such leverage. It rarely ever has.

Phil: But your answer to this problem is the problem. Progressives seem to think government is the great and powerful Oz. It’s not. Actually it inhibits the goal we both seek.

Ethan: One of the values which makes America great is that we strive for equal opportunity. One place that begins is making sure no one who is working lives in poverty. Government should ensure no one goes below that minimum and then let the market work its magic from there.

Phil: As a teenager, I decided to stop raking blueberries for 15 cents a pound and start bagging groceries for $2 an hour. In college, I decided to work for an electrician for $4 per hour and today I get paid by the project or a consulting fee. Along the way I chose what I would work for.

Ethan: You were a teenager over 40 years ago, and the $2 you earned bagging groceries then would be worth almost $12.50 an hour today. If that doesn’t clearly sum up why wages have to be pushed up, I don’t know what will.

Phil: Let me ask you this. As you mentioned above, some in your fair city of Portland are gathering signatures to raise the city’s minimum to $15 an hour by 2019. Do you think having a minimum wage that high will hurt or help your economy?

Ethan: I am glad this initiative is going to the ballot because it appears to have finally forced our City Council to act. Mayor Brennan proposed raising the wage over a year ago, but has proven incapable of bringing it to a council vote. Now the council has a choice, increase the wage meaningfully, or the people will do it for you. It is the same lesson the state is learning. But you know what, maybe these referenda are the only way we can finally pull people out of poverty and that will definitely be good for our economy.

Phil: Let’s hope you’re right for the sake of the very people we both want to lift up, because if you’re wrong, even more people will become dependent on government assistance.

Phil Harriman is a former Republican state senator from Yarmouth. Ethan Strimling is a former Democratic state senator from Portland. They can be contacted on Facebook at Agree to Disagree or Twitter: @senpeh and @ethan6_2.

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