The Debate We Ought to Have

I had a startling realization while reading a thought provoking blog post from Republican strategist Mindy Finn dissecting Hillary Clinton's debate answer on paid leave policies. 

At the core of many of our economic debates regarding minimum wage, paid leave, mandatory health benefits, and other regulations is a question that we almost never (if ever) debate.

The conservative argument in many of these debates is gee, it would be nice for people to have these things, but stop living in a fantasy land liberals. If government mandates them, we'll force small businesses to cut employees or go out of business, and we'll do real damage to the economy. 

Liberals talk around this argument—they discuss the necessity of a living wage, the way that all other industrialized countries have laws mandating many of these benefits, etc. 

To a large degree, both sides are right.

To pay for new benefits or higher wages, businesses either have to charge consumers more, or if that is not possible, provide such benefits to fewer employees. While some businesses might generate sufficient profit to cover new perks, it seems safe to assume that others would, in fact, have to resort to cutting workers. 

Liberals are also correct that, while it's nice to imagine that a competition for employees will produce businesses voluntarily adopting better compensation packages, in many fields a surplus of workers exists. They are also right that many salaries (or hourly wages) are inadequate, and that the lack of certain benefits places a real hardship upon workers. 

Which brings us to the debate that we really ought to be engaging in as a society: should the goal of our economic policies be to maximize the number of jobs created, or should it be to create fewer, but better, jobs? 

Liberals ought to acknowledge that forcing businesses to adopt greater benefits will lead to a reduction in the workforce. Conservatives ought to acknowledge that sparing businesses from such mandates will lead to more jobs, but jobs that often do not enable people to make ends meet. 

Rather than arguing in circles about individual policy issues (which are important in their own right), we ought to ponder this bigger question that shapes the answers to policy questions. There are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of the debate. 

Without an answer to this question, however, we're left to talk past each other on many issues. This muddles the situation for voters and policymakers, and frees politicians to resort to pie in the sky sophistry.