When billionaire Nick Hanauer suggested at a November 2012 Democratic political conference  that the national minimum wage should be lifted to $15 an hour – doubling the then and current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour – people in the audience laughed.

But nobody is laughing now. 

The idea has caught on, if not with Congress, then with the country.

Nonetheless, the propaganda campaign against the minimum wage has not changed. It’s the same today as it has been over the past century.

“As remarkable as this political progress has been, the political rhetoric surrounding the minimum wage remains surprisingly unchanged,” Hanauer writes in his new book (co-authored with Donald Cohen and Joan Walsh) titled Corporate Bullshit: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths that Protect Profit, Power and Wealth in America (The New Press, 2023).  

“Minimum wage opponents continue to deride every proposed increase as a surefire job-killer, while reporters and pundits reliably characterize the passage of every minimum wage ordinance and statute as a dangerous experiment that threatens to harm the very people it’s intended to help.” 

“California makes itself a guinea pig in a massive and risky minimum wage experiment” tweeted the New York Times’s Noam Scheiber. 

“Raising minimum wage risky,” the Lexington, Kentucky Herald Leader’s headline tersely warned its readers following $15 victories in faraway California and New York. 

“Raising minimum wage hurts low-skill workers,” the Detroit News bluntly chimed in. “Even left-leaning economists say it’s a gamble,”

Vox solemnly cautioned (without actually managing to cite a single left-leaning economist willing to pejoratively editorialize $15 as a “gamble”).

One of the co-authors of the book, Donald Cohen, directs the non-profit In the Public Interest in Oakland, California.

How did the book get started?

“It grew out of a project I was working on called The Cry Wolf Project,” Cohen told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week.

“When I was a political director of the Central Labor Council, I was involved with the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. It was really great.” 

“I was on the legislative committee of the chamber. They tolerated us, we had no power. That committee looked at proposed bills in Sacramento and took a position one way or the other. It didn’t matter what we did anyway, because the Chamber did what they wanted.”

“A bill dealing with toxics was being discussed. And a woman from the Industrial Environmental Association – the bad guys, the polluters – said we don’t need this legislation, what we have now is good enough. I raised my hand and asked – did you support the current law when it was being considered in the legislature?”

“And she said – oh no. I said – I get it, it’s a game. I started thinking about that. Why don’t we go back and look at the opposition to all the laws that we now take for granted – Social Security, clean food and water and so on.”

“And we ended up creating this project called The Cry Wolf Project. We had a website. We collected quotes on virtually every issue in the 20th century. Pure food, FDA, Social Security, minimum wage, the Clean Air Act – every one of them. The book that we came out with is a tiny slice of the quotes I found in doing that project.”

In recent years, the corporate propaganda has repeatedly defeated the activist propaganda. 

Why does that happen?

“Because it’s plausible. When they say increasing the minimum wage will kill jobs, if you are an ordinary person, you say – well, I guess if the local restaurant has to raise wages, maybe they can’t afford as many workers.” 

“There’s a plausibility to it.”

“Then there is – I don’t trust anybody anyway. Believing what is currently true is a lot easier than changing your beliefs to a new understanding of reality.”

On your first point – it has a plausibility to it. The argument for raising the minimum wage has a plausibility to it.

“Yes and the instances in the book were both plausible and actually happened. Social security, the minimum wage, environmental regulations – they were all plausible and won.”

“I said that the corporate propaganda has a plausibility to it. But you have to add – they had the power to disseminate the propaganda. They had the power to influence the legislative and regulatory process.”

“They had enormous political power. There are a couple of meta ideas that have been promulgated by the right. One is – anti-government. The other side of it is the belief in market fundamentalism. You shouldn’t mess with markets.” 

One of the great parts of this book are the eye-opening quotes from the past. 

Here’s one from the pro slavery George Fitzhugh. 

“The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, no more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon.”

Not much plausibility there.

“It was plausible at the time,” Cohen said. “You had slavery. There was enormous political and economic power supporting slavery, as well as much racism.” 

“The other one I love is on women’s suffrage.” 

In 1901, Henry T. Finch, writing in The Independent, reported: “Women’s participation in political life would involve the domestic calamity of a deserted home and the loss of the womanly qualities for which refined men adore women and marry them. . . . Doctors tell us, too, that thousands of children would be harmed or killed before birth by the injurious effect of untimely political excitement on their mothers.”

Those quotes jump off the page. But let’s go through the six corporate propaganda strategies that are at the heart of the book.

“One is – it’s not a problem. It’s denial. Lead is good for you. Smoking is not addictive and doesn’t cause cancer. There’s no such thing as climate change. Slaves are happy, what’s the problem?”

“You could open the newspaper today and tomorrow and see these arguments.”

“Corporate argument number two – the free market knows best. Here’s something from Alan Greenspan, who was writing for Ayn Rand at the time, in 1963.” 

“Left to their own devices, it is alleged, businessmen would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings. Thus, it is argued, the Pure Food and Drug Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the numerous building regulatory agencies are indispensable if the consumer is to be protected from the greed of the businessman. But it is precisely the greed of the businessman or, more appropriately, his profit-seeking, which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer. . . .What collectivists refuse to recognize is that it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product. . . .Thus the incentive to scrupulous performance operates on all levels of a given field of production. It is a built-in safeguard of a free enterprise system and the only real protection of consumers against business dishonesty.”

“In other words, the market will take care of it,” Cohen said.

“Argument number three – It’s not our fault, it’s your fault. It could also be called personal responsibility. The auto companies said it wasn’t unsafe cars, it was ‘the nut behind the wheel.’”

“Mine workers – they got hurt because they were drunk, or they didn’t know what they were doing.” 

“More recently opioids. This was weaponized personal responsibility. The corporate strategy of the Sacklers was to blame the addicts. People were being irresponsible, abusing the drug and dying from it.”

“Number four – it’s a job killer. That is used in the minimum wage fight. But if it’s applied to any restriction or regulation, it will not just kill jobs, but kill jobs and destroy the economy.”

“Years back, I did a fellowship at Georgetown University. And I looked at every hearing on the minimum wage since the 1930s. And it was literally the same argument every time. Businesses got up there and said they would have to close if this passes. The bill passes and the businesses didn’t close. Every time.”

One of your co-authors is Nick Hanauer. He’s a wealthy Seattle businessman. And he was involved with the fight for the $15 minimum wage. 

“Nick is playing a positive role in the country in terms of reshaping free market fundamentalism. I know him well. He realized that if you want to build a healthy economy, you have to build the middle class. And to do that, you have to raise wages.” 

“If you want to eliminate poverty, you give people money. Every poll shows lots of support for raising the minimum wage. But there are powerful forces against it.”

“And when the $15 minimum wage was proposed, even people like myself thought – that’s a bit high. But it took hold. And a friend of mine reminded me – the radical ideas of one generation become the common sense of the next. And Nick helped make that happen on the $15 minimum wage, without doubt.”

What’s the fifth argument?

“You will only make it worse. On minimum wage, you will just hurt black teenagers. The companies wouldn’t hire black teenagers because with the higher wage, they could hire a better quality worker. That essentially was their argument. It would kill jobs and they would then hire better white workers.”

“We quote Milton Friedman in the book as saying – ‘The minimum wage law is the most anti-Negro law on the books.’”

“We quote Congressman Mark Souder (R-Indiana) as saying ‘Kids will lose their jobs, minorities will lose their jobs, senior citizens will lose their jobs.’”

“What they are saying – you will only make things worse. They want to increase the minimum wage to reduce poverty. In fact, they will make things worse because there are unintended consequences that will hurt the very people you are trying to help.”

“Argument six is – socialism, Communism, they will take away your freedom. If you give the government power to do the things we want to do, you will be enslaved and lose your freedom. In the 1930s, the Liberty League said that Social Security would mean the end of democracy. And Ronald Reagan said this about Medicare: ‘If Medicare passes, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was like in America when men were free.’”