Minimum wage ‘indexing’: DFL political marketing at its worst

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Getting an “annual pay raise” is pretty awesome, especially if you’re a minimum wage worker. Fist pumpingly awesome even. So is getting a pay “bump,” “bonus,” “boost” or “hike.”

But having your wage “indexed” for inflation is underwhelming and/or confusing.

When a politician has an opportunity to legitimately claim credit for a guaranteed annual pay raise, that’s political gold. So why are Minnesota DFLers marching around the State Capitol continually yammering to Minnesotans about their desire to “index” the minimum wage? After all, the outcome of indexing is an annual pay raise, unless there is deflation, which is relatively unusual in the United States.

So why not call the DFL’s proposal what ordinary people would call it, an “annual raise?”

The DFL is fighting to increase the minimum wage increase now, and build-in an annual pay raise for years to come.

Voters would understand that much better than the current language being used:

The DFL is fighting to adjust the minimum wage, indexed to the rate of inflation.

When most minimum wage recipients hear the term “index,” they don’t think “an annual raise.” They think one of two things: 1) Huh? or 2) The part of the book that everyone skips because it’s too boring. Either way, no fist pumps.

Mere wordsmithing, you say? Republicans invest heavily in wordsmithing, and it has proven very effective for them. They hire consultants like Frank Luntz, the author of “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” and many an Orwellian moment. Luntz famously convinced Republicans to shift from “inheritance taxes” to “death taxes.” Luntz understood that “inheritance” sounds unearned and aristocratic to the masses, while “taxing death” sounds outrageously insensitive and unfair. When they followed his advice, the level of support for inheritance taxes among non-wealthy citizens dramatically decreased.

But that’s not all. Luntz convinced Republicans to march in lockstep from “oil drilling” to “energy exploration,” “health care reform” to “government takeover of health care,” and “corporations” to “job creators.” Luntz showed Republicans that words can work against you or for you. Those seemingly minor shifts have helped Republicans win over many lightly engaged citizens.

So, my fellow liberals, what do you think the great political pied piper Luntz would have to say about Democratic politicians’ love affair with the term “indexing?”

“Indexing” is hardly the Democrats’ only jargon problem. There is the coded term “single payer” instead of the instantly understandable “Medicare for all.” There is the emphasis on the abstract move to “address the achievement gap” instead of on the more understandable push to “fix failing schools.” There is the sterile push for something called a “sustainable environment” instead of a push for something more tangible and visceral, such as “clean water, land and air.”

Ever-earnest Governor Dayton is trying to fix this through executive order. The Plain Language Fact Sheet that he issued notes, plainly:

Using Plain Language to communicate will: 1) reduce confusion for citizens; 2) save time and resources; 3) improve customer service; and 4) make state government work better for the people it serves.

You go, Guv.

Republicans seem to be much more thoughtful and disciplined about campaign communications than Democrats. Republicans will read Luntz’s steady stream of talking points, and dutifully execute them day after day. “Death tax, death tax, death tax.” Meanwhile, self-serious Democrats turn up their noses about what they regard as superficial “spin,” and cling to their beloved Wonkspeak to impress the think tankers.

Then, come Election Day, the Democrats wonder why voters under-appreciate their hard work. As I watch the Minnesota DFL speak in policy-nerd code about their work to give the poorest Minnesotans a built-in annual pay raise or years to come, I don’t wonder.

This post was written by Joe Loveland and originally published on Wry Wing Politics.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by John Bracken on 03/18/2014 - 09:37 am.

    Death tax

    Correct me if I am wrong. If My not dead parents give me 10 million dollars, THEY pay a gift tax, I do not pay an inheritance tax.

    If they keep the money in the bank account and then they both experience death, their bank account is now taxed (I believe MN is now everything above $975k/person), and then what remains can be given to me (of course, DC gets its chuck too). That sounds like a death tax, not an inheritance tax.

    Words of the left: Islamophobic, War on Women, Homophobic, Tea Baggers, Immigrant Hater, Climate Denier, Xenophobic.

    No, I don’;t watch Fox, Bachmann and Palin are whacky, my sister is a Latina immigrant (legally entered), I am for cviil unions, a heck of a lot more abortions, and sensible energy & environmental policies.

    America has to stop trying to fit everyone into two boxes. Politicians and journalists use their power to divide and destroy the USA. Consider me powerphobic.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/18/2014 - 09:55 am.

    indexing

    The problem here is that indexing just isn’t an instance of word smithing, it’s a substantive policy choice.

    I am all using effective language, but I think that’s only part of the messaging problem we have. It’s not just the language Republicans use that makes their messaging, it’s how forcefully they use it, and with better success with staying on message. Republicans have an advantage in that Fox News is far better at hammering home Republican messaging than MSNBC, it’s counterpart which often just wanders off into the thickets.

    My main problem with Democratic messaging is that it is defensive, reactive. Too often we are responding to what Republicans are saying rather than putting out a strong and positive message and forcing Republicans to react.

  3. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 03/18/2014 - 11:04 am.

    Indexing vs “Annual Pay Raise”

    I tend to be a libertarian republican. I’m sympathetic to an increase in the minimum wage, and wouldn’t be opposed to indexing it so we don’t have this political battle every year.

    However, you start calling this a “Pay Raise”, and my hackles will go up BIG TIME.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/18/2014 - 11:29 am.

      If you tend to be

      a libertarian republican, why would you be in favor of the government forcing private enterprise to pay its employees a certain wage? Wouldn’t you be in favor of market forces making that decision?

  4. Submitted by David Koorman on 03/18/2014 - 11:52 am.

    Indexing is not a pay raise, nor is it underwhelming or confusing. It’s an accurate description of what’s being sought – keeping the minimum wage adjusted for inflation and therefore constant in real terms. Without indexing, the minimum wage is either eroded over time by inflation, or as an earlier poster noted, yearly political battles will be necessary to keep it at the same level in terms of real dollars.

    “Annual Pay Raise” will sell better with some folks, and worse with others, but it doesn’t describe what indexing will do. It’s also terribly indistinct (how much would the raise be? Would it exceed inflation, or fail to cover its effects?). In fact, I would venture to argue that “indexing” is in fact an easier sell. It reassures minimum wage earners that their incomes will be protected against inflation, and reassures minimum wage proponents that the automatic increases are limited to the effects of inflation.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/18/2014 - 03:10 pm.

    Policy

    Indexing the minimum wage is a policy issue, not a language issue. We need to legislate first, and leave the quibbling until later. My own advice to legislators is to do what’s right and let the communication types practice their dark arts independently.

    What I am seeing here is the triumph of the message meisters. Luntz spends almost as much time explaining how brilliant and effective he is as he does crafting talking points. That is, after all, the business he is in, and it’s a highly lucrative one. The fact is, sometimes his use of language is effective but often it is not. What drives the effectiveness of GOP messaging is it’s forcefulness, their discipline in staying on message on all the media platforms.

  6. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 03/18/2014 - 03:41 pm.

    words

    Democrats like to use fancy words like “indexing” to conceal what it is that they are doing. They know the average person doesn’t know what it means. They also like to use fancy words to label Republicans, because the words can sound scary.
    Take the word, “homophobic,” for example. It sounds like it means “irrational fear of sameness,” (it brings to mind a paranoid psychotic person) when actually Democrats use it to mean anyone who opposes gay marriage is “homophobic.”

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/18/2014 - 04:13 pm.

    “Democrats like to use fancy words like “indexing” to conceal what it is that they are doing.”

    Would you prefer “keeping up with the cost of living”? Any words there that violate the “fancy word” standard?

    Look, it’s not about words, fancy or otherwise. It’s about making sure that those who do a decent day’s work, get a decent day’s pay. It’s about not pretending that a dollar today is worth what a dollar was ten years ago. It’s about making sure that those who have political and economic power don’t take unfair advantage of those who don’t. And if the DFL has to resort to fancy shmancy words like “indexing” to get that job done, I say more power to them.

  8. Submitted by Joe Loveland on 03/18/2014 - 05:06 pm.

    Clear language matters in democracies

    I respect your point-of-view, and appreciate the conversation. Here is my point-of-view:

    Like it or not, in a democracy, leaders must sell their policies to voters. If they don’t, underwhelmed voters will take away their ability to make policies in the future. For that reason, communications isn’t a sideshow in a democracy. It’s the main event.

    Selling policies to voters entails using language that is clear and motitvating, and that takes effort and discipline. Using language that is unclear to voters isn’t pure or high-minded; it is disrespectful of voters.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/19/2014 - 06:53 am.

    clear language

    I do hear what you are saying. I don’t know what goes on in the remote fastnesses of the other party, but I have often talked to my friends in the DFL, some of whom are in the legislature, about developing a more effective communication strategy. I can tell you, it’s like herding cats. I don’t know how many episodes of Almanac I have sat through where it’s clear to me that the DFL guy just doesn’t have a clear idea of what he wants to or needs to say. But it’s also been my experience, and I guess their experience, that full of bright ideas as I may be, lots of legislators have done very well getting elected running entirely without my help and they do it by running very old fashioned campaigns, at which I have been known to shake my head.Could it be they know something, I don’t? As critical as I have often been of DFL communication strategy, Democrats in Minnesota control both houses of the legislature and every state wide office. It might be useful to ask why that is, and why Republican communication strategy, whatever it’s merits, hasn’t been more effective in getting people elected to office.

  10. Submitted by Joe Loveland on 03/19/2014 - 09:10 am.

    Wonkspeak hurts in swing districts, not safe districts

    Good point, Hiram, a lot of DFLers in safe DFL districts do get reelected despite Wonkspeak. Those leaders aren’t motivated to abandon Wonkspeak, because it never hurts them personally.

    There are a lot of safe legislative seats in MN, where DFLers speaking Wonkspeak will easily get elected, because there are just a lot of committed straight-ticket DFL voters in those places. Those safe seats tend to be held by DFL legislative leaders and committee chairs who get seniority because of the political safety of those places, and those leaders do most of the mass communications for the party.

    But the problem is in those more competitive legislative districts that are decided by slim margins by swing voters trying to determine who is serving them well. That’s where the use of Wonkspeak can swing razor thin elections.

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