A "help wanted" sign hangs in a shop window in Portland on Tuesday April 27, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Phil Harriman, a former town councilor and state senator from Yarmouth, is the founding partner of Lebel & Harriman, a financial services firm. Ethan Strimling, a former mayor and state senator from Portland, is the president of Swing Hard. Turn Left, which promotes progressive policy at the local, state and national levels.

Phil: Does anyone in your party understand the economics of how to get people back to work?

Ethan: Sure. If businesses pay people enough to support their family, they will flock back into the marketplace.

Phil: Well, how about not first paying people to stay home by offering them close to $3,000 a month to stay on unemployment, while at the same time offering them $1,500 to take a job. Imagine coming up with a government incentive to get people to not take the opposite government incentive!

Ethan: Let’s be clear, $300 a week in extra unemployment isn’t incentivizing people to stay out of the workforce, unless the prospective job is a dead-end gig. In that case, I am glad they are holding out for better. Likewise, the $1,500 incentive is not even an extra buck an hour over the course of a year. Hardly a windfall.

Phil: Getting more money in the hands of working families is fine by me, but paying potential workers close to $20 an hour to stay home is hardly a subsistence wage. Pretty hard for employers needing entry-level workers, ahem teenagers, to beat that wage.

Ethan: Most of those “entry level jobs” are in the service sector. If there is any industry where the customer has disposable income, it is tourism.

Phil: Somehow, I suspect that the industry is already charging what people are willing to pay. You know, supply and demand. When you force wages up, you reduce the number of jobs available to those same working families and put upward pressure on prices.

Ethan: Funny, that’s what the Chamber of Commerce said in Portland when they opposed paying people $18 an hour during the pandemic. Low and behold, after it passed, plenty of businesses paid the wage and some simply added a surcharge to cover the cost.

Phil: And your impression is that the surcharge had no impact on the buying power of the customers who visited those establishments? Have you seen our economy?

Ethan: I am quite sure the sluggish economy is due to COVID. Paying people a few extra bucks an hour had virtually no impact on slowing our economic recovery, and it probably helped as it gave workers more purchasing power.

Phil: Forcing employers to pay people above what someone is worth, is a good idea only if the goal is to invite raging inflation, which then negates the wage increase and punishes people on fixed incomes.

Ethan: Even if it were true that these workers aren’t worth the wages, why are you opposed to the governor giving people an extra $1,500 to take one of these jobs?

Phil: Because it says to the worker who didn’t take a break that they are the fool. And because the federal government is borrowing money to do this. Inflation is rearing its head and those who work are paying for this reverse incentive. That is not the legacy we want to leave for the next national crisis.

Ethan: “Took a break?” They were laid off! No one on unemployment today didn’t have a job yesterday that they lost. I honestly can’t figure out what you are complaining about.

Phil: Let me simplify it for you. I am complaining about politicians creating a problem and then taking us deeper into debt to offset the problem they created. The public sector should not be picking winners and losers.

Ethan: If the winners are workers getting paid more by being able to hold out for better pay, then all good on my end.