Let's begin this morning with a show of hands.
Raise your hand now if you think everyone should be paid a living wage.
I thought so. Except for the guy in the Ebenezer Scrooge T-shirt, we all share the belief that every last one of us deserves the wages necessary to provide food and shelter for his or her loved ones.
Now, raise your hand if you think government can make this happen.
This is the problem, isn't it? It makes everyone feel good to demand jobs that pay a living wage, but it doesn't move the needle. It's more symbolism than substance, more politics than real-world economics.
In Sonoma County, these familiar controversies also become a distraction. Right now, we don't need politics as usual. We need a grown-up discussion about our economic future.
Last week, the Santa Rosa Planning Commission was asked to reconsider approval of a Target store because a spokesperson for the retail chain admitted that he overstated the percentage of full-time jobs that the new store would provide.
Enter the usual suspects.
The Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County declared that the store shouldn't be permitted until the city completes something called a community impact report.
The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce endorsed the project with a spokesman saying, "We support any and all jobs."
We are left to ask: Does the Living Wage Coalition think it would better to have 250 people unemployed than to have have them working at a Target store? Does the Chamber of Commerce think prosperity is around the corner if we just build enough chain stores?
Are we going to keep hearing these same simplistic arguments over and over again?
On Thursday night, the Planning Commission approved the Coddingtown project but not before another contentious debate that brought more heat than light to the choices the city will face in the coming years.
It is in Sonoma County's interest to have all of its workers fairly compensated. Income inequality is on its way to becoming a national scandal. Higher wages mean more money circulating through the local economy. More people with health insurance means fewer uninsured patients who become a financial burden on health care providers and the community-at-large.
But saying it doesn't make it so. The best of intentions alone cannot create wealth or repeal the basic laws of market economics.
For the sake of argument, let's say that the Target company agrees to pay its local employees $25 an hour and to buy their health insurance, too.
What would happen? The store would raise prices to cover the cost of higher rates of compensation. Faced with higher prices, shoppers — many out of necessity — would take their business to a chain store that doesn't pay as well but charges lower prices. Wal-Mart, perhaps. Or maybe an online store that doesn't pay any wage, living or otherwise, to local workers.
So here we are, left to a lousy choice — between a store that doesn't pay as well as we would like, or a store that can't survive, leaving more people out of work, plus an empty building gathering dust and casting a long shadow on its neighbors.
How is this a good outcome?