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The GOP's New Prescription for Eating the Poor

Scott Olson/Getty Images

When it came to the subject of helping ordinary Americans, you could almost write the lines in advance of the fourth Republican debate. Spinning his flat-tax plan on Tuesday night, Senator Ted Cruz argued that tax cuts hugely weighted toward the rich will unleash such massive growth that everyone will benefit. “The effect of that is incredible economic growth," he said. "It means every income group will see double-digit increases, from the very poorest to the very weakest, of at least 14 percent." Gosh, where have we heard that before? 

But there was also a new twist to the old logic: Don’t just give the rich a big tax break, but also lower wages for the poor. Having vowed to be less contentious than CNBC’s moderators, the moderators from Fox Business Network began the fourth Republican debate by dangling a progressive priority in front of the candidates: the $15 minimum wage. The candidates predictably rejected the wage hike, which even Hillary Clinton think goes too far. But in doing so, they actually pushed the GOP consensus even farther to the right, arguing that wages in the U.S. are actually too generous.

“Taxes too high, wages too high, we're not going to be able to compete against the world. I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is,” Donald Trump said. 

You could give Trump the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was just using simplistic rhetoric to say that future wage hikes aren't a good idea. But Ben Carson took the idea and really ran with it, declaring that lower wages would actually reduce high unemployment within poor communities. “Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases," Carson said. "It's particularly a problem in the black community. Only 19.8 percent of black teenagers have a job, who are looking for one. You know that—and that's because of those high wages. If you lower those wages, that comes down.” 

Carson’s apocalyptic claims about the minimum wage simply aren't true: While there’s mixed evidence on the relationship between minimum-wage increases and job growth, it’s certainly not true that every federal wage hike has depressed employment. But more disturbing was his suggestion that wages actually need to be slashed for job growth to increase and the fact that no one on stage even challenged that proposition.

In fact, it’s significantly to the right of Carson's own previous position on the minimum wage. In the September debate, Carson suggested that the government “probably” needed to raise it. “We need to get both sides of this issue to sit down and talk … and negotiate a reasonable minimum wage,” he said. Carson floated a similar proposal back in May, too. But none of the moderators bothered to challenge him on Tuesday night—either on his flip-flop, or on his eyebrow-raising idea that cutting wages would increase employment. 

Carson’s other big idea for helping the poor wasn’t very comforting, either, but at least it hewed to the trickle-down orthodoxy. Though he hasn't released a detailed tax reform plan, Carson supports a flat tax of a yet-to-be-determined rate—a policy that's generally quite regressive, much like all other tax plans that the major Republican candidates have released. Insisting that he cares about “poor people,” he said that his tax plan would give people at the poverty level a tax rebate, and that overall economic growth would take care of the rest. “As we get the economy moving, and I hope I get a question about how do we get the economy moving, there will be a lot more opportunities for poor people not to be poor people because this is America,” he concluded. 

Senator Marco Rubio was the only candidate to offer a concrete idea that would help the lower-income Americans, rather than rely on magical thinking to take care of them. The moderators pressed him on how he'd pay for the newly expanded child tax credits he's proposed, which are one of the biggest upsides for the lower-income Americans under his tax plan (though its benefits are still quite regressive). Rubio also talked up more vocational training, quipping, "We need more welders than philosophers." When it came to the minimum wage, however, he went back to the party line: "If you raise the minimum wage, you're going to make people more expensive than a machine." But Carson's new argument made Rubio's line seem practically moderate by comparison.