The debate, hosted by the Carolina Law Democrats and Republicans and the UNC Federalist Society, featured Adam Smith, director of the Center for Free Market Studies at Johnson & Wales University, and T. William Lester, a UNC professor of city & regional planning.
Smith and Lester began with a discussion of government involvement in finance, a topic of frequent contention among liberals and conservatives.
Lester said he believed in the promise of the federal government for raising the minimum wage — which is currently $7.25 nationally and in North Carolina, though other states have set higher levels.
“Just because you’re skeptical of government intervening to protect or outlaw something that you think is harmful doesn’t mean that everything government does is bad,” Lester said.
But Smith joked that living in the South might have caused him to see government intervention as a red flag instantly. He said the government’s restrictions on same-sex marriage, pro-abortion rights positions and other minority rights are an indication that alternatives are more promising.
“We get fixated on the minimum wage because it’s cute,” Smith said. “If we at least acknowledge that the trade-offs are possible in minimum wage, I would consider us to think of alternatives.”
Lester said it’s necessary to address wage gaps and the topic shouldn’t be written off by the public or legislators, referencing President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
In the 2015 State of the Union, Obama did address the minimum wage — he challenged those who oppose increasing minimum wage to try living on it.
“If not, vote to give millions of the hardest working people in America a raise,” Obama said.
Neither Lester nor Smith agreed on any specific reform for the minimum wage.
“There’s no clearcut line to say above $10.50 you’re morally righteous and below $10.50 an hour you’re horrible,” Lester said.
Smith said a minimum wage is not ideal, but its elimination is not realistic.
Both Smith and Lester said they recognized the potential for cities designating their own minimum wages if conditions were ideal, as in San Francisco, among others.
“It’s not like we have choices between democracy and fascism,” Smith said. “We have choices between democracies and community organizations.”
But Mia Ragent, a first-year UNC law student and Bay Area native, said federal action is still necessary.
“I think the federal government needs to create the baseline that $10.10 or some living wage should be the floor,” Ragent said.