I’ll confess my bias up front: I’m a fan of Peter Schiff. He’s the CEO of Euro Pacific Capital, Inc. and a successful author of several books. He’s perhaps best known as the man whom the experts laughed at in 2006 when he said that the housing bubble was about to burst, which I chronicled in this post. I don’t agree with everything Schiff says, and he strikes me as the sort who is not always politically correct, but I learn things listening to his radio show and think he’s a bright, insightful guy with a free-market outlook that I appreciate.
So I am especially distressed to see how Schiff was misused by the clowns at Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Here’s the clip, which portrays Schiff as a clueless aristocrat who wants to put the mentally disabled into virtual slavery:
The whole thing is worth watching for the utter arrogance of the harpy (Samantha Bee) conducting the interview. But here is the key exchange that seems to have people in an uproar:
BEE: Give me a picture of a person whose work would be worth $2 an hour.
SCHIFF: You know somebody who might be? Maybe somebody who is, uh, you know, what’s the politically correct word for mentally retarded? You know, what’s the new . . .?
BEE: [sporting a look of disgust] Okayyyy . . .
Schiff sets the record straight in his latest column:
When I accepted “The Daily Show”’s invitation to be interviewed about my opposition to a minimum wage increase, I knew that I was walking into a trap. But given how counterproductive I know such an increase would be to those the law proposes to help, I took the risk anyway.
Of the more than four hours of taped discussion I conducted, the producers chose to only use about 75 seconds of my comments. Of those, my use of the words “mentally retarded” (when Samantha Bee asked me who might be willing to work for $2 per hour – a figure she suggested) has come to define the entire interview. Although I had no intention of offending anyone, I just couldn’t remember the politically correct term currently in use (it is “intellectually disabled”). Assuming she knew it, Bee could have prompted me with the correct term, but she chose not to. By including those comments in the final package, “The Daily Show” proved that they did not care who they offended, as long as they could make me look bad in the process. The volume of hate mail I have received in the show’s aftermath confirms their success on that front.
Well, of course she didn’t provide the term. Anyone who watches the clip can easily see that she is far more interested in being snide than in getting an honest point of view. And by the way, “mentally retarded” is the term used by the government. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Schiff:
When asked the $2 per hour question, I responded that very few individuals would take a job at that pay, even if it were legal. In a free market, businesses compete for customers by keeping prices down, and for labor by keeping wages up. Any employer offering even low-skilled workers just $2 per hour would be outbid by others offering to pay more.
However I did suggest two groups of people who might be willing to work for $2 per hour. The first group — which was edited out — was the unpaid interns who tend to value work experience and connections more than pay. (In fact, “The Daily Show” staffer who booked me, and who was present during the interview, had been thrilled to start there as an unpaid intern). Since many interns work for free, $2 per hour would be an improvement. Some interns are even willing to pay to work. Since employers are afraid to hire them without pay for fear of violating labor laws or inviting lawsuits, they often hire young people working for college credit. These individuals are forced to pay college tuition to get a job they could have had for free had there been no minimum wage.
The other group was the intellectually disabled, who are in fact already exempt from the current minimum wage law by federal regulation. Although many have taken my support for this exemption as some sort of advocacy for modern slavery, I offered good reasons for the rule. While saying nothing about any person’s value as an individual or a human being, it is undeniable that the intellectually disabled have, in general, fewer marketable skills than the general population. Anyone arguing otherwise is just speaking from emotion. If an intellectually disabled person can’t perform work that produces a minimum wage level of output, then no employer seeking to make a profit could afford to pay that person the official minimum wage.
I further explained that since such individuals typically live with their parents or other caretakers, they are not working to support themselves or anyone else. They are working for the self-esteem associated with having a job — the pride of working and making a contribution. Many of the jobs they perform may seem mundane to those of normal intelligence, but they are often the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. I pointed out that if the federal minimum wages were to apply to them, a great many of those opportunities would vanish. Others may disagree, but I believe a job for such a person at $2 per hour is better than no job at all.
You know who agrees? As Schiff suggests, the answer is the federal government. The following quote is from a Department of Labor Fact Sheet (.pdf) on the policy that allows employers to apply for a certificate to pay certain disabled workers a wage less than the minimum wage, including those who suffer from the disability of — drumroll please — “mental retardation”:
Section 14(c) of the FLSA authorizes employers, after receiving a certificate from the Wage and Hour Division, to pay special minimum wages – wages less than the Federal minimum wage – to workers who have disabilities for the work being performed. The certificate also allows the payment of wages that are less than the prevailing wage to workers who have disabilities for the work being performed on contracts subject to the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act (SCA) and the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act (PCA).
A worker who has disabilities for the job being performed is one whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability, including those relating to age or injury. Disabilities which may affect productive capacity include blindness, mental illness, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, alcoholism and drug addiction.
There is an audible gasp when Schiff mentions the concept that the work of the “mentally retarded” might be worth $2 an hour. But the federal government itself — the Department of Labor — recognizes that if a disability such as “mental retardation” “actually impairs the worker’s earning or productive capacity for the work being performed” then a wage lower than the standard minimum wage is appropriate.
Samantha Bee doesn’t tell the Daily Show audience that, because in cutting up four hours of Q&A to make Schiff look as bad as possible, she is looking for shock value. She wants something that will make people laugh and be outraged at the rich guy. She’s not interested in something like truth.
But don’t bother getting all outraged at Samantha Bee or Jon Stewart. They’re just comedians, you see. As Jim Treacher once explained:
I’ve been getting more and more annoyed with him trying to have it both ways, being an increasingly self-righteous advocate and yet deflecting criticism with “It’s just a comedy show!” . . . I don’t think he necessarily needs to choose between pundit and comedian. He can do both. Just maybe not in the same breath. It was maddening when he lectured those guys and they wanted to talk to him about it, and he kept going, “Wait, I’m just a comedian!” Clown nose off, clown nose on, clown nose off, clown nose on.
I expand on the concept here, in a post titled I Always See the Clown Nose on Jon Stewart. I say to Peter Schiff: the same concept that applies to Jon Stewart applies equally to Samantha Bee. These people like to pretend like they are the ones telling the real truth. Clown nose off. Until you take their mocking “journalism” and hold it to the standards that real news organizations abide by, and show how dishonest they have been. Then, they will say they are just a comedy show. Clown nose on.
The solution, as I suggested in my 2009 post, is to treat them like comedians all the time. If they ever try to make a serious point, just say: who gives a rat’s ass what you think? You’re just a comedian.
It is, perhaps, Schiff’s idealistic mistake to have talked to these people in the first place — and, having chosen to do so, it was almost certainly an additional error to treat them like people who might listen to him seriously and give him a fair chance to make his points. Instead, every answer of his should have been prefaced with: “You probably won’t understand this because you’re just a comedian who is here to unfairly edit me and mock me, but . . .” and then give his answer — and then insist on recording the whole thing himself and releasing the tape. That could have been funny and we might have all had some fun at their expense.
But Schiff thought the subject was important enough to try to evade their trap and make some important points. Lesson learned, Peter, I guess. Next time, always see the clown nose on Jon Stewart.