Contract killing


Which of the following news stories do you find most heinous?

1) Mission Viejo City Council is on the verge of deciding that all companies contracting with the city must verify their workers’ legal immigration status through a federal database, or no business for them. 2) Los Angeles City Council decides that all contractors must pay their employees a “living wage.”

It’s door #1, right? Surely all good and decent people agree that allowing working people to scratch out an existence at $10.64 an hour (or $9.39 with benefits) is the least we can do to honor their toil.

And just as surely, there goes another xenophobic Orange County town, wading out of its depth in a fit of anti-Mexican rage. Or as Mariaelena Hincapie, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, told The Times: “Mission Viejo has no expertise to do what it’s doing. [...] We are in the midst of national immigration reform. Some federal eligibility verification system will take place this year. Local governments should wait for the federal program.”


But wait—aren’t we also “in the midst” of national minimum wage reform? Yes we are. Do we expect to “wait for the federal program” on other issues that really matter to Californians, like health care and climate change? Apparently the answer is no, and no, respectively. And if your rebuttal is that living-wage hikes are acutely necessary in high-cost California, well, does not immigration also impact this state more than most?

In fact, if you think about both city council measures for longer than your first emotional response, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, if anything, Mission Viejo has the firmer legal/moral leg to stand on. After all, its ordinance simply asks for city contractors to follow existing law, not improve upon it. If a company employs a bunch of illegal aliens, chances are much higher that it also pays those black-market workers below the federal minimum wage, no?

The Mission Viejo ordinance is a timely reminder of a perennial rule about governance: Whatever tool is used by government to pursue a goal you cherish will inevitably be deployed in a cause or manner you abhor. There are, as far as I’m aware, no exceptions.

So, Bill Clinton sidesteps the United Nations to launch a war against a country (Serbia) that poses no threat to the U.S. (good, if you supported it), but then George Bush turns around and uses that lowered bar to invade Iraq (bad, even though it was on much firmer international/legal footing than the Kosovo intervention). Labor favors secret ballots for union elections to thwart intimidation and pressure tactics (good), then labor favors abolishing secret ballots for union elections to, uh, thwart intimidation and pressure tactics (good?). Richard Nixon, in an act of vengeance against the Washington Post (bad), helps create the newspaper/TV station cross-ownership ban, which former Nixon-haters eventually embrace as a last stand for “people of color, the working class and rural citizens” (good perfect).

Reeling the discussion back to the local level, there is a fundamental flaw in using city contracting to pursue social policy: Contractors should be competing on how to provide essential services most efficiently (indeed, that’s what they’re contracted to do), not on how many admirable social goals they can help achieve. Each additional mandated hoop to jump through—living wage, minority ownership, zero-carbon emissions, whatever—reduces competition and pushes the contracter further afield from the original idea of earning taxpayer money by doing a job well.

And the process creates another, perhaps more worrisome side-effect—jurisdictional creep. Once politicians realize they can subcontract social policy wherever the private sector intersects with the public, the sky’s the limit. So, a living wage ordinance that once affected only businesses that contracted directly with the city gets extended to companies that do business adjacent to LAX, because LAX is owned by the city. Developers who buy property to build projects that are legal under local zoning rules get squeezed during the permitting process to add affordable housing, create locally guaranteed jobs (unionized, bien sur), or slap on a green roof. People engaged in private activity are tasked with social-policy goals every time they visit City Hall.

So next time you’re standing in line at the permitting agency, comfort yourself in the knowledge that your humble (if unwitting) sacrifice is making Los Angeles a better place. For a price.


Matt Welch is The Times’ assistant editorial page editor.