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Mike Rowe for President

The “Dirty Jobs” host has something we need in a presidential candidate: the ability, and the guts, to lay out some hard truths in plain English about work.


Mike Rowe for president. Seriously.

Well, maybe not completely seriously. To run for president you need to have detailed policy positions on a wide range of issues, a history in office, and a giant campaign organization. And while he’s known for his willingness to try out dirty jobs, perhaps this is asking a bit much.

But Mike Rowe has something that we seriously need in a presidential candidate: the ability, and the guts, to lay out some hard truths in plain English about work and self-reliance and what people really need to get ahead.

Check out his latest statement on his Facebook page in response to a question about increasing the minimum wage.

Back in 1979, I was working as an usher for United Artists at a multiplex in Baltimore. The minimum wage was $2.90, and I earned every penny.

When I wasn’t tearing tickets in half and stopping kids from theater hopping, I was cleaning out the bathrooms, emptying the trash, and scraping dubious substances off the theater floor with a putty knife…. But I was also learning the importance of “soft skills.” I learned to show up on time and tuck my shirt in. I embraced the many virtues of proper hygiene. Most of all, I learned how to take —- from the public, and suck up to my boss.

After three months, I got a raise, and wound up behind the concession stand. Once it was determined I wasn’t a thief, I was promoted to cashier. Three months later, I got another raise. Eventually, they taught me how to operate a projector, which was the job I wanted in the first place….

My job as an usher was the first rung on a long ladder of work that led me to where I am today. But what if that rung wasn’t there? If the minimum wage in 1979 had been suddenly raised from $2.90 to $10 an hour, thousands of people would have applied for the same job. What chance would I have had, being seventeen years old with pimples and a big Adam’s apple?

If you’ve watched Mike Rowe’s shows, you know that for as much as he has become a blue-collar hero, he is also a very intelligent man. And here’s what raises his response from the level of homespun wisdom to something more poetic and even philosophical.

One night, thirty-six years ago, during the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I sat in the projection booth and read a short story by Ray Bradbury called “A Sound of Thunder.” It was about a guy who traveled back in time to look at dinosaurs, but against strict orders, ventured off the observation platform and accidentally stepped on a butterfly. When he returned to the present, everything in the world had changed. “The Butterfly Effect” is now an expression that describes a single event that leads to a series of unanticipated outcomes, resulting in a profoundly unintended consequence….

Point is Darrell, if you fix the wage of a worker, or freeze the price of a thing, you’re probably gonna step on a few butterflies. Doesn’t matter how well-intended the policy—the true cost of a $20 minimum wage has less to do with the price of a Big Mac, and more to do with a sound of thunder. Frankly, it scares the hell out of me.

There’s much more in the Facebook post. It’s all worth reading, and it made me want to stand up and cheer.

Like Mike Rowe, I’ve worked at minimum wage jobs—it doesn’t get any more glamorous, folks, than busing tables and washing dishes at a Denny’s. It teaches you a lot about never thinking you’re too good to put in a hard day’s work at a dirty job, and never failing to appreciate it when you rise up to a better job. I’ve also spent enough time as a free-lancer and entrepreneur to know that the real minimum wage isn’t the $3.65 an hour I got paid at Denny’s. The real minimum wage is zero. Actually, it’s less than zero: the real “minimum wage” is going into debt just to have a shot at doing the work you love.

But I’ve never seen a politician who can explain this sort of thing so clearly, so simply, so powerfully.

The idea that the minimum wage just serves to put young and unskilled people out of work; that it prevents them from gaining the very basic skills and experience they need to go on to better jobs; that it encourages employers to replace pimply-faced kids with machines; that it cuts off the first rung of the ladder for the people who need it most—all of that is Free Market Economics 101. But you can’t explain it to the public like you’re lecturing in a classroom. More to the point, it can’t just be something you learned about as an abstraction during your second year at Yale. It has be something you’ve seen, and better yet lived, first-hand.

So no, we don’t necessarily need Mike Rowe for president—though if he ran, I’d definitely give him a shot. But we need a candidate who has at least a little bit of Mike Rowe in him.

Follow Robert on Twitter.