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Friday, February 22, 2013

Raising the minimum wage

In last week’s state of the union address, President Obama called on Congress to consider raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.

What could be down on that?  Almost by definition, the folks that would be affected are already struggling.  They’re earning LITERALLY the minimum pay a person can earn in this country.  They have the least amount of purchasing power of any worker in the US.  Anything that can be done to give them a boost up must be an economic good, right?

Well, like most economic maneuvers, as soon as you scratch the surface, starts getting complicated.  Minimum wage policy is actually weirdly controversial, and weirdly complex.

The economic effects of an increase in the minimum wage are pretty murky.  That’s because raising the minimum wage is NOT really a direct way of increasing our overall national wealth.  It’s a way of redistributing it.

Anytime the minimum wage is increased, someone has to pay for it, be it the producers, customers, or other laborers.  Not only that, but it seems reasonable to expect that sellers would react to an increase in wages across the board by upping their own prices, wiping out the effects of the pay bump, anyway.

The “raise or not to raise” question is a tricky one to navigate.  In today’s post, I’ll spell out what I think are the strongest arguments for and against raising the minimum wage.  

 You’ll have to decide for yourself which one convinces you more.  You're a grown up.  I trust you.

First off – what is the minimum wage
The lowest possible pay an employer can offer their employees.  Minimum wages were first introduced to the US as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

At the time of the FLSA’s passing, the minimum wage was set at $0.25 an hour ($4.08 in 2013 dollars), a rate well below what most laborers were already making at the time.  

Setting the rate below what everyone was already earning took a lot of the controversy out of the FSLA.  It made the policy a “non-issue.”  Why would any reasonable employer balk to $0.25 an hour minimum, when he was already paying his workers double that voluntarily?

At the time, I think minimum wage laws were seen more as a safeguard against employers from cutting employee’s pay to some ridiculously low level out of the blue - not as a way of forcing employers to pay more than they already were.

Since 2009, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour (which would be worth $7.78 in 2013 after adjusting for inflation, by the way).  Obama called for it to be raised to $9, a 24% increase.  

Individual states may also pass their own minimum wage laws.  Most states set the state minimum wage to be equal to the federal one.  A few set it higher.  In states with no minimum wage laws, or with minimum wages set below the federal standard, the federal minimum wage rate applies.

Traditional argument against

Economists have always disliked minimum wage laws.  There's a couple variations on the theme, but central objection is typically that it can lead to an increase in unemployment.

Sure, minimum wage is no big deal when it’s lower than what employers were paying already, as was the case in 1938.
But what happens when the min wage is increased to a level higher than what most people are already earning?  That makes it more expensive to purchase an hour of a laborer’s time.  And like any other good for sale, the more expensive it is to buy an hour of a laborer’s time, the fewer hours will be bought.  Rising minimum wages could lead to rising unemployment, as it becomes more and more expensive to hire people.

Putting that argument into action

Some economists have argued the existence of minimum wages makes it more difficult for those with the most limited skill sets to get hired, which can perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

If all workers have to be paid $7.25/hour, then they must be able to produce $7.25/hour worth of value for their employer every hour.  But what if the person has little education, skills or experience?  If a person can only produce, say, $5/hour of value to the company, an employer is paying a $2.25/hour penalty to employ that person.

In the 50s and 60s, the American economist Milton Friedman used to refer to the minimum wage laws as “the most anti-Negro laws on the books.”  He was convinced the high minimum wages of the time were a major cause the huge unemployment numbers among African-Americans.

Friedman contended that since adult blacks in the 50s had grown up under Jim Crow, they received subpar educations and training.  They didn’t have the skill sets adequate to produce $1.25/hour of value (the min wage at the time), and so the minimum wage laws were making it impossible for them to get steady jobs.

The late 60s, early 70s saw minimum wages increase drastically.  In fact, minimum wages reached their highest levels in history in 1968, when it was set at $1.60 (which would be worth $10.59 in 2013).

One of the key campaigners for these increases were unions, particularly skilled workers’ unions.  Unions like the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (whose members were not all minimum wage earners) were particularly active in the movement.
Still to this day, many economists are suspicious that skilled unions didn’t campaign for higher minimum wages out of any altruistic solidarity with unskilled labor, but rather as a way shutting out competition.

The accusation is that skilled workers realized new developments in industrial technology were going to make their skills less valuable, as an untrained, unskilled workforce could manufacture everything the tradesmen could through the use of larger and more precise machinery.  

The skilled workers may have realized a higher minimum wage would remove the unskilled from the labor pool, thus protecting their jobs at the expense of others.

Think about it this way – if US workers could convince Bangladesh to adopt a min wage of just $3 or $4, that could kill the incentive to offshore work there for some companies.  It makes Bangladeshi labor less competitive.

Another argument against – “distorting the market”

It’s probably the hardest one to explain.  But it easily economists’ number one gripe with minimum wages.  They “distort the market.”  But what does that mean?

What it all comes down to is the minimum wage is an arbitrary number.  $7.25, $9, $5…why any one of them?  It’s a number we kind of just plucked out of the sky in the past. 

And codifying an arbitrary number to be the min wage opens up opportunities for people to game the system, as I outlined in the previous section.  It affects the behaviors of those involved in unnatural ways.

Minimum wages have been falling steadily since the 70s.  Is that because they were too high back then and are just now returning to their "correct" levels?  Or did the 70s have the "correct' levels, and Congress has just been pulling it down ever since? 

We don’t know.  We can’t know.  If wages were set naturally, then concepts "correct" or "not correct" don't even apply.  Wages just are what they are, and what they are is what they should be.

Besides, why would we need a minimum wage in at all?  Why can’t wages just be settled out naturally?  Employers can’t just dictate pay – if they offer too little in pay, they’ll never be able to attract and maintain a workforce.  And if workers are dissatisfied with their pay, why can’t they just go to work for the competition?

And what if every employer in town was paying too little, and all of our wages are low?  Then the only shops and sellers who lower their prices accordingly will stay in business.  Wages will drop, but so will prices, and you'll be in the same place anyway.

I think a lot of Americans fear that if there were no minimum wage laws, employers would pay us all a penny an hour.  But there’s nothing guaranteeing that has to be the case! 

Germany has no minimum wage laws.  England didn’t either until 1999.

Both of those societies have some of the highest standards of living in the world – laborers are/were very well paid.  In both cases, employers still had to offer high pay in order to keep employees, and producers still had to sell at prices agreeable to the average income, which kept the workers from getting screwed on their pay.

Some arguments for raising the minimum wage

Ok, so regroup.  Economists traditionally never liked minimum wage laws, due to the associated risk of raising unemployment, or the cost of production.  And its viewed as a “market distortion” - an unnatural, arbitrary rate that can incentivize people to behave differently than they would otherwise.

On the surface, this looks like a pretty strong deductive argument.  Has some nice, simple logic to it.  Thing is – it’s very difficult to find examples of it being true in practice.

The introduction of the minimum wage in 1999 in the UK was not associated with any uptick in unemployment.

A study by Arindrajit Dube, T. William Lester, and Michael Reich compared unemployment rates in US counties that straddled state lines, or bordered each other but where in two different states, ones having different minimum wage rates.  Over the 6 year period studied, they found no significant differences between unemployment rates in the counties in states with higher min wages vs those with lower ones.

There’s also an argument to be made that employers kind of need to hire as many people as they need to hire.  However much they need to pay, they’ll pay.  They may grumble about having to pay more for their workforce, and threaten lay-offs, but in the end of the day, they need the workforce they need, and will pay whatever price they must to get them.

And remember, upping the minimum wage can just be seen as a way of redistributing income as it diverts a larger share of revenues toward employees and away from the business itself. 

Some economists like this.  They fear if producers end up with claim to most of business revenue, they’ll just sit on it, or invest it back into their own companies.  If workers end up with a larger share of their employer's income (through a bump in their wages), they’ll go out and spend it in diverse places, thus stimulating the economy.

Intrinsic problem with minimum wage

I have one personal problem with minimum wage laws.  In my mind the system is inherently flawed in one VERY major way.

Minimum wage rates must be set by law and policy.  That means they only go up when the government says they go up.

Inflation is happening every minute of every day.  Which means the moment the government sets the min wage rate, that rate starts falling as inflation eats away at the pegged value.  The difference isn’t made up until the government gets around to upping the rate again.

When there is no minimum wage, wages are set by the natural movement of a market.  So the minute the prices of consumer goods go up, employers must react with an increase in pay, or else they risk employees looking for a new place to work.

So when there is a minimum wage, wages are set by a political system.  Which can be slow and inefficient.

In 2009, the min wage was set at $7.25, and hasn’t been changed since.  Between 2009 and 2012, a minimum wage earner, working 40 hours a week, would have lost $1,960 of pay to inflation.  Unless the minimum wage is updated daily to account for inflation, it will always be a screw job.

Obama would like to start adjusting the min wage for inflation annually.  That’s a swing in the right direction, but unless its being adjusted ever minute of everyday, min wage earners will still be losing a few hundred bucks in pay a year.


  1. I think other inherent problems are the arbitrary distinction between "employer" and "employee", and the coercive nature of a government min-wage law.

    Sam and Sue exchange voluntarily. Sam gives X, Sue gives Y. X and Y do not determine the nature of the interaction. The interaction is a peaceful, voluntary exchange.

    If X is "fiat currency" and Y is "labor", why all of a sudden do we label Sam the "employer" and Sue the "employee", and a coercive 3rd party is good to prevent certain peaceful interactions between them?

    Keeping in mind, the point of discussing economics is to get people to a happy place. That's what min-wage law advocates purport. Why is coercion even on the table? Isn't that something to be avoided, in and of itself?

    Treating social problems with coercion/violence is like treating the flu with chemotherapy.

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