Category Archives: Minimum Wage

It All Comes Back to the Minimum Wage Debate

I shared Jeffrey Tucker’s article about Hillary Clinton, and pulled out this quote:

Meanwhile, Hillary’s actual policies on women are a disaster waiting to happen. Consider her support for “equal pay for equal work.” What effect will this have on women in the workforce? It not only puts government in charge of micromanaging every aspect of payroll and personnel of every business in America. It also incentivizes managers to keep women in lower positions in a firm in order to comply with the wage mandates, and disincentivizes advancing women up the ladder by making the costs of ascending too high. The result will be the very “glass ceiling” that mainstream feminism abhors.

An intelligent friend, who shall remain nameless, replied:

I feel like this runs on the same logic that if you raise minimum wage to a livable wage, jobs will be destroyed and small business will crumble, when in fact the opposite has been shown to be true.

Now, this friend is not an economist. What I suspect is that the news sources he typically reads report heavily on the few studies that show positive employment effects of minimum wage increases, and ignore the rest of the literature.  This isn’t exclusively the territory of the left, I’m sure people who read only right-wing or libertarian news sources overestimate the disemployment effects in the other direction.

But look at the conclusion he drew! Since he got the false impression that raising the minimum wage has positive employment effects, he concluded that there is essentially no tradeoff in government artificially boosting any wage; in this case the wages of half (!) the population. But given the initial error, this extreme conclusion naturally follows. Continue reading It All Comes Back to the Minimum Wage Debate

Price Theory and the Minimum Wage

The minimum wage is a contentious issue among economists, and yet it enjoys near-universal support among the public. In my view, public views of the minimum wage are simply the result of a lack of careful thought by most people. Daniel Kahneman’s theory that people, when faced with a difficult question, substitute a simpler question that they can easily answer, applies particularly well in this case. People answer the question of whether they would like people to earn more when the real question is whether government should mandate higher wages (I first heard this argument from Bryan Caplan on EconLog).

A purely empirical argument for or against the minimum wage is methodologically wrong-headed because empirics do not speak for themselves. Sound theory must be the economist’s first tool in understanding the effect of a policy such as the minimum wage.

Before we can understand something like the minimum wage, we must understand the role of prices in allocating factors of production to their various uses. The price of a factor signals to entrepreneurs that that factor is scarce, that it is needed elsewhere in the economy, and that the entrepreneur who can reduce his usage of relatively more scarce factors in favour of relatively less scarce ones can earn profits, while entrepreneurs who fail to do so earn losses. I give the example of a sandwich shop during an oil boom; the high price of labour caused by the oil boom leads the sandwich shop to substitute away from labour in various ways. Continue reading Price Theory and the Minimum Wage

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How Do We Know (That The Minimum Wage Hurts Workers)?

Airplane Takeoff
One thousand internet points to the commenter who can correctly identify this image!

Here’s a conversation between a reporter and one of the alleged beneficiaries of Seattle airport’s $15/hour minimum wage:

“Are you happy with the $15 wage?” I asked the full-time cleaning lady.

“It sounds good, but it’s not good,” the woman said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I lost my 401k, health insurance, paid holiday, and vacation,” she responded. “No more free food,” she added.

The hotel used to feed her. Now, she has to bring her own food. Also, no overtime, she said. She used to work extra hours and received overtime pay.

What else? I asked.

“I have to pay for parking,” she said.

This may have come as a surprise to some, but not to those of us who are familiar with economic theory. The minimum wage hike here was large and sudden, so the impact was dramatic and visible. Continue reading How Do We Know (That The Minimum Wage Hurts Workers)?

Significance Tests as Leading Questions

Under the common law, lawyers are not allowed to ask witnesses “leading questions,” as witnesses can be influenced by the way questions are asked. A leading question is one that suggests a particular answer, for instance, “Were you at the country club on Saturday night?” is a leading question, while, “Where were you on Saturday night?” is not.

Econometricians should be as careful as lawyers when questioning the most unreliable of all witnesses: economic data. Most statistical software will automatically spit out t-tests for whether the coefficients in regression models equal zero. This is equivalent to asking the data, “Data, given these modelling assumptions, can you deny with 95% certainty that this coefficient equals zero?” That’s a leading question, and the econometrician shouldn’t ask it unless he has special reason to suspect that the coefficient is zero. Continue reading Significance Tests as Leading Questions

Assigning the Burden of Proof

Have you ever experienced learning a new word and then hearing it everywhere in the days after you learn it? I’ve had a similar experience since making my argument that the burden of proof that the minimum wage is beneficial falls on the law’s supporters. Now I’m seeing people making burden-of-proof arguments everywhere. Bryan Caplan, in a post on EconLog, quotes Mike Huemer making the argument explicitly:

[T]here is a kind of moral presumption against coercive interventions. Laws are commands backed up by threats of coercive imposition of harm on those who disobey them. Harmful coercion against an individual generally requires some clear justification. One is not justified in coercively harming a person on the grounds that the person has violated a command that one merely guesses has some social benefit. If it is not reasonably clear that the expected benefits of a policy significantly outweigh the expected costs, then one cannot justly use force to impose that policy on the rest of society.

Ryan P. Long, over at Open Borders: The Case, makes what is essentially a burden-of-proof argument for open borders:

[W]hile it’s easy to merely allege that “the immigrants” caused crime to increase in your neighborhood or property values to decrease, it is substantially more difficult to prove it. I leave the burden of proof for [the idea that the differences between people really do translate into a reduced quality of life] on immigration’s critics.

Migrants from poor countries often see a 20-fold increase in their earnings just by setting foot in a wealthy country, so you had better have a good reason for barring them from doing so. The people at Open Borders: The Case do a great job arguing for the positive benefits of increased migration, but if we assigned the burden of proof correctly, it would be open borders’ opponents who would have to do the hard arguing. Continue reading Assigning the Burden of Proof

Benefits Vs. Capital

Spencer writes the following in the comments to my post about monopsony and the minimum wage:

“If wages increase, the employer would want to increase workers productivity normally that would entail improved working conditions.

But you are claiming that employers react to higher wages by implementing policies that reduce productivity — that does not make any sense and is contrary to economic theory.”

I want to make a clear distinction between benefits and capital. Benefits are things that the employer provides that make workers happier to work for that employer, ceteris paribus. Capital is what the employer provides to make each worker more productive.

The reason employers provide benefits (above those legally mandated) is because their employees implicitly pay for them by taking a pay cut. People must be paid more to do more unpleasant work, and less to do less unpleasant work, so investments employers make to make working for them less unpleasant are implicitly paid for through lower wages. Continue reading Benefits Vs. Capital

Erdmann, Empiricism, and the Minimum Wage

Erdmann's MW and teen unemployment graph
Pre-trend lines are for period from 27 to 3 months before MW hike. MW Trend lines are for period from 3 month before to 27 months after initial MW hike. [Y axis = Teen Employment To Population Ratio]
Kevin Erdmann, over at Idiosyncratic Whisk, posted a graph similar to the one shown above,* demonstrating that the trend in the US teen employment rate after a minimum wage hike was lower in all but one case than the trend before the hike.

There have been many responses, but I would like to focus on one over at Angry Bear that captures the worst of the criticism.** The writer goes way over the top in criticizing Erdmann, saying that people who oppose the minimum wage “apparently believe that the business cycle never impacts teen employment or unemployment.” To read this article, you’d think think that the only opposition to the minimum wage came in blog-post form. Frankly, no empirical analysis coming from a blog (including Angry Bear) can offer anything but a prima facie case for or against some proposition. I don’t read Erdmann as claiming that his little graph is the final word on the minimum wage.

The Angry Bear post goes on to use some very questionable econometrics to show that the minimum wage doesn’t have a big impact on teen unemployment. The author doesn’t use the inflation-adjusted minimum wage in his graphs (and presumably in his regression) for reasons unknown, making them pretty irrelevant. He then naively regresses the teen unemployment rate against adult unemployment, a recession dummy, the teen population, and the minimum wage to find that (surprise!) the minimum wage doesn’t have a big effect on teen unemployment. For someone who criticizes others about omitted variables, this regression should be pretty embarrassing. That’s time-series data! You don’t just apply OLS regression to time-series data. OLS regression assumes uncorrelated error terms, and the fact that adult (and teen) unemployment last month is highly correlated with adult (and teen) unemployment this month destroys that assumption. Continue reading Erdmann, Empiricism, and the Minimum Wage

Monopsony and the Minimum Wage

Suppose it is entirely true that the employers of low-skilled workers have monopsony power over those workers. Maybe low-skilled workers aren’t informed about their other options.

Standard economic analysis would indicate that under such conditions, the minimum wage could increase employment. However, this standard analysis simplifies the labour contract down to two elements: price and quantity. In a more realistic setting, where labour contracts involve more than just the exchange of some quantity of homogeneous labour for some quantity of money, we would expect other elements of the contract to be adjusted in response to a binding minimum wage.

So what does this mean? Well, without the minimum wage, the employer would compensate his workers so as to minimize his costs for any given level of compensation. He would offer a total compensation package such that the marginal cost of adjusting any element of the package would be equal to the marginal benefit to the employee of adjusting that element of the package. This would minimize the employer’s costs. With a binding minimum wage, the employer is obligated to offer a greater proportion of compensation in cash, so the marginal value of adjusting some other elements of the total compensation package must be higher than the marginal cost of doing so (e.g. the employee would forego $1.50 for $1.00 of additional on-the-job training from his employer). Thus it is more costly to offer any given amount of compensation to employees under a binding minimum wage, and even a monopsonist would reduce his employment of low-skilled labourers! Continue reading Monopsony and the Minimum Wage