Posts tagged with: Labor economics

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 6, 2014

The following is a letter written in response to a post from my friend Brad Littlejohn on the topic of the minimum wage

Dear Brad,

Thank you for your thoughtful and substantive engagement on the question of the minimum wage. I don’t think the conversation we had on Twitter earlier did justice to your work here, so I’m offering this response in hopes of furthering the conversation. I hope you find it fruitful. I certainly have. I should also note that I have been assuming the context of policy proposals to increase the minimum wage at the federal level in the United States. There are certainly aspects of what we’re discussing that apply to a greater or lesser extent in other contexts and at other levels of government, but at the level of individual states, for instance, the stakes are somewhat reduced and ameliorated by the realities of federalism.

You write that you “want to reflect a bit more fully on what’s wrong with one of the common conservative arguments against the minimum wage: that the laborer is only worth his productivity.” I have significant concerns with equating someone’s worth with the economic value of their labor in the marketplace. I do not argue that the laborer is only worth his or her productive work. I argue that a worker’s work is only valuable in a market setting insofar as someone is willing to pay for it. I agree that there is a subjective element to work that is in some ways intimately identified with and inseparable from the person doing the working. But I do maintain that the worker and the work can, and indeed must, be distinguished. Perhaps what we disagree about is that you think the wage someone is offered is primarily a signal about how much that person is valued. I think that the wage someone is offered is primarily a signal about how much that person’s work is useful to others.
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minimum_wage_custom-8614e5bd8d516fbadd22d4a09fff441a70ba1596-s6-c301. Both sides of the debate believe they are arguing in defense of the poor. Most people who support or oppose minimum wage laws and/or increases share a common objective — helping the working poor. Because both sides have noble intentions, the merits of the debate over minimum wage laws and minimum wage increases should be based on empirical evidence that it will actually help, rather than harm, the poor.

2. Economists disagree about the effects of small increases in minimum wages. It’s true that economists disagree about the effects of the minimum wage on employment and the living standards of minimum wage earners. But almost all of the disagreement is about relatively small increases (less than 20%). Almost all economist agree that significant increases to the minimum wage or attempts to bring it in line with a “living wage” (e.g., $12-15 an hour) would lead to significant increases in unemployment. (President Obama’s proposal would only increase the federal minimum wage by $1.75 an hour.)

3. The primary argument for minimum wage increase is that is increases the value of the worker’s labor. — The efficiency wage theory of labor holds that higher real wages improve labor productivity by reducing worker turnover and the associated costs of hiring and training new workers, by reducing the incentive for workers to unionize, and by increasing the opportunity cost of being fired—thereby giving the worker incentive to be more productive. Under this view, small increases to the minimum wage will have no deleterious employment effects.

4. The primary argument against minimum wage increases is that it discriminates against those who have low-skills. Milton Friedman once described the minimum wage as a requirement that “employers must discriminate against people who have low skills.” As Anthony Davies explains, “the minimum wage prevents some of the least skilled, least educated, and least experienced workers from participating in the labor market because it discourages employers from taking a chance by hiring them. In other words, workers compete for jobs on the basis of education, skill, experience, and price. Of these factors, the only one on which the lesser-educated, lesser-skilled, and lesser-experienced worker can compete is price.”

5. The minimum wage redistributes wealth from the low-skilled poor to the more skilled working poor and middle class. Many supporters of minimum wage increases mistakenly believe that increases in wage rates are transfers of wealth from employers and investors to the workers. But as Anthony Davis explains, the money to pay for the increased wage must come from at least one of four places: higher prices for consumers, lower returns to investors, lower prices to suppliers, or a reduced work-force. Empirical research has shown that the primary effect of minimum wage increases is reduced employment, which essentially transfers the wealth (in unearned wages) from the less skilled to the more skilled working poor and middle-class teenagers.
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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, September 27, 2013

I’m not an aficionado of the show Extreme Couponing, but I have seen it a couple times, and have been amazed at the industriousness of the people on the show. It shouldn’t be surprising, perhaps, that in the midst of economic downturn more generally the practice of clipping coupons has become more widespread as well as more extreme.

It makes sense that when times are tight and you are looking to scrimp and save every penny in your budget that increased use of coupons can be a way to make each dollar stretch a bit farther. Companies originally offered coupons as incentives to try new products, and so it is appropriate to see coupons as a form of advertising. The first company to offer coupons was Coca-Cola, and here we can see the similarities between coupons and the free samples, which is part of what makes Costco so popular, as product promotion.

coca

But it never really occurred to me until I read this short profile of an extreme couponer that coupons should also really be seen as a kind of private welfare, reaching a high of roughly $4 billion in total savings in the US in 2011.
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In his latest column, Tyler Cowen points out that whatever economic recovery we’ve experienced has “largely bypassed young people,” arguing that such a development is bound to have an impact for years to come:

For Americans aged 16 to 24 who aren’t enrolled in school, the employment picture is grim. Only 36 percent are working full time, down 10 percentage points from 2007. Longer term, the overall labor-force participation rate for that age group has dropped 20 percentage points for men and 14 points for women since 1989.

This lack of jobs will damage the long-term careers of a big chunk of the next working generation. Not working after you finish school very often means missing out on developing the skills and habits that will serve you well later on. The current employment numbers are therefore like a telescope into the future labor market: a 23-year-old who is working part time as a dog walker, yoga instructor or retail clerk may be having fun, but perhaps will receive fewer promotions as a 47-year-old.

Cowen notes a higher minimum wage as one potential culprit, but argues that “the root causes run much deeper,” ranging from increasing uncertainty to expanding globalization to a newfound pickiness among employers. Arnold Kling offers some additional hypotheses, including the idea that decreases in child-rearing among the young-and-able will likely lead to decreases in a need or desire to work full-time. (more…)

Blog author: jcarter
posted by on Wednesday, September 4, 2013

UntitledAmerican Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the South Pacific Ocean. It has a total land area is 76.1 square miles, slightly more than Washington, D.C., and a total population of about 55,000 people. It also has 18 different minimum wages by industry, mandated and enforced by the US Department of Labor. Oh, and an unemployment rate of 29.8% (about 10% of the total population is out of work).

Minimum wage advocates would likely say that American Samoa is an anomaly since it has too small a workforce to draw any representative conclusions. And they might be right about that. But as Mark J. Perry asks, why wouldn’t proponents of the US minimum wage support an American Samoa style multiple wage structure:

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noun_project_8671For this week’s Acton Commentary, ahead of Labor Day weekend, I write about “working harder and smarter,” lessons we can learn from Ashton Kutcher and Mike Rowe.

One of the implications of connecting hard work with smart work is that the difficulty of work on its own does not determine its value in the marketplace. It isn’t a question of how hard you are working, but how hard you are working in productive service. This is why Lester DeKoster writes,

The paycheck follows upon work. Often the harder we work, the larger the paycheck—though, as many workers know, this unfortunately is not an invariable law. That is because, as we shall see, work and wage are not related as cause and effect.

He refers to money as the “bait,” which induces us to work and which tends to direct our work in service to others. But the bait can become a “trap” if we conflate the meaning of work with the wage: “Work endows life with meaning because of what work is, not because of what it earns. Paychecks buy goods and services provided to us through the gift of selves by others, but money buys no meaning. Life’s meanings are not for sale!”
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boss moneyIn light of the latest hubbub over the minimum wage, I recently wrote that “prices are not play things,” arguing that we do ourselves and our neighbors no favors by trying to subvert and distort market signals according to arbitrary whims. Instead, I argue, we should reach beyond such low-ball thinking, focusing on creation and contribution rather than sitting and settling.

Over at Think Christian, Jordan Ballor offers some related thoughts, including a helpful reminder that while prices matter, wages do not represent a “commentary on the value of the human person as such.” Tying our self-worth to marketplace value, he argues, “can be a misleading and potentially destructive identification.”

In Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster pushes heavily in this same direction, going so far as to say that although work and wages move on “parallel tracks,” “neither track is the cause of the other or the goal of the other”:

What is a just wage? It is a paycheck that recognizes the personal relationships that underlie work and civilization. Involved are both the needs of the worker – at all levels – and success of the enterprise – in which all are involved…[T]hose whose work is concerned with the creation and administration of wage and price scales must be economic artists whose jobs bear heavy moral responsibility. What the traffic will bear or wage scales that only grim necessity will oblige the poor to accept are artistic guidelines that enjoy no endorsement from heaven. The search for just wage and fair price is never-ending, for the market is always changing and so are the forms required of work. Economic justice is by no means universal even in the best of civilizations.

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Wizard of Id - Minimum WageThe protests organized by labor organizations to advocate for an increase in the minimum wage have garnered attention, most recently from the NYT, which editorialized in favor of such moves. Over at Think Christian, I weigh in with an attempt to provide some more of the complex context behind the moral evaluation of such mandates.

In the piece, I’m really less interested in the plight of current-minimum wage workers relative to those who might become minimum-wage workers with an increase, those who are currently priced-out of labor markets because of minimum-wage legislation, and those who will be priced out with an increase.

Earlier this week, Joseph Sunde discussed the issue with an eye towards the price of labor: “Prices are not play things.” I largely agree with Joseph about the significance of the price associated with various kinds of labor. The signal that minimum-wage workers should be receiving is that their work is not that specialized or valuable in the marketplace. You can rage against the values of the marketplace all you like, but that’s what the prices signal.
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“Want a job at the Pig?” asked my best friend Steve.

By my reaction, you would have thought he’d asked if I wanted a date with Kathy Ireland rather than inquiring about a job as a grocery sacker at the Piggly Wiggly. But I was living at Steve’s parent’s house rent-free, and needed to earn some money. And in Clarksville, Texas in 1985, the prospects of an inexperienced teen finding a good job were only slightly better than chances of dating a supermodel.

piggly-wigglyThe elation was short-lived, though, and lasted only until I saw my first paycheck. As a full-time student working for a job that qualified for tips (I never, ever got tips) my employer was allowed to pay me the subminimum wage of $2.85 a hour (the equivalent of $5.87 in 2012). After FICA and Social Security took their cut, there wasn’t much left for me.

So if Ronald Reagan had announced in his State of the Union address that he was raising the minimum wage to $4.37 an hour (the equivalent in 1986 of Obama’s $9 minimum wage) I would have been ecstatic. Like all my fellow proletarian coworkers I was disdainful of Reagan’s economic policies, particularly his refusal to raise the minimum wage. Reagan’s was the only administration not to have raised the minimum wage since it was introduced nationally in 1938—a fact we often repeated in the breakroom as we looked at our paystubs and cussed the president.

Twenty-seven years later, though, I see the situation differently. I realize that I have not only my friend Steve but also President Reagan to thank for my getting hired at the Piggly Wiggly. Had the minimum wage been raised, the store owner could have never afforded to hire me. Since my labor was barely worth $2.85 an hour, having a government imposed price increase on wages of 52% would have priced me out of the market.

As William Graham Sumner explained in 1883, by attempting to do me a favor—by artificially raising the minimum wage I must be paid—the politicians were hurting both me and my potential employer:
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After decades of bloody turmoil between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, on March 26, 2007, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, sitting side-by-side at Stormont confirmed that power-sharing will return to Northern Ireland on May 8th of that same year. It was supposed to be a “new era.” Unfortunately, in order for Ireland to recover from decades of a very complicated history it needs a growing economy. Northern Ireland’s economy is in steep decline because it remains such a high-taxed welfare state.

For example, jobless remains at extremely high levels. The BBC reports that between June and August of 2011 8.1% of the population were unemployed. In fact,

Over the year, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit has increased by 4.8%, to 63,400, while in the UK as a whole the figure has fallen by 1.4%. A large proportion of the unemployed are young people, with 21.1% of those between aged between 18 and 24 now unemployed, up 3.0% over the year.

Northern Ireland also has high minimum wage rates—about $7.87/hr for workers 18-20 years-old—and a ridiculous corporate tax rate of 24%. This “one-two punch” does nothing but discourage the starting of new businesses, foreign direct investment, and provide incentives for companies not to hire young people. The Central Bank of Ireland, in a moment of common sense, now believes that maybe, just maybe, high corporate taxes stifle job creation. According to the BBC,
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