Posts tagged with: minimum wage

“The twin tracks of work and wage do not meet, and cannot be scientifically related. They are bridged by morality, not by mathematics.” -Lester DeKoster

executiveLow-wage workers continue to picket and protest around the country, demanding an increased minimum wage, improved access to benefits, and better working conditions. The political rhetoric has followed accordingly, with Bernie Sanders calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and Hillary Clinton arguing for $12 (due to differing magic potions, no doubt). Simultaneously, widespread angst over “excessive” executive compensation continues to fester.

But alas, prices are not play things, and we do society no favors by trying to distort market signals according to our own arbitrary whims (whether $12, $15, $100, or otherwise). Given the history and trajectory of the American economy, we ought not be stuck in the mire of such minimum-mindedness, seeking to control and micro-manage our way to peace and prosperity through top-down mechanistic means. The path to prosperity is one of creation and contribution, planted with seeds of service and opportunity, where new wealth is a natural byproduct of access to the pond.

Yet throughout all this, “market signals” are simply signals, the discernment of which requires human conscience before and after and throughout. When we think about the intersection of work and wages, “listening to the market” is not where it stops, as critics of the free market wrongly assume. The baseline of actual prices in a complex economy is where things begin, and the Christian wage-setter must be careful and attentive to how things ought to proceed.

In Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster explores these “twin tracks” of work and wage, noting that the proper bridge will not be built by arbitrary government edict, but by the art of “executive stewardship,” driven by God-given responsibility and God-directed conscience. “Work and wage draw together at the point where conscience functions,” he writes, “that is to say, work and wage tracks coalesce in persons making executive decisions.” When we inhibit the freedom of the human conscience, an inhibition of the economic order is sure to follow.

DeKoster devotes an entire chapter to this topic, an excerpt of which is available at the Oikonomia blog. Those who set wages have an “awesome obligation,” DeKoster writes, and their conscience must balance a host of factors, all pushing toward a variety of goals, including (1) the best product, (2) the best working conditions, (3) the best wage for everyone involved, and (4) “reflecting the best efforts at every job, to be sold at the lowest price compatible with the requirements.” In balancing all of this, the executive also heeds transcendent signals, whether through ethics or spiritual discernment. (more…)

10200456-largeIf you ask most people why they support raising the minimum wage they’ll says it’s because it helps the poor. But as David Neumark, a scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco notes, numerous studies have shown that there is no statistically significant relationship between raising the minimum wage and reducing poverty.

That finding may appear to be counterintuitive. After all, if poor people have low wages then increasing their wages should help reduce their poverty. To some extent, this is true. However, what is overlooked is that minimum wages target individual workers with low wages, rather than families with low incomes. The reason that distinction is important is because most workers who earn the minimum wage are in higher-income families.

That becomes more obvious when you think about the composition of the American workforce. If you are from a middle-class family, your first job is likely to have paid minimum wage. The same goes for all your friends who are from families higher on the economic ladder. And it’s the same for young workers today. Go down to the mall and you’ll find that the young men and women working in Forever 21 and Abercrombie & Fitch are not from families that are in poverty. Increasing the minimum wage merely ensures that these young people who are (mostly) from wealthier families get a pay raise.

The relationship between being a low-wage worker and being in a low-income family is fairly weak, as Neumark explains, for three reasons:
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the-new-york-times-website-is-back-after-two-hour-outageWhile it may be difficult to imagine, there was once an era when the New York Times was concerned about the poor.

Consider, for example, a 1987 editorial they ran with the headline, “The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00.” As the editors noted at the time,

[Raising the minimum wage] would increase unemployment: Raise the legal minimum price of labor above the productivity of the least skilled workers and fewer will be hired.

If a higher minimum means fewer jobs, why does it remain on the agenda of some liberals? A higher minimum would undoubtedly raise the living standard of the majority of low-wage workers who could keep their jobs. That gain, it is argued, would justify the sacrifice of the minority who became unemployable. The argument isn’t convincing. Those at greatest risk from a higher minimum would be young, poor workers, who already face formidable barriers to getting and keeping jobs. Indeed, President Reagan has proposed a lower minimum wage just to improve their chances of finding work.

Back then the federal minimum wage was $3.35 ($7 in 2015 dollars) and the editors of the Times had a basic understanding of economics. Today, their editorial board is apparently comprised solely of those completely ignorant about economics, for they published an editorial last week calling for wage to be raised to $15 a hour.

Their reasoning? No real justification is given other than that the government must do something. In their conclusion they write:
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window-taxKing William III of England needed money, so in 1696 he decided to implement a new property tax. To make sure the tax was progressive (i.e., affected the rich more than the poor), the parliament devised a seemingly clever idea: they’d use the number of windows as an index for the value of a house.

The assumption was that larger homes, presumably owned by the wealthy, would have more windows than the houses of the poor. All a tax assessor needed to do to calculate the tax was walk around a building and count the windows. Ingenious, no?

In its initial form, the tax consisted of a flat rate of 2 shillings upon each house and an additional charge of 4 shillings on houses with between 10 and 20 windows, or 8 shillings on houses with more than 20 windows.

You can probably imagine what happened next.

As economist Tim Hartford explains, a “fundamental error is the idea that architecture doesn’t respond to tax incentives.”
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Sales-taxImagine you’re at the checkout line at the supermarket and the clerk asks how much income your family earns each year. Offended, you ask why that is any of her business.

“We need to know to determine how much sales tax you need to pay,” the checker politely explains. “If you’re classified as the ‘working poor’ you need to pay more sales tax.”

“I think you have that backwards,” you helpfully add. “You mean the working poor need to pay less sales tax, right?”

“Oh, no sir,” she say, still blissfully cheerful. “It’s a new anti-poverty program initiated by the federal government that helps the poor by making them pay an addition sales tax on their groceries.”

Although it isn’t stated so clearly or applied so directly, the federal government has in fact implemented an “anti-poverty” initiative that does just that. As economist Thomas Macurdy says, “Most Americans wouldn’t cheer this program, nor would most political leaders champion it. Yet that is what happens when Congress raises the minimum wage.”

Earlier this year Macurdy published a study in the Journal of Political Economy that examined the effect of the minimum wage on the poor. As he explains in the Wall Street Journal, his findings show that the minimum wage serves as a tax on the poor:
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During CNN’s Democratic debate, presidential candidate, senator from Vermont, and self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders promised that if elected he would work to “raise the [federal] minimum wage to $15 an hour.”

From an economic point of view, this policy would run the risk of sparking a wage/price spiral, where wages are tied to a cost-of-living index and their increase, in turn, raises the cost of living, sending inflation out of control and ultimately working against the intended goal of helping low-wage workers.

The Neo-Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper, however, offers a challenge not just to the economic consequences of such a policy but to its consistency, in principle, with another of Senator Sanders’ positions: his support for unions. (more…)

Various forms of government intervention negatively affects economic vitality in many ways, however few policies impact the market as directly as wage laws. The $15 minimum wage law in Seattle dramatically influences determinants of business owners’ hiring practices. In many cases, wages are the highest economic cost in the production process, making hiring new employees a risky endeavor. Regardless of size, businesses of all scales must turn profits to stay operational and risk potential losses each time they hire new associates. Extra government mandates and regulations only make this natural market process more onerous.

While wage laws intend to immediately increase pay for the working poor, they severely hinder not only full time employment, but employment itself. Government mandated wage policies erect an artificial economic barrier that increases the supply of, but reduces the demand for, labor. Minimum wage mandates, contrary to their original intent, directly harm the groups they are designed to help. Government intervention in business typically aims to cure certain social ills, but the Utopian desire to cure humanity of all suffering leads to various economic distortions, sending false signals to consumers and producers. This is especially evident in wage policies.

Minimum wage laws primarily target the working poor, about 2% of the working population. Typical of intrusive government intervention, rather than having little to no effect, the laws have an active negative effect. As a labor demographic, the poor are least likely to possess marketable skills necessary to higher level employment and often rely on low-wage, unskilled jobs before developing their talents. When government forces business to pay above the market rate for unskilled work, this results in unemployment of the poor. Minimum wage laws price the poor right out of the labor market and rob them of work that may potentially lead to greater opportunity. African American communities particularly suffer from wage controls. Noble Prize economist, Milton Friedman, dispelled the incorrect perceptions of minimum wage laws in the 1960s and 1970s saying, “the most anti-negro law on the books of this land is the minimum wage rule.” The workers who retain their employment undoubtedly benefit from such wage increases, but at the expense of others. (more…)