Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Understanding the Minimum Wage

More talk about raising the minimum wage again, and some of the Democrats in Congress are aggressively pushing this initiative. The minimum wage was a bad idea when it first came into being, and raising it again is also a bad idea.

The minimum wage is popular among a fair number of Americans who do not understand how businesses work and who badly misunderstand the details surrounding the minimum wage itself. So much of the support for the minimum wage is emotional, and is based upon the idea that the minimum wage is not a “living wage.” I will stipulate that you can’t raise a family on a single minimum wage job. However, the reality is that hardly anyone who is the sole breadwinner for a family works for minimum wage, so this argument is mostly irrelevant.

It’s easy to support the concept of not only a minimum wage but also of periodically raising it. However, if you own or run a business, you realize that wages have to be based upon some concrete criteria more significant than that a bunch of pandering pols in Washington and the state capital think it is a good idea.

The economics of it are compelling, if people will only take the time to familiarize themselves with the economic principles and understand them. The following explanation by economist Dr. Walter Williams should help.

There are decent people, without a selfish hidden agenda, who support increases in minimum wages as a means to help low-skilled workers, and there are other decent people, with the identical goal, who strongly oppose increases in the minimum wage. So the question is: How can people who share the same goals, helping low-skilled workers, come up with polar opposite means that produce polar opposite results?

It all depends on one's initial premise. It would do us some good to make our initial premises explicit and check them against reality. One initial premise is that an employer needs a certain number of workers to accomplish a given task. That being the case, increasing the minimum wage simply means that all low-skilled workers will enjoy a higher salary and employers will have lower profits and/or customers will pay higher prices. With this vision of how the world operates, the logic of increasing the minimum wage as a means of helping low-skilled workers is impeccable.

Another initial premise is that there is no fixed number of workers necessary to accomplish a given task. Employers might be able to substitute capital for labor such as using dishwashing machines instead of dishwashers, automatic elevators instead of elevator operators, self-service gasoline stations rather than full-service gasoline stations, online reservations rather than reservation clerks or relocating their operation overseas. People who share this initial premise can still have concern for the welfare of low-skilled workers but argue that increasing minimum wages will cause unemployment for some of them and deny job opportunities for others. Given their initial premise, the logic of their argument is also impeccable.

Thus, the question to decide is which initial premise best describes how the world operates. Is it the one that says there's a fixed number of workers necessary to perform a given task, or the one that says employers have flexibility in the mix of workers and capital they use and where in the world they can choose to manufacture? I think the latter description more properly describes how the world operates.

Place yourself in the position of an employer and ask: If a worker costs me, say, $7 in wages, plus mandated fringes such as Social Security, unemployment compensation, sick and vacation leave, making the true hourly cost of hiring a worker $9 an hour, does it pay me to hire a worker who's so unfortunate to have skills that enable him to produce only $5 or $6 worth of value per hour? Most employers would conclude that doing so would be a losing economic proposition.

There are a couple other villains in the piece that force employers to respond to increases in wages that exceed a worker's productivity. If he did hire such workers, he would earn lower profits. Soon, investors would abandon him and put their money where returns are higher.

There's another villain -- the customer. If the employer retained workers whose wages exceeded their productivity, to cover his costs he would have to charge you and me higher product or service prices. I don't know about you, but I prefer lower prices to higher prices, and I'd switch my patronage to those firms who adjusted to the higher labor cost.

Congress can easily mandate higher wages, but they cannot mandate higher worker productivity or that employers hire a particular worker in the first place. Those of us who truly care about the welfare of low-skilled workers should focus our energies on helping them to become more productive, and a good start would be to do something about the rotten education that many receive.

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