Oregon Legislature Repeals Laws of Supply & Demand

Like the apocryphal story of the state legislature that passed a law dictating that pi equals 3, the Oregon state legislature has passed two laws that pretend the laws of supply & demand don’t exist. The difference is that, in reality, no state legislature ever did pass a law saying that pi equals 3, but Oregon’s legislature is totally ignoring basic economic principles.

First, earlier this week, the legislature passed a new minimum wage law increasing the minimum to as high as 14.75 per hour in the Portland area by 2022 (with lower minima for other parts of the state). This will supposedly be the highest in the nation, but only in the unlikely event that no other state raises its minimum wage in the next six years. However, after adjusting for the cost of living, Oregon’s new minimum wage probably is the highest in the nation even before 2022.

Proponents claim the minimum-wage law will improve Oregon’s economy by putting more money in the hands of its residents that they will spend in Oregon businesses. The new minimum wage “is going to be good for Oregon families and is going to add to consumer purchasing power that will benefit our small businesses,” Oregon’s labor commissioner told a reporter. That’s like warming the bed by cutting off one end of a blanket and sewing it on to the other end. If increasing the minimum wage does so much good, why not increase it to $15 right away? Or $50? Or $500?

The reality is that a minimum wage law is a balancing act for politicians. They have to have the wage be just high enough to create a constituency for the wage that will support them but not so high that people who actually vote will lose their jobs. As a Congressional Budget Office study concluded, for every two people who benefit from a minimum wage law, one is put out of work. That’s okay if the people who are out of work don’t vote.

The Oregon situation is complicated by threats by higher wage advocates to use the initiative petition process put a $15 wage on the November ballot. The legislature hopes its bill can forestall that without causing the economic damage that an immediate $15 wage would do.

Buoyed by its success, the legislature yesterday passed a law legalizing inclusionary zoning, that is, forcing homebuilders to sell a certain percentage of their products below cost. This will also lead them to build fewer homes and to sell the market-rate homes they do build for higher prices to offset their losses on the “affordable” homes. In other words, this law relies on the counterintuitive notion that making housing more expensive will make it more affordable.

Once again, the legislature is playing a balancing game. A few people will get–and be very grateful for–more affordable housing. Every other homebuyer and renter will end up paying more, but not enough more for them (the legislature hopes) to complain about it.

The Oregonian, for example, accompanied my article criticizing the urban-growth boundary with a photo of a man who enjoys “affordable” housing provided by the city of Bend that was funded by taxing all other new homes in the city. Where are the photos of the people having to pay higher taxes or who can’t afford to buy a new home because of that tax?

Are the legislators who voted for these laws really really trying to promote their political careers by cynically benefitting a few at everyone else’s expense? Or are they just ignorant of simple economic principles? Either way, their votes demonstrate the flaws in a society that believes it can get rich by robbing some people and giving it to others.