Tag: minimum wage

Gap Pay Raise Follows Rand Not Obama

Clothing retailer Gap Inc. has won praise from the White House in announcing its decision to raise entry-level wages to $9 an hour this year, and $10 next year. President Obama applauded Gap and argued that Congress should follow suit by passing a bill to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 by 2016.

But there’s a big difference between a voluntary increase in a market-determined wage rate and a government-mandated minimum wage.

Gap must report to shareholders and make a profit to stay in business; politicians report to voters and must win elections to stay in office. Polls show that the American public strongly support a higher federal minimum wage — but only if it appears to be costless.

President Obama, in promoting a higher minimum wage, argues that it would “lift wages for more than 16 million workers—all without requiring a single dollar in new taxes or spending.” This is the free lunch that politicians love to promise—and it is an illusion.

When the government arbitrarily pushes up wage rates above the competitive level, two things happen: some jobs are lost; and more workers look for jobs but can’t find them, so unemployment of lower-skilled workers increases. These effects are greater in the long run as employers switch to labor-saving technology.

When firms make adjustments in expectation of higher minimum wages (both federal and state), there will be a decrease in the number of jobs for lower-skilled workers (mostly younger, inexperienced, less-educated workers) but an increase in the demand for higher-productivity, skilled workers who complement the new technology.

Gap has already made significant investments in labor-saving technology and recently implemented a “reserve-in-store” computer program that relies on higher-skilled workers whom Gap invests in to enhance their human capital. Gone are the days when high-school dropouts could easily get a job with retailers. As Gap raises its starting wage, there will be more competition for a dwindling number of jobs. More workers will want a job, but fewer workers will be hired, and those that are will be of higher quality.

Glenn K. Murphy, Gap’s CEO, told the company’s employers upon announcing the change in policy, “To us, this is not a political issue. Our decision to invest in front-line employees will directly support our business, and is one that we expect to deliver a return many times over.”

This is free-market, Randian thinking: self-interest is the motivating factor, not altruism.

When President Obama says, “It’s time to pass [the minimum wage] bill and give America a raise,” he is making a promise that can’t be kept: some workers will gain (those who have higher productivity) but others (the least productive workers who most need a job to gain experience and move up the income ladder) will lose.

Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office now tells us that an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour could cost a loss of 500,000 jobs. Those most affected would be low-productivity workers in low-income families—making them poorer, not richer. (If the government promises a wage of $10.10 an hour but a worker loses her job or can’t find one, then her income is zero.) There is no free lunch!

People do what is in their own best interest. Gap may win some friends by increasing entry-level wages and saying this is in tune with company “values,” but unless that business decision is profitable Gap will lose sales, and its shares will drop in value. There is thus a market test of the decision to raise wages.

The government has no business telling private employers what to pay or telling workers they cannot offer their labor services at less than the legal minimum wage, even if they are willing to do so to retain or get a job. The President’s minimum wage is anti-economic freedom and violates personal freedom; Gap’s higher entry wage does neither. This is a case of “the emperor has no clothes!”

For Europe’s Youth, Minimum Wages Mean Minimal Employment

Yesterday, in the wake of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, I poured cold water on President Obama’s claim that a hike in the minimum wage for federal contract workers would benefit the United States’ economy, pointing specifically to unemployment rates in the European Union. The data never lie: EU countries with minimum wage laws suffer higher rates of unemployment than those that do not mandate minimum wages. This point is even more pronounced when we look at rates of unemployment among the EU’s youth – defined as those younger than 25 years of age.

In the twenty-one EU countries where there are minimum wage laws, 27.7% of the youth demographic – more than one in four young adults – was unemployed in 2012. This is considerably higher than the youth unemployment rate in the seven EU countries without minimum wage laws – 19.5% in 2012 – a gap that has only widened since the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.

I will conclude yet again with a piece of wisdom from Nobelist Milton Friedman, who correctly noted that “the minimum wage law is most properly described as a law saying employers must discriminate against people who have low skills. That’s what the law says.

Minimum Wage Laws Kill Jobs

President Obama set the chattering classes abuzz after his unilateral announcement to raise the minimum wage for newly hired Federal contract workers. During his State of the Union address, he sang the praises for his action, saying that “It’s good for the economy; it’s good for America.[1] Yet this conclusion doesn’t pass the economic smell test; just look at the data from Europe.

There are seven European Union (EU) countries with no minimum wage (Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, and Sweden). If we compare the levels of unemployment in these countries with EU countries that impose a minimum wage, the results are clear – a minimum wage leads to higher levels of unemployment. In the 21 countries with a minimum wage, the average country has an unemployment rate of 11.8%; whereas, the average unemployment rate in the seven nations without a minimum wage is about one third lower – at 7.9%.

Nobelist Milton Friedman said it best when he concluded that “The real tragedy of minimum wage laws is that they are supported by well-meaning groups who want to reduce poverty. But the people who are hurt most by high minimums are the most poverty stricken.”[2]


[1] Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, New York Times, January 28, 2014.

[2] Milton Friedman, The Minimum Wage Rate, Who Really Pays? An Interview With Milton Friedman and Yale Brozen, 26-27 (Free Society Association ed. 1966), quoted in Keith B. Leffler, “Minimum Wages, Welfare, and Wealth Transfers to the Poor,”Journal of Law and Economics 21, no. 2 (October 1978): 345–58.

Minimum Wage and Unemployment

Seventy-five economists, including seven Nobel winners, have signed a letter advocating an increase in the minimum wage. The letter was preceded by a New York Times editorial on January 2 making the same argument. I assume that there will be an opposing letter shortly, probably also including some Nobel signers. These minimum wage campaigns arise from time to time; this exchange is old hat, but worth reviewing briefly.

The Economics

The new letter claims that “… the weight of evidence now show[s] that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers … .” Relatively few op-ed readers are economists, but anyone interested in the evidence should consider a 2007 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper by David Neumark and William Wascher, “Minimum Wages and Employment: A Review of Evidence from the New Minimum Wage Research.” Here is the abstract:

We review the burgeoning literature on the employment effects of minimum wages - in the United States and other countries - that was spurred by the new minimum wage research beginning in the early 1990s. Our review indicates that there is a wide range of existing estimates and, accordingly, a lack of consensus about the overall effects on low-wage employment of an increase in the minimum wage. However, the oft-stated assertion that recent research fails to support the traditional view that the minimum wage reduces the employment of low-wage workers is clearly incorrect. A sizable majority of the studies surveyed in this monograph give a relatively consistent (although not always statistically significant) indication of negative employment effects of minimum wages. In addition, among the papers we view as providing the most credible evidence, almost all point to negative employment effects, both for the United States as well as for many other countries. Two other important conclusions emerge from our review. First, we see very few - if any - studies that provide convincing evidence of positive employment effects of minimum wages, especially from those studies that focus on the broader groups (rather than a narrow industry) for which the competitive model predicts disemployment effects. Second, the studies that focus on the least-skilled groups provide relatively overwhelming evidence of stronger disemployment effects for these groups.

It is not hard to explain to the noneconomist why some studies suggest no effect of the minimum wage on employment. In the past, changes in the minimum wage have been relatively small. Trying to sort out the effects of the increase from everything else going on requires high-powered statistics, and even then the effects can be buried by a host of other simultaneous disturbances and influences.

So, consider the following common-sense thought experiment: Suppose Congress were to enact a minimum wage $50 higher than the current one of $7.25 per hour. Would a minimum of $57.25 reduce employment? I know of no economist who would assert a zero effect in this case, and recommend that readers ask their economist friends about this thought experiment. Assume that the estimate is that a minimum of $57.25 would reduce employment by 100,000. The actual number would be far higher but 100,000 will do for this thought experiment. Now, consider several other possible increases of less than $50. The larger of these increases would have substantial effects, the smaller ones smaller effects.

But is there reason to believe that a minimum of $10 would have no effect? I have never seen a convincing argument to justify that belief. If you accept as a fact that a minimum wage of $57.25 would reduce employment, and you accept as a fact that some workers are currently paid $7.25 per hour, then logic compels you to believe that a small increase in the minimum wage above $7.25 will have at least a small negative effect on employment.

The Fight against Low-Wage Work

The Washington Post reports on its front page today:

Mayor Vincent C. Gray vetoed legislation Thursday that would force the District’s largest retailers to pay their workers significantly more, choosing the potential for jobs and development at home over joining a national fight against low-wage work.

That last is an interesting phrase: a national fight against low-wage work.

When laws like this are passed, there is indeed less low-wage work. As Robert J. Samuelson writes:

In the short run, even sizable increases in mandated wages may have moderate effects on employment, because businesses won’t abandon their investments in existing operations. But companies that think themselves condemned to losses or meager profits won’t expand. Not surprisingly, a study by two economists at Texas A&M finds that the minimum wage’s biggest adverse effects are on future job growth, not current employment.

In the case of the District’s proposed law, we won’t have to wait for future effects. The target of the legislation, Wal-Mart, is about to open six stores in the District of Columbia, where the unemployment rate is 8.5 percent. But the company says it won’t open three of those stores if it is forced to pay a minimum wage 50 percent higher than other retailers.

Minimum wage and “living wage” laws can reduce employment in several ways. Jobs may be eliminated—ask your father about the guys who used to pump your gas for you, or your grandfather about movie ushers, or notice how groceries and drug stores are eliminating cashiers. Firms may hire a few high-skilled, high-productivity workers rather than many low-skilled, low-productivity workers. They may shift from labor to technology.

With total U.S. employment still lower than it was in 2007, we should stop the fight against low-wage work. Many Americans would rather have low-wage work than no work at all.

Who Works at the Minimum Wage?

Recent protests by fast food workers have renewed interest in the minimum wage. Often, these protests focus on the inability of an individual worker to support a family on the minimum wage. Such a question spurred McDonald’s to release a mock budget for low wage workers. McDonald’s first mistake, however, was in accepting the premise of the question. 

Whoever claimed the minimum wage was supposed to be enough to support a family? Certainly, when I started my first job flipping burgers at Burger King, I didn’t take that job expecting to support a family. It was an avenue to earn some spending money (I wasn’t born a Kennedy, so my family could not provide a generous allowance) and a way to learn some basic job skills. I haven’t been alone in viewing minimum wage restaurants jobs in that light. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 (latest numbers) over half of minimum wage workers are under age 25. In fact, only 3 percent of workers over the age of 25 earn at or below the minimum wage. Two-thirds of minimum wage workers only work part-time, again illustrating the point that these jobs aren’t viewed as a career but rather the first rung on the job ladder.

The biggest driver of who works at minimum wage is education. Only 8 percent of minimum wage workers have a college degree. Around one third lacks a high school degree. Cost of living also drives the difference. Despite the higher state minimum wages found in the Northeast, about half of all minimum wage workers live in the South, a relatively more affordable place to live. Sadly, opponents of the current minimum wage level are getting their wish, but not in the way they wanted. Since 2010, the number of minimum wage workers has declined by over 800,000. Given the increase in minimum wage in 2009 and the relatively weak labor market, I think it’s a safe bet that most of these workers left the labor force rather than received a big raise. 

Even if all minimum wage workers were trying to support a family on their own, I ultimately do not believe it’s the role of the government to inject itself into consensual private agreements. Nor do I believe it’s the role of the government to pick sides in private disputes. The government has no more moral authority to choose the “right” wage for someone than I do. Only free individuals can make those choices for themselves. Even if it wasn’t a policy choice about freedom of contract, do we really want, as a matter of policy, to encourage a large portion of individuals in their 30s and 40s to make a career of flipping burgers?  I certainly didn’t start my job at Burger King with the intention of staying.  

Silicon Valley Addresses Homelessness by Picking at the Scab

It’s frustrating to see homelessness documented in my beloved Silicon Valley, not only because homelessness is regretable, but because of the way it’s documented in this Bill Moyers piece.

Homelessness exists “in the shadow of Google, in the shadow of Oracle, in the shadow of Apple Computer,” says AP writer Martha Mendoza, whose story inspired the Moyers video. And there’s certainly editorial in the video’s images of wealthy neighborhoods and manicured corporate campuses: Wealth causes poverty, it appears.

But would Teresa Frigge really be doing better if Larry Ellison had been held to middle class wealth? In an alternate universe where Larry Page and Sergey Brin co-own the McDonalds at El Camino and Santa Cruz in Menlo Park, how is Teresa better off?

Rather than dumb juxtaposition, look for actual causes of inequality. Is it the loss of chip manufacturing? That was already declining in 1987.

Housing is hard to find in the Valley. Fifteen years ago, “for every five jobs they were adding, they were building two units of housing,” Mendoza reports.

Disambiguate “they.” For every five jobs Silicon Valley businesses were adding, Silicon Valley builders were building two units of housing.

The reason why? Zoning laws are strangling Silicon Valley. (Liberals agree.) The cap on housing artificially raised the cost of labor, driving chip manufacturing out of Silicon Valley, which still designs chips for manufacture elsewhere. The result is class striation.

But zoning reform is nowhere to be found in the reporting on this issue. Instead, Mendoza features San Jose’s increase in the minimum wage—from $8 to $10. That means that people who cannot provide well more than $20,000 in value per year to prospective employers may not work legally in that city.

The laws say that you may not work in this area if you’re not skilled, and you may not live there if you’re not rich. I don’t think it’s wealth that’s causing this homelessness.