Minimum Wage Hikes in Theory and Reality

Don Boudreaux recently despaired that only 26 percent of economists surveyed agreed that

If the federal minimum wage is raised gradually to $15-per-hour by 2020, the employment rate for low-wage US workers will be substantially lower than it would be under the status quo.

In the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s regular survey of distinguished policy economists chosen for ideological diversity, 24 percent disagreed with the statement, and 38 percent said they were uncertain.

Some said that employment effects were likely, but they might not be “substantial.” That’s an empirical question, of course, and knowing the direction of a change doesn’t necessarily tell us its magnitude. In addition, each person’s definition of “substantial” might be different. Boudreaux doesn’t think there should be much uncertainty:

Would 74 percent of my fellow economists either disagree that, be “uncertain” that, or have no opinion on the question of whether a forced 107 percent increase in the price of the likes of 737, 777, and 787 jetliners would cause airlines to cut back substantially on the number of new jetliners they buy from Boeing?  Or what if the question were about the prices of fast-food?  Would 74 percent of these economists either disagree that, be “uncertain” that, or have no opinion on the question of whether a forced 107 percent increase in the prices of the likes of Big Macs, Baconators, and buckets of KFC fried chicken would cause consumers to cut back substantially on the amount of food they purchase at fast-food restaurants?

But who am I to jump into this battle of economists? Just a lowly newspaper reader, that’s all. And as it happens, Boudreaux posted his critique on Sunday, and on Monday I read an interview in the Wall Street Journal with Sally Smith, CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings. She runs a chain of more than 1,000 sports bars, and she’s trying to expand. Here’s part of her interview:

WSJ: How are minimum-wage increases affecting the way you make business decisions?

MS. SMITH: You look at where you can afford to open restaurants. We have one restaurant in Seattle, and we probably won’t be expanding there. That’s true of San Francisco and Los Angeles, too. One of the unintended consequences of rising minimum wages is youth unemployment. Almost 40% of our team members are under age 21. When you start paying $15 an hour, are you going to take a chance on a 17-year-old who’s never had a job before when you can find someone with more experience?

WSJ: Are you turning to automation to reduce labor costs?

MS. SMITH: We are testing server hand-held devices for order-taking in 30 restaurants now, and we’ll roll them out to another 30 in the next month and another 30 by the end of the year. Servers like it because they can take on more tables and earn more tips. Eventually we’ll have tablets where guests can place their own order from the table and pay for it.

Ms. Smith is no economist. (She has a BSBA in accounting and finance, and served as CFO of Buffalo Wild Wings and other companies for about 10 years before becoming CEO in 1996.) She’s just a CEO trying to make revenues come out ahead of costs. And when she thinks about a substantial increase in the minimum wage, her thoughts turn to not expanding, hiring more experienced workers, and using technology so fewer servers can serve more customers.

She doesn’t seem as uncertain about the effects on employment as the academic economists do.