The Right Minimum Wage? Zero

Monday, October 30, 2006

“The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00.” So read an editorial headline in one of the most respected newspapers in America. The editorial stated: “There’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed. Raising the minimum wage by a substantial amount would price working poor people out of the job market.” Can you guess the newspaper? The Wall Street Journal, perhaps? Right city, wrong paper. This editorial appeared on January 14, 1987, in the New York Times.

More recently, the Times has called for further increases in the minimum wage. At the federal level, many Democrats and some Republicans are pushing to raise the minimum wage from its current level of $5.15 an hour. Moreover, voters in all six states that had minimum-wage initiatives on the ballot in November approved the increase.

Most people—even if they understand they will pay higher prices for goods and services—see the issue as a no-brainer. Wouldn’t it be nice to raise the wages of the lowest-earning people? But economists of various political stripes (including myself) tend to oppose the minimum wage. We understand that it will help only a subset of the people it is thought to help and even them only a little—and hurt some of them a lot.

The reason goes back to the second sentence quoted above from the Times editorial. By raising the minimum wage, the government doesn’t guarantee jobs. It guarantees only that those who get jobs will be paid at least that minimum. But precisely by requiring this, the government destroys jobs. Someone whom an employer was willing to pay only the current minimum wage of $5.15 might not produce enough to be worth paying, say, $7.25.

It’s not all or nothing. Some of the workers currently earning $5.15 would find their wages rising to $7.25. But the marginal tasks, the least important tasks in the workplace, would not be worth $7.25, thus costing jobs. In the long run, employers will find more capital-intensive ways of having those tasks accomplished.

Because the minimum wage does not make employees automatically more productive, employers who must pay higher wages will look for other ways to compensate.

Economists’ consensus estimate is that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage would destroy 1 to 2 percent of youths’ jobs. A federal increase to $7.25 would, therefore, destroy about 800,000 to 1.6 million youths’ jobs. Some older low-skilled workers would also suffer. And the hurt to youths isn’t just short term, according to economists David Neumark of the University of California, Irvine, and Olena Nizalova of Michigan State University. In a 2004 National Bureau of Economic Research study, they found that as people reached their late 20s they worked less and earned less the longer they had been exposed, especially as teenagers, to a high minimum wage.

Those adverse effects, they found, were stronger for black teenagers, recalling the famous line from liberal economist Paul Samuelson’s 1970 textbook, Economics, about a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $2: “What good does it do a black youth to know that an employer must pay him $2.00 an hour if the fact that he must be paid that amount is what keeps him from getting a job?”

But couldn’t job losses of 1 to 2 percent be worth it, if the remaining 98 to 99 percent get a wage increase? This isn’t the trade-off, for two reasons. First and most important, the majority of youths are already earning more than the higher minimum that is typically proposed. For instance, in a study of a proposed minimum-wage increase in California to $7.75 from $6.75, economist David A. Macpherson of Florida State University and Craig Garthwaite of the employer-funded Employment Policies Institute found that, of 1.48 million California youths with jobs, 79 percent earned a wage higher than $7.75, and there’s no guarantee that these workers would get an increase. Some, but probably not most, would get what are called “spillover benefits” because of the new pressure on the wage structure. That is, they would get higher wages than before due to employers’ desire to maintain a differential between the wages of the lowest-paid and the wages of those further up in the wage structure.

Raising the minimum wage will help only a subset of the people it is thought to help and even them only a little—and hurt some of them a lot.

Second, because the minimum wage does not make employees automatically more productive, employers who must pay higher wages will look for other ways to compensate: by cutting nonwage benefits, by working the labor force harder, or by cutting training. Interestingly, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a union-funded organization in Washington that pushes for higher minimum wages, implicitly admits the last two. On its website EPI states, “employers may be able to absorb some of the costs of a wage increase through higher productivity, lower recruiting and training costs, decreased absenteeism, and increased worker morale.” How would an employer get higher productivity and decreased absenteeism? By working employees harder and firing those who miss work. How would an employer lower training costs? By training less.

Nor is raising the minimum wage a good way to reduce poverty. The usual stereotype is a minimum-wage parent with no other family members working. But that’s a small segment of minimum-wage workers. The EPI website states that 14.9 million workers would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage to $7.25, 6.6 million of whom currently earn less than $7.25—it assumes zero job loss—and 8.3 million of whom earn more but, it claims, get a spillover. Yet EPI admits that only 1.4 million of the 14.9 million, less than 10 percent, are single parents with children.

The economists’ consensus about the job-destroying aspect of the minimum wage is less strong than it used to be. In the late 1970s, 90 percent of economists surveyed agreed or partly agreed with the statement that “a minimum wage increases unemployment among young and unskilled workers.” By 2003, this percentage had fallen to 73 percent, still a strong consensus, but a weaker one than previously. What happened?

The answer is one major study and a book by economists David Card, now at the University of California, Berkeley, and Alan Krueger of Princeton. In a 1994 study of the effect of a minimum-wage increase in New Jersey, they found higher growth of jobs at fast-food restaurants in New Jersey than in Pennsylvania, whose state government had not increased the minimum wage. This study convinced a lot of people, including some economists. It was comical to see Senator Edward Kennedy hype this study when he had never before mentioned any economic studies of the minimum wage.

When the government raises the minimum wage, it doesn’t guarantee jobs. It destroys jobs.

On the basis of criticism of their data from David Neumark and economist William Wascher of the Federal Reserve Board, Card and Krueger moderated their findings, later concluding that fast-food jobs grew no more slowly, rather than more quickly, in New Jersey than in Pennsylvania. But they never answered a more fundamental criticism, namely, that the standard economists’ minimum-wage analysis makes no predictions about narrowly defined industries. As Donald Deere and Finis Welch of Texas A&M University and Kevin M. Murphy of the University of Chicago pointed out, an increased minimum wage could help expand jobs at franchised fast-food outlets by hobbling competition from local pizza places and sandwich shops. This could explain, in fact, why Card and Krueger found fast-food prices rising more quickly in New Jersey than in Pennsylvania, a fact they were unable to explain.

Even many who favor increasing the minimum wage admit it would destroy jobs. In a recent New York Times op-ed favoring a minimum-wage increase, Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic candidate for president, and Daniel Mitchell of UCLA’s Graduate School of Management write, “it’s possible some low-end jobs may be lost.” They claim that, somehow, those who lose jobs will disproportionately be illegal immigrants.

The focused support for the minimum wage comes mainly from labor unions, all of whose members earn more than the minimum. This isn’t benevolence at work but greed. Union leaders understand that the minimum wage prices out their low-wage competition: It acts like an internal tariff. If only most Americans understood.