Posts Tagged ‘minimum wage’

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In discussing the textbook treatment of the minimum wage, James Kwak provides a perfect example of how contemporary mainstream economics “can be more misleading than it is helpful.”

Kwak refers to the problem as “economism.”* For me, borrowing from a different tradition, it is a case of “vulgar economics.”

The argument against increasing the minimum wage often relies on what I call “economism”—the misleading application of basic lessons from Economics 101 to real-world problems, creating the illusion of consensus and reducing a complex topic to a simple, open-and-shut case. According to economism, a pair of supply and demand curves proves that a minimum wage increases unemployment and hurts exactly the low-wage workers it is supposed to help. The argument goes like this: Low-skilled labor is bought and sold in a market, just like any good or service, and its price should be set by supply and demand. A minimum wage, however, upsets this happy equilibrium because it sets a price floor in the market for labor. If it is below the natural wage rate, then nothing changes. But if the minimum (say, $7.25 an hour) is above the natural wage (say, $6 per hour), it distorts the market. More people want jobs at $7.25 than at $6, but companies want to hire fewer employees. The result: more unemployment. The people who are still employed are better off, because they are being paid more for the same work; their gain is exactly balanced by their employers’ loss. But society as a whole is worse off, as transactions that would have benefited both buyers and suppliers of labor will not occur because of the minimum wage. These are jobs that someone would have been willing to do for less than $6 per hour and for which some company would have been willing to pay more than $6 per hour. Now those jobs are gone, as well as the goods and services that they would have produced.

That’s exactly the argument presented by Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw in his best-selling textbook Principles of Microeconomics. He uses neoclassical economic theory to distinguish (as in the figure above) a “free labor market,” where the market is in equilibrium and there is full employment, and a “labor market with a binding minimum wage,” where there is a surplus of labor or unemployment. In the latter, at a minimum wage above the equilibrium wage, the quantity demanded of labor (by employers) is less than the quantity supplied of labor (by workers). Thus, in his view,

the minimum wage raises the incomes of those workers who have jobs, but it lowers the incomes of workers who cannot find jobs.

Mankiw then supplements his discussion of the negative effects of the minimum wage by asserting it “has it greatest impact on the market for teenage labor.” Low wages, he argues, are appropriate for such workers because they “are among the least skilled and least experienced members of the labor force.”**

Only after presenting the model of unemployment created by a minimum wage and focusing on teenage workers does Mankiw admit that the minimum wage “is a frequent topic of debate” among economists, who “are about evenly divided on the issue.”***

Nowhere does Mankiw discuss the history of the minimum wage nor the determinants of either the supply of or demand for workers who are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work for a wage at or below the minimum wage. He is thus content, like many nineteenth-century economists, to “interpret, systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations.”

That is the very definition, in our own time, of vulgar economics.

 

*I hesitate to use Kwak’s term economism because, in my view, it signifies something different: the reduction of all social phenomena, in the first or last instance, to the economy (or some part thereof, such as the relations or forces of production). In other words, economism is an economic determinism—the positing of some kind of economic essence. The irony, of course, is that neoclassical economics represents an essentialism but of a different sort: it reduces all economic and social phenomena to a given human nature. Neoclassical economics is therefore a theoretical humanism.

**Later, he adds that such teenagers are “from middle-class homes working at part-time jobs for extra spending money.” Even less reason, then, to worry about such low-wage workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, minimum-wage workers do tend to be young. But they’re not just teenagers. In 2015, more than 2.5 million workers in the United States received wages at or below the federal minimum wage (3.3 percent of the labor force), of whom 1.4 million were 25 years or older (2.2 percent of the labor force).

***The 2006 survey Mankiw refers to was conducted only among members of the American Economic Association, the main organization of mainstream economists in the United States. It is interesting that the minimum wage is one of the few issues on which there was no consensus, even among mainstream economists. About 38 percent wanted it increased, while 47 percent wanted it eliminated entirely.

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Chris Dillow is right about one thing: citing globalization as the reason for the success of Donald Trump’s campaign, especially among working-class voters, “suits some people very well for foreigners to get the blame rather than for inequality and the health of capitalism to come under scrutiny.”

But that doesn’t mean that, alongside many other factors (from the decline in labor unions to increasing automation), globalization—to be precise, capitalist globalization—doesn’t deserve some good share of the blame.

There are two main ways the U.S. working-class is affected by globalization: in terms of jobs and in terms of consumption.

As far as jobs are concerned, the combination of cheap imports (e.g., toys and garments) and outsourcing (e.g., to produce motor vehicles and electronics) has led to the reallocation of workers away from high-wage manufacturing jobs into other sectors and occupations, with large declines in wages among workers who have been forced to have the freedom to switch. Those effects are pretty straightforward, at least in terms of the research of Avraham Ebenstein, Ann Harrison, and Margaret McMillan.*

What about the cheaper goods workers can buy? The argument that is usually invoked to counter the negative effects on jobs and wages is that workers can now purchase less expensive goods (e.g., at big-box and dollar stores), thereby increasing their consumption.

Here’s Dillow:

For one thing, cheap imports should help workers. If you’re spending $5 on a Chinese T-shirt rather than $10 on a US-made one, you’ve got $5 more to spend on other things. That should increase demand and jobs.

That may be true in the short run, since with the same nominal incomes workers can add other items to their consumption bundle.

But what Dillow and others miss is the fact that, as the prices of items in the wage bundle decline (and without an ability to defend the value of their customary standard of living), the value of workers’ labor power also has a tendency to decline. As a result, employers have to pay less to get access to laborers’ ability to work—and their profits rise.

Considering both jobs and consumption, members of the U.S. working-class—many of them voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—correctly understood they were under assault by the forces of globalization.

The fact that U.S. workers have, in recent decades, been negatively affected by globalization doesn’t mean either adopting a nationalist stance or ignoring all the other factors. Nationalism (e.g., in terms of erecting protectionist barriers to trade) just pits workers in one country against those in other countries and doesn’t, within any country including the United States, solve the problem of workers getting the short end of the economic stick. And, certainly, we need to look at all the causes of workers’ current plight, from deteriorating real minimum wages to skill- and power-biased technological change.

However, globalization as it is currently configured has been one of the strategies employers have been able to use to discipline and punish workers, increasing both inequality and insecurity.

Globalization is therefore at least in part to blame for Trump’s victory.

 

*Even those who, like Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Tyler Moran, want to argue that, through the “prosperity effect,” globalization has made a positive contribution to average wages, are forced to admit that “Richer households did enjoy a disproportionate share of benefits from globalization, because of their dominant claim on corporate profits and proprietors’ incomes and the very small impact of foreign competition on the wages of highly skilled workers.”

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David Howell is right: attempts to raise the federal minimum wage in the United States (from the current $7.25 to, say, $12 or $15 an hour) have been stymied by a no-job-losses rule—the idea (promoted by mainstream economists and employers alike) that the minimum wage should be set so that there are no job losses for anyone anywhere in the country.

Determining a suitable federal minimum wage based solely on a zero job loss rule is a public policy straightjacket that would effectively rule out any significant raise of the wage floor above that which already exists. Yet from a historical perspective, strict adherence to such policymaking criteria would have also made it impossible to ban child labor (job losses!), as well as many critical environmental and occupational health and safety regulations. It would also foreclose any consideration of policies like paid family leave, which exists in every other affluent country.

As Howell correctly explains, the possibility of some job losses—for some workers, in some places—as a result of significantly raising the minimum wage can be countered by a combination of “emergency relief” (like extended unemployment benefits) and creating new jobs (e.g., through expansionary fiscal policy and public works programs).

So, what stands in the way? Howell focuses on methodological problems (“because the identification of the wage at which there is expected to be zero job loss must be evidence-based, there is no way to establish the higher nationwide wage floors necessary for empirical tests”) and misplaced priorities (such as forgetting about “the moral, social, economic, and political benefits of a much higher standard of living from work for tens of millions of workers”).

Both are valid points. But I’d point to a third: profits. The fact is, when employers threaten to let workers go (or not hire additional workers) if the minimum wage is increased (or mainstream economists make the argument for them), they’re attempting to protect their bottom line. If they kept their existing workers, so the argument goes, their profits would fall; and if they wanted to maintain their current level of profits, they’d have to fire some of their workers and replace them with one or another form of automation. It’s all about pumping out the maximum profits from their employees.

Profits also enter the story in a second way. Private employers see the possibility of compensating for minimum-wage-related job losses—by offering workers public relief and by creating new jobs through public programs—as a challenge to their existing control over workers, jobs, and ultimately profits. That’s the second reason they oppose an increase in minimum wage, because they know full well society has the means to make up for their willingness to eliminate jobs. But then their own role in the economy and the profits that come from that role are called into question.

For both those reasons—the threat to fire workers and the threat to their monopoly as employers—profits are the real obstacle to raising the minimum wage.

There’s no getting around it. We have to challenge the sanctity of private profits, presumed and promoted by both employers and mainstream economists, in order to guarantee American workers a decent minimum wage.

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