Friday Reads: Life’s Labor Lost

lll Good Morning!

I think I’ve mentioned that I’m not a labor economist.  I’m a financial economist.  However, it’s hard to get through any econ program with out learning something about the labor markets given that it’s one of the most basic of all markets.   I wanted to talk about the increased minimum wage proposal in the President’s SOTU address.

You’ll probably hear quite a bit about how minimum wages create unemployment.  This is true under specific conditions.  The minimum wage must be below the going wage or what we call the equilibrium or clearing wage so that it is ‘binding’  or actually creating an excess supply of job seekers for that wage and less jobs than would be available at the clearing wage. You can look at the graph of the US below and see that in many states, the proposed Obama increase to the minimum wage is lower than the going wage in many states.  The poorest states–mostly in the south and middle of the country–are the ones with the lower wages.

However, the basic 101 econ labor market conditions, assumptions and model are very simplistic.  All of these things impact the outcome and can determine if the minimum wage increase creates any excess workers.    Labor economists that look at the real world have found some additional things about minimum wages that suggest that minimum wage can benefit the economy at large and unemployment at large.  They can also help create efficiencies in unexpected places, which is always good for markets.

I’m going to try to give you some background from the popular press, scholarly articles, and a conservative magazine where economists explain why increasing the minimum wage can be good for the economy.  Actually, there’s so much good rationale that even Walmart lobbies congress for increases. That probably will surprise you, but it’s pretty simple.  Minimum wage workers are Walmart shoppers.  Giving them more income turns them into customers. They don’t have any leftover money so they basically spend all they get.  This is good for Walmart.  This isn’t true for richer folks.  They tend to sit on their money and it goes to places that can take time to work through our economy if it actually goes to our economy and not some place else entirely.

So, let me first start with a New Yorker article called “The Case for a Higher Minimum Wage”.  This is, of course, not the scholarly arguments. However, there’s some good background information in the article to get us situated with the stylized facts. Unlike House Republicans and Joe Scarborough,  people that actually want to know abut things rather than opine through their bungholes love them some stylized facts.

While the labor economists and econometricians are still arguing about which of their many studies can be relied upon, there are quite a few things about minimum wages, and their impact on the economy, that we know for sure. Taken together, these things amply justify raising the minimum wage, as President Obama called for in his State of the Union address.

The first statement we can make without fear of contradiction is that, at $7.25 an hour, the current minimum wage is pretty low. In nominal dollars, it’s gone up quite a bit over the past twenty-five years. In 1978, it was $2.65; in 1991, it was $4.25. But these figures don’t take into account rising prices, which eat away at purchasing power. After adjusting for inflation, the minimum wage is about $3.30 less than it was in 1968. Back then—forty-five years ago—the minimum wage was $10.56 an hour, according to a very useful chart from CNNMoney.

We also know that the U.S. minimum wage is low compared to its counterparts in other advanced countries. In France and Ireland, for example, the minimum remuneration level is more than eleven dollars an hour. Even in Great Britain, which is usually regarded as a country with a flexible, U.S.-style labor market, it is close to ten dollars an hour. Another informative chart, this one from Business Insider, shows that the U.S. minimum wage is comparable to ones in places like Greece, Spain, and Slovenia—countries where G.D.P. per capita and labor productivity are markedly lower than here in the United States. We have an advanced economy but a middle-level minimum wage.

A second important and (largely) undisputed finding is that there is no obvious link between the minimum wage and the love's labour's sketch copyunemployment rate. During the nineteen sixties, when the minimum wage was raised sharply, unemployment rates were sharply lower than they were in the nineteen eighties, when the real value of the minimum wage fell dramatically. If you look across the states, some of which set a minimum wage above the federal minimum, you can’t see any sign of higher rates leading to higher unemployment. In Nevada, where the national minimum of $7.25 an hour applies, the jobless rate is 10.2 per cent. In Vermont, where the minimum wage is $8.60 an hour, the unemployment rate is 5.1 per cent. What these figures tell us is that other factors, such as the overall state of the economy and how local industries are doing, matter a lot more for employment than the level of the minimum wage does.

There are, in fact, many things that impact how the level of the minimum wage will impact an economy. Some economists have found that a “properly functioning minimum wage” can actually improve labor flows in a market.  Lee & Saez (2010) show under which conditions this can happen. This link goes to a theoretical paper so if calculus is not you’re thing, you may want to take my word for it. I’m going to show you the technical result as well as the authors’ story that is much more intuitive so you get an idea of how economists look at these things. This is from the paper’s introduction and conclusion which are the parts without the calculus!!

We show that a binding minimum wage is desirable as long as the government values redistribution from high-to low-wage workers, the demand elasticity of low-skilled labor is finite, the supply elasticity of low-skilled labor is positive, and most importantly, that the unemployment induced by the minimum wage is efficient, i.e. unemployment hits workers with the lowest surplus first. The intuition is extremely simple: starting from the competitive equilibrium, a small binding minimum wage has a first order effect on distribution but only a second order effect on efficiency as only marginal workers initially lose their job.

This is from the employer’s view point.  It basically says they let go of their worst employees first so they really don’t lose much.  Also, it implies it’s probably not a large number that are released.  The problem is that this doesn’t really look at the increased number of people that might enter the work force to get at the higher wage.  This is part of the excess worker phenomenon as  people that wouldn’t be in the market for the lower wage will enter the market if the wage is higher.  Therefore, more people will be looking for jobs than there will be jobs available.  However, this isn’t as big of a problem as job losers for society as a general rule.  It just makes the numbers appear worse.

The second part of the paper considers the more realistic case where the government also uses taxes and transfers for redistribution. In our model, we abstract from the hours of work decision and focus only on the job choice and work participation decisions. Such a model can capture both participation decisions (the extensive margin) as well as decisions whereby individuals can choose higher paying occupations by exerting more effort (the intensive margin). In that context, the government observes only earnings, but not the utility work costs incurred by individuals.1

In such a model, we show that a minimum wage is desirable if unemployment induced by the minimum wage is efficient and the government values redistribution toward low-skilled workers. The intuition for this result is the following. A binding minimum wage enhances the effectiveness of transfers to low-skilled workers as it prevents low-skilled wages from falling through incidence e ffects. Theoretically, the minimum wage under efficient rationing sorts individuals into employment and unemployment based on their unobservable cost of work. Thus, the minimum wage partially reveals costs of work in a way that the tax system cannot.

This is an interesting result since it basically says that it’s a more efficient way of giving poorer folks incomes by keeping the most efficient ones in the labor force instead of being unemployed and relying on government programs.  Their model argues that a minimum wage efficiently rations ‘out of work’ benefits.  So, in this case, yes it creates some unemployment, but generally this means the workers who are the most ‘deserving’ of the job stay in the job and those that aren’t can fall into the safety net and be retrained or schooled to improve their prospects.

One of the primary results of a paper by Dube et al (2o12) is estimating the decrease of what we call “churning” or what you probably know as job-hopping. This behavior costs employers a lot of money since the initial employment and training periods can be expensive for even the lowest wager earners.  Reducing churning means less of these expenses overall and basically coverage of the increased wage. So, in this case, the minimum wage makes the employer think about the total wage bill and not just the portion related to hourly work.

state-minimum-wages

Here’s one of the more interesting set of arguments from the conservative point of view.  This is the idea that by providing a good working wage at the bottom wage earners, you stop the problem of a potential ‘college graduate’ bubble.  Since the majority of jobs in this country still don’t require a college degree, people will be more likely to work jobs and not over-educate themselves. The author also argues that the kinds of jobs that tend to be minimum wage jobs are not out-sourceable so improving the lot of these folks improves a lot more than just the people in the jobs.  Minimum wage jobs tend to be service jobs and the benefits of the incomes and the jobs themselves will stay in the country regardless of the higher wage. We again see the argument that most economists make about ‘trickle-up’ economics.  Giving more income to the lowest wage earners actually creates a stimulus because they spend their money and there are a lot of them.

Although the direct financial benefits to working-class Americans and our economy as a whole are the primary justifications for the proposal, there are a number of subsidiary benefits as well, ranging across both economic and non-economic areas.

First, the net dollar transfers through the labor market in this proposal would generally be from higher to lower income strata, and lower-income individuals tend to pay a much larger fraction of their income in payroll and sales taxes. Thus, a large boost in working-class wages would obviously have a very positive impact on the financial health of Social Security, Medicare and other government programs funded directly from the paycheck. Meanwhile, increased sales tax collections would improve the dismal fiscal picture for state and local governments, and the public school systems they finance.

A final argument for using a minimum wage is that even though it tends to be less efficient and more costly than just supplementing the incomes of low income earners, it tends to be politically easier to get an increase through congress than a subsidy.

Does raising it improve the plight of the worst off, at a reasonable price?

A lot depends on your definitions, but economist Adam Ozimek makes a smart point. According to a 2007 study by the CBO, an increase in the minimum wage to $7.25, like that eventually passed that year, would increase wages by $11 billion, of which $1.6 billion went to poor families.

By contrast, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for large families (as happened in the stimulus bill) and for single people would cost $2.4 billion, of which $1.4 billion would go to poor families. The EITC option costs one fifth as much to society but does about as much good for poor families. That suggests that if you want to help families escape poverty, wage subsidies are a more cost-effective option than the minimum wage.

Oddly enough, the conservatives are less interested in the net savings, than the process of doing this, so they prefer minimum wage increases to the EITC option.  This means Boehner should be happier than he is with this proposal.

Furthermore, as large portions of the working-poor became much less poor, the payout of the existing Federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) would be sharply reduced. Although popular among politicians, the EITC is a classic example of economic special interests privatizing profits while socializing costs: employers receive the full benefits of their low-wage workforce while a substantial fraction of the wage expense is pushed onto the taxpayers. Private companies should fund their own payrolls rather than rely upon substantial government subsidies, which produce major distortions in market signals.

So, I hopefully didn’t overwhelm you with too much stuff over coffee, but I would like to remind you that this is basically the mornings read post. So, since I’ve run out of space, it’s now your turn to share the other things. Oh, and it’s okay to ask questions or tell me that something confuses you.  I’m assuming you’re not a labor economist either.  Again, there’s a lot of controversy and a lot of different circumstances and assumptions around all these models.  But, it should let you know that increasing the minimum wage can be good policy for a variety of reasons even though it might impact the number of people looking for or working at those jobs.

What’s on your reading and blogging list today?