Should we have a minimum wage?

Here’s my attempt at the using the Costco Connections Yes/No format to answer this question. I’d like to mention, this post was in the works before President Obama’s State of the Union address this week.

Yes

Otherwise, employers would seek to exploit workers by paying them as little as possible.

Workers need to make enough to live on. Employers have more power than low-skilled workers in the market, so the minimum wage helps offset that power.

No

The minimum wage may set a price floor for wages above what some people are willing to work for and some people are willing to pay. If so, this reduces job opportunities and increases unemployment for low-skilled workers, depriving them of chances to gain work experience that would make them more productive and able to earn a higher income in the future.

If the minimum wage is successful at allowing some people to earn more than they otherwise would, it may also cause other negative trade-offs for these people. For example, their employers can treat their low-skill staff worse because there are folks lined up to take their job and they don’t have as many opportunities to find work elsewhere. This might mean that low-skilled workers have less flexibility in work schedules or have to put up with mean bosses.

Many workers do not need to make enough to live on. Many folks are want to make some extra money and get job experience. Some of these folks include teenagers, college students, spouses of full-time workers, and sometimes folks with full-time jobs looking to make extra money for Christmas gifts and vacations. Not all jobs have to provide a living wage.

If an employee and employer come to a voluntary agreement on wages, why should ‘we’ care what the amount of the wage is? Everybody’s situation is different, so why should we impose our preferences on others?

The minimum wage is a largely a do-gooder’s ruse. It feels good to support it, but in reality many folks work for less than minimum wage. They just happen to be off-the-books in the gray and black markets.

My opinions:

When I was younger, I voluntarily took on jobs below the minimum wage. For example, I delivered papers and assembled bikes for a bike shop owner (I think some child labor laws were broken as well).

But, I was glad to have these opportunities (my parents were also more than happy to get me out from in front of TV to do something productive) and didn’t feel I was exploited. The reason these jobs didn’t pay much is because they weren’t worth much.

If my employers had stuck to the letter of the law, I may not have had those opportunities. By the way, the bike shop job was a pure black market job, to my last “No” point.

I should note, my ‘employers’ in my paper-throwing job were my delivery customers. Judging how hard it was to collect $2 a month from them, they didn’t place much value on getting that paper twice a week.

I should also note, the biggest reason I gave it up was scheduling, not pay. I disliked waking up at 5 AM on Saturday to fold and deliver papers. I’ve never been a morning person.

I soon discovered that I could make well more than minimum wage and — more importantly at the time — could set my work schedule, by pushing a mower. I also learned some good sales techniques as I developed my customer base.

It turns out that the thing many homeowners dislike even more than paying their paperboy is mowing their lawns, which is why the very same people (employers) who had such a difficult time coughing up a quarter per paper were more than happy to pay me $80 a month to save them from lawn-mowing dread.

It’s easy for us to advocate the minimum wage when it applies to faceless people. But, so rarely do folks examine their own behavior and try to draw parallels.

We all value things a differently. Think of some of the things that you willingly pay for now. Do you pay someone to mow your lawn, clean your house, babysit, kennel your dogs when you’re on vacation, make coffee for you or coach your kids in soccer?

What if someone else came along and judged that you have been paying too little for these services, that you have been exploiting these powerless folks and you must now pay them 20% to 50% more for the same service?  You and your service providers would probably tell them to butt-out and mind their own business because you both are perfectly fine with your existing relationship. If you’re forced to pay more, you too may cut back.

When you advocate a minimum wage, you’re butting into to the business of others’. In my opinion, that’s the strongest argument against the minimum wage, because if we feel we have the right to butt into this voluntary arrangement between two people, then there is likely no end to what other meddling we’ll entitle ourselves to.

keynesian economists misjudge the economy

Natural disasters like hurricane Sandy tend to spur the following food fight among economists.

One or more economists — seeking attention and a chance to look clever — say something stupid like well, at least, the rebuilding will be good for the economy.

In response, other economists quote Frederic Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacyask why we don’t smash everyone’s house to help the economy and lecture us that economic metrics, like GDP, do not take into account the value lost in destruction.

However, I think that both sides of this food fight talk past each other. Silas Barta’s has similar thoughts.

While I agree with the second set of economists, I think they ignore what I think is one key point of the first set of economists argument — ‘slack resources’.

The first set of economists know destruction is bad, but believe that because the economy wasn’t operating at ‘full capacity’, it had slack resources that can now be put to good use in the rebuilding effort. The second set of economists never address this point.

Here’s how I would address the slack resources argument: ‘Slack resources’ is a subjective, incorrect and misleading way to characterize what’s happening in a bad economy. So is the idea of ‘full capacity’.

It looks right-enough that almost nobody questions it, even the second set of economists. Except, maybe, one that I know of (Arnold Kling).

And I can understand why so few people question the ‘slack resources’ hypothesis. When you see a friend who is unemployed and struggling to find work you tend to think of him as a slack resource.

It’s like seeing your kid doing nothing on a Saturday afternoon and you get this strong urge to put him to work. He or she appears to be a slack resource.

It’s natural for us to think — We should be able to put these folks to work! They’re ‘slacking’ off.

But, I believe the ‘slack resources’ characterization is incorrect and misleading. Scratch past the surface you will find more to the story.

Have coffee with that unemployed — slack resource — friend and you find out he has turned down three job offers, because they were for 20% less than what he made at his previous job.

You ask, why not accept the pay cut so you can get back to work? Maybe you’ll get in there, knock their socks off and be back to your old wage in no time.

Well, it turns out he had enough savings and unemployment benefits to allow him to hold out for a job that will pay him his previous wage. Why should I accept less until I absolutely have to (i.e. when I run out of unemployment benefits)?

We find out our friend isn’t a slack resource. Rather, his skills are being re-priced and he doesn’t like it.

I don’t blame him. Nobody likes to have their wages “re-priced” down, but it happens all the time and it happens due to decisions that you and I make.

When one of our favorite Hollywood superstars makes a stinker of a movie that we choose not see, he may have to accept lower pay on the next movie to get studios to hire him. He could say, if only my fans would have supported me and seen that movie. His fans might respond, if only you would have made a movie worth seeing.

The first set of economists in the food fight see a bad economy as having slack resources. But what they truly reveal to me is that they don’t understand what’s really happening — things are being repriced based on the decisions that we make.

This is lack of real understanding of a bad economy is readily apparent when you consider how many barriers to repricing the first set of economists have had a hand in putting in place.

Minimum wage is one such barrier. It’s also the reason why there are so many officially unemployed unskilled workers at the moment. The market clearing price for unskilled labor is below the minimum wage, which is a price floor. Econ 101 teaches us that when the market clearing price is lower than the price floor, we will have a situation where supply (workers) exceeds demand (jobs). That’s exactly what we have.

This is fodder for another post, but it never seems to bother these economists that their favored wage price floor is causing so much unemployment. They’d rather feel sanctimonious about supporting something that seems well-intended than allow the official price of unskilled labor to move below what they have deemed an acceptable level.

Unemployment benefits is another such barrier to repricing. Many people believe that the low amount one receives from unemployment insurance is not enough to prevent them from accepting  work and they may be right if we lived in a simpler world.

But, in this world we have folks who have some savings, working spouses and the ability to take on black and gray market jobs to earn some coin while also receiving unemployment. We also learn in Econ 101 that incentives matter. If I accept an official lower paying job, I lose my unemployment check. Why do that when I can accept an unofficial lower paying job and continue to receive unemployment — or ‘double dip’?

These barriers slow the repricing process and lengthens the ‘bad economy’. They are the reasons why our recessions seem to take longer and longer to recover from.

If our friend didn’t have a free unemployment check that he would lose by accepting an official job, he might accept an official job sooner.

So, the next time you hear an economist talk about slack resources, give some consideration to whether the resource is really slack or whether someone just hasn’t been willing to accept a lower price for that resource and why.

Coming soon…repricing downward is awful, but is it really that awful?

Let it be

 

Today, Thomas Sowell gives us some historical perspective on the relatively recent assumed government power of trying to help (not necessarily helping) the economy:

For the first 150 years of this country’s existence, the federal government felt no great need to “do something” when the economy turned down. Over that long span of time, the economic downturns were neither as deep nor as long lasting as they have been since the federal government decided that it had to “do something” in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, which set a new precedent.

One of the last of the “do nothing” presidents was Warren G. Harding. In 1921, under President Harding, unemployment hit 11.7 percent — higher than it has been under President Obama. Harding did nothing to get the economy stimulated.

Far from spending more money to try to “jump start” the economy, President Harding actually reduced government spending, as the tax revenues declined during the economic downturn.

This was not a matter of absent-mindedly neglecting the economy. President Harding deliberately rejected the urging of his own Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, to intervene.

The 11.7 percent unemployment rate in 1921 fell to 6.7 percent in 1922, and then to 2.4 percent in 1923. It is hard to think of any government intervention in the economy that produced such a sharp and swift reduction in unemployment as was produced by just staying out of the way and letting the economy rebound on its own.

Later, he explains why trying to help is not the same as actually helping and why jobs are not plentiful:

The endless proliferation of anti-business interventions by government, and the sight of more of the same coming over the horizon from Barack Obama’s appointees in the federal bureaucracies, creates the one thing that has long stifled economic activity in countries around the world — uncertainty about what the rules of the game are, and the unpredictability of how specifically those rules will continue to change in a hostile political environment.

 

Getting cause and effect backwards

This post at The Pretense of Knowledge about the cognitive dissonance anti-consumerist supporters of Keynesian stimulus (i.e. college hippies), reminds me of an often misunderstood cause and effect in our economy.

The underlying belief of government stimulus spending is that spending itself is wealth.

But, the cause and effect go the other way. Spending does not cause wealth, wealth causes spending. 

Before my early ancestor, Unk, initiated the first trade with your early ancestor Puhg, Unk had to first create something that Puhg wanted. Likewise for Pugh.

So, while Unk got really good at gathering apples (investing), enough so that he had more than he needed at the moment (savings), Pugh was honing his skills catching fish (investing again), more than he needed. Unk trade a few of his extra apples, that he valued less, with Pugh for some fish, which he valued a bit more.  Likewise for Pugh.

In the trade value was created for both Unk and Pugh.

Now supporters of Keynesian stimulus will tell me that government stimulus “spending” is really “investment”, just like the investment Unk made in improving his apple gathering productivity. The government “investment” improves “our” productivity.

And, in some cases, that may be true. However, I noticed on a recent trip through several states that many of the shiniest and most architecturally adventurous new buildings, many adorned with art, happened to be government buildings.

I noticed some new private buildings, too. They were more conventional, less flashy. Maybe government knows something the private building owners don’t. Perhaps they know that groundbreaking architecture and public art adds to productivity. Certainly there are some private buildings like that as well.  But, I wondered how “we’ve” become more productive with such an elaborate edifice for a public works building, in one case.

Toughen up

1. Milton Friedman’s comment, “Capitalism is a profit and loss system. Profit encourages risk-taking. Loss encourages prudence.”

2. Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, released the prologue of his new book on Anti-Fragility online. In it, he expounds on Friedman’s point:

Which brings us to the largest fragilizer of society, and greatest generator of crises, absence of “skin in the game.” Some become antifragile at expense to others by getting the upside (or gains) from volatility, variations and disorder and exposing others to the downside risks of losses or harm from them.

In the housing crisis, losses were spread to other parties — investors in mortgages and ultimately to taxpayers — while the upside was retained by the bankers. This caused the bankers to exercise less prudence. How many lottery tickets would you buy if someone else was paying? Likely many more than you would buy on your own.

Then Taleb makes an even more important point:

And such antifragility-at-the-cost-of-fragility-of-others is hidden — given the blindness to antifragility by the Soviet-Harvard intellectual circles, this asymmetry is rarely identified and never taught.

Very few people see this. They even blame the problems on capitalism, never realizing that  spreading losses across taxpayers is not capitalism.

3. A blog post from the Wall Street Journal: Half of U.S. Lives in Household Getting [Federal Government] Benefits.  And, we’re not talking about benefits like driving on Federally-funded roads or sending a child to a public school that receives some Federal funds. No. We’re talking about getting a direct benefit from the government.

I’m guessing that Friedman and Taleb would suggest that this doesn’t end well.

Friedman might say that we are removing losses and therefore, removing prudence. Taleb might say that we are letting people gamble without having “skin in the game”.

Ultimately, this leads to folks taking risks they wouldn’t take if they had to pay the loss. This is dangerous itself. But, it also leads to something else that is even more dangerous. The loss of resilience, hardiness, grit and adaptability.

Wall Street Journal Potpourri

1. From  A Stingy Spirit Lifts Airline’s Profit, on the success of low-budget flyer Spirit Airlines. Most Chief Executives want to own the market. You don’t often hear a Chief Executive who knows the value prop that his business delivers:

Spirit Airlines N587NK (an A321-231) lifting o...

Airline evolution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“If a corporation is buying your ticket, you’re not going to fly with us. We’re OK with that,” said Spirit Chief Executive Ben Baldanza.

Later he says:

“If you’re going to bring a lot of bags, fly Southwest.”

And, you know you work for a boss with a focus on the bottom line when he says:

 “We buy pens when we have to,” Mr. Baldanza said. “But if you go to a conference and they give you a pen and a pad, absolutely bring that pen and pad back.”

Funny thing. The pens I use are freebies from conferences and such. Many of my co-workers order the finest pens and laugh at mine.

2. Holman Jenkins writing in Jamie Dimon Stubs Dodd-Frank’s Toe:

Banks that refrain from risk aren’t banks. And expecting regulators to distinguish good hedges from “risky bets,” as Volcker [rule] requires, is to expect regulators to be better bankers (for a lot less pay) than one of the best bankers, Mr. Dimon, has shown himself to be.

3. Good news from the home borrowing front in Lenders Want to Know Everything:

Borrowers who have recently applied for a mortgage know how thorough lenders are now in documenting a person’s finances and ability to repay.

A big reason lenders are being careful is that they fear they’ll have to buy back loans from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac if proper underwriting standards aren’t adhered to and the loans go bad after being securitized by one of the government-sponsored enterprises…

As Russ Roberts says, “Capitalism is a profit and loss system. Profits encourage risk-taking. Losses encourage prudence.”Amazingly, when you put the incentive of losses back in the system, prudence increases.

“I’m not your best friend, I’m your only friend”

Mitt Romney should adapt this speech from Larry the Liquidator, from the movie Other Peoples Money, for his campaign.

I especially like Larry’s 10-year analysis. Here’s Larry’s version (to shareholders):

For the last ten years, this company has bled your money. Did this community ever say, ‘we know times are tough, we’ll lower taxes, reduce water & sewer.’ Check it out. You’re paying twice what you did 10 years ago.

And our devoted employees, who have taken no increases for the past 3 years, are still making twice what they made 10 years ago.

And our stock? 1/6th what is was 10 years ago.

Here’s a version for Romney:

For the last 10 years, our government has bled our money. Did they ever come to you and say, ‘we know times are tough, we’ll share your pain, we’ll lower government spending so you can invest more and grow the economy, that way we’ll all do better?”

No. They increased spending in the good times and increased it more in the bad. They don’t care about you. They care about growing their power and telling you its for your own good.

Check it out. They’re spending twice as much as ten years ago.

Our debt? It’s tripled in the last 10 years. It was about $16 thousand for every man, woman and child back then. That was plenty. Did you just have a baby? Congratulations! She was born owing $50 thousand.

Other parts of Larry’s speech that I really liked:

  • It doesn’t pay to grow market share in shrinking market. The last buggy whip maker was probably the best, but you wouldn’t have invested in it.
  • Take the buyout, then go invest your money in growing businesses. You’ll help the economy, you’ll create jobs and “God forbid, you’ll make a couple bucks!”

That last one is another good one for Romney.  “God forbid that I pursued the American dream and SUCCEEDED. You can too!”

Spoiler alert: Other Peoples Money had a happy ending. Larry the Liquidator gained control of the company off the strength of his speech (hint, hint Romney), but discovered that the company could produce something useful.  I believe it was kevlar or gore-tex fabric, or something like that. So everyone got to keep their jobs and the company became a success again, without being liquidated.