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.

Good reporting from a store?

Despite my concern about a Costco founder publicly supporting tax increases, then making a special December Costco dividend to avoid these higher taxes, I’d like to commend Costco’s member magazine, the Costco Connection, for setting an example of good journalism.

Costco members receive this publication each month. It mostly has information on products available at Costco, but there is a smattering of other content. One recurring piece is the Yes/No page.

Each month, the Costco Connection asks an issue-related question to which they publish the response from two “experts,” one supporting the answer Yes and the other supporting No. The Connection also includes three short sound bites from customers on each side of the debate.

That’s a model other publications can learn from. I often stop reading news articles because of how poorly the facts and opposing arguments are presented. Often there is no attempt to present the opposing argument. Other times, when opposing arguments are included, they are token attempts that misrepresent the actual arguments.

Consider the recent reporting about the fiscal cliff. What arguments for Republican resistance to raising the top income tax rate did your news source present? I heard inaccurate and inept reporting on both sides.

Liberals seemed to think that Republicans wanted to protect their wealthy buddies, or just didn’t want to compromise with Democrats or were beholden to the power wielded by puppet-master Grover Norquist (who?).

Even when a fairer presentation of the Republican resistance was presented, it seemed to come with editorial gestures, like eye-rolls, that made it clear that such intentions should not be trusted and you’d be stupid to believe it.

Why didn’t we see more of the style of reporting that I can only seem to find in the Costco Connection?

Why not present the arguments in as fair and clear a light as possible and let people decide for themselves?

Maybe the Costco Connection will cover this issue before it all comes up again very soon.

How rude

I’ll quote the from the same well-written Wall Street Journal editorial as W.E. Heasley:

When President Obama needed a business executive to come to his campaign defense, Jim Sinegal was there. The #Costco co-founder, director and former CEO even made a prime-time speech at the Democratic Party convention in Charlotte. So what a surprise this week to see that Mr. Sinegal and the rest of the Costco board voted to give themselves a special dividend to avoid Mr. Obama’s looming tax increase. Is this what the President means by “tax fairness”?

Specifically, the giant retailer announced Wednesday that the company will pay a special dividend of $7 a share this month. That’s a $3 billion Christmas gift for shareholders that will let them be taxed at the current dividend rate of 15%, rather than next year’s rate of up to 43.4%—an increase to 39.6% as the Bush-era rates expire plus another 3.8% from the new ObamaCare surcharge.

More striking is that Costco also announced that it will borrow $3.5 billion to finance the special payout. Dividends are typically paid out of earnings, either current or accumulated. But so eager are the Costco executives to get out ahead of the tax man that they’re taking on debt to do so.’

Later in the editorial, they point out that based on the number of Costco shares owned by Jim Sinegal and his wife, this special dividend will save them $4 million in taxes.

How rude.

This violates a rule from my previous post: If you want more government, then you pay more also.

I wonder what Sinegal’s shareholders would have thought if he had taken a stand in line with his espoused principles. Sorry shareholders, the Board wanted to give you a special dividend so you could keep more of your money, but I’m a big supporter of big government so we won’t do that.

Update: Thanks to Speedmaster at The Pretense of Knowledge blog for the prominent link to my post. I’m honored. I also want to mention the cronyism that he included in the WSJ article that I left out:

“As it happens, one of those new stores opened Thursday in Washington, D.C., and no less a political star than Joe Biden stopped by to join Mr. Sinegal and pose for photos as he did some Christmas shopping. It’s nice to have friends in high places.”

DC is notorious for its opposition to big box retailers. This makes me question Sinegal’s motives for publicly supporting higher taxes. Higher tax support for a new store?