Good reading on the minimum wage

Here’s the best thing I’ve read about the minimum wage in a long time, from Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek.

Don has been working this lump of clay to articulate his case against the minimum wage for a long-time and I think it’s finally taken shape into something that is compelling. I especially like:

Flaws galore infect Steven Pearlstein’s case for raising the minimum wage (“Big strides could come from a small bump in pay,” Jan. 5) – that is, his case for government intervention to strip low-skilled workers of the most valuable of the few bargaining chips they have when competing for employment, namely, their ability to offer to work for hourly pay below that of other, more qualified workers who are paid the government-stipulated minimum.

I also like his explanation for why the minimum wage studies that folks like Pearlstein use to support their opinions are flawed.

It would be like empirically studying today the effects of a recent rise in the minimum-allowed price of strawberries if strawberries had long ago been made unnecessarily pricey by minimum-strawberry-price legislation.  Consumers would long ago have switched their diets away from strawberries; chefs would long ago have begun concocting fewer desserts and recipes with strawberries and more with other fruits and berries.  Other ingredients would have become staple substitutes for strawberries in consumers’ diets and in chefs’ dishes and recipes.  Farmers, in turn, would have – despite the formal, legislated higher list price for strawberries – either totally abandoned or significantly abandoned strawberry production.

Read the whole thing.

The competition to see who can best cooperate with consumers

That’s a great way to view competition between businesses.

Credit David Henderson’s post on EconLog, where he is justifiably annoyed at the use of battle terms in a Wall Street Journal article to describe competition between two airlines for consumers flying to and from Seattle. Henderson thinks the author, and many like her, neglect the benefits to consumers when framing business competition as a battle.

Also, credit a commenter on his post, Julien Couvreur, for pointing to and summarizing a Don Boudreaux post about the same thing. Couvreur writes:

…economists tend to talk a lot about competition, but it is competition for cooperation (who can cooperate best with consumers). This is hardly war.


Important Words

Don Boudreaux posts an important Quotation of the Day from Deirdre McCloskey (see Don’s post for full cite):

Unlike stealing or taxing or highhandedly appropriating, exchange is a positive – not a zero- or negative-sum game.  If Sir Botany must tempt the peasants with offers of educational services or consultation on interior decorating in order to get the barley, both he and the peasants are better off.  If he just grabs it, only he is better off and they are worse off.  If I buy low and sell high, I am doing both of the people with whom I deal a favor.  That’s three favors done – to the seller, the buyer, and me in the middle and no one hurt except by envy’s sting.  The seller and buyer didn’t have to enter the deal, and by their willingness they show they are made better off.  One can say it stronger.  Only such deals are just.

I was exposed to the idea of that voluntary trade is a win-win much too late in life. This is the foundation upon which we can credit our superb standard of living, but we all too often are taught to despise rather than celebrate it. We should despise, or at the very least, be more cautious of the unjust transactions.

Socially wasteful?

As a long-time debate aficionado, it seems to become rarer and rarer that I come across a debate that I haven’t heard yet and makes me think. I came across such a debate between Steve Landsburg and Don Boudreaux about socially wasteful spending.

It goes something like this:

Company A has a product that produces value for society, let’s say $100. Company B faces a decision to make a competing product that is slightly better and would add marginally to the overall value for society, let’s say $10. So, Company B’s product would produce value of $110.

Company B faces an incentive to invest more than the marginal improvement in societal value, $10 in this case, because it can also attract Company A’s customers.

So, maybe Company B invests $50 to produce $10 more in value for society, because it can attract the some or all of the $100 of value already served by Company A’s product.

On net, society is worse off because a $50 investment has been made to produce $10 of value, for a net loss of $40. Landsburg says the $50 is socially wasteful spending, though he admits that the simple example doesn’t capture all the complexities of the real world, like the possibility that the $50 investment accidentally produces more than $50 of value.

But, I think his main point is that this incentive to make socially wasteful investments is, perhaps, one weakness in the normal feedbacks of capitalism.

I’m having a hard time fitting the real world onto the simple example, where there is uncertainty, risk, prudence, competition, different value propositions for different people and such.

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Minimum wage links

Don Boudreaux has had several great posts about the minimum wage lately, but a couple are exceptional. In this one, he does a great job of giving illustrative analogies to make the economics easier to understand. In this one he writes a letter to the New York Times to dispute the left’s favorite Nobel-laureate, Paul Krugman.

In this one, Greg Mankiw, also responding to Krugman, points to research that found a link between jobs and the minimum wage. Mankiw also points to a great post from Steve Landsburg, that introduces some interesting and different points. Steve edits that post here.

Mankiw also disagrees with the President about research on minimum wage.

Of course, there’s one single point that most of these economist, except Don Boudreaux, misses: What business is it of your’s?

Kings by committee

From Don Boudreaux’s Sunday’s Quotation of the Day

…page 123 of the 1981 Liberty Fund edition of Herbert Spencer’s important 1884 tract, The Man Versus the State:

“The great political superstition of the past was the divine right of kings.  The great political superstition of the present is the divine right of parliaments.”

Neither do I

Don Boudreaux, of Cafe Hayek, explains why he doesn’t care about income inequality. I agree. At the end his post, Boudreaux adds a great comment from Steve Horwitz.

I also agree with a couple of comments to the post that say that concern for income inequality isn’t necessarily “envy elevated to public policy,” as Boudreaux claims at one point.

While I think envy plays a role for some of those concerned with the income-inequality-shiny-object, I think others are motivated by what they view as unfair processes for achieving wealth, which is also a concern of Boudreaux’s.

It’s just that Boudreaux and these folks have different views on what constitute unfair processes. Which, I believe, should take the discussion to the next stage: What are those unfair processes and why are they unfair?

Boudreaux and libertarians generally see wealth acquired through market activities as fair and wealth acquired by scratching the back of a politician as unfair.  But, others tend to see it the other way around.

But, those who see it the other way around don’t explain the processes they deem as unfair. They assume income inequality is proof that the processes were unfair.

Here’s something else I’ve noticed. Ask them about the wealth Steve Jobs earned before his death or that of their favorite movie stars and you’ll hear why these particular wealthy people deserve it. It’s because they produced something these folks personally value.

Ask them about the wealth of an oil or pharmaceutical company CEO and you’ll get a sneer.

Their idea of “unfair processes” generally is their own arbitrary assessment of whether the person deserves the wealth or not.


Shrinking middle class prop

Two non-pathetic economists, Don Boudreaux and Mark Perry (one has bought me beer), write in the Wall Street Journal today that the shrinking middle class is a nothing more than a political prop.

You should read their criticisms of cost and wage measurements. But, here are a few points that are more compelling to the average joe. First, the basics have never cost us less:

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, spending by households on many of modern life’s “basics”—food at home, automobiles, clothing and footwear, household furnishings and equipment, and housing and utilities—fell from 53% of disposable income in 1950 to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.

Second, gadgets of prosperity are available to all:

Today, the quantities and qualities of what ordinary Americans consume are closer to that of rich Americans than they were in decades past. Consider the electronic products that every middle-class teenager can now afford—iPhones, iPads, iPods and laptop computers. They aren’t much inferior to the electronic gadgets now used by the top 1% of American income earners, and often they are exactly the same.

Finally, a true measure. Would you trade what you earn and have today with someone from the 1950s or 70s?

Even though the inflation-adjusted hourly wage hasn’t changed much in 50 years, it is unlikely that an average American would trade his wages and benefits in 2013—along with access to the most affordable food, appliances, clothing and cars in history, plus today’s cornucopia of modern electronic goods—for the same real wages but with much lower fringe benefits in the 1950s or 1970s, along with those era’s higher prices, more limited selection, and inferior products.

I can’t believe anyone buys the shrinking middle class barb. For those of us that have been around for more than a couple of decades, we don’t need economists to point out that the suburban blossom of mcmansions and the roads becoming clogged 4×4 family passenger trucks occurred during this period where the middle class supposedly shrunk.


In a post about styrofoam, Don Boudreaux points out Diedre McCloskey’s better name for capitalism, innovationism. I couldn’t agree more. The word capitalism sterilizes what’s really happening. Innovationism captures it much better.

Free Market Masterpiece

I agree with Don Boudreaux, of Cafe Hayek, that John Cochrane’s health care essay is a must read.

I first titled the post, “Health Care Masterpiece,” but then changed it to “Free Market Masterpiece”. In his essay, Cochrane does a masterful job of contrasting free market success stories to our government-restrained market for health care.

Here are a few snippets.

I bet you didn’t know:

About 70% of hospitals and 85% of health‐care employment is in non‐profits,whose legal and regulatory treatment protects much inefficiency from competition.

Maybe for‐profit companies pay too much attention to stock prices. But non‐profits can go on inefficiently forever, with no stockholders to complain.  The whole point of a non‐profit is to pursue goals other than economic efficiency.

Here he summarizes the competing goals of various government actions in health care:

…here we have the government forcing small size in order to boost competition with one hand, stopping entry to protect hospitals from competition with another, trying to force larger “networks” through “Affordable Care Organizations” to obtain the needed economies of scale with the third, but laws preserving doctor independence with the fourth.


On reflection, it’s amazing that computerizing medical records was part of the ACA and stimulus bills. Why in the world do we need a subsidy for this? My bank computerized records 20 years ago.

Why, when you go to the doctor, do you answer the same 20 questions over and over again, and what the heck are they doing trusting your memory to know what your medical history and list of medications are?

He answers that question (read it to find his answer) and OMG:

No, we did not get cheap and amazing cell phones by government ramping up the pressure on the 1960s AT&T. Southwest Airlines did not come about from effectiveness panels or an advisory board telling United and American (or TWA and Pan AM) how to reorganize operations. The mass of auto regulation did nothing to lower costs or induce efficient production by the big three.

When has this  ever worked?  The post office? Amtrak? The department of motor vehicles? Road construction? Military procurement? The TSA? Regulated utilities? European state‐run industries? The last 20 or so medical “cost control” ideas? The best example and worst performer of all,..wait for it…public schools?

I will post more quotes later. But, I also agree with Boudreaux that you should take the time to read the whole thing.