Inequality Unexplained

There is a new economics documentary film that stars Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and now a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. The film, Inequality for All,  directed by Jacob Kornbluth, won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award and has been shown nation-wide.

Unfortunately, Robert Reich has not explained why the US has had an increasing inequality of income. Neither in the film nor in his writings and interviews does he examine the cause. Without the elimination of the cause, there can be no remedy. As usual in documentaries of social problems, most of the film just describes and tells stories about the inequality.

Inequality for All is typical of welfare-state presentations in jumping to governmental responses that only treat the symptoms and effects. Reich advocates a higher minimum wage without any analysis what determines wages in a market economy.

Most basically, in a free market, ordinary workers are paid what economists call the “marginal product,” or what an extra worker contributes to output. If a worker adds $10 each hour to total output, then that is what he is paid, and that is what he is worth to the company. If the company pays him any less, say $8, that provides an opportunity for a similar company to offer $9 and get the $10 worth of output, so competition will drive the wage up to the worker’s contribution, his marginal product.

A minimum wage forces the firm to pay more than the worker’s marginal product. The firm will not hire a worker who costs more than he is worth. The reason that workers are not all dismissed is the law of diminishing returns. In a farm or factory, if there are only a few workers, each worker’s marginal product is high, because there is a lot of land and machines, and few workers. As workers are added, each extra worker contributes less extra output. Workers are hired up to the quantity for which the wage equals the marginal product.

The minimum wage acts like a tax on labor that forces the firm to reduce the number of workers employed to that level where the higher marginal product equals the required wage. In some cases, the firm will also respond by reducing benefits such as medical insurance such as by hiring part-time instead of full-time labor.

Many firms in competitive industries respond to the higher minimum wage as they would to a higher tax. They pass on some of the costs to the customers. The higher price reduces sales, production, employment, and income.

The minimum wage is lethal to the economy as it acts as an extra tax on employment on top of payroll taxes, unemployment taxes, workers insurance taxes, and the income tax on the profits of the firm. All these taxes reduce employment and reduce the take-home pay of the worker.

Henry George stated in his 1883 book Social Problems that “There is in nature no reason for poverty.” Poverty is caused not by any lack of natural resources but by human institutions that deprive workers of the ability to buy what they produce. The institution with the power to impose this intervention is government. The totality of restrictions, mandates, taxes, and subsidies reduces enterprise and takes away much of the product of labor. Then impoverished workers need the welfare state to provide the necessities of life.

The ideology of welfare statists makes them only think of governmental aid and reject the idea that governmental intervention is the source of the problem. They sneer at “free market fundamentalism.” They don’t understand the fact that taxes on labor redistribute wealth from workers to landowners as government taxes wages to pay for public goods that generate higher rent and land value. They don’t understand that the worker-tenant pays twice for the public goods of government, once by having half his wage taxed away, and a second time in the higher housing rental he pays because greater governmental services increase locational rents.

The effective remedy for poverty is to remove all punitive taxes and land-value subsidies. We can remove subsidies to the landed interests by having them pay back the rent generated by useful public goods such as roads, schools, and security. Without taxes on labor and enterprise, the cost of labor is lower to employers, while the worker’s take-home pay is higher. The replacement of wage taxes with land value taxes would reduce economic inequality while also increasing the productivity of the economy.

Of course the elimination of poverty also has to include better education, and that can be accomplished with vouchers, payments not to schools but to parents. A voucher is a ticket that a parent could use to send his children to the best schools. It provides an incentive for educators to produce better schools. It is not a panacea, because the home and neighborhood environment are also important, but it would shift the incentives towards better schooling.

It is not only unfortunate but astonishing that a leading professor of public policy who cares about the poor would not make the prosperity tax shift, replacing wage taxes with land value taxes, the core of his policy proposal. I suspect his response would be that while this is a good idea, it is politically unfeasible, while raising the minimum wage has political support. But the reason it is politically unfeasible today is precisely that leading reformers such as Robert Reich refuse to bring the effective remedy to public attention in the ultimately futile effort to advocate policies with the least current political resistance.

Much of the gains from economic growth and welfare get captured by higher rent and land value. Raising the minimum wage is futile because if all workers get a substantially higher minimum wage, their landlords will be able to raise their housing rentals by the amount of their greater ability to pay, and the landed interests will end up with the gains. Why do you think that housing costs have been escalating while wages stagnate?

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