Ryan Murphy of Southern Methodist University has a new article published in Economics Bulletin regarding the minimum wage and “quasi-rents”. The argument made by Ryan has the advantage of theoretically fleshing out a point made by many skeptics of the new literature. Generally, the argument has been that in the short-term, the minimum wage may have minimal effects, but in the long-term, firms will adjust.
I tended, until Ryan’s article, to be more or less skeptic of the value of this counter-argument. My point has always been that the new literature (like the Dube-Lester-Reich paper) tends to act as a partial equilibrium story (focusing only on one sector only or one indicator). My view has always been very “Coasian” in the sense that there are transaction costs to adapting to any new minimum wage rate.
The height of the hike and what industries are primarily affected will determine the method of adjustments. Firms can cut on benefits, substitute between forms of labor (the minimum wage increases the supply of older workers which remplace younger inexperienced workers), hours or training. They can also, depending on the elasticity of demand for their products, increase prices or cut quality. They can also cut employment. All of these are channels of adjustment and they will be used differently depending on the context. They are all different expressions of the fact that the demand curve slopes downward. But each expression has costs to be used that are to be weighted against their benefits – which are highly circumstantial. For example, if I have a firm of two employees, I will not sacrifice half my workforce by firing a worker (thus sacrificing 50% of my output) for a 5% hike in the minimum wage. Not only would this be an over-reaction, but there are transaction costs for me to fire that worker : separation fees, emotional pain, learning what the employee was doing etc. Reducing his hours would be a safer adjustment.
Until there is a study that measures all of these adjustments channels at once, I am skeptical.
So where does Ryan’s story come in? Well, none of my arguments had a long-term component. They were largely void of any time dimension. While I am aware of research like those of Meer and West, Clemens and Wither and Clemens regarding job growth patterns following minimum wage hikes, I always discounted that argument. I was always reluctant to engage in long-term reasoning because I felt it was conceding a point that ought not to be conceded even if that counter-point is valid. I only used it to top up the rest of my argument. But Ryan introduced to me the concept of quasi-rents, of which I had vaguely heard during my undergraduate microeconomics class.
Basically, here is the argument about quasi-rents: in the short-term, there are rents to be extracted from fixed factors of productions. Firms need these quasi-rents to remain in business, but only in the long-run. However, if labor can find a way to capture the rents in the short-run, they will get higher earnings and employers will not fire people as much. As a result, there is basically a reshuffling of the consumer surplus. However, in the long-run, nothing is fixed and firm owners can adjust by shifting to different production methods. Thus, they will reduce their future hirings. In Ryan’s words:
But the on-impact negative effects of minimum wages may be hidden. In the longer run, after the quasi-rent is dissipated, the owner would have the incentive to eventually switch from more labor-intensive methods to ones that are less globally efficient (this being the conventional “demand slopes down” result). More perniciously, the threat of future increases in the minimum wage may create regime uncertainty undermining a willingness to invest in the types of technology and capital complementary to low skilled labor, thereby reducing employment for low skilled workers. That is to say, the risk of the appropriation of quasi-rents can shift investment towards capital unlikely to be appropriated via the minimum wage. Repeated and arbitrary increases in the minimum wage worsen this risk. This is consistent with the recent shift towards long run effects of increases in the minimum wage, for instance Meer and West (2016).
This is exactly what Andrew Seltzer found for the introduction of the minimum wage during the Great Depression in certain American industries. In the short-term, the capital was more or less fixed and production methods could not be abandonned easily. In the long run, firms adapted and shifted production methods. This is why Ryan’s argument is convincing. It offers a theoretical explanation for the empirical results observed by Dube, Lester and Reich or Card and Krueger. It fits well with theories of imperfect markets (damn I hate that word that is basically saying that all markets have frictions) like those of Alan Manning (see his Monopsony in Motion here).
This is the kind of work on the minimum wage that, if measured, should force considerable requestionning on the part of minimum wage hike advocates.