Watson my mind today: labor markets

And how ‘bout them Dodgers, hunh? Actually, how about each division’s top team? That’s a lot of winning!

— A partial response to Marx’ claim that managers are expropriating the value produced by the workers while providing nothing themselves: “The study showed that managers didn’t just influence the results their teams achieved, they explained a full 70% of the variance. In other words, if it’s a superior team you’re after, hiring the right manager is nearly three-fourths of the battle.”

— Boudreaux wonders what supposedly-enormous transaction cost prevents firms from offering workers a choice of pay packages – buying more parental time for a lower wage, for instance. One commenter notes their firm does just that, letting workers buy back vacation time. This is also, of course, standard practice in much of academia, where faculty are allowed to reduce their teaching load in exchange for a salary cut – usually funded by a research grant.

— Sumner on how labor market reforms (including cutting unemployment benefits) helped Germany and Israel to lower average unemployment rates and increase economic growth.

— But there appears to be a great deal that only deregulation will not be able to change. A new paper by Berger and Engzell finds correlation between the European-country-of-origin of people in modern US and the level of inequality and intergenerational mobility. Institutions persist for a very, very long time … again. (Homework: How does this apply to the reparations debate?)

— Another new paper by Fone, Sabia, and Cesur finds that higher minimum wages increase property crime arrests – contra expectations – so that “a $15 Federal minimum wage could generate criminal externality costs of nearly $2.4 billion.”

— A history of civil asset forfeiture tells how the British Crown’s attempt to encourage the Royal Navy to enforce trade restrictions and tariffs became so widely used in modern America.

— Summers and Sarin show that wealth taxes will take in much less than their proponents hope.

The minimum wage induced spur of technological innovation ought not be praised

In a recent article at Reason.comChristian Britschgi argues that “Government-mandated price hikes do a lot of things. Spurring technological innovation is not one of them”. This is in response to the self-serve kiosks in fast-food restaurants that seem to have appeared everywhere following increases in the minimum wage.

In essence, his argument is that minimum wages do not induce technological innovation. That is an empirical question. I am willing to consider that this is not the most significant of adjustment margins to large changes in the minimum wage. The work of Andrew Seltzer on the minimum wage during the Great Depression in the United States suggests that at the very least it ought not be discarded.  Britschgi does not provide such evidence, he merely cites anecdotal pieces of support. Not that anecdotes are bad, but those that are cited come from the kiosk industry – hardly a neutral source.

That being said, this is not what makes me contentious towards the article. It is the implicit presupposition contained within: that technological innovation is good.

No, technological innovation is not necessarily good. Firms can use two inputs (capital and labor) and, given prices and return rates, there is an optimal allocation of both. If you change the relative prices of each, you change the optimal allocation. However, absent the regulated price change, the production decisions are optimal. With the regulated price change, the production decisions are the best available under the constraint of working within a suboptimal framework. Thus, you are inducing a rate of technological innovation which is too fast relative to the optimal rate.

You may think that this is a little luddite of me to say, but it is not. It is a complement to the idea that there are “skill-biased” technological change (See notably this article of Daron Acemoglu and this one by Bekman et al.). If the regulated wage change affects a particular segment of the labor (say the unskilled portions – e.g. those working in fast food restaurants), it changes the optimal quantity of that labor to hire. Sure, it bumps up demand for certain types of workers (e.g. machine designers and repairmen) but it is still suboptimal. One should not presuppose that ipso facto, technological change is good. What matters is the “optimal” rate of change. In this case, one can argue that the minimum wage (if pushed up too high) induces a rate of technological change that is too fast and will act in disfavor of unskilled workers.

As such, yes, the artificial spurring of technological change should not be deemed desirable!

2017: Year in Review

Well folks, another year has come and gone. 2017 was Notes On Liberty‘s busiest year yet. Traffic came from all over the place, with the most visits coming from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and India. (In the past, India and Germany have vied for that coveted 5th place spot, but this year India blew Germany out of the water.)

NOL is a voluntary cooperative, and as such this year saw the introduction of 6 new Notewriters: Kevin Kallmes, Nicolás Cachanosky, Ash Navabi, Tridivesh Maini, Matthew Bonick and Trent MacDonald.

Michelangelo invited Kevin to join, Nicolás is an old grad school buddy of Rick‘s, I reached out to Tridivesh, and Ash and Matthew were invited on Vincent‘s initiative.

Speaking of Vincent, 2017 was his year. He had Tyler Cowen (MarginalRevolution), Mark Thoma (Economist’s View), Anthony Mills (RealClearPolicy), Barry Ritholtz (Bloomberg), Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), John Tamny (RealClearMarkets) and Pseudoerasmus (a well-regarded economic historian) all link to his thoughts multiple times over the course of the year. His Top 10 list for best papers/books in recent economic history (Part 1 and Part 2) were legitimate viral sensations, dominating the top 2 spots on NOL‘s most-read list. Other huge posts included “Did the 30 Glorious Years Actually Exist? (#5),” “The Pox of Liberty – dixit the Political Economy of Public Health (#9),” “James Buchanan on racism,” “The GDP, real wages and working hours of France since the 13th century,” “Did 89% of American Millionaires Disappear During the Great Depression?,” and “A hidden cost of the war on drugs.” My personal favorite was his “Star Trek Did More For the Cultural Advancement of Women Than Government Policies.” Dr Geloso’s thoughts made up 40% of NOL‘s 10 most-read 2017 posts.

My favorite posts from Edwin this year were his analyses of Dutch politics – “Dutch politics, after the elections” and “North Korea at the North Sea?” – but the reading public seemed to enjoy his posts on Ayn Rand, especially her thought on international relations, and his summary of Mont Pelerin Europe more than anything else. Van de Haar’s day job is in the private sector, so his blogging is understandably light (especially given his incredible publishing output in academic journals). I look forward to what looms ahead in 2018.

Federico’s most recent post on artificial intelligence and the law got love from some major outlets, including FT‘s Alphaville blog and 3 Quarks Daily. His question “Does business success make a good statesmen?” and his report on a Latin American Liberty summit are worth reading again, but my personal favorites were his comments on other Notewriters’ thoughts: first jumping in to add some historical clarity to Bruno’s post on Latin American conservatism and then to add layers onto the debate between Mark and Bruno on the Protestant Reformation. Federico has been invaluable to NOL‘s welcoming, skeptical culture and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with in 2018.

Barry was generous enough recount the situation in Turkey after the coup earlier in the year, and fruits of this endeavor – Coup and Counter Coup in Turkey – can be found in six parts:

  1. First of a series of posts on Turkey since 15th July 2016 and background topics
  2. Immediately after the coup and party politics
  3. Gülenists and Kemalists
  4. The Kurdish issue in Turkey
  5. Jacobins and Grey Wolves in Turkey
  6. Presidential Authoritarianism in Turkey

Dr Stocker also began writing an appendix to his six-part series, which resulted in a first post on authoritarianism and electoral fixes. Barry is hard at work on a new book, and of course the situation in Turkey is less than ideal, so I can only hope he has a bit more time in 2018 for NOL.

Michelangelo had a banner year at NOL. His #microblogging has been fun, as were his post analyzing relevant data from his surveys: What libertarians think of climate change, for example, or urban planning in Oregon. Michelangelo also utilized NOL to play around with concepts like race, marriage markets, data, Spanish language services, affirmative action, and freeware, to name a few. My absolute favorite Michelangelo post this year was his excellent “Should we tax churches? A Georgist proposal.” Michelangelo is a PhD candidate right now, too, so if he ever gets some time to himself, watch out world!

Rick also had a banner year at NOL. His post arguing against Net Neutrality was one of the most-read articles of the year here (#4), and many of his wonkier thoughts have been picked up by the sharp eye of Anthony Mills (RealClearPolicy) and the excellent Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling). Rick is my favorite blogger. Posts on cycling in Amsterdam, subsidies, management and measurement, linguisticsmore subsidies, and my personal favorite of his for the year, “Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared,” always make me think and, more importantly, smile.

Bruno’s blogging was also amply rewarded this year. His thoughts on some of the problems with postmodernism brought in the most eyeballs, but thankfully he didn’t stop there: Articles introducing postmodernism and highlighting the origins of postmodernism also generated much interest. RealClearWorld picked up his post analyzing Brazil post-Rousseff (he had more analysis of Brazilian politics here and here), and his post delving into whether Nazism is of the left or the right provoked quite the dialogue. Dr Rosi was at his best, though, when prompted by Mark to further advance his argument that the Protestant Revolution played an integral role in the rise of the freedom of conscience. Times are tough in Brazil right now, so I can only hope that Bruno continues to play a vital role as a Notewriter in 2018.

Chhay Lin, now in the private sector, had his post about Bruce Lee’s application of Taoist philosophy head to the top of reddit’s philosophy sub, and his post on Catalonia and secession got love from RealClearWorld and Lew Rockwell (Political Theater). I hate to be *that* guy distracting a man from making his money, but I hope to see Chhay Lin pop in at NOL much more often in 2018!

Zak has been busy with a number of different projects, as well as attending Michigan-Ann Arbor full-time. He still managed to have one of his posts, on “libertarian” activist hypocrisy (#10), highlighted in the Guardian, the UK’s premier left-wing mouthpiece. His post on The Nancy MacLean Disgrace earned him plaudits from the online libertarian community and Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), and his posts on open borders and income inequality show just how much of a bad ass he has become. I had a tough time trying to pick out my favorite Zak article of 2017, so I’m just gonna highlight all three of them:

  1. Immigration, Cultural Change, and Diversity as a Cultural Discovery Process
  2. Why I’m No Longer A Christian…
  3. Against Libertarian Populism

They’ve all got great self-explanatory titles, so do yourself a favor and read ’em again! Hopefully Zak can continue to work NOL in to his many successful ventures in 2018.

Jacques continues to amaze me. He’s been retired from academia for – as far as I can tell – at least a decade and he’s still producing great material that’s able to reach all sorts of people and places. His post on the Ottoman Empire and libertarianism (#6), which was featured at RealClearWorld and much-shared in Ottomanist corners of Twitter – took aim at popular American libertarian understandings of decentralization and seems to have landed pretty squarely on target. My favorite post of Dr Delacroix’ this year was about French Africa (also featured at RealClearWorld), but his late-year book review on Christopher De Bellaigue’s 2017 book about Islam might end up being a classic.

Bill’s 2017 here at NOL was productive and he continues to impress. His “Speech in academic philosophy: Rebecca Tuvel on Rachel Dolezal” brought in thousands of readers, but it was not his ability to draw crowds that I found impressive. His ability to tackle tough concepts and tough issues came to the forefront this year: drug use, “vulvæ,” more drug use, party culture (my personal fave), schooling (another personal fave), more schooling, and music (personal fave). Bill’s ability to weave these trends together through the lens of individual freedom is so much fun to read and important for fostering a culture of tolerance and respect in today’s world. I can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store for him!

Nicolás came out firing on all cylinders this year. With excellent dialogues between himself and Vincent, as well as between himself and guest blogger Derrill Watson (who I hope will be back for more in 2018), Dr Cachanosky’s passion for teaching has shown through clearly and brightly. I hope 2018 – his first full year with NOL – is filled with much more hard-hitting but insightful blogging from Nicolás.

Ash brought the heat, too. Check out the subject matter of his first few posts here at NOL: “A Right is Not an Obligation,” “Physical Goods, Immaterial Goods, and Public Goods,” “The Economics of Hard Choices,” “Markets for Secrets?,” “A Tax is Not a Price,” and “A Radical Take on Science and Religion.” Like Nicolás, Ash’s first full year at NOL is coming up, and if 2017 is any indication, readers can look forward to an interesting and engaging 2018.

Mark’s first full year here at NOL was a definite barnburner. His debate with Bruno on the Protestant Reformation (#8) brought in a bunch of eyeballs, including from RealClearHistory, while his “The Return of Cyclical Theories of History” also brought in thousands of readers, thanks in large part to Robert Cottrell’s excellent website, the Browser. Dr Koyama’s review of Aldo Schiavone’s The End of the Past also caught Mr Cottrell’s eye and the attention of his readers. Mark’s post on geopolitics and Asia’s “little divergence” is well worth reading again, too. Like Zak and Bill’s posts, I couldn’t choose just one favorite, so I give you two:

  1. Political Decentralization and Innovation in early modern Europe
  2. Some Thoughts on State Capacity” (an especially good criticism of American libertarian understandings of the “state capacity” literature)

We’re lucky to have Mark here at NOL.

Kevin, like Ash and Nicolás, brought the ruckus for his first few posts here at NOL. Kevin’s very first post at Notes On Liberty – “Rules of Warfare in Pre-Modern Societies” (#3) – ended up on the front page of RealClearHistory while his “Paradoxical geniuses…” earned a spot on the Browser‘s prestigious reading list. Not a bad start. Kevin will be finishing up the second half of his first year of law school (at Duke), so I doubt we’ll see much of him until June or July of 2018. My personal favorite, by the way, was Kevin’s “Auftragstaktik: Decentralization in military command.” His posts on taking over Syria – Roman style, the median voter theorem, and inventions that didn’t change the world also got lots of love from around the web.

Nick’s post on public choice and Nancy MacLean (#7) earned a nod from Arnold Kling (askblog), Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling), Mark Thoma (Economist’s View), and pretty much the entire online libertarian community, while his post analyzing the UK’s snap election earned a spot at RealClearWorld. Dr Cowen’s thoughts on school choice and robust political economy, as well as a sociological analysis of Trump/Brexit prompted by Vincent, all garnered love from libertarians and scholars around the world. My favorite Cowen post was his question “Is persecution the purpose?

Overall, it was a hell of a year here at Notes On Liberty. I’m really looking forward to 2018. Here’s to a happy, healthy you. Oh, and my proudest piece this year was “North Korea, the status quo, and a more liberal world.” HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Minimum Wages: Short rejoinder to Geloso

A few days ago I posted here at NOL a short comment on some reaction I’ve seen with regards to Seattle’s minimum wage study. Vincent Geloso offers an insightful criticism of my argument. Even if his point is quite specific (or so it seems to me), it offers an opportunity for some clarification.

But first, what was my argument? My comment was aimed at a specific point raised by advocates of increasing minimum wages. Namely, that even if Seattle’s study shows an increase in unemployment, a study with a larger sample may say otherwise. My point is that the way I’ve seen this criticism raised is missing the economic insight of minimum wage analysis, namely that jobs will be lost in less efficient employers and employees first. So far so good. The problem Geloso points out is with my example. I refer to McDonald’s as the efficient employers fast food chain (think of economics of scale) and as less efficient employers the neighborhood family-run little food place (neighborhood’s diner).

Geloso correctly argues that different employers react in different ways. It is expected, for instance, that a larger employer such as a fast-food chain would have more options to make a marginal adjustment when there is an increase in minimum wages. Of course, I agree, but the point I’m rising is about where jobs will be lost first (not the specific mechanism in each employer). Geloso flips my example and argues that a small diner has more (in relative terms) to lose by letting go one out of two employees than a fast food joint that has to let one employee go among maybe ten thousand. By letting one employee go, the small employer loses a larger share of its output. Therefore a small employer would be more inclined to keep all of his labor force and cut costs on another front (less hours work in average doesn’t cut it, that’s like a shared unemployment that would also cut output down).

A large employer like a fast food chain, however, can let one out of ten thousand employees go because the loss in output is not that significant. I have two issues with this example. The first one is that a fast food chain is facing the increase in minimum wage ten thousand times, not two. To cut even the rise in cost, the firm fast food chain has to cut down its labor force 15% (1,500 employees.) But I think the problem with this example does not end here. If it were the case that small diners don’t cut employment but fast food chains do, then we should see more unemployment in larger employers than in small neighborhood diners.

A second point I want to make is with Geloso’s argument that the study is about focusing “like a laser” on one out of multiple channels in the group most likely to respond in that manner (unemployment?). That the study, as long as the focus is on unemployment, should focus on the less efficient employers (and employees) first, and not just look at the unaffected employers because that’s where we just happen to have better statistics for is my point. There are two options. The first option is that what matters is focusing on the channel the increase in cost will be managed by employers. But this is neither a focus on unemployment nor on the criticism I’m replying to. Option number two, that the study should focus on the employers “most likely” to reduce unemployment, which is actually my point regardless of how many “channels” are included in the sample.

Minimum Wages: Where to Look for Evidence (A Reply)

Yesterday, here at Notes on Liberty, Nicolas Cachanosky blogged about the minimum wage. His point was fairly simple: criticisms against certain research designs that use limited sample can be economically irrelevant.

To put you in context, he was blogging about one of the criticisms made of the Seattle minimum wage study produced by researchers at the University of Washington, namely that the sample was limited to “small” employers. This criticism, Nicolas argues, is irrelevant since the researchers were looking for those who were likely to be the most heavily affected by the minimum wage increase since it will be among the least efficient firms that the effects will be heavily concentrated. In other words, what is the point of looking at Costco or Walmart who are more likely to survive than Uncle Joe’s store? As such, this is Nicolas’ point in defense of the study.

I disagree with Nicolas here and this is because I agree with him (I know, it sounds confused but bear with me).

The reason is simple: firms react differently to the same shock. Costs are costs, productivity is productivity, but the constraints are never exactly the same. For example, if I am a small employer and the minimum wage is increased 15%, why would I fire one of my two employees to adjust? If that was my reaction to the minimum wage, I would sacrifice 33% of my output for a 15% increase in wages which compose the majority but not the totality of my costs. Using that margin of adjustment would be insensible for me given the constraint of my firm’s size. I might be more tempted to cut hours, cut benefits, cut quality, substitute between workers, raise prices (depending on the elasticity of the demand for my services). However, if I am a large firm of 10,000 employees, sacking one worker is an easy margin to adjust on since I am not constrained as much as the small firm. In that situation, a large firm might be tempted to adjust on that margin rather than cut quality or raise prices. Basically, firms respond to higher labor costs (not accompanied by greater productivity) in different ways.

By concentrating on small firms, the authors of the Seattle study were concentrating on a group that had, probably, a more homogeneous set of constraints and responses. In their case, they were looking at hours worked. Had they blended in the larger firms, they would have looked for an adjustment on the part of firms less to adjust by compressing hours but rather by compressing the workforce.

This is why the UW study is so interesting in terms of research design: it focused like a laser on one adjustment channel in the group most likely to respond in that manner. If one reads attentively that paper, it is clear that this is the aim of the authors – to better document this element of the minimum wage literature. If one seeks to exhaustively measure what were the costs of the policy, one would need a much wider research design to reflect the wide array of adjustments available to employers (and workers).

In short, Nicolas is right that research designs matter, but he is wrong in that the criticism of the UW study is really an instance of pro-minimum wage hike pundits bringing the hockey puck in their own net!

Minimum Wages: Where to Look for Evidence

A recent study on the effect of minimum wages in the city of Seattle has produced some conflicted reactions. As most economists expected, the significant increase in the minimum wage resulted in job losses and bankruptcies. Others, however, doubt the validity of the results given that the sample may be incomplete.

In this post I want to focus just one empirical problem. An incomplete sample in itself may not be a problem. The issue is whether or not the observations missing from the sample are relevant. This problem has been pointed out before as the Russian Roulette Effect, which consists in asking survivors of the increase in minimum wages if the increase in minimum wages have put them out of business. Of course, the answer is no. In regards to Seattle, a concern might be that fast food chains such as McDonald’s are not properly included in the study.

The first reaction is, so what? Why is that a problem? If the issue is to show that an increase of wages above their equilibrium level is going to produce unemployment, all that has to be shown is that this actually happens, not to show where it does not happen. This concern about the Seattle study is missing a key point of the economic analysis of minimum wages. The prediction is that jobs will be lost first among less efficient workers and less efficient employers, not equally across all workers and employers. More efficient employers may be able to absorb a larger share of the wage increase, to cut compensations, delay the lay-offs, etc. This is seen by the fact that demand is downward sloping and that a minimum wage above its equilibrium level “cuts” demand in two. Some employers are below the minimum wage (the less efficient ones) and others are above the minimum wage (the more efficient ones.) Let’s call the former “Uncle’s diner” and the latter “McDonald’s.” This how it is seen in a demand and supply graph:

minimum wage

Surely, there is some overlapping. But the point that this graph is making is that looking at the effects minimum wage above the red line is looking at the wrong place. A study that is looking for the effect on employment needs to be looking at what happens with below the red line. This sample, of course, has less information available than fast food chains such as McDonald’s; this is a reason why some studies focus on what can be seen even if the effect happens in what cannot be seen (and this is a value added of the Seattle study.)

This is why it is important to ask: “what do minimum wage advocates expect to find by increasing the sample size?” To question that minimum wages increase unemployment, then the critics also needs to focus on the “Uncle’s diner” part of the demand curve. If the objective is to inquire about something else, than that has no bearing on the fact that minimum wage increases do produce unemployment in the minimum wage market and at the less efficient (and harder to gather data) portion of it first.

PS: I have a previous post on minimum wages that can be found here.

Minimum wages: The economist as a psychologist

Both Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek are known for arguing that there is no such thing as a good economist who is only an economist. For these two thinkers, a good economist-as-scientist also needs to know history, philosophy of science, ethics, and physics. Mises and Hayek are thinking of what an economist-as-scientist should be familiar with and have some minimum knowledge beyond his discipline.

I would add that the economist as public educator, that is, when the economist talks as an economist to non-economists, also needs some awareness of psychology. I may not be using the term “psychology” in the most proper way, but I mean the awareness to understand what the interlocutor feels and needs and then figure out how to communicate economic insights in a way that will not be automatically (emotionally or psychologically) rejected; how to make someone accept an economics outcome they do not want to be true. How to break the bad news with empathy? This is a challenge I try to get my students to understand as one day they, too, will be economists out of the classroom in the real world.

A few days ago I found myself unexpectedly in the “psychologist” position. Only seconds after meeting for the first time two persons dropped the question: “So, what do you think about increasing the minimum wages, should we do it?” I knew nothing about these two individuals, and the only thing they knew about me was that I’m an economics professor. The answer to such a question is an Econ 101 problem: if you increase the minimum wage (above the equilibrium price) some lucky workers will get a wage increase at the expense of other ones loosing their jobs.

The first question I asked myself was “what do these two nice ladies actually want, the analytical/scientific answer, or do they want instead the ‘professor’ to confirm their bias?” This might be a delicate discussion since they may well have a loved one in the minimum wage market.

The first thing to get out of the way is that my answer as an economist is not ideologically driven or does not respond to secret political agendas. How can that be made clear? One way is to show the economics profession’s consensus on the subject from an impersonal position. I explained to them that any economics textbook from any author from any country in the world used in any university would say the same thing: “If you put the price of labor above its equilibrium (a minimum wage), it will produce a disequilibrium (unemployment). You cannot fix the price outside equilibrium and at the same time remain in equilibrium.” Yes, as Ben Powell reminds us, even Paul Krugman agrees on this. By mentioning a worldwide consensus there is no room for ideological or political agendas. It is important to mention that economics is not always about politics. The economic analysis of minimum wages has nothing to do with being a Democrat or a Republican; the political position of each party may differ, but those are not economic analyses, those are political strategies.

The next step was to deal with the issue that if such a consensus exists, why are there mentions of studies showing no harmful effects of increases in minimum wages. This is no mystery either. A well known reason of why an increase in minimum wages does not increase unemployment is because in fact there is no such increase. The politician may say he is increasing the minimum wage, but he does not say that the minimum wage is being located just above the equilibrium level and therefore he is not doing much. Another reason is to look at the effect of a minimum wage increase in a small location where low skilled workers can get another job in the next town without the need to move and therefore they will not show up as unemployed. This is another case of an ineffective increase in minimum wages. Or maybe the minimum wage increases but a benefit goes down. The total compensation to the employee does not change, its composition does.

But can the economist show his claim? Is there more clear evidence that the effects of increasing minimum wages does do harm than the complicated cases where there are no harmful effects? Again, I went geographically large. First, I compared the U.S. with Europe, which has higher minimum wages with respect to the U.S. In Europe you find higher unemployment rates, higher unemployment in the youth population, and also higher long-term unemployment. Second, I brought the case of the U.S. Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938, which fixed the minimum wage at 25 cents per hour. This law included Puerto Rico where the many workers were earning between 3 to 4 cents. Bankruptcies and unemployment skyrocketed. It was in fact unions who asked Congress to make an exception for Puerto Rico, which took two years to consider. For two years people in Puerto Rico were forced to work in the black market or fail to make a minimum income. Want more cases? See here. “See,” the psychologist says, “minimum wages are very dangerous; you can seriously harm yourself. Is that a bet you really want to make?”

Two issues remain to be explained after dealing with these three problems, (1) objection to minimum wage increases is not (necessary) an ideological or political position, (2) studies that deny the effect are doubtful for easy reasons to understand, and (3) if you look at a sample broad enough the economist’s prediction is right there.

First, when an economist objects to an increase in minimum wages it does not mean we do not want wages to go up. We are just saying that a minimum wage increase is not the right way to do it. I wish it were so easy, but the laws of demand and supply inform otherwise. I guess most economists would advocate for minimum wages if their negative effects were not real. Second, explain Milton Friedman’s lesson that a policy is valued by its results, not by its intentions. The economist objects because of the unintended effects of fixing the price of labor outside equilibrium, not because we wouldn’t like to see real wages increasing.

On Minimum Wages, Health Code Violations and Proper Assessment

A few days ago, Tyler Curtis at the Freeman (the Foundation for Economic Education’s flagship publication) posted a short piece on the minimum wage and health code violations in restaurants. Curtis based on a paper (unavailable in full) by Srikant Devaraj who asserted that increases in minimum wages in Seattle had led to increases in health code violations by restaurants (heavily affected by the increases).

Devaraj used a standard difference-in-difference econometric approach. The problem underlined by some was the choice of benchmark for the method : New York City. New York City and Seattle are two very different cities with different health codes. It is hard to make this claim stick even if the uncontrolled results (before statistical tests) show an increase in health code violations. Nonetheless, I have been able to find one other study that shows – based on Californian data – that there was a very small deterioration in health code violations (especially by the top restaurants) following increases.

Now, I am not convinced by the econometric design of both, but I am axiomatically convinced. This is where I think economists have made the error of relying too much on empirical methods. While, as an economic historian, I always favor more data, I also am trained to be skeptical about data does not say.

In the case of the minimum wage, the debate has raged between economists over the employment effects (i.e. the demand for labor). But this is a fraction of everything involved with the production of goods in industries affected by minimum wages. For an employer, a cost is a cost regardless of the form it takes. If an employer is forced to pay somebody above what they produce in value, then something has to give. For a 5% increase in the minimum wage, it is doubtful that an employer with three employees will be willing to sack one third of his workforce (and roughly one third of his output). So, he can cut costs differently. He may ask employees to buy their uniforms, he may refuse to provide them with free lunches, he may also even decide to cut on quality of his service – as is the case with the two studies outlined above.

The problem is that no study of the minimum wage has attempted to measure all these effects at once!  There is no study that looks simultaneously at hours worked, people employed, type of people employed (substitution effects), prices for consumers, quality and marginal benefits (uniforms, free lunch, insurance, etc.) on both the short and long-terms levels and trends (they also rarely adjust the minimum wages for regional purchasing power parities and the under-reporting of tips)

The health code violations papers show how many channels employers can use to adapt – channels which some fail to account for when they proclaim that we can raise the minimum wage without adverse consequences. Maybe its time that we, as economists, try to be more cautious when we make claims about the minimum wage’s minimal effects.

Minimum wage and length of poverty spells

I had a pre-programmed blog post on the issue of the minimum wage and poverty which was preempted by Mark Koyama (a blogger here at Notes on Liberty). The tweet is below and it has forced me to adjust the post.

Mark is absolutely right! Let me explain why with my own spin on it.

First of all, the demand curve slopes downwards – always. However, the method of adjusting to price changes (wages are a price and the minimum wage is a price control) is not an empirical constant.  I am unlikely to fire workers for a 1% in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage. Firing workers implies transaction costs that are dependent of context (for example, if I am friend with my employee, this is a transaction cost in the form of a lost friendship), firm size (I won’t fire my only employee which represents 50% of my output for a 1% hike in MW) laws (firing and hiring regulations), institutions (social institutions, reputation, norms), my clientele (how elastic is their demand) and technological alternatives. For a 1% increase, I am likely to reduce work hours or cut marginal benefits (no free soup for you). For a 10% increase, I am more likely to consider the option of firing a worker or I may shift to a new technological set that reduces my demand for labor.  It may happen rapidly or take some time, but there will eventually be an adjustment.

In any case, the minimum wage will imply some losses with a deadweight loss. Only the method by which it materializes is debatable.  By definition, some people will be hurt and generally and even if supply is super-elastic (doubtful), some suppliers (workers)  will be ejected from the market (or the quantity of labor they can supply will be ulitmately reduced). Since the minimum wage generally tends to fall on unskilled workers, this must be correlated with workers close to the poverty line.

Ideally, we’d need a measure of the minimum wage to be compared with the “at-risk” population over a long period of time in order to encapsulate all the effects of the minimum wage. The perfect measure is the “length of poverty spell” variable which has been emerging progressively from the BLS. The problem is that it is not broken down by state. Fortunately, Canada has that variable (well, a low-income variable which is a relatie poverty measure) for provinces. Inside the Survey of Labor and Income Dynamics (affectionally known as the SLID), this longitudinal variable has a span of eight years. Basically, we can know if a person has been below the low-income threshold for up to eight years. Let’s take that extreme measure and plot it against the minimum wage divided by the average wage.

As one can see from the scatter plot below, there is a more or less clear relationship between the minimum wage as a share of the average wage and the length of poverty spells. What is more impressive is that this graph is not a regression. More precisely, the provinces with the highest minimum wages (like my own province of Quebec and the province of Nova Scotia) also have the most extensive social welfare nets. Alberta,  a province with the lowest minimum wage ratio and one of the least “generous” social welfare net in Canada, is at the very bottom of the pack in terms of the persistence of poverty.

minimumwagepoverty

I think this graph acts in very modest (but clear) support to Mark’s point (which is also the point of Burkhauser, Sabia, MaCurdy and many others)

On quasi-rents and the minimum wage

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 WestClemens 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.

Minimum wage, measurements and incarceration rates

A few weeks ago, I published a blog post about how incarceration rates affect our measurement of the relative economic conditions of Blacks in America. My claim was that the statistics are hiding a reversal of the painfully achieved advances secured between 1870 and 1960. Basically, my claim was that those who (in greater numbers) found their ways to a prison cell tended to be at the bottom of the income distribution, were more susceptible to be unemployed and had lower wages. This creates a composition effect whereby the official surveys cream-skim the top of black wage, income and employment distributions.

But, could this problem also affect our measurement of the effects of minimum wage? Let me be clear before you continue ahead, I am just asking this question because I could find no satisfactory answer to (or even mention of) this issue.

In recent times, minimum wage surveys have tended to find some gains in earnings for some workers following increases in minimum wage rates. Regardless of how you look at the prison population, it increases  – albeit at a decelerating rate since the early 2000s – since the 1980s. Coincidentally, that starting point is also the point at which the famous Minimum Wage Study Commission was published (1981). That report basically cemented the point made by George Stigler (i.e. minimum wages are not desirable). That report surveyed the entire literature to summarize the amplitude of the effects. That literature encompassed articles written between the end of the Second World War and … well… 1981. If you look below at the graph, incarceration rates were more or less constant during that regime. Thus, if there were composition effects associated with surveys of wages, incomes and employment, they were more moderate than after 1981 when incarceration rates surged.

minwage

But, its also after 1981 that some papers began to find some positive effects of minimum wage increases. These studies took place under a growing composition problem in surveys of wages, incomes and employment. Take the famous Dube, Lester and Reich paper in the Review of Economics and Statistics  who used data from 1990 to 2006. During that period, the male incarceration rate surged from 297 per 100,000 to 501 per 100,000. I understand that DLR used a time fixed effect method, but would that be sufficient to at least deal with the issue of shifting labour supplied (it won’t for the data bias issues described notably by Bruce Western)

If we assume that those who are plausibly affected by minimum wages (i.e. lower income individuals) are also those more likely to end up in jail in the United States, then there is clearly a bias. As they are dropped from the labor market (or as they join the prison population), they leave only the workers least affected by the minimum wage inside the samples. That is one possibility.

The other possibility – which is that surveys do not suffer from a large composition, but which is not mutually exclusive to that composition problem – is that the growing prison population represents a year-over-year reduction in the labor supply which offsets the effects of hikes in the minimum wage (or maybe even eliminates them entirely if the shift is big enough).

minwage2

I have tried many variations of this google scholar research and went back to my copy of the Handbook of Labor Economics and my Economics of Inequality, Poverty and Discrimination  (a book worth reading by the way) and I found very little on this point. Very few scholars have considered the possibility of this problem (which implies a shift of the labor supply curve concurrent with minimum wage hikes and a composition problem where those affected are simply not measured anymore). Yet, I feel like this is a defensible claim. In England, where some studies also show minimal effects or positive effects of the minimum wage, there has also been an increase in the prison population. In contrast, Canada – whose prison population is declining moderately (meaning that the labor supply is increasing as the minimum wage is being increased – the studies do tend to find the “conventional” result.

Am I crazy or is this a case of poor measurement? Personally, I feel that there must an answer, but please tell me I did not just stumble on this!

The minimum wage still bites

Politicians, pundits and activists jumped on a new literature that asserts that there no negative effects of substantial increases of the minimum wage on employment. Constantly, they cite this new literature as evidence that the “traditional” viewpoint is wrong. This is because they misunderstand (or misrepresent) the new literature.

What the new literature finds is that there could be no significant negative effects on employment. This is not the same as saying there are no negative effects overall. In fact, it is more proper to consider how businesses adjust to different-sized changes by using various means. Once, the minimum wage is seen in this more nuanced light, the conclusion is that it still bites pretty hard.

The New Minimum Wage Literature

Broadly speaking, the new literature states that there are minimal employment losses following increases in the minimum wage. It was initiated twenty years ago by the works of Alan Krueger and David Card who found that, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, a change in the minimum wage had not led to losses in employment. This caused an important surprise in the academic community and numerous papers have found roughly similar conclusions.

These studies imply that the demand for labor was quite inelastic – inelastic enough to avoid large losses in employment. This is a contested conclusion. David Neumark and William Wascher are critical of the methods underlying these conclusions. Using different estimation methods, they found larger elasticities in line with the traditional viewpoint. They also pointed out Card and Krueger’s initial study had several design flaws. With arguably better data, they reversed the initial Card and Krueger conclusion.

These critics notwithstanding, let us assume that the new minimum wage literature is broadly correct. Does that mean that the minimum wage is void of adverse consequences? The answer is a resounding no.

This is because of an important nuance that has been lost on many in the broader public. In a meta-analysis of 200 scholarly articles realized by Belman and Wolfson, there are no statistically discernable effects of “moderate increases” on employment. The keyword here is “moderate” because the effects of increases in the minimum wage on employment may be non-linear. This means that while a 10% increase in the minimum wage would reduce teen employment by 1%, a 40% increase will reduce teen employment by more than 4%. A recent study by Jeremy Jackson and Aspen Gorry suggests as much: the larger the increase of the minimum wage, the larger the effects on employment.

If labor costs increase moderately, the strategy to reduce employment may be relatively inefficient. The increase of labor costs needs to reach a certain threshold before employers choose to fire workers. Below such a threshold, employers may use a wide array of mechanisms to adjust.

Adjustment channels

Employers on their respective markets face different constraints. This diversity of constraints means that there is no “unique” solution to greater labor costs. For example, if the demand for one’s products is quite inelastic, labor costs can be passed on to consumers through an increase in prices. While this may not necessarily hurt workers at the minimum wage, it impoverishes other workers who have fewer dollars left to spend elsewhere. This is still a negative outcome of the minimum wage – its just not a negative outcome on the variable of employment.

In other cases, employers might reduce employment indirectly by reducing hours of work. This is an easy solution to use for employers who cannot, for a small increase in labor costs, afford to fire a worker. Even Belman and Wolfson – who are sympathetic to the idea of increasing the minimum wage – concede that increases in the minimum wage do lead to moderate decreases in labor hours. More skeptical researcher, like Neumark and Wascher, find that the effects on hours worked is much larger. Again, the variable affected is not employment measured as the number of people holding a job. However, a reduction in the number of hours worked is a clearly a perverse outcome.

Another effect is that employers might reduce expenses associated with their workers. Even Card and Krueger, in their book on the minimum wage, recognize that employers may opt to cut on things like discounted uniforms and free meals. An employer facing a 5% increase in the minimum wage will see his labor costs increase, but firing an employee means less production and lower revenues. Thus, firing may not be an option for such a small increase. However, cutting on the expenses associated with that worker is an easy option to use. This means fewer marginal benefits and on-job training. Employers adjust by altering the method of compensation.  For example, economist Mindy Marks estimated that a 1$ increase of the minimum reduced by 6.2% the probability that a worker would be offered health insurance.  Again, employers adjust and the effects are not seen on employment. Nonetheless, these are undisputedly negative effects.

The effect may also be observed on the type of employment. Employers may decide to substitute some workers by other types of workers. Economist David Neumark pointed that, subsumed in the statistical aggregate of “labor force” is a shift in its shift. In his article, written for the Employment Policies Institute, he stated that “less skilled teens are displaced from the job market, while more highly skilled teens are lured in by higher wages (even at the expense of cutbacks in their educational attainment)”. Another example could be that a higher minimum wage induces retired workers to return to the labor force. Employers, at the sight of a greater supply of experienced workers, prefer to hire these individuals and fire less-skilled workers. In such case, “total employment” does not change, but the composition of employment is heavily changed. The negative effects are clear though: less-skilled workers are not allowed to acquire new skills through experience.

Conclusion

None of these adjustment mechanisms in response to “moderate increases in the minimum wage” are desirable. Yet, all of these channels would allow us to conclude that there are no effects on employment. To misconstrue the ability of employers to select multiple channels of adjustments other than reducing employment as the proof that the minimum wage has no negative effects is perverse in the utmost. The statement that “moderate increases in the minimum wage has no statistically significant effects on employment” is merely a positive scientific statement with no normative implications whatsoever. If anything, the multiple adjustment mechanisms suggest that the minimum wage still hurts and that is both a positive and normative statement.

From the Comments: the Unemployment Rate

Dr. Gibson has won the much-cherished gold star I had offered in a previous comment. My question had to do with the green dot in this graph, and Dr. Gibson explained it to perfection. He writes:

The widely followed U3 unemployment rate, as shown in the figure, is the number of unemployed divided by the labor force. The labor force excludes discouraged workers. The labor force participation rate is the labor force size (employed & unemployed) divided by the population. The green dot shows what the U3 rate would be if that ratio had stayed the same since Jan. 2009.

The U6 statistic counts discouraged workers as unemployed. That rate is currently around 15%.

See also: Unemployment: What It Is

From the article Dr. Gibson directs us towards comes some other important information:

Government policies contribute to unemployment above and beyond natural unemployment. The most notorious of these policies are minimum wage laws. These laws make it illegal, effectively, for low-skilled workers to accept employment. Anyone who cannot generate $8 worth of production per hour cannot expect to be paid more than $8. Such unfortunate people might be productive at $6 per hour but are forbidden to accept employment at this rate and are instead condemned to joblessness and all its attendant miseries. This burden falls most heavily on black teenagers, whose unemployment rate (based on those seeking work and excluding those who are in school) is well over 40 percent. The benefits accrue mainly to slightly higher-skilled workers, who have climbed onto the metaphorical ladder leading to better jobs and who are shielded from competition from those excluded by minimum-wage laws […]

Labor unions, as voluntary associations bargaining freely with employers, are unobjectionable. They did a lot of good in the past when working conditions in many places were pretty bad. But now they are granted special privileges by law—basically the privilege to engage in violent or coercive activities. The result is often wage agreements that are above market-clearing levels. Those left out are of course unemployed.

While labor unions can boost their members’ compensation at the expense of non-union workers, higher wages generally and higher living standards are due mainly to increased productivity, which in turn depends on high levels of capital investment. People are more willing to save and invest when they have confidence in the future, and that confidence comes from respect for property rights.

For more on minimum wage laws, see Bad Idea of the Year.

The Minimum Wage and Stupid National Public Radio

Two things on my mind this Bastille Day 2012. The first is who is more stupid, French leftists or American liberals? I have life-long knowledge of both tribes. At this point, I think French leftists are smarter but more dishonest that their American cousins. In general, there is a certain artlessness about deception in ordinary Americans. The French are often artful; can’t take that away from them.

The second matter on my mind is that constant struggle to avoid using nasty epithets in connection with liberals’ statements. One that keeps coming up is the simple “stupid.” I scrupulously avoid the word on this blog and in my other writings. Yet, there are informational events that sort of self-label with no escape possible. Here is one, below.

It’s shortly after 5 pm on Sunday July 10th 2012. I am in my pick-up truck listening to National Public Radio. (I know the combination is jarring.) There an in-depth discussion of the minimum wage. That’s always interesting. Conservatives make an apparently impeccable theoretical argument against: Minimum wage laws create unemployment among the most vulnerable categories of the work force. Liberals sometimes make sophisticated arguments for the minimum wage. Behind those, however, I always find the usual combination of mindless jeremiads of “sad” and “unfair.” But, it seems to me that the empirical evidence supporting the conservative position against minimum wages is on the thin side. Listening to a relaxed radio show from the Left could be a good way to find out more. Continue reading

Bad Idea of the Year: Raise the Minimum Wage

Who can live on $8 per hour these days? Surely, in a country as rich as ours, no one who is willing and able to work should suffer the indignity of such paltry wages. The solution is simple and obvious: pass a law. If you work, you get at least $10 per hour, period.  Anything less is downright indecent. And so we have a ballot initiative to make this happen in San Jose, California.

It’s anything but simple and obvious if we stop and look and think about what’s happening in the real world. Today I went to a small family-owned sandwich shop near my house. They are very popular and so four young workers, probably students from the nearby college, were jammed in the tiny shop with the two owners. The sandwiches are great but I also enjoy watching them hustle at lunch time. I’m quite certain the helpers were all earning minimum wage but had other sources of income or support. Far more important than their wages, which will quickly be spent, is the work experience that will last them a lifetime – and the confidence that comes from knowing they are earning their money by doing a job in the very best way they can.

The McDonald’s near me employs a few senior citizens, likely at or near minimum wage. They almost certainly have other income. Just being active and involved in productive activity gives their lives meaning and may well enhance their health and longevity.

The sandwich shop operates on thin margins which are being squeezed by rising food prices. If they had to pay their young helpers $2 more per hour they would probably close. But the nearby Safeway store, which has a sandwich bar, would very likely absorb part of the wage increase and pass the rest on to customers, which would be easier to do with their family-owned competitor knocked out. Continue reading