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!

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Putting a stop to the Argenzuela Project

[Editor’s note: The following piece is written by Dr Nicolás Cachanosky, an economist at Metropolitan State University, Denver and a native Argentinian. Dr Cachanosky hails from the same PhD program (at Suffolk University) as Rick, who introduced us. His homepage is here, and he is also a member of the group blog Punto de Vista Económico (which you can find on the blogroll here at NOL). Check out his popular work for the Mises Institute, too. – BC]

For the last 12 years Argentina was under the influence of the Kirchner administration. First by President Néstor Kirchner (NK), and then two terms by her wife (and widow since 2010) Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK). Their plan, as perceived by many, was to alternate presidential terms between NK and CFK and remain in power endlessly. While this plan came to an end with NK’s death in 2010, CFK started to entertain the idea of reforming the Constitution to be able to run a gain for office. Because this was not possible, she chose Daniel Scioli, the Governor of Buenos Aires Province to be her successor. Last Sunday, November 22nd, Mauricio Macri, Mayor of Buenos Aires City beat Scioli in a ballotage and became president elect starting his term this coming December 10th.

Argentina was in path to become what is referred as Argenzuela. Namely, the Kirchner administration was taking the country, step-by-step, to become the next Venezuela of Latin America in a close way to what has been described as the four stages of populism. Under the Kirchner administration, the government increased their political ties with Venezuela, Iran, and China, at the expense of political relations with countries like the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But the resemblance was not only in terms of political friendship, but on institutional and economic reforms. Argentina became a country where “Republic” is just a word on paper without a real presence in the country’s institutional reality. According to the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, in 2003 Argentina ranked 99 out of 153 countries. By 2012 it ranked 149 out of 152 countries. The loss of economic freedom was fast and significant. Economic troubles and imbalances did not take long to appear.

Macri’s victory in the presidential elections put a stop to the Argenzuela project. We know what a presidency by Macri won’t look like. But it is still hard to say what it will actually look like. Macri is known for his emphasis not in free or unfree markets, but on an efficient administration. While not difficult to be more free market than the Kirchners, it might prove difficult to describe Macri’s political movement, Pro, as a free market party. The Kirchner administration has refused, at least so far, to share information with Macri and his appointed ministers, so the real situation of the economy and the Treasury remains unknown. Macri and his team are working on reform plans half-blinded because they don’t have reliable economic information, if they have it at all.

Specific reforms by Macri are still unknown (at the time of writing these lines), but his team of Ministers has already been announced. The people he’s bringing to the government with him show significant successful careers in government, the private sector, and international organizations (her chosen Chancellor is the Chief of Staff of Ban Ki Moon, General Secretary of the United Nations.) This is a clear contrast with the Kirchner administration, where all the Ministers showed a strong ideological motivation before professional accomplishments.

The economic crisis in Argentina hands Macri a unique opportunity to carry long needed significant reforms. He has, also, a unique political position. His political party has not only won the presidential election, with Pro Macri has also retained the Mayor’s office of Buenos Aires City and also won the Governor elections for the Buenos Aires Province. Macri’s Pro is in charge of the three most economically and political important districts. Let us hope that Macri does not become yet another lost opportunity in Argentina’s history.