Response to the President on minimum wage

Response to the President on minimum wage

In his weekly address, Calling on Congress to Raise the Minimum Wage, President Obama said:

And this week, I took action to lift more workers’ wages by requiring federal contractors to pay their employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour. … This will be good for contractors, for taxpayers, and for America’s bottom line.

I see how a higher mandated minimum wage benefits low wage workers working at federal contractors. I don’t see how increasing labor costs is good for the contractors that employ those workers or how it’s good for the taxpayers who pay those federal contracts and must now spend more for a given amount of labor.

The President further says:

These are workers who serve our troops’ meals, wash their dishes, care for our veterans …

OK, I agree that employees of some federal contractors do things that I think are good. But raising their wages means that any given amount of tax dollars spent on troops meals and veterans’ care will buy fewer hours of labor delivering those services. While those who serve the food and give the care (and still have their jobs) are better off, those eating the meals and receiving the care are worse off because fewer hours are being spent delivering those services, right? The only way to make both the workers delivering the care and the veterans receiving that care better off, after a wage increase, is for taxpayers to pay more.

In other places the Administration cites research that workers who are paid higher wages have more job satisfaction, do better work, and quit less frequently. The logic is that higher paid workers are happier workers, and happier workers will move the food line faster and deliver better health care to veterans. That seems reasonable, but employers, including federal contractors, have economic incentives to take those benefits into account when they decide how much to pay their employees. As employers try to get the most output for each dollar they spend on labor costs, they are (if they want to be competitive) balancing the morale, productivity, and turnover benefits of paying higher wages with the costs of hiring fewer higher-wage workers for fewer hours. What President Obama did was instead substitute his judgment for where that balance point should be set, and we know he has to be getting it wrong in a lot of cases because that balance will differ from one employer to the next.

The President says:

The opportunity agenda I’ve laid out is built on more new jobs that pay good wages … Right now, there’s a bill in Congress that would boost America’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. … If they don’t support raising the federal minimum wage to ten-ten an hour, ask them “why not?”

I oppose any increase in the minimum wage because it lets government decide to sacrifice more jobs for some, to get higher wages for others. I don’t think government should make that call.

The higher the government-mandated minimum wage, the fewer jobs and hours of labor employers will buy. Those on the Left don’t dispute this, they instead respond, “But it’s not a big cut in jobs and hours.” While I think many of the advocates for a higher minimum wage cherry-pick their studies, I also don’t think the government should force any cut in jobs and hours, even a small one. I therefore think the market should determine this trade-off, not politicians running for elected office and courting the support of organized labor.

President Obama is for higher wages for some, with fewer jobs and hours for others, with both determined by politicians. I’m for more jobs and hours, with wages determined by competition in a healthy and growing market economy.

The best ways to help low skill workers are (1) to help them raise their skills over time through education and job training so they are worth more to potential employers; (2) to have government policies that encourage strong short-term and long-term economic growth so that employers want to hire more people and bid wages up in a competitive and flexible labor market; and (3) to reduce government barriers, like high implicit effective tax rates, that make it harder for these workers and their families to reach the middle class. If those policies don’t raise their incomes enough in the short run, then the way to help them is through explicit redistribution policies like the earned income tax credit and food stamps, not by substituting campaigning politicians’ judgment for that of the market.

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