Thursday, February 05, 2015

Minimum Wage, Maximum Malarkey

As a people we have lost the ability to think critically about an issue or perhaps to think at all. Case in point, the magical minimum wage.

The President of the United States has been scolding the American people for some time now about the need for a "minimum wage hike", a completely arbitrary pay raise that maliciously and falsely purports to make the lowest skilled employees in our economy suddenly able to support a family. Although the new Republican dominated Congress has flaws aplenty, at least there is virtually a zero chance of a minimum wage hike being passed (I changed that to "virtually zero" rather than "zero" because you would be hard pressed to get a single real conservative if you combined almost every Republican in Congress together, with a few notable exceptions (Senator Paul, Representative Amash, to name a few)). This entire issue is just part of the political theater designed to mollify the masses and keep the true believers on both sides engaged, voting and sending money in, just like the token attempts to overturn Obamacare or Obama's unconstitutional executive action on illegal aliens or the President's ludicrous $4 trillion budget that won't even get a cursory hearing. Regardless it is one that demands some substantive interaction because an awful lot of people think that it is the solution to "income inequality". It isn't. People hear "We should pay people more" and all they think is "Yeah, that's right!" without giving a second thought as to whether it even makes sense. It doesn't and here are a couple of reasons why.

First, the government has no right and no obligation to tinker with wages in order to promote "fairness" and anyone who thinks that the Interstate Commerce Clause was intended to put the Federal government in charge of every single transaction where money changes hands is either completely ignorant of the Constitution or a flat out liar. Now I realize that the idea of constraining the Federal government within the boundaries of the document that actually created said government is sooooo 18th century. We are far too advanced to worry about such things today. We really should be concerned about it because our system doesn't work unless government is limited. It was designed specifically to limit the reach of the government and when those restrictions are removed our system of government becomes a mugging in an alley writ large. With each passing year we abdicate more personal responsibility and autonomy to the government and it is hard to argue that we have not made things immeasurably worse in virtually every possible situation where the government has tinkered. The cries of "income inequality" that are allegedly behind the constant, empty clamor for a further inflated minimum wage are aimed at the base emotions of envy and resentment. Rather than encouraging and equipping people to seek to do the hard work of moving up  the ladder by virtue of their effort and performance, the income inequality crowd wants to make wages the financial equivalent of a participation ribbon: everyone gets a raise whether they deserve one or not, simply by virtue of showing up. A mediocre slacker who makes minimum wage gets a raise just as does someone who works hard. Whether that is good policy or not is something to be dealt with later but it certainly has no basis in the powers carefully designated for the Federal government.

Where does it end? No one seriously thinks that raising the minimum wage is going to magically eliminate income disparity. Making $10 or even $15 an hour is not going to make the bottom echelon of wage earners suddenly closer to the sort of wealth that Warren Buffet or a Hollywood star possesses. What it does do is create wage inflation for everyone else. It drags down many, many people who have worked hard to get a decent wage to the level of a 16 year old burger flipper. The cold reality is that a minimum wage hike for some is a serious wage decrease for others. Not in terms of actual wages of course but it the sense that it means that someone who has worked themselves to a wage higher than the minimum would suddenly find themselves at minimum wage. Unless of course the minimum wage laws were going to call for hourly increases to all workers. They don't.

Second, the minimum wage is not designed to be a "living wage". That is why it is the "minimum". It creates an artificial floor where all low skilled workers get lumped together, from a 16 year old high school student working their first job to an adult down on their luck. As such it artificially creates a floor so jobs that are understandably paid more than the minimum will need to rise commensurately. If I work a job that is more demanding than minimum wage now and get paid $3/hour more than minimum wage, why would I continue to work at this more demanding level if I suddenly find myself making the minimum or slightly above it? Wages should run along a scale from a very low wage for the least qualified and experienced workers to a very high wage for those with the most education and experience. A 16 year old kid flipping burgers in his first job while still in high school ought not get paid very much, in fact the experience is probably more valuable that the pittance he makes. On the other hand a cardiologist with a very rare combination of intellect and training ought to make a comparatively higher salary as befits the investment in time and the value of the work she does. Competition for workers should drive wages, those more rare and in demand should get more than those that are not. If we want to help lower wage workers make more money we should be encouraging them to work hard, seek education (which is essentially available for anyone who bothers to get it) and earn their way to higher wages, not just arbitrarily giving them more money.

Third, no one gets paid minimum wage for very long if they don't want to. In 2014 I went through kind of a weird time as far as jobs go, doing a lot of stuff that is pretty far removed from the bulk of my vocational experience in professional, office environments. It was an interesting experience and taught me that if you a) will work relatively hard and b) regularly show up to work and on time, you can make a lot more than minimum wage with absolutely no education or experience. I am not exaggerating, almost anyone can get a job paying 150%-200% of the minimum wage and start in less than a week. Employers with predominantly low wage employees are not spending their time figuring out ways to pay their employees less, they are mostly concerned with keeping positions filled with people who will come to work when scheduled and punch in on time. Let me say again: anyone who wants to can get a job that pays a lot more than minimum wage. We already have tons of jobs sitting vacant or being filled with illegal immigrants because Americans "won't do that job". Harvest Public Media reported that dairy farms are largely reliant on "immigrant" laborers to operate. Yet we have millions of people drawing unemployment and welfare and many more underemployed. Isn't the better solution to encourage people to take the higher paying jobs that are already available instead of making jobs that should be low paid slightly less low paid?

Fourth, labor is one of the few controllable factors for employers that employ low wage employees (fast food, retail, etc.). A store manager for Wal-Mart can't control the weather, the economy, how many customers come into his store, etc. but he can control labor. Thanks to Obamacare a lot of part-time workers are already getting fewer hours than they want to keep them below the magic threshold where they are considered full-time, yet another unintended (or not?) consequence of the risible and ironically named "Affordable Care Act". You can be sure that a higher minimum wage will mean higher prices, which will disproportionately impact the people who are supposed to be helped by this, and also fewer people employed. It is not a huge technological leap to get rid of order takers for fast food joints, they are already doing it and this will accelerate. Making low skill workers more expensive than they are worth means they won't be hired at all. Policies like the minimum wage don't happen in a vacuum, you can't tinker with wages and not see a ripple throughout the economy, one that is going to hurt a lot of people.

The minimum wage is presented as a Willy Wonka-esque Golden Ticket that will magically make lives better for the least skilled, lowest paid workers in our economy. Don't fall for it. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fantasy tale and so is Obama and the Magical Minimum Wage Hike.

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