I think he makes a pretty good case: namely that the problem is so much low wages as no wages. The minimum wage may well make that even worse.
Once upon a time, the minimum wage, like free trade, was a basic test of whether you were awake in the first week of econ 1. We put a horizontal line in a supply and demand graph. Minimum wages increase unemployment of poor people.
It still strikes me, that like much of the current policy discussion, we’re asking the wrong question. The question is not “is this great” or “is this terrible” but “does this have anything to do with current problems?” The fiddling while Rome burns is worse here than the belief in minor economic magic.
President Obama’s state of the Union Address was to me, an interesting peek into the Administration’s thinking, and a revealing piece of political rhetoric (I mean that in the good sense of “rhetoric,” i.e. “what arguments we use to persuade people”)
…today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong….
Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets..…
… Is the first-order problem of these neighborhoods that its residents live in intact families with two kids, one full-time wage earner, trying to live on the wages from a full-time minimum wage job, but having a tough time making ends meet? Is there anyone like this?
The tragedy of the neighborhoods around where I live, and President Obama used to live, is the vast number of people with no job at all. How does raising the minimum wage for the few who have a minimum-wage job help the vast majority who have no job at all?
Minimum wages are about teenagers and young adults, most still living at home. It’s about the “dating” phase of work-force attachment, where people learn the skills and habits, and make connections by which they can move up to better jobs when they are ready to have families.
“Families” is an interesting word as well. Marriage among lower-income Americans is rare, as President Obama made clear when he came back to talk to students at Hyde Park High school and made some controversial remarks about the absence of fathers.
For example in zip code 60619, just south of the University, there are “4,967 married couples with children, and 12,745 single-parent households (2,655 men, 10,090 women).” Here’s the marital status chart.
The final line also caught my eye: “For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets.” I wonder who signed off on that one.
Even if the Administration’s theory works, it is exactly the same as a tax on sales of local businesses (i.e. cost passed on as higher prices) to subsidize employment. This is an interesting harbinger of things to come in the politics of budgets: Passing a national sales tax on businesses that employ minimum wage workers, to fund an on-budget subsidy of those workers’ wages, would obviously go nowhere politically, and would count on the budget. But forcing businesses to do it, though economically equivalent, makes it looks as if the government is not taxing and spending as much as it is.
cents on the minimum wage
John H. Cochrane
Tue, 19 Feb 2013 17:47:00 GMT