The renewed interest in raising the federal minimum wage is gaining steam as a hotly contested debate. Especially considering President Biden is inserting a $15 an hour minimum wage requirement in his latest Coronavirus relief bill. There are many proponents on both sides of the issue. Many advocates of a higher minimum wage claim the moral high ground on the issue, considering the rate has not kept up with inflation. Suggesting that raising it to $15 per hour would aid those working in low paid professions with being able to afford the bare necessities. Some even boldly advocating for a pricing floor of $24 per hour as being an adequate minimum wage.
However, is it economically sound to raise the minimum wage to even $15 per hour? Over the past couple of years, several papers have suggested so, but their interpretation of the data did suffer from some misconceptions. If we underwent an extremely rudimentary cost/benefit analysis of raising the pricing floor for labor we would see that it is a detrimental policy. A recent study found that raising it to $15 an hour would lift approximately 900,000 people out of poverty. As many advocates enthusiastically indicate as being evidence that this would be a good policy. Per the 2020 U.S. Census, it is estimated that 34 million people were living in poverty in 2019. Making 900,000 only a drop in the bucket in terms of battling the social issue of poverty. What the pro-raise the minimum wage camp neglects to inform us of that the same study they cite also estimates that 1.4 million people would also stand to lose their jobs! Making it reasonable to question whether raising the minimum wage would truly benefit the poor members of society.
The resurgence of the minimum wage debate mirrors the arguments for imposing pricing ceilings on in-demand goods during the beginning of the COVD-19 pandemic. Why? Because minimum wage laws and price gouging laws both operate as forms of price controls. Generally, these policies are implemented to insulate the consumer or work from “exploitation”. Either being paid inadequate wages or having to pay exorbitant prices for commodities during a time of crisis. However, prices are the key market signal that bridges the information asymmetries between consumer and supplier. Prices are contingent upon the supply of a product or service and the level of demand. Hinging on one of the most basic and universally known economic laws. Despite the good intentions of the activists pushing for an elevated minimum wage they are doing more harm than good. By mandating by law that the minimum wage needs to be at a certain dollar amount it immediately creates distortions in the labor market.
In an abstract sense, the worker is selling their time, services, and human capital when they agree to accept a job offer. In the job market, the corporations and small businesses looking for workers are the consumers. The job seekers are the ones supplying the labor. High wages alert prospective job seekers were the most lucrative job opportunities are which generally require less common skills. Directing the job seekers to make the appropriate investments in human capital. Implicitly detailing which degrees, certificate programs, and other forms of job training are required to stand out in the job market. Workers with little in the way of skills command a lower starting wage. Compensation is based on a worker’s productive output capacity. If a worker has few skills their productivity would be relatively lower from an economic standpoint. When the minimum wage is raised there is an imminent risk of displacing low-skill workers. If a fast-food worker is only producing $9 an hour worth of productive output and the minimum wage is raised to $15 an hour the business owner stands to take the loss. Then he may decide to cut corners and operate with fewer people, compromised product quality, or automatic the process. The threat of automation is real. Several studies have found that driving the price floor for labor up results in increased automation of operations. It is clear that the distortion of prices in the labor market could lead to displacing more low skill workers. The result being more low skill workers harmed than helped. Some income better than no income at all?