The Dignity of the Minimum Wage?

[A brief note of apology: it’s been a terrible blogging summer for me, though great on other fronts.  I promise I’ll do better in the coming academic year. In particular, I’d like to get back to my dark fantasy/law blogging series. If you’ve nominations for interviewees, email me.]

WorkDetroitThis is one I’ve been meaning to write for a while.

One of the major lessons of the cultural cognition project is that empirical arguments are a terrible way to resolve value conflicts. On issues as diverse as the relationship between gun ownership and homicide rates, the child-welfare effects of gay parenting, global warming, and consent in rape cases, participants in empirically-infused politics behave as if they are spectators at sporting events. New information is polarized through identity-protective lenses; we highlight those facts that are congenial to our way of life and discounts those that are not; we are subject to naive realism.  It’s sort of dispiriting, really.  Data can inflame our culture wars.

One example of this phenomenon is the empirical debate over minimum wage laws. As is well known, there is an evergreen debate in economics journals about the policy consequences which flow from a wage floor.  Many (most) economists argue that the minimum wage retards growth and ironically hurts the very low-wage workers it is supposed to hurt. Others argue that the minimum wage has the opposite effect. What’s interesting about this debate -to me, anyway- is that it seems to bear such an orthogonal relationship to how the politics of the minimum wage play out, and the kinds of arguments that persuade partisans on one side or another. Or to put it differently, academic liberals in favor of the minimum wage have relied on regression analyses, but I don’t think they’ve persuaded many folks who weren’t otherwise disposed to agree with them. Academic critics of the minimum wage too have failed to move the needle on public opinion, which (generally) is supportive of a much higher level of minimum wage than is currently the law.

How to explain this puzzle?  My colleague Brishen Rogers has a terrific draft article out on ssrn, Justice at Work: Minimum Wage Laws and Social Equality. The paper urges a new kind of defense of minimum wages, which elides the empirical debate about minimum wages’ effect on labor markets altogether. From the abstract:

“Accepting for the sake of argument that minimum wage laws cause inefficiency and unemployment, this article nevertheless defends them. It draws upon philosophical arguments that a just state will not simply redistribute resources, but will also enable citizens to relate to one another as equals. Minimum wage laws advance this ideal of “social equality” in two ways: they symbolize the society’s commitment to low-wage workers, and they help reduce work-based class and status distinctions. Comparable tax-and-transfer programs are less effective on both fronts. Indeed, the fact that minimum wage laws increase unemployment can be a good thing, as the jobs lost will not always be worth saving. The article thus stands to enrich current increasingly urgent debates over whether to increase the minimum wage. It also recasts some longstanding questions of minimum wage doctrine, including exclusions from coverage and ambiguities regarding which parties are liable for violations.”

I’m a huge fan of Brishen’s work, having been provoked and a bit convinced by his earlier work (here) on a productive way forward for the union movement. What seems valuable in this latest paper is that the minimum wage laws are explicitly defended with reference to a widely shared set of values (dignity, equality). Foregrounding such values I think would increase support for the minimum wage among members of the populace.  The lack of such dignitary discussions in the academic debate to date has level the minimum wage’s liberal defenders without a satisfying and coherent ground on which to stand. Worth thinking about in the waning hours of Labor’s day.

 

 

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. AF says:

    I’m not sure you have fairly characterized the state of the debate over the minimum wage among economists. There seems to be something close to a consensus that (1) small increases in the minimum wage have either small or no effects on employment, and (2) very large increases in the minimum wage would have large effects on employment. To be sure, a debate remains over whether small increases have small negative effects or no negative effects. But as far as I know, very few economists argue that small increases (which are all that are ever proposed on a state or federal level) would have strongly negative effects, and very few argue that large minimum-wage increases would be benign.

    It’s true that this state of affairs is not communicated clearly in public debates, but I’m not sure how much that matters. The key feature of the political debates over minimum wage is that since the federal minimum wage is not inflation indexed, both sides can have their way. Liberals can raise the minimum wage from time to time, while conservatives can keep it from rising in real terms.

  2. IP prof says:

    “Indeed, the fact that minimum wage laws increase unemployment can be a good thing, as the jobs lost will not always be worth saving.”

    The author’s implicit assumption seems to be that there is more dignity in receiving an unemployment check than in performing certain types of jobs. I question whether this is a widely shared belief – I don’t think that liberals who favor a higher minimum wage would get much traction with this argument.