One man’s expense is another man’s revenue

It’s difficult to fault them for their effort, but the right wing think tank, NPRI, toes the Friedman Line on minimum wage theory and embraced it wholeheartedly in 2010. [NPRI]

“Nevada voters don’t escape responsibility, either. They put a thoroughly destructive minimum-wage law in the state constitution by a voter initiative in 2006. Thus on July 1 of this year the state minimum wage increased to $8.25 an hour for laborers without health insurance.

Siding with demagogues and ignoring wiser counsel, voters no doubt believed they were helping low-income workers earn a higher wage. But in reality, minimum-wage laws mandate fewer job opportunities for low-skilled workers. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman nailed it when he called the minimum wage “a law that is most properly described as: employers must discriminate against people with low skills.” [NPRI]

Unfortunately, there’s no There here.  Leaving the loaded language (demagogues) aside, this has been the corporate complaint since June 25, 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt.  In 1973 Friedman gave an interview with Playboy magazine (the one all the guys bought for the articles) in which he opined “I’ve often said the minimum-wage rate is the most anti-Negro law on the books.” [HuffPo]  Huh? Worse than the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850?   However, herein we have the origins of the mythology so ardently adopted by the radical right.

The mantra, to be recited ad nauseam, is “Minimum wage laws damage the prospects of young, minority, and unskilled workers.” That there is no substantial evidence to support this contention is dismissed because at some ethereal theoretical level the assertion is held to be “common sense.”

Yes, minimum wage level workers tend to be young, under 25, but as noted previously, they certainly aren’t all teens.  A 2012 EPI report debunks this but of ideology concisely:

“One common misconception about minimum-wage workers is that they are mostly teenagers, working part time. In fact, of the roughly 1.4 million low-wage workers who will benefit from Jan. 1 minimum wage increases in eight states, roughly 80 percent are at least 20 years old and 78 percent work at least 20 hours per week. The percentage of affected workers who fit the false stereotype of teenage, part-time workers is a mere 12 percent.”

The second fly in the ideological ointment is that somehow the labor “market” is the best determinant of the value of an employee, without any guidance from government.   At worst, this is a call to return to those wonderful old days when a carpenter in New York could expect to earn $3.49 per day or a machinist in Maryland might expect to average between $2.32 and $2.55 per day. [NBER pdf]

Most of us have a memory of our first, usually minimum wage, job and the attitude of our initial employer — who would have paid us less, but surrendered to the mandate of having to pay us at least the minimum.  Chris Rock spoke for all of us: “I used to work at McDonald’s making minimum wage. You know what that means when someone pays you minimum wage? You know what your boos was trying to say? “Hey if I could pay you less, I would, but it’s against the law.” [GoodReads]

Lost in the rhetoric of the minimum wage dispute is the upward pressure on wage levels by having set a floor beneath which wages cannot be legally justified. Cut through the weeping and clothes rending of those decrying the employment state of minorities and teens, and we’d see the corporate agenda, one in which there is less pressure for higher wages for more experienced or better educated workers because there would be no minimum below which an employer could not retreat.

Further down the drain hole, the loss of a minimum wage level ultimately means that labor is solely an input into the calculation of product or service cost.  Pious speeches about the dignity of labor, the edification of work, or the ‘value’ of our employees are reduced to the simple insertion of an expense in a spread sheet.

Speaking of ad nauseum, how many times has this blog offered the First Law of Personnel Management?  There is NO reason to hire anyone unless the staffing level is such that the demand for goods or services cannot be met with an acceptable level of customer service.  The reduction of an employee to an expense on a spread sheet demonstrates a focus on only one side of the tally.  We could as easily argue that one man’s expense provides another man’s revenue.

The continuation of that thought is simple — and does make demonstrable sense — there can be little or no economic growth without consideration given to the Demand side of the equation.  That which depresses demand decreases the level of growth.  And, what decreases demand? Poverty.

Federal Poverty Guidelines 2014Now, let’s see what this means for some workers in Nevada.  The minimum wage in Nevada is $8.25 per hour, or $7.25 per hour if the employer provides, and the employee receives, health insurance benefits. [BL]

A fast food cook in Nevada, working in our accommodation and food service sector, has a median hourly wage of $9.27.  The median annual wage for this job is $19,280.  A glance at the chart above shows that the wage earner can’t support a family of three — he or she is below the official poverty line.  The average monthly rental lease for an apartment in Las Vegas now stands at $781 per month, or $9,372 or 48% of a fast food cook’s annual median wage.

A department store security guard position has an annual median wage of $24,950, or $12.00/per hour.  This level puts the wage earner on the cusp of the poverty line for a family of four.  A person working as a home health care aide can expect median wages of $12.33 per hour, or about $25,640, insufficient to escape poverty if there are three children to support.  Running the dishwasher in a retail operation? That will yield a median wage of $12.49 for some hot sweaty work, or approximately $25,990 per year. Again, the wage earner can barely support a family of four, and five sinks the ship.

Notice that none of these examples are necessarily of minimum wage paying jobs — the nature of the median being what it is — some are earning above the level reported, and the other half below.  Now, imagine a setting in which there was no floor beneath the wage levels for these common jobs.  If the median annual earnings of a salesperson in a Nevada clothing store stands at $22.430, or about $10.78 per hour — what happens if there is no minimum below which the “labor cost” cannot go?  Our “median salesperson” cannot support a family of four, and is on the edge for a family of three.  Basic utilities in Las Vegas will average $151.21 per month [Numbeo] add that to the average apartment/housing expense and there’s precious little to expend on groceries, transportation, medical, and other household budget items.

A person would have to be singularly obsessed with the expense side of the ledger not to notice that our median salespersons, dish washers, security guards, and fast food cooks, aren’t contributing as fully to the “one man’s expense is another man’s revenue” formula as much as they could were their wages increased.

Not only is the argument that minimum wages “hurt” workers regressive and foolish, but it’s also counter-productive in terms of overall economic growth.

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