Answering Tim Harford on the Minimum Wage

In Saturday’s Financial Times Tim Harford asks the question “Can the Minimum Wage Create Jobs?”  The simple answer is yes, but not as many as it destroys. Any policy has winners and losers and the minimum wage is no exception. The losers are young and unskilled workers who become more expensive but no more productive to prospective employers. The winners include semi-skilled workers who compete with minimum wage workers and producers of the capital equipment that companies use to economize on unskilled labor. Crony capitalism is not limited to tax breaks, subsidies and bailouts; the minimum wage can also benefit unions threatened by cheaper non-union workers.

Harford cites the “amazing” and controversial Card and Krueger study which showed that a higher minimum wage didn’t reduce employment in fast food restaurants in New Jersey. Putting aside possible problems with their data discussed by other economists, Card and Krueger looked for job losses at restaurants with the least labor intensive food preparation methods in the history of mankind. (e.g. most have outsourced the task of filling cups with ice and soft drinks to their customers to save labor costs). A higher minimum wage raises the relative cost and price of made-to-order sandwiches in labor intensive competitors and may actually increase demand at fast-food restaurants. The Card and Krueger study says nothing about how a higher minimum wage affects the aggregate employment of unskilled labor.

Harford correctly notes that minimum wage laws attempt to treat a symptom of a larger problem. The real problem is that many young workers lack the skills that employers demand. Unfortunately the minimum wage makes it more difficult for young adults to acquire vocational skills because it makes on-the-job training programs less viable. Companies will provide general training only if workers “pay” for it through a lower wage because a company loses its investment when trained workers (who received full pay) leave. The minimum wage limits the ability of young workers to “pay” for on-the-job training and apprenticeships. This is especially costly if vocational and for-profit schools are ineffective alternatives for developing marketable skills.

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