Before any product or service is offered to customers, the price must be determined. The foundational element of this calculus are costs, which includes labor. In a true free-market economy, all elements of cost are determined by the marketplace. But in the U.S., we don’t have a true free-market economy because of mandates and subsidies imposed by the federal government, one of which is the minimum wage.
Alas, raising the minimum wage is being proposed again.
When the government is involved, politics, not reason, is the motivation, which isn’t so bad when the issue is politics. But politics has no place in what businesses pay for their cost factors, especially labor, often the largest cost factor.
When proposed, the national minimum wage was never some great egalitarian blow for the working man. It became law in 1938 as a cynical, protectionist move by the Congressional delegations of the northern textile industry – primarily Massachusetts –against their southern counterparts, whose lower, market-based labor costs made them more competitive.
Today the minimum wage has become a political wedge issue of the cruelest type, because research shows each increase actually hurts the segment it purports to help, especially younger, entry-level workers, like teenagers and minorities. The primary reason is that for decades employers have controlled the impact of an increase by reducing entry-level positions using various organizational steps. But today, technological advances have given all employers an increased ability to forgo entry-level hires in favor of low-maintenance, non-taxed innovative devices and/or software.
The results of two recent online polls reveal how these options manifest on Main Street. When we asked about their attitude toward the minimum wage, 82% of small businesses said the government should not be setting wage rates. But when asked how a minimum wage increase would impact their business, 76% said “Not at all.” The reason for the lack of concern by the sector that doesn’t like the minimum wage is likely because: a) they’re already paying more than minimum wage; b) they have legal ways around it to the disadvantage of the unskilled, increasingly unemployed worker.
An important goal of most businesses is growth, but adding payroll expense to achieve it is no longer a given. And so far, business owners are in charge of the decision to add workers or use other means to achieve growth. Nevertheless, increasing minimum wage does cause problems: an arbitrary increase distorts all wages as it becomes the new base from which other workers measure wage progress. If a small business adjusts all wages up in response, expenses rise. But if it doesn’t, morale declines. Furthermore, unions use minimum wage as a contract lever to exact from employers automatic, across the board increases for all organized workers.
In the marketplace, any increase in price must be justified by value delivered. But this logic is lost when labor costs rise by government fiat without adding one extra unit of productivity.
Write this on a rock … Let’s call the minimum wage what it is: A political lie that actually hurts poor and unskilled workers.
Jim Blasingame is author of the award-winning book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.