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Minimum Wage Mendacity :: The Mises Economics Blog: The Circle Bastiat

Minimum Wage Mendacity :: The Mises Economics Blog: The Circle Bastiat.

 

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

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With President Obama’s State of the Union Address and its associated campaign prominently featuring increased minimum wage, tired arguments for raising the minimum wage are being once again retreaded. Unfortunately, they compound failures of logic, measurement and evidence.

It would stimulate the economy. If I pay $1 more than necessary to hire a worker, I get $1 less in services for my money. The increase in the workers’ consumption enabled by that $1 is a transfer from me to them, not a net gain.

It would increase others’ wages as well. Unfortunately, higher minimum wages reduce available jobs, and fewer alternatives don’t create higher wages. Unions and other competitors would see wage hikes, because alternatives become more costly, but other workers get fewer goods and services in exchange for their labor —i.e., decreased real wages.

It would make work more attractive, reducing government dependence. That would require additional jobs became available at a higher wage. However, fewer jobs will be available, so fewer people would be able to work their way out of dependence.

The minimum wage hasn’t “kept up” with inflation since the 1960s. This presumes without justification that the 1960’s minimum wage was economically justified. However, it was a Great Society aberration that coincided with a virtual stop in progress against poverty.

It also ignores that much of employers’ compensation goes to Social Security, Medicare, workmen’s compensation, new Obamacare mandates, etc., rather than as wages. As government- mandated employment costs ballon, the minimum wage substantially understates compensation.

The claim uses the CPI, widely known to overstate inflation, to calculate “real” wages. And the bias was even larger in the past. So going back to the 1960s for comparison mainly introduces a half century of compounded overstatements of inflation to dramatically understate real wage growth.

It would decrease the number of families in poverty. Unfortunately, as labor economist Mark Wilson put it, “evidence from a large number of academic studies suggests that minimum wage increases don’t reduce poverty levels.” One reason is that most minimum wage workers are secondary workers in non-poor households, while very few are heads of households.

 

Even important businesses endorse raising the minimum wage. Unionized businesses and those who already pay more than the federal minimum gain from raising it, by increasing rivals’ costs. That those employers who would gain at others’ expense endorse a higher minimum wage says nothing about the validity of arguments against it.

A higher minimum wage will pay for itself in higher productivity, lower turnover, employee morale, etc. Every employer who believed that to be true in their circumstances would pay more without needing any mandate. Are those businesses always accused of being too greedy not greedy enough? Further, why do those states with the highest state minimum wages have higher unemployment rates and lower economic growth rates?

Even if some lose their jobs, most low-wage workers will gain from a higher minimum wage. This assumes that other terms of work will remain unchanged, which is false. For those who keep their jobs, fringe benefits, on-the-job training, etc., will fall to offset additional mandated wages. And the increased wages may well be less valuable (as well as taxable) than what is given up, especially on-the-job training that helps people learn their way out of poverty. That is why labor force participation rates fall and quit rates rise when the minimum wage rises, in contrast to what would happen if those workers were made better off.

Supporters of a higher minimum wage claim altruism to help working families as their motive. But it actually harms most of those supposedly be helped, while benefitting supporters by raising costs facing competitors. They may claim, as did the Chairman of Ben & Jerry’s Board, “I support a living wage economically, morally and with deep conviction,” but it is really a self-interested infringement on freedom that is economically stupid and morally abusive.

Photo Credit: Kristina Hoeppner

Krugman: “Fiat Money…Backed By Men With Guns” – Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada

Krugman: “Fiat Money…Backed By Men With Guns” – Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

Say what you will about Keynesian superstar Paul Krugman, he doesn’t mince words. In a recent interview with Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal, Krugman gave his opinion that Bitcoin was in a bubble because it wasn’t backed by a tangible asset.

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Perhaps sensing that this may have undercut the case for Krugman’s preferred monetary system, Krugman was quick to add thatgovernment-issued fiat money was “backed by men with guns.” (See the video for yourself.) Thus, Krugman thought that government currencies were not in a bubble, even if they weren’t backed by tangible assets, because people needed to obtain the currency in order to pay taxes.

Krugman’s analysis provides a good opportunity to explore the subtlety of Ludwig von Mises’ monetary economics. On the one hand, Mises was a “hard money” man who was a fierce opponent of government fiat money. It is also true that Mises was a classical liberal who would have opposed government coercion in the form of legal tender laws, capital gains taxes on gold and silver, and other ways that governments currently use their “guns” to solidify the present system where most people on Earth use government-issued notes as their primary form of money.

However, even though a libertarian and proponent of Misesian economics might object to government-issued fiat money because of the coercion–”men with guns”–involved, strictly speaking Mises would not agree that a currency can be backed by guns, in the way Krugman describes. To speak in this manner is a complete surrender in the face of the economist’s task of explaining money.

Mises’ grand work in this area is his The Theory of Money and Credit, for which my free study guide is available. As Mises conceived it, the central theoretical task when it comes to money is to explain why money has a particular purchasing power. Why should it be that people give up valuable goods and services for a particular item–the money commodity–according to definite exchange ratios?

Mises’ answer is that people form expectations about the future purchasing power of money, and that is what gives it purchasing power today. These expectations in turn are based on their observations of the money’s purchasing power in the past. Thus lays the groundwork for Mises’ famous “regression theorem,” in which people’s subjective valuations of money necessarily involves a historical component (unlike their subjective valuation of, say, pizza). Gold, silver, and other forms of commodity money could ultimately be traced back to the days of barter, in which they had definite exchange ratios with other goods because of their usefulness as regular commodities.

In the case of government-issued fiat currencies, Mises explained their purchasing power using the same theoretical apparatus. The only difference is that at some point in the past, the currencies (such as the dollar, pound, franc, etc.) had been explicitly linked to the precious metals, and that’s what grounded everyone’s valuations of them.

Thus, Krugman’s glib assertion that today’s government fiat monies derive their value from guns completely dodges the problem for the economist: to explain the magnitude of that value. Even if we conceded that the government could force everyone to use something–let’s say a particular type of sea shell–as money, by insisting on payment of taxes in the form of sea shells, that policy wouldn’t explain why an hour of labor should trade for 10 shells, rather than 100 or 1,000. This is especially true when we reflect that most government taxes are expressed in terms of percentages, rather than an absolute amount.

Furthermore, it’s obvious that Krugman’s “explanation” would have no way of accounting for changes in either variable. For example, in the 1970s in the United States, price inflation took off dramatically, meaning the purchasing power of the dollar fell sharply. Was this because of a reduction in taxes? Of course not. And in the 1920s, there were sharp cuts in marginal income tax rates at the federal level. Did this lead to severe price inflation, as people now didn’t need as many dollars to pay Uncle Sam? On the contrary, consumer prices were fairly stable in this period.

As these observations should demonstrate, Krugman really hasn’t offered a viable explanation for the purchasing power of money. One might be tempted to say that at best, governments can use their taxing power to dictate what the monetary unit is, even though they would still have little control over its purchasing power.

Yet even this concedes too much. Strictly speaking, if the only policy we are considering is that the government says every year, “Citizens must turn in such-and-such number of sea shells as tax payment,” that alone won’t even be sufficient to conclude that the sea shells will be the money in this society. People could still use some other commodity as the money, and then use the actual money to buy the sufficient number of sea shells each year right before paying their taxes.

UPDATE: After originally posting this, I realized there was a problem with one of my examples: In the 1920s amidst the marginal income tax rate cuts designed by Treasury Secretary Mellon, the U.S. was still on the gold standard. Thus this period is not a good refutation of Krugman’s explanation for fiat money’s exchange value. (Of course, we can simply look at other examples of governments that engaged in large-scale tax cuts even while using a fiat currency, and we don’t typically see a sharp rise in price inflation accompanying them.)

Robert P. Murphy is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, and has written for Mises.org, LewRockwell.com, and EconLib. He has taught at Hillsdale College and is currently a Senior Economist for the Institute for Energy Research. He lives in Nashville.

 

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