Posts tagged ‘Russel Roberts’

Minimum Wages and the Supply and Demand for Labor

In a post that is a nice follow-on to this one about wages in trucking, Russel Roberts has a nice post about people making minimum wage:

According to Current Population Survey estimates for 2006, 76.5
million American workers were paid at hourly rates, representing 59.7
percent of all wage and salary workers.1
Of those paid by the hour, 409,000 were reported as earning exactly
$5.15, the prevailing Federal minimum wage. Another 1.3 million were
reported as earning wages below the minimum.2
Together, these 1.7 million workers with wages at or below the minimum
made up 2.2 percent of all hourly-paid workers.

Correcting for higher state minimum wages, but also adjusting for illegal immigrants (who are a special case with super-low bargaining power) and factoring in salaried workers (who by law to be salaried have to be making much more than minimum wage) one still finds that less than 2% or less make minimum wage, about half of whom are under 25.  Roberts has a follow-on post with comments from Tim Worstall to say that even this number may be too high:

Unfortunately, on the page he's taken his information from he's missed one thing which makes his case even stronger.

Nearly three in four workers earning $5.15 or less in 2006 were
employed in service occupations, mostly in food preparation and service

That's your waitron units and barkeeps folks. And what do we know
about people who do these sorts of jobs? Well, perhaps you have to have
actually done them (as I have, everything from the graveyard shift in a
Denny's to tending bar around the corner from this guy's
place): they all make tips. In fact, so much so that there is (or at
least used to be when that BLS report was prepared) a special minimum
wage for those in such jobs, one lower than the official Federal
minimum wage.

For example, way back when, the min. wage was $3.35 an hour. Waiters
got $2.01. You didn't really care because even serving pancakes at 5 am
you made another $25-$30 a shift ($50-$150 in a decent place). Barkeeps
got $3.35 plus tips.

The BLS numbers are reporting what employers paid employees, not
what people are actually earning. So we might in fact say that while
the number being paid the minimum wage or less is 2.2% of the workforce, the number actually earning that figure is more like 0.5%.

As an aside, speaking of bargaining power, it strikes me that prostitution is an excellent example of supply and demand in labor markets trumping government mandates.  Prostitutes have absolutely no power to run to the government for help over minimum wage or work condition violations.  They have only limited power to get government help even when they are the victim of violence from those who pay them.  But on an hourly basis, the most succesful make far more than most Americans.

A Zero-Sum Wealth Quiz

One of the really bad ideas that drive some of the worst government actions is the notion that wealth is somehow fixed, and that by implication all wealth is acquired at someone else's expense.  I am working on my annual tax-day post on the zero sum fallacy, but in the mean time here is a brief quiz.

The quiz consists of matching a description to the owners of these two houses:

House1a House2b

One house has hot and cold running water, central air conditioning, electricity and flush toilets.  The other does not.  One owner has a a computer, a high speed connection to the Internet, a DVD player with a movie collection, and several television sets.  The other has none of these things.  One owner has a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, a toaster oven, an iPod, an alarm clock that plays music in the morning, a coffee maker, and a decent car.  The other has none of these.  One owner has ice cubes for his lemonade, while the other has to drink his warm in the summer time.  One owner can pick up the telephone and do business with anyone in the world, while the other had to travel by train and ship for days (or weeks) to conduct business in real time.

I think most of you have guessed by now that the homeowner with all the wonderful products of wealth, from cars to stereo systems, lives on the right (the former home of a friend of mine in the Seattle area).  The home on the left was owned by Mark Hopkins, railroad millionaire and one of the most powerful men of his age in California.  Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people's access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin's business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

Hopkin's mansion pictured above was eventually consumed in the fires of 1906, in large part because San Francisco's infrastructure and emergency services were more backwards than those of many third world nations today.

Here is a man, Mark Hopkins, who was one of the richest and most envied men of his day.  He owned a mansion that would dwarf many hotels I have stayed in.  He had servants at his beck and call.  And I would not even consider trading lives or houses with him.  What we sometimes forget is that we are all infinitely more wealthy than even the richest of the "robber barons" of the 19th century.  We have longer lives, more leisure time, and more stuff to do in that time.   Not only is the sum of wealth not static, but it is expanding so fast that we can't even measure it.  Charts like those here measure the explosion of income, but still fall short in measuring things like leisure, life expectancy, and the explosion of possibilities we are all able to comprehend and grasp.

More, coming soon...

Update:  An example of why this topic is always timely:

Paul Krugman foresees an increasing left-leaning electorate. The cause?

The main force driving this shift to the left is probably rising

income inequality. According to Pew, there has recently been a sharp

increase in the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement

that "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer."

Russel Roberts goes on to tear into this red meat.  Read it all.