Soft Head, Soft Heart Argument

Bryan Caplan asks:

So I propose a simple challenge to pave the way to my refutation: Tell me how to sell the abolition of the minimum wage to the typical Feeling American.

Please don't give me any "hard heads, soft hearts" answers.  Give me "soft heads, soft hearts" answers.  You're trying to persuade Oprah Winfrey, not Data from Star Trek after he gets his emotion chip.

I am not sure what makes for a soft head argument, but lots of talk about oppressors and racism combined with argument by anecdote rather than facts felt right, so this was my shot at it:

Bobby is a black teen in Chicago. Since he has just 9 years old, the only way he could support his family and survive in his neighborhood was to join a gang and deal drugs.

After his recent arrest, Bobby wants to go straight, to escape the cycle of crime and violence into which he has become trapped. But no one will hire him without experience. He needs a history showing he can do simple things, like show up reliably to work on time, cooperate with other employees, and interact well with customers.

Bobby would be willing to work for free to gain this experience, to get a toe-hold on the simple skills many of us take for granted. Be he can't. he is barred by law. He cannot legally be offered a job for less than $8.25 an hour, a wage he could one day earn but right now lacks the basic skills to justify.

The minimum wage raises the first rung on the ladder of success higher than Bobby can possibly reach. This is not an accident. Early proponents of the minimum wage in the early 20th century supported it precisely because it protected white workers from competition from blacks attempting to enter the work force. The minimum wage began as, and still is, a tool of oppression,preventing young men like Bobby from gaining access to good employment.

Today, the unemployment among black teens has risen to nearly 40%. This is because the government has been working for years to help older white workers with political clout keep men like Bobby out of the workforce, and the minimum wage is their most powerful tool for doing so.


  1. Brian:

    Pretty good

  2. Username456:

    "Bobby would be willing to work for free to gain this experience, to get a toe-hold on the simple skills many of us take for granted. Be he can't. "

    Soft head/soft heart would knee jerk that Bobby can't eat if he's working for free.

    Change to "Bobby would be willing to work for less than the current minimum wage to gain this experience, to get a toe-hold on the simple skills many of us take for granted. But he can't."

  3. perlhaqr:


  4. Tim:

    You can also tell the same story from the perspective of the civic-minded business owner; someone who wants to employ, say GED students in a job shop environment; as part of an initiative to rehabilitate his old neighborhood. (Which would serve his own interest, as a better neighborhood would improve property values of his real estate holdings) In this case, the minimum wage would prevent him from hiring enough people to effectively run his business; or would force the price his product to be higher than outsourced competition.

  5. David:

    Good shot. I like it although the comments about working for free are correct.

    Unlike working for less than the minimum wage, working for free is legal. It is something that the dilettante spawn of the rich do and is called internship. It is not surprising in the least that you can't work for less than the mandated minimum but you can work for free. The poor can't afford to work for nothing. They have immediate needs to take car of.

    Internship, like the minimum wage, is a mechanism used to keep them in their place. The entire credidentialism system (college degrees, internship, etc) is probably even more important than the minimum wage in keeping the poor from advancing. If you don't have the wherewithal to invest years of time and money without any immediate return, you simply are excluded from a vast array of well-paying jobs.

  6. LarryGross:

    this is the argument you'd use to convince Oprah!

    ha ha ha.... seriously?

  7. SB:

    Seems like a good soft head story, but I don't see it being sold to "Feeling Americans". Oprah will vilify the business owner for not hiring Bobby for $8.25 and hour. How do you teach Oprah, and 52% of the country, that minimum wage controls reduce opportunities for the groups they are targeted to help? Be it through reduced benefits, poorer work conditions, and obviously through reduced employment all together. Oprah will castigate the successful owner and not give him/her the credit for running a profitable business.

  8. Mark Alger:

    I think the mistake is to make a structured argument. What's needed are memes that feed to the soft-head/soft-heart type, but without requiring them to think. Like: minimum wage laws are racist and support and entrenched establishment while increasing unemployment in minority communities. You are asserting verifiable facts, (unlike the knee-jerk left), but doing them according to a template familiar to the low-information voter. More viral. You're inserting a new meme in the same place the old meme resided. It will take patient repetition, but you didn't think the Left got where it is in one shot, did you?

  9. LarryGross:

    ZING! see, the purpose of the "soft head story" related here was not to convince Oprah anyhow but to continue the "minimum wage is racism" canard.

    the other side to the minimum wage conundrum is this:

    1. - if someone does end earn a living wage and cannot afford to save for retirement or pay for
    health care - what happens?

    2. - they become dependent on entitlements that require taxes from others.

    3. - it don't really matter what color they are or the original reason that SOME BELIEVE caused
    support for minimum wage. Hint: there were a lot of folks who were NOT racist that wanted it
    for non-racist reasons.

    so of course, if you wanted to talk to Oprah about this - you'd surely bring up the race card, right?

  10. Dustin:

    That's pretty good, but I agree with the person who says that people will just say the business owner should hire him at 8.25 an hour. They will point out he can 'afford it' in the sense that the difference between 8.25 and hour and whatever he would pay is significantly less than the business owner's take home pay. You are dealing with people who don't actually believe that wages represent the company paying you what your work is worth, or accept that that is an appropriate thing to be paid. Many people still view the economy as zero sum.

  11. slocum:

    Years ago, Warren Meyer at CoyoteBlog had a very nice, real life example (quite different from yours) that ought to have some appeal to the Oprah crowd:

  12. Mondak:

    Very funny, but he was looking for soft head, soft heart stories, not the concrete stuff.

  13. Mondak:

    Came here to say this.

  14. LarryGross:

    check this out:

    that's a pretty substantial list.

    can anyone provide a list of countries that do not have such laws and demonstrate how they
    benefit economically (less unemployment?) by not having them?

    this seems like yet another article-of-faith issue, eh?

  15. Kevin Dick:

    Here's what I would add to counter the objections to the store owner just paying him more. Also talk about Ron, the owner of a grocery store in an urban neighborhood who would be willing to hire Bobby at $5/hr because he feels it's important to give young people a chance. The problem is, because Bobby has so few skills that one of Ron's experienced workers will have to spend about half his time training and supervising Bobby for the first year.

    At more than $5/hr, the combination of Bobby and the more experienced worker will cost Ron more to get the work done than the experienced worker alone. So he'd have to RAISE FOOD PRICES in the urban neighborhood. He knows that many of customers can barely make ends meet. In fact, he's already taking a loss on some fresh vegetables and canned goods, because his poorest customers really need those. If he didn't raise prices and kept hiring low skilled workers like Bobby, eventually he wouldn't be able to pay rent and would have to CLOSE THE GROCERY STORE.

  16. LarryGross:

    there are LOTS and LOTS of opportunities to volunteer and no requirements to pay or compensate the volunteer. There are internships that do not pay minimum wage and lots of examples of where minimum pay does not apply so a job that pays minimum wage is not the only path to work experience.

    the distinction is when the person is an employee which is a different kind of a relationship that usually in formalized legally by the payment of FICA taxes.

    One could, if they wanted, make the same economic claim about FICA taxes as minimum wage, right?

    the example of retired people - working for a wage - while they collect social security (cited in an older blog) is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the teenager.

    There is no shortage of teenagers working at fast food places where I live and the service at the fast food places is fast and efficient and the food of a consistent quality and that tells me that they do not skimp on hiring.

    They also manage to sell hamburgers at prices lower than you could buy them raw and cook them yourself so there does not appear to be any economic damage.

    There are 200+ countries in the world and more than 150 of them have minimum wage laws with the first one established in New Zealand.

  17. bigmaq1980:

    The argument as presented is from the wrong angle. The person we are targeting with the message has to understand it from an "ownership" point of view. They already can empathize with Bobby, but don't understand the implications on the other side of the equation. If the starting point is Bobby working for free or cheap, it comes across a "feeling" like the owner is abusing Bobby, as the term itself "MINIMUM" carries with it some notion of "Fairness".

    Gotta start from the owner's point - perhaps they have a grass cutting business with one other employee and Bobby approaches. Then have them step through the decision making process. Conclude with what is most helpful to Bobby to move ahead, what is fair to the owner, etc.

    Maybe someone here can create a succinct example to use in casual conversation (or with Oprah, next time one of us are on her program)? On this particular issue, a simple "game" might be the most effective way to convince. There are/needs to be multiple means to convey the message.

    Presenting the issue as "Bobby looking for a job" falls into the framing that the Left has on this issue - they will "win", unless you fall for a dangerous "meme" such as claiming it minimum wages are "racist" - true or not, we'd take a hit for demagoguery, and therefore, credibility.

    But, we have to be wary of the "language" the left uses and the framing implied in the issue. Arguing from that point of view is rarely convincing to those that we need to be targeting. I highly agree at simplifying our messaging and making the talking points/example/conclusion resonant in an emotional way.

  18. LarryGross:

    interesting that in the NORTH - the minimum wage came about because of sweatshops that were abusing women and children, right?

    the idea that the employer is being treated "unfairly" ignores that history, eh?

  19. Rick Caird:

    Articles of faith cut both ways, Larry boy.

  20. SB:

    That there is no shortage of teenagers working at fast food restaurants is the problem. There is a shortage of fast food employment opportunities for teenagers because, at least in a large part, of minimum wage rules. The existence of minimum wage laws in 150+ countries does not lend support to their efficacy. As a matter of fact (at least according to the wikipedia you cited) countries that have a minimum wage average 14.5% unemployment while those that don't average 11.6%.

  21. SB:

    Vlookup compare the list you provided with a list of country unemployment numbers. I did a quick excel compare and it does check out that those without have less unemployment. Obviously it's not a scientific approach but leads credence to my faith :)

  22. LarryGross:

    Indeed! but when 150 countries have some form of it.. it starts to sound like no major country has gotten it "right", eh?

    It seems kind of hard to argue this on a US-only, "poor black kid"-only basis given the worldwide extent of it. Right?

    the first legal version of it was in New Zealand in 1896... right?

  23. LarryGross:

    did you include these:
    Country / RegionUnemployment rate (%)Source / date of information Nauru90.02004[3] Vanuatu78.211999[122] Turkmenistan70.02008 (November)[115] Zimbabwe702011[128] Mozambique60.02009 Tajikistan60.02008 (August)[110] Djibouti59.02007[3] Namibia51.22008[3] Senegal48.0;[citation needed] 30% among adults aged 24 and under[102]2007 Nepal46.02008[3] Kenya42.0

  24. SB:

    Your questions assumes that retirement and health care are rights. That's not something I'm willing to concede, at least not from the point of view that the government should be providing either. It doesn't really matter what color they are or aren't, if they can't afford to pay for retirement or health care that is, 1.) Not the taxpayers problem, 2.) Not going to be solved by a minimum wage that disqualifies them for many jobs, and 3.) a good incentive to gain experience enough to earn a "living wage"

  25. SB:

    Yes, they are on the list...and they have minimum wage standards. How's that working out for them?

  26. jt1111:

    I had this conversation once with a social worker friend, who thought the solution was a combination of government-sponsored skill training and job placement. I pointed out that these programs generally fail because they don't deal with dysfunctional behavior--not showing up regularly, being rude to customers, picking fights with the boss, walking off the job, etc. Back when we had a wartime draft that brought in a lot of "raw talent", the armed forces were actually pretty successful at turning people like Bobby into good team players, I pointed out. But it took a total immersion process and a multi-year commitment. "We could never do that!" my friend said. She was almost certainly right.

  27. LarryGross:

    I don't consider it a "right" but politically as a nation - we have decided that we will take care of those who are elderly or working poor and indigent and ....realistically.. that's not going to change. So to be pragmatic, one would have to take that into account.

    that's where the idea of a living wage essentially comes from - that, if there are kids involved (especially) and the parents do not earn enough to feed, clothe and get them health care - that taxpayers will pay to do it.

    I recognize there is opposition to this concept but we should also recognize that right now,
    the country is not going to change it's path on these issues.

    I'm not justifying it as much as I am attempting to explain the political basis for it.

    Most industrialized nations and developing nations deal with this in similar ways, right?

  28. Daublin:

    Very nice. This is the one I'll give a try next time I encounter wide-eyed support for the minimum wage.

    Maybe an older person would make it a better example. Making the victim be a child brings in extra issues. A twenty-something that wasted life away on weeds and gangs might make a stronger example.

    The comments are showing the predictable replies, but at least with this start you have them on the defensive.

    To take a stab at the replies:

    1. The restaurant should pay him more. Emphasize the assumptions. For someone like Bobby, simply no one will hire him if it has to be $8/hour.

    2. Minimum wage is not a living wage. Emphasize that they are biased from their privileged background. Yes, $3/hour sounds pitiful, insulting even, for someone of a certain background. However, for Bobby, it's plenty. He's living with two roommates, so his expenses are lower.

    3. Yes, Bobby gets screwed, but enough other people benefit. Here it gets into numbers, but do emphasize that Bobby gets really screwed. Unemployment is harsh. It means a life living off of charity and government benefits, which is assuredly worse than the most boring of 9-5 jobs.

  29. john mcginnis:

    Bobby has a bigger hurdle than the minimum wage and there are millions of Bobby's out there of every color. The fact is it's getting rarer and rarer that a HS grad has gained any work experience at all. My first job was running my own paper route @ 12. That simple little job taught it all -- promptness (nothing more irate than a customer with no paper in the morning), customer service, collections, supplier management -- and all I thought I was doing at the time was delivering a paper. Well papers figured out that it was `cheaper` to use adults with large routes than kids. I would also point out that minimum wage had nothing to do with it. We were paid by the paper delivered. The point is by near fiat avenues for stepping onto the economic ladder are closed off.

    Guess my question is, I hear all the time of individuals taking intern positions, many with news organizations or non profits. How do they get away with it?

  30. john mcginnis:

    SB, McDonald's is the largest employer of teenagers which is to the good. But down here in Texas even that is slowly being closed off. Adults are taking the positions.

  31. SB:

    Ah pragmatism and realism. Our tickets to destruction. I could not agree more that politically it's suicide to promote entitlement reform/repeal but that doesn't mean I agree with it. It's time we elect leaders who will do what's needed and sustainable, not just what we're able to stomach.

  32. SB:

    Thanks John,

    While I can't objectively agree that McDonald's being the largest employer of teenagers is "to the good", I would say that minimum wage elimination would likely open those jobs back up to teenagers. The job market being as it is, they are being pushed out of the market by more experienced workers unable to find higher paying work.

  33. LarryGross:

    I suspect there are exceptions to the law.

  34. mesaeconoguy:

    Oprah Winfrey/majority of population is incapable of understanding economics.

    This is a futile exercise.

  35. AnInquirer:

    93% of minimum wage earners are not supporting families. Rather, minimum wage earners are typically teenagers who are using wages mostly for their high-consumption lifestyle. There are much better ways to help low-income earners who need to support their families -- such as that very-Republican program of earned income credit.

    By the way, when minimum wage goes up, school dropouts increase. Somehow, that prospect of making $8.25 / hour ($16,500 per year) induces students to drop out of school. Thus, more people end up in life-time poverty for lack of education.

  36. marque2:

    It seems to me that conditions have changed in the last 150 years. At this point in our history, if someone offered a 50 cent a day job, women and children would be free to go elsewhere and find better opportunity.

    Just because it a law may have been enacted because of the way Hammurabi ran things in Mesopotamia. Situations change.

  37. LarryGross:

    honest question here: Is that TRUE in every one of the 100+ countries that have a minimum wage law?

    can someone name the top 5 countries who don't have such a law and their unemployment rates for teens?

    are there actual facts, on a across-the-planet basis that support this idea that the minimum wage is harmful to teen employment?

    I agree with the idea of the GOP earned income credit but you'll find that most folks who oppose the minimum wage law ALSO oppose the earned income credit as they oppose any/all govt involvement in low income workers.

  38. marque2:

    99.7% of scientists also believed the continents did not move and laughed at Alfred Wegener when he proposed continental drift in 1915, and put obstacles in his way so he could not get promoted for having such silly ideas. Just because everyone does it, or everyone believes it is good. Does not mean it is right. Another example in the 1950's Doctors told us all to load up on Cholesterol because they noticed just after a heart attack the Cholesterol level in patients dropped precipitously - it was therefore logically reasoned, that more Cholesterol meant less chance of heart attack. It took quite a few years to get doctors to believe otherwise and the myth wasn't buried well into the 1990's! I could go on. So what is so sacred about 151 countries having a minimum wage?

  39. marque2:

    We should probably make the minimum wage $30 per hour then. Most folks will then be able to provide for themselves and save for retirement - and as you say - that will not cause one iota of unemployment. You also think the government should mint trillion dollar coins to pay off our deficit?

  40. LarryGross:

    yeah but we're not exactly talking about some scientific theory here... and besides, you have to provide some compelling evidence to convince people ...

    If you can't convince Oprah.. you're not likely to convince many others either...except those who already believe it.

    that's the problem with most of this stuff.. you can talk about it all you want but until and unless you convince others .... you're whistling in the dark.

    it's not an insignificant thing that most countries support this and it is not a good thing that no one can name the top 5 countries who don't do it and illustrate their superior economic performance as a direct result of not having it.

  41. SB:

    Not sure what you mean by "top 5" countries but here's some facts to support the minimum wage fallacy

  42. LarryGross:

    no. these are not "facts". these are suppositions from an organization that has an agenda against the minimum wage and put forth their arguments against it.

    I look for authoritative data/reports from organizations that have no pre-conceived agenda and the data itself can be independently verified at other authoritative sites.

    when I ask for the top 5 - I'm looking for a list of countries that do not have minimum wage laws and then some economic metrics - like unemployment rate for teens - to compare and contrast against countries that do have such laws and ostensibly have real adverse impacts.

    I doubt that teens in all 150+ countries "suffer" the way that NCPA claims that American teens do but I'd certainly look at supporting evidence that showed that.

    NCPA is an American conservative think tank[1] whose goals are to develop and promote private alternatives to government regulation and control. Topics addressed include reforms in health care, taxes, Social Security, welfare, education and environmental regulation.

    So they are fundamentally opposed to the very concept of minimum wage - no matter what the data from 150 other countries might show.

  43. Gil:

    How can the minimum wage be racist if it is applied equally across all races? If other words, if young blacks are unemployable because of the minimum wage then so should all young people be unemployable.

  44. Gil:

    That's because Wegener had no mechanism for continental drift and was merely playing a global jigsaw. By the same token Semmelweis introduced hand washing in hospitals on the grounds of "mal air" theory of disease.

  45. Gil:

    That's strange: what could adults bring to a ho-hum level-entry job over a teenager?

  46. LarryGross:

    well.. that's because that kind of thinking would undercut the ideology and biases....of those opposed to the minimum an economic concept eh?

    think about their race-based theory in the context of 150 different countries with peoples of all colors on the planet and it gets even more ridiculous.

    why would anyone who seriously believes in the economic impacts of minimum wage ever make it about race to start with? Why?

    that turns one aspect of economics essentially into a whole political and cultural movement about race.

    Now how dumb is that? In my view - plenty and it is emblematic of many of these issues now days.

    It's not just about an economic concept - it's deeper than that.... it's basically an us against them movement.


  47. SB:

    Regardless of their agenda, the numbers are accurate, I find no "suppositions". I think it's now incumbent upon you to prove that minimum wage standards have reduced overall poverty in the 150+ countries that have them.

  48. LarryGross:

    there are no facts in that 10+ year old study guy. As per most of their writings, there are no references to back up their claimed numbers. This is typical of organizations like this who have pre-conceived agendas and are not really interested in objective studies.

    re: reduce poverty? who said that? not me. I said that the claim that the minimum wage caused economic harm is not proven by objective data in the 150+ countries that have it. If there actually were such a study and it was actually backed up by serious data - it would likely change the policies in some or most of those countries but there is no real evidence of it - just these right wing think tanks blathering propaganda.

  49. marque2:

    He had lots of circumstantial evidence. Seems like rock formations where the continents split were made from similar materials. And the fossil records along those splits also were very similar. So all the pieces fit well, it is just other scientists guffawed at the fact that continents moved, ignoring the fact that they moved over millions of years.

    Wegener did some very substantial analysis before making his claims. It was more robust than most of the EPA studies we take for truth today.

  50. Joey Blunts:

    The small business owner should tell Bobby it's an unpaid internship. LOL but black people aren't dumb enough to fall for that one.