Seattle’s new minimum wage is $15/hour. While we wait for the assured destruction of that city by businesses fleeing for places without a confiscatory wage policy, this piece by Jared Bernstein made a good point:
One reason is that labor power is so diminished, what with private sector unions at seven percent of the workforce (public sector unions, historically less vulnerable to outside pressure, are at 35 percent but under attack). But that just begs the question: why isn’t labor more powerful, with “labor” in this context referring to not only unions but to the much larger group that depends on paychecks for their economic well-being.
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but my experience as a policy wonk and economist in government has led me to believe that economics, as currently practiced, is part of the problem. Not the discipline itself, which historically has been flexible enough to offer wide ranging and useful tools for analyzing and solving economic problems. I’m talking instead about the way it interacts with wealth and power today to support capital and hamstring labor.
For example, it’s widely argued that government actions that set wages or regulate commerce create “inefficiencies.” Regulate an industry and capital will flee; raise the national wage floor and employers will leave the market (or, in Piketty’s world, handily substitute machines for workers). Increase a marginal tax rate and workers will supply less labor; investors, less capital. Form a union and the unionized firm will face competitive disadvantages that will put it out of business. Provide a safety net benefit to someone and they’ll work less. Tax a polluter and you’ll crash GDP. Tax a financial “innovator” and credit markets will dry up.
Conversely, cut back on a tax rate, a safety net program, the minimum wage, the unionization rate, financial oversight, and growth, jobs, and liquidity will flourish.
I’ve been arguing against these positions for decades, backed by considerable empirical evidence showing that moderate changes to tax rates, minimum wages, union density, the safety net, regulatory oversight and so on trigger nothing like the disasters their opponents claim and can yield important benefits (which is not to say there are no “negative impacts” at all). Yet the bar to win the anti-interventionist argument is set remarkably low. You don’t need evidence; you can just cite “basic economics.”