Economics, Politics

Why Don’t we Subsidize Higher Wages? Or: Public Policy is Expensive

[7 Minute Read]

Epistemic Status: Started as a reduction ad absurdum.

It used to be a common progressive grumbling point that the social safety net subsidized the low wages of McDonald’s and Walmart (and many less famous and less oft grumbled about enterprises). The logic went that employees at those companies just weren’t paid enough; they wouldn’t be able to survive – a necessary prerequisite to showing up at work – without government assistance. The obvious fix for this would be forcing these companies to pay their employees more – raising the minimum wage.

In my last piece on the minimum wage, I said the existing evidence pointed towards minimum wage hikes having few negative consequences. Recent evidence from Seattle suggests this may not be the case (although there are dueling studies, further complicated by accusations of academic misconduct against the scientists who found the hike had no effect). If my earlier prediction proves false, it will be because $15/hour is much higher – and a much larger percentage increase, then any of the past studies looked at.

If a $15/hour minimum wage “fails” [1] then we will face a choice. Do we give up on higher minimum wages? Do we accept higher unemployment (and all of its associated disconnection, wrenching poverty, and mental health costs)? Do we try something radically different?

Certainly, there exist other potential programs that we can use to accomplish some of the goals of a minimum wage increase if an increase itself proves untenable. A guaranteed basic income (GBI) [2], while expensive, would accomplish many of the same economic security goals as a higher minimum wage, but it wouldn’t fix the fact that some people see their wage as a reflection on their moral value, instead of a commentary on the supply and demand of various skills. This could become quite the sticking point; one reason that libertarians get behind a GBI is that it would allow us to abolish minimum wage laws.

Eliezer Yudkowsky (don’t groan, this really is relevant) has an interesting theory about the left. He thinks that the left doesn’t hate capitalism – they just hold it to the same ethical standards they hold people to. It might be people on the right who claim that corporations are people, but it’s the left who treat corporations like people.

If we accept Yudkowsky’s theory, there are a lot of people for whom paying someone $8/hour is an unacceptable slur on that person’s value as a human being [3]. This seems to match what I see from time to time on Facebook or in editorials. Here’s one out of Seattle; it ends with: “Finally, let’s be mindful that a minimum wage is about more than keeping the poor from starving. It’s also about attaching dignity to a person’s labor”.

Dignity being on the line changes the minimum wage debate. People can squabble over the economic pie endlessly. But make it about dignity and workers can’t back down. Even if a higher minimum wage leads to price increases or lost jobs.

And the Seattle Times article I linked is far too sanguine about price increases [4]. It is correct when it points out that well-off people can eat price increases with nary a change in behaviour, but I don’t know how it can so calmly ignore how much of a struggle it is for low-income families to deal with price increases.

Of course, raising the minimum wage might give people some breathing room. But that breathing room is wasted if prices immediately increase to match the new incomes. Have you ever watched someone on a treadmill?

The real effect of increased prices will be felt by people living on fixed incomes. Price increases are especially rough on seniors, who often can’t work even if they wanted to. Although I suppose we could use inflation to deal with the truly scary unfunded pension liabilities that many governments now have to deal with.

Raising the minimum wage will have to result in higher prices if it doesn’t lead to improved productivity (and therefore laying off the least productive workers). Retailers can absorb wages up to about $11/hour and still turn a profit. Beyond that, they can only raise prices, raise productivity, or run a charity. They won’t do the third.

But look, steadily rising wages are nice. They’re an excellent anesthetic for discontent. They alleviate poverty. If it was worth the cost, the government could make the complaints of subsidization true by literally subsidizing wages.

For the government to carry out this subsidization in Ontario, the cost would be something like $9 billion dollars [5]. This is equivalent to about 6% of the current budget – a bit less than the amount Ontario pays to service its debt. It wouldn’t be impossible to raise revenue for this – a progressive 1-5% tax increase would cover it handily [6], with the median Ontario worker seeing about $10.00 come off each paycheque with the new taxes.

There would obviously need to be some pretty strict rules in place here. What company would chip in $13 or $14 when their worker would be paid the same if they instead chipped in $11.60 (the current minimum wage)? We might get around this by making subsidization depend on the number of workers you employ (although this will tend towards monopolization and give the big retail giants quite an advantage) or their low productivity (but this has terrible incentives).

We still don’t know if the minimum wage hike will result in lost jobs. It’s also an open question how much we should (at a policy level) be aiming for full employment. But raising the minimum wage is a massive, $9 billion undertaking. Who pays for it (and if it happens at all) is deeply tied into questions about fairness, dignity, good governance and regressiveness. The least regressive way to do it is probably via subsidies; unfortunately, subsidies are the most corruptible of all options.

I previously mentioned the guaranteed basic income. My crude calculations give a (no doubt slightly high) estimate of $37 billion [7] for a GBI in Ontario, much higher than I’ve seen in the estimates from proponents. I’m personally worried that a GBI would be absorbed into raised rents [8], another example of a treadmill effect.

Economics policy is difficult enough as a scientific discipline. But tied up in ancillary questions (like “what is fair?”) as it is, it is uniquely susceptible to corruption by what people wish, rather than what is true [9]. When it can’t be corrupted, it is often ignored. Public policy has a cost. Resources are still limited. For every dollar spent, there must be a dollar raised (if not now, then eventually).

When we focus only on what we feel is fair or justified and not on what is achievable, we aren’t doing anyone any favours. Raising the minimum wage to $15/hour might cause job losses or spiralling inflation, or it might require subsidies and tax raises. These aren’t the consequences of greedy corporations. They’re the predictable results of people making reasonable decisions in a massively complicated system.

Disturb it at your own peril.


[1] Failure (to me) means increased unemployment. A decrease in labour force participation would probably represent a return to single income families, unless preceded by high unemployment of the sort that drives people to give up looking for work. There’s also the failure mode of “causes spiralling inflation”, but that seems more likely to end the whole experiment prematurely. ^

[2] Unanswered questions I still have about a guaranteed minimum income include: “how can we pay for?”, “are you sure it won’t cause massive inflation in rents?”, and “no seriously, just saying it was fine when the Fed did QE isn’t good enough! Why won’t all that money chasing the same desirable housing cause the housing to become more expensive?” ^

[3] It’s weird to see the left capitulating here and more or less agreeing that a person’s value is at all tied to their wage. I think it’s important to strongly reject all attempts to link the intrinsic human value of a person with their economic value. Economic value maps to supply and demand, not intrinsic worthiness, so it’s an inherently fragile thing to base any moral worth on. ^

[4] It also makes a horrendous false equivalence between worker pay and CEO pay. Walmart’s CEO makes $21.8 million. Walmart has 2.3 million “associates”. Let’s say they average 20 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, for 2.3 billion employee hours per year. Removing the CEO’s salary would free up enough cash to pay the workers one extra cent per hour ($10/year). CEO salaries are a very tiny drop in the bucket compared to total compensation for companies with huge workforces. ^

[5] 1.7 million people make less than $15/hour. Assume they all make $11.60/hour, that they all work 40 hour weeks, 50 weeks a year and we end up with $11.6 billion. Since all of these are overestimates, this gives us an upper bound. $9 billion is my guess at a more realistic number. ^

[6] Here’s my calculations, based on the really excellent Statistics Canada data available here. I’ve made some simplifying assumptions (e.g. that everyone in each bracket makes the exact centre value of the bracket, that higher taxes won’t make people look for more ways to avoid them), but this should be broadly accurate. If you want to play around with the workbook, leave a comment with your email address and I’ll send it your way.

Note that “Total Revenue”, “Total Tax”, and “Tax as percent of income” are calculated by adding the “Tax at Midpoint” value to the “Taxes For Entire Bracket” values for all previous brackets. This is how the taxman does it. ^

[7] Calculations:

Not pictured: any adjustment for the percent of people who are married. The simplest approach (50% of Ontarians are married and couples receive 30% less, so the cost should be 15% lower) brings the cost down to a “mere” $37 billion. This is the cost I quote above. ^

[8] Rent control is the only possible solution, but it might be worse than what it seeks to cure. The economist Assar Lindbeck claimed that “In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.” This was falsified by communist Vietnam, according to a speech by its onetime foreign minister: “The Americans couldn’t destroy Hanoi, but we have destroyed our city by very low rents. We realized it was stupid and that we must change policy”. ^

[9] On all sides. For every Bernie bro convinced we need socialism right now, there’s someone who believes in the explicitly anti-empirical assertions of the Austrian School. ^

Ethics, Philosophy

Utilitarian Virtue Ethics

[4 minure read]

The nagging question that both halves of Utilitarianism for and against left me with is: “can utilitarianism exist without veering off into total assessment?”

Total assessment is the direct comparison of all the consequences of different actions. It is not so much a prediction that an individual can make as it is the providence of an omniscient god. If you cannot perfectly predict all of the future, you cannot perform a total assessment. It’s conceptually useful – whenever a utilitarian is backed into a corner, they can fall on total assessment as their decision-making tool – but it’s practically useless.

Absent total assessment, utilitarians kind of have to make their best guess and go with it. Even my beloved precedent utilitarianism isn’t much help here; precedent utilitarianism focuses on a class of consequences that traditional utilitarianism can miss. It does little to help an individual figure out all of the consequences of their actions.

If it is hard to guess the effects of outcomes, or if this guessing will be prohibitive in terms of time, what is the utilitarian to do? One appealing option is a distinctly utilitarian virtue ethics. This virtue ethics would define a good life as one lived with the virtues that cause you to make optimific decisions.

I think it is possible for such a system to maintain a distinctly utilitarian character and thereby avoid Williams’ prediction that utilitarianism must, if accepted, “usher itself from the scene.”

The first distinct characteristic of a utilitarian virtue ethics would be its heterogeneity. Classical virtue ethics holds that there are a set of virtues that can cause one to live a good life. The utilitarian would instead seek to cultivate the virtues that would cause her to act in an optimific way. These would necessarily be individualized; it may very well be optimific for an ambitious and clever utilitarian to cultivate greed and drive while acquiring a fortune, then cultivate charity while giving it away (see Bill Gates).

There is the obvious danger here that cultivating temporarily anti-utilitarian virtues could lead to permanent values drift. The best countermeasure against this would be a varied community of utilitarians, who would cultivate a variety of virtues and help bind each other to the shared utilitarian cause, helping whenever expediency threatens to pull one away from it.

Next, a utilitarian virtue ethics would treat no virtue as sacred. Honesty, charity, kindness, and bravery – all of these must be conditional on the best outcome. Because the best outcome is hard to determine, they might be good rules of thumb, but the utilitarian must always be prepared to break a moral rule if there is more utility to be had.

Third, the utilitarian would seek to avoid cognitive biases and learn to make decisions quickly. Avoiding cognitive biases increases the chance that rules of thumb will be broken out of genuine utilitarian concern, rather than thinly veiled self-interest. Learning to make decisions quickly helps avoid the wasted time pondering “what is the right thing to do?”

While the traditional virtue ethicist might read the works of the great classical philosophers to better understand virtue, a utilitarian virtue ethicist would focus on learning Fermi estimation, Bayesian statistics, and the works of Daniel Kahneman.

The easiest ways for a utilitarian to fail is to treat the world as it really is are by ignoring the things they cannot measure, or by ignoring truths they find personally uncomfortable. We did not evolve for clear thinking and there is always the risk that we will get ourselves turned around, substituting what is best for us with what is best for the world.

One hang-up I have with this idea is that I just described a bunch of my friends in the rationality and effective altruism communities. How likely is it that this is merely self-serving, instead of the natural endpoint of all of the utilitarian philosophy I’ve been reading?

On one hand, this is a community of utilitarians who are similar to me, so convergence in outputs given the same inputs is more or less expected.

On the other, this could be a classic example of seeing the world how I wish it, rather than it is. “Go hang out with people you already like, doing the things you were already going to do” isn’t much of an ethical ask. Given that the world is in a dire state, it makes sense for utilitarians to be sceptical that their ethical system won’t require much from them.

There could be other problems with this proposal, but I’m not sure that I’m the type of person who could see them. For now, this represents my best attempt to reconcile my utilitarian ethics with the realities of the modern world. But I will be careful. Ease is ever seductive.

All About Me

Meditations on a broken arm

[4 minute read]

This will be a ramble.

I’ve managed to break my arm. Injuries – by necessitating a convalescence – can quickly become an opportunity to reflect. I have a lot to reflect on.

I don’t want to say that (temporarily) losing the use of my arm has given me empathy for those who go about life one handed. That supposed empathy can become a type of mockery. Disability isn’t a costume to try on for a few weeks.

My left hand was never as functional as my right. My left thumb is not truly opposable. Over the years I’ve come up with so many workarounds that I almost forget. It comes up only when I must try new things; when I tie strange knots, or eat with fancy utensils. My thumb has taught me that you cannot compare a cast to a disability. A cast is its own excuse.  I won’t be scared with this cast. “Are they watching? Did they notice?” – those have always been my fears as I fumble with a fork at a fancy restaurant or in front of a partner’s parent. Politeness is in many ways predicated on abilities and (for me at least) alienation comes from having different abilities. A broken arm isn’t different. It is so very normal.

My adaptations to my thumb were so gradual that I made them before I even noticed, most of them a very long time ago. A broken arm is sudden. It’s shocking to find that all my old tricks of dealing with my less functional left hand no longer work with it immobilized in a cast.

On a bike ride before the fateful one that brought my present contretemps, I thought about how often I biked and the illusion of fitness it gave many people. I’m small and I gain muscle slowly. I was not as in shape as people assumed I was from the amount I biked. This was fine; the world is not fair and your rewards do not equal your effort – something I benefitted from whenever I aced an exam I barely studied for. In a way, mountain biking – that I started it and that I stuck with it – was more impressive than any A I ever received in school.

Biking giveth and biking taketh away. Mountain biking, with its mad scramble over rocks and roots was giving me something I hadn’t felt in years: the heady glow of rapid accomplishment. I was getting better every week (even if it was more slowly than I liked; more slowly than another might). I was getting stronger and noticing it. It was rarer for my breath to come in great strangled gulps. It was rarer for me to pound on the brakes out of panic.

It is funny how panic works. Panic is what broke my arm. On my first trip on my own, I found myself caught in a thunderstorm, then in a hailstorm. The sky shook, caught in one continuous paroxysm of thunder. Eventually I could stand it no more and possessed of the desperate desire to be out and safe, I set off on my bike. Despite my fogged glasses and the poor visibility. Despite the treacherous roots and the path half turned to a river. I should have walked.

I’ve hated wet roots since I started mountain biking. Hit them at any angle at all and you will slide around. It was a sea of roots at the top of a hill that brought me down. I had no momentum left – no chance to cruise over them. I went down ponderously, right on my left elbow. I was two kilometres from the exit and it was still storming. But at least shock cleared away my panic.

The walk out of there was brutal, but it went oddly quickly. My mind was too occupied to mark the passage of time. I suspected my arm was broken and immobilized it as best I could (by forcing it through the strap of my backpack), then I set out. I got lost twice. I only made it out because a hiker pointed me in the right direction. I only made it home because a kind stranger drove me (it was a 7km ride from my house to the trail). My phone was waterlogged and useless.

I’m prone to an overwhelmed obstinacy and that’s what overcame me at the hospital. No, I did not want a change of clothes. No, I did not need to be dry. I didn’t care about my own comfort. I was simply overwhelmed by the thought of recovery – and the threat it might pose to my deliberately cultivated independence, hard won after a life of medical procedures.

A coworker once described my typing as terrifyingly fast. Now it is one-handed and slow. My thoughts never could keep up with my fingers before. Now they’re constrained to one hand’s plodding pace. The effect is meditative. I hope that this stage will only last for a couple weeks. It will be possible (even required!) for me to take off my next cast. Perhaps then I will be able to type as quickly as I’m used to.

My present inability to type has sapped me of some ambition for this blog. When I started it, about a year ago, I intended to have something to say every month. I surprised even myself with how much I ended up writing. I’d intended mainly to write fiction this year, but the excitement of seeing my thoughts clarified and written down overwhelmed me and I fell in love with blogging. Now I feel like I’ve almost run out of things to say and I’m not quite sure I want to bother to find more.

Maybe I will turn back to fiction. There are concepts and ideas that can be best explored via metaphor. And fiction is its own kind of joy to write. I know enough to know the type of stories I want to put down. I don’t know if anyone else will want to read them, but that’s never stopped me before. An audience is nice, but I do this for me.

The present seems momentous from inside the waves of history. It’s hindsight that allows us to tell the truly significant breakers from those that held only a false fury. I may look back on this in a year and laugh. Or this may be a turning point in my writing, however accidental.

One thing is certain. Expect me to write less until I get this damn cast off.

Model, Politics, Quick Fix

They don’t hate your values; they just assign them no weight

[3-minute read]

Content Warning: Extensive discussion of the morality of abortion

Previously, I talked about akrasia as one motive for socially conservative legislation. I think the akrasia model is useful when explaining certain classes of seemingly hypocritical behaviour, but it’s far from the only reason for social conservatives to push for legislation that liberals oppose. At least some legislation comes from a desire to force socially conservative values on everyone [1].

Liberals are terrible at understanding the values underlying conservative legislation. When an anti-abortion single issue voter took a reproductive rights seminar at Yale, he was surprised to hear that many of his classmates believed that anti-abortion laws were aimed entirely at controlling women’s sexuality, rather than stopping the (to his eyes) moral crime of abortion [2].

This is an easy mistake to make. It’s true that limiting abortion also limits women’s financial and sexual freedom. In the vast majority of cases it’s false to claim that this is a plus for the most vociferous opponents of abortion. To their detriment it also isn’t a minus. For many of the staunchest opponents of abortion, the financial or sexual freedom of women plays no role at all in their position. Held against the life of a fetus, these freedoms are (morally) worthless.

People opposed to abortion who also value these things tend to take more moderate positions. For them, their stance on abortion is a trade-off between two valuable things (the life of a fetus and the freedoms of the mother). I know some younger Catholics who fall into this category. Then tend to be of the position that things that reduce abortion (like sexual education, free prenatal care, free daycare, and contraceptive use) are all very good, but they rarely advocate for the complete abolition of abortion (except by restructuring society such that no woman feels the need for one).

Total opposition to abortion is only possible when you hold the benefits of abortion as far less morally relevant than the costs. Total support likewise. If I viewed a fetus to be as morally relevant as a born person, I could not support abortion rights to the extent I do.

The equation views my values as morally meaningless + argues strongly for things that would hurt those values can very easily appear to come out to holds the opposite of my values. But this doesn’t have to be the case! Most anti-abortion advocates aren’t trying to paper over women’s sexual freedoms (with abortion laws). Most abortion supporters aren’t reveling in the termination of pregnancies.

This mistake is especially easy to make because you have every incentive to caricature your political enemies. It’s especially pernicious though, because it makes it so hard to productively talk about any area where you disagree. You and your opponents both think that you are utterly opposed and for either to triumph, the other must lose. It’s only when you see that your values are orthogonal, not opposed that you have any hope for compromise.

I think the benefits of this model lie primarily in sympathy and empathy. Understanding that anti-abortion advocates aren’t literally trying to reduce the financial security and sexual freedom of women doesn’t change the fact that their policies have the practical effects of accomplishing these things. I’m still going to oppose them on the grounds of the consequences of their actions, even if I no longer believe that they’re at all motivated by those specific consequences.

But empathy isn’t useless! There’s something to be said for the productivity of a dialogue when you don’t believe that the other side hates everything about your values! You can try and find common values and make compromises based on those. You can convince people more effectively when you accurately understand their beliefs and values. These can be instrumentally useful when trying to convince people of your point or when advocating for your preferred laws.

Abortion gave me the clearest example of orthogonal values, but it might actually be the hardest place to find any compromise. Strongly held orthogonal values can still lead to gridlock. If not abortion, where is mutually beneficial compromise possible? Where else do liberals argue with only a caricature of their opponents’ values?

Epistemic Status: Model


[1] Socially liberal legislation is just objectively right and is based on the values everyone would have if they could choose freely. Only my political enemies try and force anything on anyone. /sarcasm ^

[2] People who aren’t women can also have abortions and their ability to express their sexualities is also controlled by laws limiting access to abortion. If there exists a less awkward construction than “anyone with a uterus” that I can use instead of “women”, I’d be delighted to find it. ^