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. ^

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