Minimum wage, again Wednesday, Jun 23 2010 

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a rather long post about the minimum wage. I explained the “textbook model” of the minimum wage, which many students just beginning to learn economics are taught. The basic neoclassical model tells us that a minimum wage set above the equilibrium wage in a market creates a surplus of labor or, in other words, unemployment. I disputed some of the assumptions on which such an argument rests, for example, elastic demand for labor, the “one-sector” model, perfectly competitive markets, equal bargaining power, etc. I also looked at empirical evidence that suggests that the minimum wage may in fact be beneficial for employment or, in the very least, may only have a modest employment effect (primarily for teenagers). Finally, I looked at some ideological or pragmatic reasons why people support the minimum wage and why it is more favorable than other redistribution policies (e.g. welfare). Rather quickly, this post became the most looked at article on this blog, and remained that way for quite some time. Today, it remains the second most-read post I’ve written.

Last month, King Banaian, a professor and chairman of the economics department of SCSU, wrote about about a study that concluded people who accept “enlightened economics” are more conservative than they are liberal. These “economically enlightened” folk were required to believe, for example, that a minimum wage necessarily decreases employment. I disputed this type “enlightened thinking.” Dr. Banaian has again made another post about the minimum wage, this time explaining why a minimum wage is bad policy (it prevents people from coming to “mutually agreed” wages below the minimum wage) and how there is a “consensus” among economists about this issue.

In the first post, I responded by saying there is quite a bit of evidence in support of a minimum wage, even if neoclassical theory provide none. One of the most famous example is research done by Card and Krueger, who found that the minimum wage had positive effects on employment. This seems quite stunning, considering the standard neoclassical model predicts just the opposite. So, quite naturally, one becomes rather suspicious of this research, but I think a careful review of the literature will show that the underlying conclusions that Card and Krueger come to are solid and are supported by additional research. Of course, one wonders how increasing wages can, in fact, increase employment levels. It seems counterintuitive. David Switzer, a professor of economics at SCSU, said it “goes against all of neoclassical economic thinking.”

Fortunately, neoclassical economics (as well as a little bit of intuition) does provide us with an answer. It isn’t, after all, beyond one’s imagination that an employer might actually pay its laborers a wage below the market clearing (i.e. equilibrium) wage. A firm seeking to maximize its profits has this incentive if it has the ability to do so. One scenario that might bring this about is one in which the labor market is oligopsonistic. Oligopsony is a fancy word to describe markets where there are few buyers and many sellers. (A related term that is perhaps more familiar is monopsony, where there is only one buyer and many sellers; this is the opposite of monopoly, which is one seller and many buyers.) In the case of oligopsony, the small number of firms can distort the wages in a market (in a similar way a monopoly can distort prices in a market), such that wages can be set below the equilibrium wage. Oligopsonistic labor markets reduce the welfare of laborers and creates deadweight loss. Under such circumstances, raising the wage that employers must pay their labor actually increases employment, reduces deadweight loss, and increases efficiency in the market. (A simplified graphical representation of monopsony can be viewed here.) So, in this case, the minimum wage has some extraordinary benefits.

The question becomes whether particular low-skilled labor markets are oligopsonistic or not. If the New Jersey fast food industry was oligopsonistic in 1992, that might explain Card and Krueger’s findings. However, as Dr. Banaian points out, the research in this area is not robust and is still “very young.” He may well be correct, in which case it would be helpful to look at empirical evidence and other areas that are more thoroughly understood. As I said earlier, a little bit of intuition might be able to help us explain why the effects of minimum wage may not be consistent with the standard model. In a 2008 study, David Metcalf explores why the minimum wage in Britain has “had little or no impact on employment.” Some of these include changes in hours, tax credits, compliance issues (part of the two sector model that Gary Fields discusses in previously noted research), productivity changes, price changes, reduced profits, and so on. He also considers the existence of “modern monopsony” (oligopsony) “very likely” in British labor markets. I defer you to Metclaf’s research for a more thorough discussion on how these variables can effect employment levels following a minimum wage hike. Suffice it to say, how these variable change does have an effect on employment, and may help explain why the minimum wage might have “minor negative effects at worst.”

In fact, that’s what most research has concluded. The conclusion that I support is that the minimum wage has a modest adverse effect on employment, primarily for teenager workers. It may even have positive employment effect for older cohorts, consistent with research by David Neumark and Olena Nizalova. (Neumark, keep in mind, is a fairly notable labor economist who opposes the minimum wage.) I think this is what a majority of the published literature out there reports (I can provide plenty of references, if needed), and the reasons explaining these findings are quite reasonable. That isn’t to say that there is a “consensus” against the minimum wage, as Dr. Banaian contends there is. He thinks I am “wrong on this point in terms of where the profession is on the literature.” A few years ago, The Economist, the main establishment journal, actually printed an interesting story on the issue. They wrote, “Overall, economists have become less worried about the job-destroying effects of a modest hike in the minimum wage. . . . Today’s consensus, insofar as there is one, seems to be that raising minimum wages has minor negative effects at worst.” There’s a wealth of research to support these views, as I stated earlier. What there is not is a consensus against the minimum wage, as Dr. Banaian contends there is.

In defense of his position, Dr. Banaian cites research by Neumark and William Wascher, which stated, in its abstract no less, “Our review indicates that there is a wide range of existing estimates and, accordingly, a lack of consensus about the overall effects on low-wage employment of an increase in the minimum wage.” Even more stunningly, Dr. Banaian readily confessed these facts in a post on his blog post he made in 2006, stating, “Both studies find a lack of consensus on the minimum wage, which I simply find shocking.” He finds the lack of consensus among economists “shocking,” but he at least acknowledges the fact. Today, he has shrunk from the issue and maintains that there, in fact, a consensus. He cites, for example, a 1996 survey by Robert Whaples, which suggested that there is a consensus among labor economists that the minimum wage decreases employment. That’s already been established. What Dr. Banaian conveniently does not do is refer to Whaples’ 2006 survey of PhD economists from the American Economic Association, which found that only less than 47% of them disagreed with a minimum wage policy. Though he readily mentioned it four years ago, perhaps the 2006 Whaples study is too inconvenient for the Minnesota House Representative hopeful in 2010.

The question, then, becomes less about the employment effects of the minimum wage, since there does seem to be some agreement on that issue. As one study by the U.S. Congress revealed, “Historically, defenders of the minimum wage have not disputed the disemployment effects of the minimum wage, but argued that on balance the working poor were better off.” That’s always been at the heart of the issue. Richard Freeman, one of the foremost labor economists and a professor at Harvard, writes in a 1994 study, “The question is not whether the minimum distorts market outcomes, but how its distortionary effects compare with those of other modes of redistribution, or with the benefits of redistribution.” He concludes that the minimum wage is a decent redistribution tool for four primary reasons that are typically ignored in the textbook models. I think his conclusion is consistent with what a majority of Americans believe. An overwhelming majority, usually over 80%, support the minimum wage. People support policies that help those who work (you need to work to earn the minimum wage), compared to those that help non-workers (e.g. welfare). They also are comfortable with redistributing their income via higher prices to help the most disadvantaged of workers. As Gary Fields keenly points out in a 1994 study, “One’s views about the desirability of a minimum wage ought to depend on more than the size of the unemployment effect alone.” I think he’s correct.

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Innovations Tuesday, Mar 16 2010 

There’s been some talk about innovations recently. “Innovation” is defined as “The act of introducing something new” by the The American Heritage Dictionary. Not only are innovations new things, but they are also useful things. Innovation is one of the greatest sources of wealth creation and increased productivity. Thus, the importance of innovation is critical to the study of economics. In fact, there is an entire doctrine of economics, called innovation economics, that explores the relationship between innovation and economic growth. The pioneer of this doctrine was Joseph Schumpeter, author of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. According to innovative economics, the primary source of growth is not the accumulation of capital, but rather innovation, particularly innovation that increases productive efficiency. Thus, the incentivizing of innovation is what’s critical for an economy. In this sense, Schumpeter thought capitalism was the best mode of production because it incentivized innovation the most. Today, several prominent economists have used the theories of innovation economics to explain the growth of economies.

What is absolutely clear is that innovations are beneficial. How beneficial they are compared to other sources of growth could be debated, but it’s generally widely agreed upon that innovations provide a benefit to society. For example, King Banaian, the chairman and a professor of the economics department at SCSU, says entrepreneurship, which is a major source of innovation, is a positive externality and “may do more to relieve poverty than social organizations.” It’s a positive externality because “the value of this is not captured as much by entrepreneurs themselves as by society at large.” For example, with the invention of Windows, society was benefited far more than Bill Gates was benefited. (In other words, the price one pays for innovations does not reflect the true benefit it brings.) Basically everyone agrees innovation is great for society.

However, there are also problems with the current system of innovation, or the environment in which innovation occurs. One issue that I’ve highlighted on this blog before is that of copyrights and patents. Patents and copyrights are tools used to incentivize innovation and entrepreneurship. However, as I mention in the post, patents and copyrights create what are basically government-granted monopolies. As very elementary principles of microeconomics show, monopolies are economically inefficient. This can have significant impacts in the real world. For example, “economic inefficiency” might be translated into “hundreds of thousands of Africans dieing.” That’s precisely the consequence of patents in the medical industry, which keep prices high and poor people out of the market for life-saving drugs. Thus, I think it’s important to keep in mind the real world implications when we use technical and theoretical jargon like “market inefficiency”; it has real effects.

Essentially, the argument I made in that previous post is that government interference in the market creates an inefficiency (one that has dire effects) and that government-granted monopolies are not the solution for incentivizing innovation, particularly in the medical industry. I raised this point in Dr. Banaian’s post, and I got derided for it. I was told I was “only looking at one side of the issue.” After all, there’s a benefit that patents and copyrights bring, in that they do incentivize innovation, which we’ve all agreed is a positive thing. I’ve acknowledge that. If patents and such do lead to the creation of innovation and entrepreneurship, then that is a positive thing. We might even agree that the positives of this “intellectual property” outweigh the negatives of them. But that still doesn’t mean that patents and copyrights are the best option to choose. That’s an important point to keep in mind.

What I believe is “only looking at one side of the issue” is ignoring the more harmful consequences of this type of government interference. If some of the consequences of patents truly are harmful, even if there is a net benefit, we should ask ourselves if there is a way to mitigate the harmful aspects of our incentives for innovations without mitigating the positive aspects of our incentives. If there is, then we ought to choose that option.

Even though I do believe government-granted monopolies (i.e. the result of patents and copyrights) are quite harmful, that doesn’t mean government should necessarily get out of the way. I still agree innovation and entrepreneurship should be incentivized and rewarded. After all, if we accept the arguments coming from innovation economics, innovation is the key to economic growth. So how do we incentivize innovation without the harmful effects of patents and copyrights? There are different ways, but one idea that is proposed by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate at Columbia University, is what he calls “prizes, not patents.” One of the problems with the current system (what I call the “profit motive“) is that it does not incentivize the allocation of scarce resources into areas that are not profitable for private, profit-maximizing firms—even when there’s a tremendous social benefit in doing so. (In other words, public goods are underproduced in free markets.) One example is in the production of life-saving drugs for illnesses and diseases that afflict much of the Third World. A majority of the populations that are afflicted by these life-threatening conditions are poor, so there’s not a lot of profit to be found in selling them drugs. A prize system, which is discussed in more detail in Stiglitz’s book Making Globalization Work, would help mitigate this problem by offering a reward or financial incentive to those who produce important innovations, like life-saving drugs. Not only would it incentivize innovation, it would direct resources into areas that would otherwise would not be profitable but are still a great benefit to society. Explains Stiglitz, “Since governments already pay the cost of much drug research directly or indirectly, through prescription benefits, they could finance the prize fund, which would award the biggest prizes for developers of treatments or preventions for costly diseases affecting hundreds of millions of people.”

There are other ways governments can be (and, in fact, are) critical in the introduction of innovation, which is through development that comes straight out of the state sector. CNN has an interesting article about the three most important “innovations that changed America.” The reader is asked to pick the most important of three, which are “1. The building of the interstate highway system, 2. The blanketing of the United States with coast-to-coast television, 3. The introduction and spread of the Internet.” Voting is now over, but 58% of readers chose the Internet, 29% picked television, and 14% picked the interstate system (numbers were rounded). I would agree, the introduction and spread of the Internet was the most important innovation that changed not only America but also the world. But where did the Internet come from? It came out of the state sector. The Internet was developed by the public, and it was later transferred to the private sector so that private firms could make a profit off it (that’s why we pay for Internet today). What about the interstate system, which is “often said to be the biggest public works project in the history of the world,” according the CNN article? It’s basically the same thing. This great innovation in logistics was created by the state, as I was quick to point out in a previous post on transportation subsidies. In television, it may be less clear, but the government still played an important role, particularly in broadcast television and the introduction of communication satellites. What this suggests is that, while (private) entrepreneurship is an important source of innovation, so too is the public sector.

In fact, a great deal innovation comes from the state sector. The Internet and the interstate system are two very important examples, but there are many others. In particular, high technology either comes from or is critically supported by the state sector. Science and innovation are symbiotic, and a lot of science is funded by the public. MIT, for example, is a source of great innovation; while a private university, MIT receives are great deal public subsidies, particularly through grants under the guise of military contracts. Public universities are also responsible for a great deal of innovation in both technology and ideas. This is what we should expect. If entrepreneurship and innovation is a positive externality, as Dr. Banaian contends it is, then we should expect that it would be underproduced in a free market. This image from Wikipedia shows this concept graphically. If private markets underproduce important innovations, then it suggests the state could play (as it currently does) an important role in either producing or incentivizing these innovations, e.g. through Pigouvian subsidies.

Are most economists against government intervention? Monday, Mar 15 2010 

Do most economists think government being involved in markets is a bad thing? The answer to that probably depends on the market. If markets are efficient, there’s probably no need for government to get involved. If markets are inefficient, there’s probably a good reason for government to interfere to attempt to increase efficiency and so there could be an economic argument in favor of government intervention. So the question now is whether markets are efficient or not.

The reason I bring up the topic is because of something professor Komai of the economics department brought up in my managerial economics class today. (Dr. Komai is definitely one of the best professors I have had at this university.) She said only a small amount of economists are totally against government intervention, but they seem like a majority (because they make a lot of noise). The reason, she says, is that most economists do agree that government probably should not be involved in perfectly competitive markets, because perfectly competitive markets are efficient. At the same time, however, perfectly competitive markets exist virtually nowhere. Thus, when markets are not perfectly competitive, there is market inefficiency and perhaps a good reason for government to get involved to try to increase the efficiency of the market.

Most markets are oligopolies and a small amount are monopolies (which are even more inefficient). Therefore, there are compelling economic reasons for government to get involved to try to increase competition or otherwise reduce inefficient behavior. This is one argument in favor of government involvement in markets—there are others as well—but this one is particularly convincing.

One example, which was brought up in class, is the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. It is one of the many antitrust laws passed throughout American history and is specifically aimed at preventing the rise of corporate power. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were interesting times. This was the time of when the Republican Party was still a fairly young party (it was formed in the middle of the nineteenth century). At some level, Republicans of this era represented the true ideals of Republicanism. William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, for example, were completely against big corporations. The history of these presidents, particularly their domestic economic policy, is quite fascinating, and there is great literature and documentaries on this topic. These early Republicans are what were called “trust busters.” They saw government power as one counterweight to corporate power, which they found subversive. So they busted trusts, so to speak, and they increased regulations. Roosevelt’s Square Deal endorsed these principles and was totally supportive of progressivism. Those were the ideals of early Republicanism. And I believe many of these ideals have been lost in today’s Republican Party.

Update (3/31/2010): I just want to clarify that I do not mean to misconstrue the position of Dr. Komai. She has made it clear to me in class that she prefers to stay in the center or the middle of issues. It’s not my intention to brandish her as a leftist of some sort who is automatically in favor of government intervention in markets. That’s not my position either.

The point that I think ought to be taken here is that market fundamentalism is misguided. We often here that governments are inefficient and that we should “just let the markets work.” It might certainly be true that governments are inefficient, but less heard is the fact that markets can also be inefficient. I personally do not think this message is conveyed a lot—certainly not as much as the message of government inefficiency is. So my point isn’t to say governments are great, that we should have intervention everywhere, and so on and so forth; instead, I am pointing out that markets are not as great as they are lauded by some on the right, particularly market fundamentalists and Austrian economists. It’s simply my feeling that when people are taught about markets, especially in courses that introduce the principles of economics, they usually are not hearing the complete side of both stories. What’s being projected, I think, is skewed a bit. That’s the part I take issue with. We can, of course, always quibble about the right balance of things—but that’s not quite my objective here.

Is education inferior? Thursday, Jun 11 2009 

Today in my intermediate microeconomics class with professor Nathan Hampton, we were discussing income elasticity where the topic of inferior and normal goods came up.

First some explanation. All elasticity means is how sensitive people are to changes as measured through percent changes. It measures how responsive people are to changes in price, income, prices of other goods, etc. So when we talk about income elasticity (of demand), we’re talking about how consumers change their buying behavior when their income changes (mathematically, this can be represented as %ΔQuantity/%ΔIncome). Typically, when incomes increase, so does demand for a good. That good is called a normal good. If, however, your demand for a good decreases when your income increases, it is called an inferior good. It does not have necessarily anything to do with the quality of that good—it simply means, as an objective observation, quantity demanded goes down as income increases. (Think about goods such as cheap beer, Spam meat, ramen noodles, or public transportation.)

Dr. Hampton made the claim today that college education is an inferior good. This would mean that as people’s incomes increases, demand for college education would decrease. The reason for this, he posits, is that as people graduate, their incomes rise because of employment and they no longer have a need for an education. I disagree with this analysis. It certainly might be observed that a college graduate’s income rises but his demand for a college education does not. I do not think this means, however, that college education is an overall inferior good (it may be for a college graduate, but there are more people to consider). There may be people in an economy who previously were incapable of attending college because of budget restraints, but are now able to attend college because their income rose. And this is generally the case when incomes rise.

The price for a year of college education in 1970 was $2,530. In 2007, it was $27,560. Even with this radical price increase, however, college attendance in 2007 was much higher than in 1970 (nominally and relatively). The reason for this (among some others) is because incomes have also increased since 1970, and thus more people have “demanded” college educations. This suggests to me that college education is not an inferior good, but is in fact a normal good. My analysis could be wrong for various reasons, but I think I’m right.