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The minimum wage dilemma

Summary:
Should the national living wage rise to £15 an hour? For me, it’s a dilemma because there are two competing and powerful perspectives. The economic perspective is sceptical. Econ 101 says a higher price means lower demand, so a higher minimum will lead to job losses or – just as importantly but often overlooked – cuts in hours. Granted, Econ 101 might be wrong. Where employers have monopsony power, a higher minimum wage can lead to employment actually increasing. Which leads us to the thorny question of empirical evidence. Here, we have a problem. It’s possible that previous rises in the minimum wage have had little effect upon labour demand simply because they have been small – enough to generate favourable effects by reducing monopsony but not so big as to have the effects predicted

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Should the national living wage rise to £15 an hour? For me, it’s a dilemma because there are two competing and powerful perspectives.

The economic perspective is sceptical. Econ 101 says a higher price means lower demand, so a higher minimum will lead to job losses or – just as importantly but often overlooked – cuts in hours.

Granted, Econ 101 might be wrong. Where employers have monopsony power, a higher minimum wage can lead to employment actually increasing.

Which leads us to the thorny question of empirical evidence. Here, we have a problem. It’s possible that previous rises in the minimum wage have had little effect upon labour demand simply because they have been small – enough to generate favourable effects by reducing monopsony but not so big as to have the effects predicted by Econ 101*. It’s like taking paracetamol; one or two will make you feel better, but it does not follow that a whole bottle will make you even better.

What we need, then, is evidence from big rises in minimum wages. Much of this comes from Seattle, which gradually raised its minimum from under $10 an hour in 2015 to $15 this year. Starmer-mcdonalds

Sadly, this evidence is mixed. Some has found (pdf) no adverse (pdf) employment effect (pdf), whilst other research has found that hours (pdf) worked fell and prices rose. And other research suggests that big rises rises in minimum wages do cut jobs (pdf) even though small ones don’t.

Net, the economic perspective, I suspect, says that a £15 minimum wage would be a risky experiment.

But it is not the only perspective. There’s another one. It says that pay is not just a matter of technical skill and effort – much minimum wage work requires lots of both – but of power. “Skill” is a social construct. People are low paid because they lack power and because society grossly undervalues some types of work – not least the sort traditionally done by women and minority workers. And because we tend to equate people’s worth with the worth of their labour-power, this means that some people are devalued. A higher minimum wage is an attack upon these inequalities.

Herein lies my problem. If we take only the economic perspective we are guilty of capitalist realism, of failing to imagine an alternative to inequalities. But if we take only the latter perspective, we are guilty of at best wishful thinking and at worst recklessly endangering the livelihoods of the worst off.

So, can we combine both perspectives?

Perhaps.

Part of the answer is to regard a higher minimum wage not as a standalone, isolated technocratic fix but as one of a suite of policies to improve life for the worst off.

The most important of these is to run the economy hot, to achieve genuine full employment. One reason why some of those Seattle studies have not found adverse effects of jobs is that the economy was booming as the minimum wage rose. As Dan Davies has said, whatever your preferred social policy objective is, full employment is a good way to achieve it. But we should add into the mix in-work income support (say through a basic income) to mitigate any loss of hours and stronger trades unions. Personally, I regard minimum wages as a second-best, a means of achieving what would in a better world be done not through state diktat but collective bargaining.

There’s something else. What we also need is a revalorization of work, that recognizes the worth and merit of those who clean up after us. We don’t try to employ bosses or TV presenters on the cheap, so why should we think we can get social care or meals out on the cheap?

Of course, all this poses deep questions. How – if at all - can we effect such a big cultural change? Are higher wages in the interests of capital (because they might raise aggregate demand) or not – that is, is wage-led growth feasible? And how might we counter the potential inflationary impact of full employment and higher wages, for example by spreading profit-sharing?

Frankly, I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I do know two things. One is that they should be asked and answered by cleverer people than me. The other is that we should at least acknowledge the dilemma created by that clash of perspectives.

* Even this might not be wholly true, though. A recent paper (pdf) found that “employment growth from 2015 to 2018 was in the region of 2 or 3 percentage points lower in firms affected by the introduction of the National Living Wage.”

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