A recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times, “Minimum Wage Muddle,” is a good summary of the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage for the whole country. Mr. Brooks refers to a recent Congressional Budget Office report that a hike in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour might lift 900,000 out of poverty but would also likely mean a loss of 500,000 jobs. As suggested in a recent post, one of the things we could do to get beyond our political dysfunction at the national level is to:
Put a greater emphasis on state-centered federalism both to encourage experimentation and innovation in the American system and to remove issues from the national agenda which contribute to division, stalemate and endless controversy. Considering that income inequality varies so greatly from one part of the country to another, (see above), it makes a lot of sense to federalize the minimum wage issue. In other words, let cities and states set their own minimum wage levels based on their own local circumstances.
For example, the state of Nebraska, with very little inequality and where I live, has just raised its minimum wage to $8/hour ($9/hour beginning January 2016). Nebraska’s lowest in the country unemployment rate of 2.6% means that hardly anyone will lose their job.
As Mr. Brooks says, “Raising the minimum wage will produce winners among job holders from all backgrounds, but it will disproportionately punish those with the lowest skills, who are least likely to be able to justify higher employment costs.” Conclusion: raising the national minimum wage is not the best way to address the inequality and fairness issue. A better way is to create more jobs by boosting the economy overall. Then help low wage workers take home more money with a (perhaps expanded) Earned Income Tax Credit. Cities and states can establish their own individual minimum wages however they wish.
The Washington Post reporter Robert Samuelson gives our economy today a B-, because the unemployment rate has inched down to 6.1%, fulltime employment is up to 105.8 million in 2013 from 99.5 million in 2010, and full-time women’s pay reached a high of 78% of men’s pay in 2013. The big negative, of course, is that median household income was $51,939 in 2013, down from $56,436 in 2007, just before the financial crisis.
The Bard College economist Pavlina Tcherneva, as summarized by the reporter Neil Irwin in yesterday’s New York Times, shows what has gone wrong with economic and monetary policy since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (an $850 billion stimulus package) did boost the economy but it primarily aided “the skilled, employable, highly educated, and relatively highly-paid wage and salary workers.” On the other hand the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policies have kept interest rates remarkably low and have thereby caused investors to buy stocks rather than bonds in order to get higher returns. This has artificially boosted stock prices and has been especially advantageous to the top 10% and, even more so, the top 1%. What is needed, according to Ms. Tcherneva, is a targeted, bottom-up approach to fiscal policy, which provides more and better paying jobs directly to middle- and lower-income wage earners. Her suggestion is for public works jobs, public service employment, green jobs, etc., all of which would require large infusions of federal money thereby worsening the federal deficit.
A much better approach would be broad based tax reform, lowering tax rates across the board, paid for by closing the loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the rich. Since the 64% of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions would receive an effective pay boost, this would amount to a tax reform program targeted to exactly the middle- and low-income wage earners who have not yet recovered from the recession. These folks would most likely spend their extra income, thus further boosting the economy (see my previous post).