Thursday, January 24, 2008

Unintended Consequences and the Irrelevant Minimum Wage

both at Cafe Hayek:

Some people seem to have misunderstood the point about this post on minimum wages. A lot of people I speak to, not just "regular" students, but legislators and journalists who I sometimes teach, think that only regulations or unions keep businesses from exploiting workers. They are shocked to discover that less than 10% of the private work force is unionized and that somehow, most workers, something over 96%, maybe closer to 99%, manage to make more than the minimum. Usually half of these groups when I survey them think that at least (at least!) 20% of the work force earns the minimum wage or less and that only legislation keeps it from being lower. But legislation turns out to be relatively unimportant compared to supply and demand—that is, competition. if you try to pay less than the going rate for the skills you want to hire, you can't attract workers.

Meanwhile, Tim Worstall points out something I missed:

Unfortunately, on the page he’s taken his information from he’s missed one thing which makes his case even stronger.

Nearly three in four workers earning $5.15 or less in 2006 were employed in service occupations, mostly in food preparation and service jobs.

That’s your waitron units and barkeeps folks. And what do we know about people who do these sorts of jobs? Well, perhaps you have to have actually done them (as I have, everything from the graveyard shift in a Denny’s to tending bar around the corner from this guy’s place): they all make tips. In fact, so much so that there is (or at least used to be when that BLS report was prepared) a special minimum wage for those in such jobs, one lower than the official Federal minimum wage.

Alex at Marginal Revolution has some interesting things to say on unintended consequences:

The law of unintended consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system. The political system is simple, it operates with limited information (rational ignorance), short time horizons, low feedback, and poor and misaligned incentives. Society in contrast is a complex, evolving, high-feedback, incentive-driven system. When a simple system tries to regulate a complex system you often get unintended consequences.

Unintended consequences are not restricted to government regulation of society but can also happen when government tries to regulate other complex systems such as the ecosystem (e.g. fire prevention policy that reduces forest diversity and increases mass fires, dam building that destroys wet lands and makes floods more likely etc.) Unintended consequences can even happen in the attempted regulation of complex physical systems (here is a classic example involving turbulence).

Read the whole thing.

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