The Living Wage is a false solution to our problems


I normally agree with the Centre for Policy Studies on economic issues, so I was surprised to see Adam Memon’s call for a mandatory ‘Living Wage’ last week. Philip Booth has already written a post criticising Memon’s original piece, but I’d like to add my perspective to Adam’s response to Philip, posted today. To be clear, Adam prefers “tax cuts, deregulation and other supply-side measures to boost productivity”. He and the CPS have long argued for tax cuts for the poor. This is admirable, and as Adam says it deserves to be acknowledged.

My main contention is that Adam is comparing apples with oranges by using the impact of historical increases in the National Minimum Wage (NMW) to justify a future rise to the NMW to Living Wage levels. There is a lot of evidence against his position that he ignores.

Adam says that “an objective reading of the studies of the impact of the National Minimum Wage can only lead to the conclusion that it has boosted the incomes of the low paid without particularly damaging employment”. Correct. There does not seem to be much, if any, good evidence that the NMW has increased unemployment in the UK.

But this doesn’t tell us that employment would not be higher without rises to the minimum wage. Simply looking at times when we have raised the NMW, and looking at whether unemployment has risen or not, as Adam does once, is extremely crude – there are of course many other factors going on, and without an analysis that attempts to control for those factors we have no idea what the counterfactual would be. But, yes, there have been more sophisticated studies in the UK that do suggest that the NMW has not harmed employment compared to there being no NMW.

Adam says that “This is quite a big deal because it does rather make the traditional argument that the minimum wage would destroy jobs somewhat out-of-date”. But, unless we think there is something particularly unique about the UK’s labour market, the UK is not the only place we have to look at.

Internationally, most of the evidence is that increases in the minimum wage do increase unemployment at the margin. I looked at some of this last year:

Neumark and Wascher's review of over one hundred studies found that two-thirds showed a relatively consistent indication that minimum wage increases cause increases in unemployment. Of the thirty-three strongest studies, 85 per cent showed unemployment effects. And “when researchers focus on the least-skilled groups most likely to be adversely affected by minimum wages, the evidence for disemployment effects seems especially strong”. There is evidence that suggests that minimum wages deter young workers from acquiring these skills that allow them to get better jobs in the long run.

Of course there are times when this does not happen, but most of the time it does. Most of this evidence is based on US data, and much of it compares employment rates in similar US states where one has had a minimum wage rise and the other has not.

Though UK evidence might be the most relevant evidence we have, we would need a very good reason to completely ignore the international evidence and suppose that the UK experience is all that we should look at.

I am certain that Adam agrees, because he has cited international evidence in discussions about the UK in the past. And rightly so.

Is the UK special? Maybe. But the Low Pay Commission seems to disagree, because its recommended increases have been very low compared to what Adam is proposing. Similarly, the Living Wage Foundation does not call for a mandatory Living Wage.

Distributionally, if some people are put out of work but others receive pay rises, this may well be a negative. Adam says that “There are of course some who lose out from the minimum wage but there are many more who benefit”, but concludes that “broadly speaking the minimum wage is a net positive.”

But taking all of one person’s earnings and distributing them among other people who are already in work is likely to be harmful overall, because of diminishing marginal utility. If there is an unemployment effect it may well be an upwards income redistribution from now-unemployed people to the people who hang on in their jobs.

I do think the Low Pay Commission has done a good job at keeping NMW increases quite restrained. That’s why I suspect they would balk at the idea of raising the NMW to the Living Wage level for the foreseeable future. It’s simply not convincing to compare previous rises that the Low Pay Commission has deemed safe with a future rise that it presumably deems unsafe.

Note that productivity has been very low recently, and the Low Pay Commission has barely raised the NMW as a result.

I find it extremely implausible when Adam defends his claim that the Living Wage might lead to extra productivity gains from workers. This concept is known as ‘efficiency wages’ – a well-paid worker is often a more profitable one.

But firms are profit-seeking, so wouldn’t they be doing this already? Adam addresses this by saying that “often some of these productivity gains through eg reduced absenteeism are unanticipated by firms because unsurprisingly, they don’t always have perfect information” – fine, but these firms will be the exception, not the rule. Yes, firms sometimes miss out on profit opportunities – this doesn’t mean that I or Adam or anybody else knows better.

I enjoyed Alex Tabarrok’s recent post on this, "The False Prophets of Efficiency Wages". He points out that ‘efficiency wages’ were actually studied by economists as a way of explaining unemployment:

In the original efficiency wage literature there is no wishful thinking–no idea that we can have more of everything that we want without tradeoffs. Instead of being desirable, the efficiency wage is a problem because lower wages would reduce unemployment and be better for the economy as a whole.…

Firms routinely track turnover and productivity and they are well aware that higher wages are a possible means to reduce turnover and increase productivity although, as it turns out, not necessarily the most effective means. Indeed, the whole field of workforce science deals with retention, turnover and job satisfaction and the relationship of these to productivity and it does so with more nuance than do most economists. Thus, it’s simply not plausible that large numbers of firms on the existing margin can increase wages, profits and productivity.

To be fair, Adam suggests that his Living Wage rise would be offset by cuts in taxes for business. If these were specifically cuts to the cost of hiring workers this may actually work: cutting employer NICs for NMW workers workers might offset the extra cost of paying the worker the Living Wage. But this would just be a roundabout way of cutting the income taxes or employee NICs of those workers. The Living Wage would be doing none of the heavy lifting, and would still exclude some workers from jobs.

Adam claims that tax credits and other in-work benefits subsidise employers by letting them pay their workers less. I’ve always found this a strange claim. Why would workers’ wage demands fall just because they’re getting top-up money from elsewhere? Do lottery winners ask for lower wages? In any case, he does not provide evidence of this. The consensus from the literature I have seen is that both payroll tax cuts and wage subsidies go to the workers, without driving down wages. So there is no subsidy effect.

In light of all this, my basic view is that raising the minimum wage always risks creating unemployment, and raising it as high as Adam wants would run a very large risk of creating unemployment. I believe that low pay will be the economic problem facing my generation, as unemployment was for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. To address it, I prefer cash transfers like the Basic Income and anything that boosts innovation, so we can improve people’s productivity and the total stock of wealth.

At best the Living Wage will act as a roundabout way of cutting taxes on workers. At worst it will put many people out of work. I admire Adam’s willingness to challenge the orthodoxy on our side, but in this case I believe that the bulk of the evidence in favour of the free market orthodoxy. The Living Wage is a siren call – a seductive but false solution to the problem of low pay. We should reject it.