The Destructiveness of Minimum Wage Laws

Once upon a time, many years ago, I had a Civil Service job and was making the princely sum of about $3,000/month ($150/day). At the time it was one of the highest paid Civil Service positions in the State of California. (For the most part, higher levels were political appointees.) I had a Master’s Degree and had worked for the State for about 10 years.

One day, I took a vacation day, picked up my girl friend, and headed for Lake Tahoe. On the way, we stopped by a restaurant owned by a mutual friend. As we walked in the door, the friend said, “Sit down, I’ll be with you in a minute. I’ve only got ten more minutes on this shift.” We sat down and ten minutes later she joined us. She said, “One of the girls called in sick, so I had to take her shift.” She sipped her coffee, asked how we were, and stated taking her tips out of her pockets and counting them. I watched in amazement as she kept pulling bills and coins out. She began counting the money and I was astounded to find that she had made about $120 in tips. At the time, minimum wage was $5/hr, so the normal waitress would have made $40 for the shift in pay, plus $120 in tips. I asked about the “normal” waitress and was told that she was a college freshman working at the restaurant during summer break. I thought, “That gal is making more than ME. Maybe I should get a ‘minimum wage’ job.” (I’m sure the waitress claimed ALL the $120 for income tax purposes.)

I have been thinking about the concept of “minimum wage” for several years. One of the first questions that come to mind is, “Why does the government have the right to tell me the minimum I must pay someone?” or alternatively, “Why does the government have the right to tell me the minimum I must charge for my labor?” I recall that at one time in this country, people would work for room and board in order to have a job that would teach them a trade. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement—the employer obtained help he could not afford to pay and the employee obtained training. I recall talking to a restaurant owner that hired an employee for “nothing” (except tips). The employee “cut a deal” with the owner that if the owner would train him to be a waiter, he would work for nothing. I went back to that restaurant six months later and asked about the employee. I was told that he had gone to San Francisco and obtained a very well paid job in a fine dining restaurant. Such would not have been possible under a strict interpretation and/or enforcement of the minimum wage laws.

When one considers the logic underpinning the minimum wage laws, it is quite apparent that the laws are politically motivated. It is a blatant attempt to gather and garner the “poor” vote—even if that vote is harvested at the expense of that very population.

Let us consider some economic assumptions:

Assumption #1: It is assumed that the only reason an employee employs someone is to make a profit from that labor. The employer expects to “package” the work the employee performs and “resell” it for a profit.

Assumption #2: If you recall your pay last raise, you will note that you “saw” about half of it. The tax laws in this country are such that, at the margin, you receive about half of your wages.

Assumption #3: Generally, for every dollar you receive in wages, it costs your employer TWO dollars. This is a function of payroll taxes (Social Security, unemployment, disability, etc.), time off (e.g. holidays, vacation), and benefits. (Use some other figure if you wish.)

Assumption #4: Typically, product costs are 2/3 labor.

With the above assumptions in mind, let us consider some of the economic aspects of the minimum wage.

An acquaintance once said to me, “I wouldn’t mind paying a nickel more for a hamburger if the employee could get paid a dollar an hour more.” I suspect contained in that statement is the entire philosophy of those that support the minimum wage. First, they wish to speak for everyone. My immediate reaction was, “Why don’t YOU pay TEN cents more for YOUR hamburger and let ME pay the price I am presently paying?” Second, the statement is made with such assurance that one takes no notice of the fact that there is no thought behind it. When the statement is analyzed, it becomes absurd. In order for the employee to make a dollar an hour more, the employer is going to have to pay TWO dollars an hour more (assumption #3). In order for that employer to “break even” charging a nickel a hamburger more, that employee is going to have to sell FORTY MORE hamburgers an hour. However, for every employee at the cash register selling hamburgers, there are at least two (and probably three) employees preparing the food, cleaning up, on the drive-up window, etc.), so in order to pay each employee a dollar an hour more, that store must sell about a hundred hamburgers more EACH HOUR to break even. (Ironically enough, while the employer is paying two dollars an hour more for each employee, the employee is “seeing” only fifty cents because of the tax laws [assumption #2].) I suggest that the only way the employer can make this situation “work”—i.e. break even—is to reduce staff and work the remaining employees harder.

One must consider how small businesses work. In many cases, the owner is working right beside the employees. It is not unusual to see the owner of a small business sweeping the floor. Oftentimes he would rather hire someone to perform that task, but cannot afford the wages to do so. Assumption #1 states that an employer hires people to make a profit. Consider an employee making minimum wage. If the employee’s wages are increased by one dollar/hr, it costs the employer two dollars/hr (assumption #3). That means that in an eight-hour shift, it will cost the employer sixteen dollars. If the product markup is ten percent, then that employee must sell an additional $160 in merchandise each shift in order for the employer to “break even”. Clearly, in all probability, the employer is going to raise prices and/or reduce staff.

Finally, let us consider the impact on the population we are attempting to help. Let us assume a 10% raise in the minimum wage. Because of the payroll taxes, this will cost the employer 20% (assumption #3), and the employees will “see” 5% because of the tax laws (assumption #2). If 2/3 of the product costs are labor (assumption #4), then the employer will have to raise his prices by 2/3 x 20% or about 14% just to break even. (This assumes that his raw material costs do not increase due to the wage increases imposed upon his supplier.) So, the employer increases his costs by 14% and the employees see their (real) wages rise by 5%. As the increase percolates through the economy, the minimum wage employees are actually WORSE OFF than they were before the raise due to prices higher than their wage increase. It is a gradual, almost unnoticeable effect.

The reader may well wonder how this is different from (e.g. union) negotiated raises. It is quite simple. At contract time, labor and management sit down at the negotiating table and “divide the profits”. When the company is doing well, a generous settlement is made; when the company is doing poorly, labor may well believe it is best to settle for less rather than to bankrupt the company. The raise given to the employees is a function of the ability of the company to pay. On the other hand, the minimum wage is imposed upon ALL businesses, regardless of how well they are doing or their capability to comply. It is imposed by an external “force” regardless of the ability of the company to pay, and there is no “negotiating”.

One must be somewhat skeptical of a “system” that:

1. Causes people to lose jobs.

2. Curtails the rights of people to sell their services.

3. Hinders the efforts of people to obtain training.

4. Bankrupts businesses.

5. Causes woe and hardship for the very people it is supposedly designed to help.

In closing, I wish to state that at one time, the highest paid employee in Reno, Nevada was the head waiter at the show room at Harrah’s Club. He was officially paid minimum wage. He drove a Mercedes.

Tony De Maio
Whiskey & Gunpowder

July 26, 2010

The Daily Reckoning