CBO’s intellectually solid new analysis concludes that the proposal, endorsed by President Obama, to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016 would result in higher wages for some and destroy jobs for others. CBO’s most important conclusions are that this proposal would:

  • likely result in 500,000 fewer workers, with a range of roughly 0 to 1 million fewer;
  • increase wages for about 16.5 million workers who now have wages between $7.25/hour and $10.10, as well as for some others who now have wages a bit above $10.10.

I think CBO’s analysis is improving the minimum wage debate. President Obama and his allies have been selling this proposal as a free lunch, a policy that will raise pay for some with no costs for anyone: “Give America a raise.” Proponents of raising the minimum wage now must contend with a reputable nonpartisan analysis that the proposal has costs as well as benefits. Congress must decide whether higher wages for some are worth destroying jobs for others. Every responsible news story will now include a sentence like, “At the same time, the Congressional Budget Office projects the President’s proposal would result in lost jobs for half a million low-skill workers.”

I doubt the new numbers will change the minds of many proponents of a higher minimum wage. If you were previously inclined to support an increase, either for policy or political reasons, you can easily use CBO’s analysis to reinforce that conclusion: there are 16-31 times as many winners as losers.

The principal impact will come for a Member of Congress who thinks (knows?) that wage controls are bad policy and who opposes a higher minimum wage on policy grounds but was previously afraid to take the political risk to vote no. CBO has made it easier and more credible for this Member to explain to his or her constituents why he will vote no and why that’s good policy for those trying to enter the workforce. Here’s an example.

Q: Congressman, why do you oppose raising the minimum wage? Don’t you want to give Americans a raise?

A: You’ve heard the saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch?” The President’s proposal to raise the minimum wage would put between half a million and a million low-skilled people out of work. Sure it would mean higher wages for some, but it would destroy jobs for others, and those others are the lowest wage, lowest skilled workers whom we should want in the workforce. It’s particularly important to have as many low-skill jobs available as employers want to offer so that people can grab the first rung of that ladder of opportunity and start to climb.

I appreciate that others may make a different judgment call, but when our biggest economic problem continues to be that not enough people are working, I want to make it easier for employers to hire people, not harder.

This Congressman or woman (probably a Republican) could have made this argument before CBO’s report, but now he has CBO to back up his numbers and his logic. That helps mostly with the press and also with some voters who are undecided on the merits. In the past Congressional Republicans who opposed a minimum wage increase would typically argue that it “hurts small businesses.” Now they can and should argue that it “will destroy jobs for low skill workers.”

In short, CBO’s analysis makes it easier for a free market member of Congress both to vote against expanding wage controls and to convincingly explain why doing so is motivated by a compassionate goal.

The Obama team had two options in choosing to react to the CBO report. They could have accepted CBO’s analysis, embraced the tradeoff between higher wages and fewer jobs, and used CBO’s numbers to support their judgment call on that tradeoff.

Instead, they went the other way, sticking with their disingenuous “free lunch” logic and attacking CBO’s credibility. The path they chose was both intellectually and politically weaker. Now they’re fighting with CBO (rarely is there an upside to that), they’re indirectly highlighting CBO’s conclusions for the press, and they’re fighting what we all learned in first semester microeconomics, that when you raise the price of something people buy less of it. They are also making this not just a dispute about the measure of the costs and benefits, but whether there are any costs to their proposal. They will lose that fight, especially with CBO on the other side.

Team Obama could have argued “We agree with CBO that there are costs to raising the minimum wage, and we think those costs are worth it.” But if they had done this, they would be forced to acknowledge that opponents of raising the minimum wage have a point, that one can want to help poor, low-skilled people and just come to a different conclusion about whether this proposal does so. Had Team Obama granted this point they would have sacrificed their specious claim that opponents of a minimum wage increase hate the poor. This would then become a disagreement about judgment calls on a difficult policy tradeoff (which it is for many), not a battle between the forces of good and evil.

In a market economy prices play the central role in balancing supply and demand. Government should let market forces determine prices. In my view the only case where there’s even theoretical support for government intervention in the price mechanism is when there’s an externality, and even then I’d be cautious to make sure that a well-intentioned but poorly implemented government interference in a market price to address an externality doesn’t do more harm than good.

If you don’t like the results of how a free market allocates resources, then adjust the outcome through explicit after-the-fact transfers, not by interfering in the market mechanism that determines wages or prices. If you want to help the poor more now, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and use taxpayer dollars to subsidize those lowest on the wage scale rather than forcing an employer to pay them more.

Policies that destroy jobs are bad. Let’s instead maximize the opportunities for people at all levels of education, skills and abilities to find work.

(photo credit: Maryland GovPics)