Seattle approves $15 minimum wage, higher unemployment

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Seattle minimum wage proponent

I wrote about this last week, when it was still just a proposal, noting how some businesses were already slowing hiring and moving out of the city, and how even progressives were coming to have second thoughts.

Well, they did it:

Seattle’s city council on Monday unanimously approved an increase in the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, making it the nation’s highest by far.

The increase was formally proposed by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, and his spokesman said he intends to sign the ordinance on Tuesday.

Washington already has the nation’s highest state-level minimum wage, at $9.32. That rate also applies to the city.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25, and Democrats in Congress have been pushing for a gradual increase to $10.10, but so far to little effect.

The increase to $15 in Seattle will take place over several years based on a scale that considers the size of and benefits offered by an employer. It will apply first to many large businesses in 2017 and then to all businesses by 2021.

The first increase, on April 1, 2015, brings the minimum wage to $10 for some businesses and $11 for others.

While the law phases in increases starting only with “large businesses,” that designation includes franchises. In other words, if you’re a franchisee with only a couple of Taco Bells, you’re still considered a large employer because you’re part of a large chain; even though your revenue only comes from two locations, you’re still on the hook for $15 per hour starting in 2017. You’re welcome.

This is going to be a good experiment (and, dare I say it? A “teachable moment?”) for several reasons. Advocates of raising the wage say it’s only fair, that minimum wage earners aren’t paid enough to live on, and that the costs to society will be minimal as businesses adjust. And there is some little evidence for the latter, as we have indeed learned to live with the costs previous minimum wage increases. (Whether those wage increases have been worth the costs, however, is another argument for another time.) Advocates in Seattle argue that raising the wage will help around 100,000 people.

Critics, on the other hand (and including your humble correspondent), argue that the laws of economics cannot be repealed by legislative fiat: raise the cost of labor, and businesses will be faced with a choice from among four options — pass the costs on to the consumer; reduce labor costs by cutting hours or whole jobs; eat the costs and accept lower profits; or cease doing business in that jurisdiction, either by moving or closing shop. We’ve already seen in the Seattle case that some businesses are moving to nearby towns that have not raised their wage. And, here in California, where the wage was recently raised to $9 per our and there is a proposal to raise it statewide to $13, some businesses are closing, choosing to put their capital to work where they can get a better return on investment. In each case, these are jobs lost.

Critics also maintain that raising the cost of labor gradually prices out the unskilled, such as teens looking for their first jobs, where they can acquire valuable skills and habits for later, better-paying work. A very interesting piece at AEI (h/t Andrew Garland in the Sister Toldjah comments section) argues for this very point by examining the effects on teen hiring as the minimum wage rose 41% between 2007 and 2009:

And that’s exactly what happened when the minimum wage rose by 41% between 2007 and 2009 – it had a disastrous effect on teenagers. The jobless rate for 16-19 year olds increased by ten percentage points, from about 16% in 2007 to more than 26% in 2009.  Of course, the overall US jobless rate was increasing at the same time, from about 5% to 10%. Therefore, the graph attempts to better isolate the effects of the minimum wage increases between 2007 and 2009 on teenagers by plotting the difference between the teenage jobless rate and the overall jobless rate, i.e. “excess teen unemployment,” and the minimum wage.

During the 2002-2007 period when the minimum wage was $5.15 per hour, teenage unemployment exceeded the national jobless rate by about 11% on average. Each of the three minimum wage increases was accompanied by a 2 percentage point increase in the amount that the teenage jobless rate exceeded the overall rate, from 11 to 13% after the 2007 increase from $5.15 to $5.85 per hour, from 13% to 15% following the second hike to $6.55 per hour, and from 15% to 17% following the last increase to $7.25. The 17.5% “excess teen unemployment” in October 2009 was the highest on record, going back to at least 1972, and was almost 5 percent higher than the peak teen jobless rate gap following the last recession (12.7% in June 2003).

Bottom Line: Artificially raising wages for unskilled workers reduces the demand for those workers at the same time that it increases the number of unskilled workers looking for work, which results in an excess supply of unskilled workers. Period. And another term for an “excess supply of unskilled workers” is an “increase in the teenage jobless rate.”

It will be interesting and edifying how Seattle’s experiment in progressive labor law plays out. I suspect it won’t have nearly the benefit that advocates like Seattle Mayor Murray or California State Senator Leno predict.

And it’s a shame others have to suffer for their hubris.

RELATED: This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video provides a good overview of why minimum wage laws are job killers.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

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