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The Mammon of Unrighteousness:

The Minimum Wage and the EITC

The Minimum Wage and the EITC: July 09, 2004: In Slate, I read Steven Landsburg making one very good point (David Card and Alan Krueger's point) about the minimum wage:

The Sin of Wages: Ordinarily, studies with large sample sizes should be more convincing than studies with small sample sizes.... [But] the results of the large-scale studies were, by and large, neither more nor less significant than the results of the small-scale studies. That's screwy. Screwy enough to suggest that the studies being published couldn't possibly be a representative sample of the studies being conducted.... Even if minimum wages don't affect employment at all, about five out of every 100 studies will, for unavoidable statistical reasons, appear to show a significant effect.... But if the 95 studies that found no effect were deemed uninteresting and never got published, then all you'd see were the spurious five.... Even when the bulk of all research says one thing, the bulk of all published research can tell a very different and very misleading story....

Now that we've re-evaluated the evidence with all this in mind, here's what most labor economists believe: The minimum wage kills very few jobs, and the jobs it kills were lousy jobs anyway. It is almost impossible to maintain the old argument that minimum wages are bad for minimum-wage workers. In fact, the minimum wage is very good for unskilled workers. It transfers income to them...

But then I think he makes the wrong incidence argument:

Ordinarily, when we decide to transfer income to some group or another—whether it be the working poor, the unemployed, the victims of a flood, or the stockholders of American Airlines—we pay for the transfer out of general tax revenue. That has two advantages: It spreads the burden across all taxpayers, and it makes politicians accountable for their actions. It's easy to look up exactly how much the government gave American, and it's easy to look up exactly which senators voted for it. By contrast, the minimum wage places the entire burden on one small group: the employers of low-wage workers and, to some extent, their customers. Suppose you're a small entrepreneur with, say, 10 full-time minimum-wage workers. Then a 50 cent increase in the minimum wage is going to cost you about $10,000 a year. That's no different from a $10,000 tax increase. But the politicians who imposed the burden get to claim they never raised anybody's taxes.

I--and almost everybody else I've talked to--think this is dead wrong: the incidence of the minimum wage 'tax' falls almost entirely upon the customers of firms that employ minimum-wage workers, and that's pretty much all of us. It's not as though the owners and managers of firms that employ minimum-wage workers have no other options. So I believe Landsburg is wrong: the burden of the minimum wage is broadly distributed across all taxpayers.

Landsburg goes on to write:

If you want to transfer income to the working poor, there are fairer and more honest ways to do it. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, accomplishes pretty much the same goals as the minimum wage but without concentrating the burden on a tiny minority. For that matter, the EITC also does a better job of helping the people you'd really want to help, as opposed to, say, middle-class teenagers working summer jobs. It's pretty hard to argue that a minimum-wage increase beats an EITC increase by any criterion.

Now I like the EITC. Come the Day of Wrath, my best pleading will be the role I played in 1993 in the Clinton administration in expanding the EITC. But the EITC is a program that uses the IRS to write lots of relatively small checks to tens of millions of relatively poor people who satisfy picky eligibility rules. This is not the IRS's comparative advantage. The IRS's comparative advantage is using random terror to elicit voluntary compliance with the tax code on the part of relatively rich people. The EITC is a good program, but it a costly program to administer, and it is administered imperfectly to say the least.

The minimum wage, on the other hand, is nearly self-enforcing: its administrative costs are nearly nil, for workers (legal workers, at least) have a very strong incentive to drop a dime on bosses who violate it. From a government-administrative and error-rate perspective, it's a very cost-effective program.

The right solution, of course, is balance: use the minimum wage as one part of your program of boosting the incomes of the working poor, and use the EITC as the other part. try not to push either one to the point where its drawbacks (disemployment on the one hand, and administrative error on the other) grow large. Balance things at the margin.