Good luck with that $15 minimum wage, LA

When the minimum wage goes up, owners do not en masse shut down their restaurants or lay off their staff. What is more likely to happen is that prices will rise, sales will fall off somewhat, and owner profits will be somewhat reduced. People who were looking at opening a fast food or retail or low-wage manufacturing concern will run the numbers and decide that the potential profits can’t justify the risk of some operations. Some folks who have been in the business for a while will conclude that with reduced profits, it’s no longer worth putting their hours into the business, so they’ll close the business and retire or do something else. Businesses that were not very profitable with the earlier minimum wage will slip into the red, and they will miss their franchise payments or loan installments and be forced out of business. Many owners who stay in business will look to invest in labor saving technology that can reduce their headcount, like touch-screen ordering or soda stations that let you fill your own drinks. These sorts of decisions take a while to make. They still add up, in the end, to deadweight loss — that is, along with a net transfer of money from owners and customers to employees, there will also simply be fewer employees in some businesses. The workers who are dropped have effectively gone from $9 an hour to $0 an hour. This hardly benefits those employees. Or the employee’s landlord, grocer, etc.

There are secondary effects beyond the employment market too. Proponents of a higher wage are claiming that this will boost the local economy by putting more money into the pockets of workers. This is the same sort of argument you frequently hear for the construction of massive new sports complexes. But of course, the money has to come from someone else’s pocket — the customer and the employer. What were those people doing with it? If the answer is “buying stuff from Amazon,” then maybe diverting more money to wages is a net gain for the Los Angeles economy. But if the answer is mostly “buying stuff produced in LA” — for example, paying rent, or buying services performed by low-wage workers — then this is like trying to get rich by picking your own pocket. There’s no question that the wage increase will transfer money around within the economy — out of the pockets of commercial landlords, for example, and into the pockets of folks who own real estate in low-rent districts. But little evidence has so far been offered that any boost in local spending will cancel out the deadweight loss, much less exceed it.