Economic Myths #4 – Profits are Evil

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One of the elements of any economic system founded upon free exchange that induces a purple-faced rage amongst statists and progressives is the concept of profit. This residual – the amount left over once an entity has deducted its costs from its revenue – is said to line the pockets of greedy shareholders while exploiting labourers and consumers.

First of all it is important to understand what we mean and what we do not mean by profit. Here we will be discussing profits that an entity may earn purely as a result of voluntary trade and free exchange; we do not mean those “accounting” profits that entities may earn as a result of favourable government regulations, direct government subsidy or any kind of residual of a trade relationship based upon force. These profits – including bank bailouts and stimulus funding – are rightly to be condemned as unjust and immoral, sustaining the power base of the incompetent, wealthy elite at the expense of everyone else. But such a condemnation must not be allowed to throw out a very precious baby with repulsively filthy bathwater – for profit is one of the most vital elements that gives life to an economic system that relies upon the division of labour.

For the praxeologist profit is, of course, endemic in any human action and not just those based upon monetary calculation. All actions seek to produce better circumstances than those that would prevail, but for the action. All humans in everything they do therefore seek for a psychic profit – making more money than before is only one of these possible actions. Strictly speaking, therefore, any condemnation of profit would be a performative contradiction as, in the mind of the critic, the satisfaction of achieving condemnation would be a better circumstance than not having done so. Although such a technical and theoretical argument is unlikely to appeal to the mass of lay persons who view profits as evil and unjust, it is important to understand the roots of the concept for here we can see the importance of the profit motive – the stimulus for engaging enterprise in the first place. Without the possibility of earning profit – i.e. a better circumstance than that which prevailed before – no entrepreneur or inventor would ever bother developing and bringing to market all of the wonderful products that make our standard of living so high.

Abandoning for a moment our commitment to wertfrei economics and embracing the belief that anything that benefits the consumer or labourer is “good” and anything that harms him is “bad”, let us examine two or three specific, recurring myths concerning the concept of profit.

First of all, let us deal with the allegation that profits line the pockets of the capitalists at the expense of workers and consumers. Profits are not achieved at the “expense” of anybody. The amount of profit is only ever determinable in retrospect after all of the consumers have purchased their wares and all of the workers have been paid their wages. At the time that the consumers bought the products and the workers negotiated their terms of employment nobody knew what the profit was going to be – or even if there would be a profit at all! If you felt that you were being “fleeced” at the time you purchased a product or sold your labour then why did you enter the transaction? If a firm should be required to divest its profits back to those whom it has cheated and stolen from then what happens when the firm makes a loss? Does it work the other way round too? Did not the customers and the workers cheat the firm in this instance? Should the firm be able to go back to a customer who may have purchased an item six months ago and take more from him to wipe out the deficit? Profits, instead, benefit the consumer by ensuring that scarce productive resources are devoted to their most highly valued ends – industries and production lines where profits are abnormally low will have resources reduced and redirected to areas where they are abnormally high, thus decreasing supply in the former and increasing it in the latter. Ironically, the combined action of entrepreneurs has the ultimate effect of eliminating all profit by balancing resources throughout the economy. It is only because consumers’ tastes and preferences are constantly changing that profit opportunities continue to exist and deployment of resources must be repetitively assessed and altered accordingly. Ultimately, therefore, it is the consumer who is responsible for the existence of profit and not the capitalist-entrepreneur. Furthermore, it is profit that provides entrepreneurs with the resources to further invest in capital equipment and expand the business. This will increase supply and lower prices.

Second, even if the concept of profit for inducing enterprise was accepted, what of the allegation that profits are really used to “extract” money from the industry to pay shareholders – money that would otherwise be invested back in the business to the benefit of consumers? What this overlooks is the fact that if a distribution is made to owners or shareholders it is because the entity has already invested in the business to the extent that is economically viable and any further expansion would be wasteful. While the firm may retain some additional earnings as a buffer in anticipation of a poor performing year or for some other kind of insurance, masses of retained earnings are otherwise wasted by lying in corporate bank accounts. It is better to distribute those funds to the shareholders so that they can be reinvested in other productive enterprises that are still in need of investment. Thus the consumer is benefitted by this fresh investment in other products and services that ensures that the supply of these can also be increased and their price lowered.

Finally, it is worth emphasising that which we indicated above – that profits are never certain and the possibility of their corollary – loss – is always present. Capitalist-entrepreneurs do not first of all calculate how much profit they want and then work out how much they will pay for inputs and charge for outputs. Such a calculation may form the motivation to engage in enterprise and it might determine the boundaries of their productive action but they cannot force the outcome to agree to their projections. Rather, they must be prepared to be the highest bidder for inputs and the lowest seller for outputs in order to ensure that they can purchase resources on the one hand and then sell the resulting products on the other. This process is fraught with uncertainty and only at the end is it possible to ascertain if it has been profitable – and, indeed, a certain line of production which may hitherto have been profitable may suddenly find it is loss-making. All it may take is a marginal increase in costs as a result of competing entrepreneurs bidding away resources to other uses, coupled with no corresponding increase in sales in order to completely wipe out any profit. Or may be consumer tastes change and competing products and services become more attractive? Although profit is the motivator of entrepreneurial activity it is never certain and everyone else must be paid in full before it can materialise, if it does at all.

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Labourers, Capitalists and Entrepreneurs

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Libertarians are well aware of the Marxist myth that labourers or employees are “exploited” by the capitalists, the entrepreneurs, the employers and the bosses, the former producing all of the valuable output in society and only permitted to consume enough to keep them at bare subsistence while the latter cream off the fat and live a life of carefree opulence.

The details of the economic fallacies of this position we will not explore here. Rather, the issue we wish to concentrate on is the common misperception that is “easy” to be a capitalist-entrepreneur (whom, hereafter, we will refer to as a “businessman”) and back-breakingly “difficult” to be a labourer. Such an impression is hard to dispel when, after all, the majority of the population are labourers, only a slim minority are businessmen and the relationship between the two is nearly always at arm’s length. Don’t the businessmen have the luxury of dictating to us the terms of our employment, our wages, what time we have to be there in the morning, what time we can leave, when we can have lunch, how often we can go to the toilet? And don’t they then decide when they’ll let us in to the shops to buy the stuff we need, setting the prices we must pay to ensure themselves enough profit, and us having to choose from whatever they have decided we can buy? Aren’t we just lucky to have whatever scraps that they throw down to us from their table? Although there will always be a natural antagonism between boss and employee the latter should think twice before becoming too envious of those who offer him work by failing to realise the pitfalls of becoming a businessman and ignoring the advantages of remaining as a labourer. Let us explore some of these in detail.

First of all, as a labourer you have the advantage of receiving your income first and incurring your costs later. The businessman pays you immediately once your work is complete and then you have a definite amount of money in your hand right now that you know you can spend on whatever you like. Furthermore, you do not have to wait until the product that you are working on for the businessman is completed before receiving this income, which might be weeks, months or even years before it reaches the hands of the consumer. No, you get your money now, cash in hand, with no waiting. And once you go to the shops you know the prices that you will pay so you can estimate easily how much you can spend and how much you can save in order live sustainably. In short, living as a labourer has a high degree of certainty. Labourers do, of course, partly share in entrepreneurial burdens. Not only do they have to know which skills are the best to offer prospective employers but they also bear the risk of redundancy in the event that the employer is forced to cease trading, or if the entire industry in which they work should become obsolete. But his entrepreneurial risk is greatly diminished compared to that of the businessman. Moreover, as a labourer, there is normally a strict starting point to your day and a strict ending point. Yes, you have to turn up and work for those eight or so hours in the day between those times but the time outside of that is yours and work, except for the very highest salaried employees, does not have to interfere with your leisure time.

Let us contrast this with the position of the businessman. He does not have the benefit of receiving his income first and incurring his costs later. Rather, he must first of all save and then burden himself with costs (including your wages) on an operation without knowing precisely how much this operation will yield in income. Indeed, the whole operation might bring him a net loss. He doesn’t know precisely what the outcome will be and he is, indeed, taking an enormous risk by entering this venture. It is simply anticipation on his part. Yet you, even if you participate in his operation, have been insulated from this by being paid up front. The businessman doesn’t come back to you after the end of a loss-making year and demand some of your wages back. You get to keep everything whereas he may lose a significant portion of his wealth. Equally and oppositely, therefore nor should he be expected to give you some of his surplus at the end of a profitable year. Furthermore, while businessmen as a whole “set prices”, any one of them does not do so as he pleases. Rather, he has to compete with what other businessmen are willing to pay for their inputs on the one hand and sell their outputs for on the other. The prices he pays for goods, raw materials and your wages to produce the goods he will sell are set not by him but by the bids of all the other businessmen who wish to uses these resources in their competing operations. Our businessman must be prepared to pay at least as much as they are if he is to secure the inputs necessary to run his business. Indeed one of the great Marxist myths – that the capitalists drive down wages to the lowest possible – is made plainly untrue by this fact. It is the competition between businessmen that drives up the wages of labour as it increases the demand for it. What is likely to reduce wages, on the other hand, is the existence of other workers as each new labourer adds an additional supply of labour, especially in particular industries where certain skills are necessary for which there is a finite demand. Indeed one of the reasons why unionised labour has always supported the minimum wage is to make the lowest skilled workers unemployable and reduce the competition for their more highly skilled members, thus raising the wages of the latter at the expense of the former. So much, one might say, for the collective interests of each class. When it comes to the prices of the product to be sold, the businessman must similarly compete with all of the products offered by his competitors for the contents of the consumers’ wallets and purses. His prices will therefore be determined by all of the other asking prices of his competitors and he must be prepared to offer a low enough price to draw consumers away from these other businesses1. Once a product is produced it is normally in a businessman’s best interests to sell it as quickly as possible. He does not have the luxury of “un-producing” it, winding back the clock and choosing to do something else. Rather, he is stuck with it and the longer he holds onto it the more likely it is that perishable items will simply be wasted and more durable items will incur further costs of storage. The only option, barring the possibility of personal use (which is obviously impossible for any large scale business) will be to sell it. Very often, therefore, the supply curve for a businessman will be vertical, meaning that he is prepared to take whatever the consumers will pay for his wares. If this is not enough to cover his costs then he will go out of business. He only earns a profit if the consumers are prepared to pay more than the product cost to produce. Occasionally a business may hold onto goods in the anticipation that their prices will rise at a later date, but this is normally the function of speculators in commodities and raw materials which have a diverse range of potential uses and not the function of manufacturers and vendors of highly specific, consumer goods. While businesses as a whole set prices, therefore, any one business is highly restricted in the prices it pays for its inputs and the prices it receives for its outputs and it takes tremendous skill and foresight to ensure that the latter is higher than the former.

Furthermore, the profits that a businessman will earn if he is successful in this regard are in no way “deductions” from wages. Rather, properly considered, wages are deductions from profits. When an businessman brings his produced product to market on a certain day, it will sell for whatever people are prepared to pay for it that day and the businessman will consequently earn certain revenue. If, for the sake of argument, he had been able to bring that product to market without incurring a single cost then his profit would be his entire revenue. In the real world, however, he must incur costs and every single cost, including wages, that has brought him to the position of being able to sell that product is a deduction from that revenue and only the remainder is the resulting profit. If the deductions are too high then he makes a loss. Indeed, this is precisely how a company’s income statement is laid out – revenue at the top followed by costs deducted leading to the final figure which is the profit; hence the expression “the bottom line”. If another businessman brought the same type and quantity of products to market on the same day he would earn exactly the same revenue as our first businessman, but if this second businessman had done so while incurring fewer costs then his deductions would be lower and his profit would be higher. Every time a businessman considers hiring one more employee he has to estimate whether the additional revenue gained from doing so will be higher than the deduction from that revenue he must pay out in wages. In short, your help in his enterprise allows you to pinch from his pie upfront, and only at the very end, after you have vanished, does he know how big the pie is. If he is unsuccessful you, the labourer, might well have left nothing for him.

Another myth we need to tackle is that capitalist-entrepreneurs automatically become rich. For every successful entrepreneur there are a dozen or more failures because the ability to judge, in advance, which products and services consumers will want to and how much they are willing to pay is a rare skill; hence it is very highly rewarded when it is successful. In a genuine free market there would never be a “class” of capitalists or of entrepreneurs. Rather, everyone would be free to risk his money in a new business if he believed that he had identified a marketable good or service. What gives us the illusion of a capitalist class today is the government protection accorded to large, established businesses and their owners and managers. Indeed the cash-bloated financial sector has only swollen to its titanic size because of the largess that government lavishes on this industry, whereas in a genuine free market financial services would earn the ordinary rate of profit. Furthermore, government makes it extremely difficult to start a new business, crushing it with the cost of crippling regulatory requirements before the budding entrepreneurs can give thought to more relevant things such as their product, their customers and their genuine costs. All this serves to make the businessmen an impenetrable caste of permanent membership, hence increasing the resentment of their position. Furthermore, it is possible to mistake the volume of money sloshing around in a business for the wealth that business possesses. It might be awe-inspiring to see a company’s bank statement raking in millions of pounds a month whereas you, as a little labourer, might only earn a thousand pounds in the same period. But deep pockets are usually raided by fatter hands; just as the income is much greater than yours, so too are the outgoings. It matters not a whit if a company is seeing income of £1 million per month. What matters is the differential between the revenue and the costs. If, in order to earn £1 million pounds the business had to pay out £1.1 million pounds then it would be left with a net loss of £100K. Just because lots of money is coming in to the bank does not mean that a company has endless amounts of cash to play around with and this is compounded by the fact we mentioned earlier of businesses having to incur their costs before their revenue is received. At least as a labourer if you decide to spend a bit more on some luxury in a certain month you still have the ability to calculate precisely what you will have at the end of that month. Businesses do not have this ability and particularly where profit margins are slim only a very slight tipping of the balance into the red can cause money to evaporate very rapidly.

Related to this aspect of the volume of cash in a business is the so-called “inequality of bargaining power” – that businesses, being so big and wealthy are more “powerful” than the tiny labourer who has to come, cup in hand, for whatever he can get. There is, however, no such thing as “bargaining power”. Each party enters a contractual agreement because they each desire something that the other possesses. The value of one party gaining what is yours is in his mind and is not inherent in you. If you are able to negotiate terms that are very favourable to you it simply means that he values what you have more than you value what he has. You have no control over this aspect and all it would take is for someone else to come along and offer something that is better than what you have. Secondly, and, ironically, it is not the growing and profitable businesses – the ones who have “bargaining power” – that tend to be restrictive on how much they are willing to pay in costs. The enthusiasm of a new entrepreneurial venture coupled with the either the anticipation or the reality of large profits results in a lower degree of scrupulousness in controlling costs and the very opposite of a Scrooge-like approach to hiring workers. Indeed it has been estimated that entrepreneurs as a whole pay too much in advances for their inputs and make an overall loss, with even the big winners failing to cancel out the losses of the big winners2. The point at which businesses become tight-fisted is when there is strong competition in a saturated market, driving down profit margins resulting in the need to cut costs in order to stay ahead. In other words it is when profits are low – i.e. when a business’s bargaining power is restricted – that causes a business to demand less favourable terms for its employees. There is also the alternative possibility that a business can grow so large that it soaks up the entire supply of an input and hence is said to be insulated from competitive pressure in setting the prices it pays. This is the frequent allegation that is made against large supermarket chains such as Tesco in their dealings with small suppliers. Of this we can say three things. First, in a genuinely free market, if a business has grown that large then it has done so because it has met the needs of consumers better than anyone else. Secondly, such a behemoth contains the seeds of its own destruction as size and domination leads to complacency and stifling innovation, giving opportunity for more nimble and enthusiastic start-ups to enter the fray and draw away suppliers with more favourable terms. Indeed the evolution of the technology sector may, perhaps, illustrate this. Microsoft dominated the PC age; Google the internet age; and Facebook the social networking era. No one firm was able to retain its dominating influence as consumer focus shifted from one thing to the next. Indeed already we are perhaps seeing a waning of social networking with Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp specifically for the purpose of attracting a younger audience for whom instant communication through smartphone technology has proven to be more important than creating a profile on a website. Who will dominate this latter era, if it proves to be one, remains to be seen. Thirdly the large corporate monopoly as we have come to know it is most often sustained by government and not by its consumers. Regulatory privilege, artificial barriers of entry and direct government contracts insulate these firms from actual and potential competition, meaning that their “bargaining power” is bestowed by nothing more than government force and fiat. Clearly this would not be the case in a genuinely free market.

What we have seen therefore is that being a businessman is far from easy. Yes there may be the reward of large profits but the path to success, in a free market at least, is fraught with uncertainty and difficulty. Life as a labourer may be relatively low paid, dull, repetitive but at least it is relatively secure and certain. We should end by reinforcing the fact that throughout this essay we have been talking about businessmen who earn their profits through serving the needs of consumers – those who have successfully determined the needs of their customers and directed the scarce resources available accordingly. We have not been referring to the government-protected or what we might call the “political” entrepreneur who has won his riches through lobbying and government protection. These latter creatures should be reviled for what they are and by pressing ahead for the establishment of a genuine free market we can enjoy watching their ill-gotten fortunes evaporate into the hands of those businessmen who truly know how to serve our needs.

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1Contrary to another popular myth competition is not restricted to particular industries. If you are sell apples then it is in your interests to draw people away from spending their money on, say, cinema trips just as it is on other apple vendors. All businesses are competing for the finite contents of consumers’ bank balances.

2Virginia Postrel, Economic Scene; a Vital Economy is one that Suffers Lucky Fools Gladly, New York Times, September 6th 2001: “If the few big wins cancel out the many losses, starting a business would be a risky, but rational, bet — the sort of investment a “cautious businessman” might make. But Professor [John V C] Nye [economic historian] argued that the wins and the losses probably don’t cancel out. Even the biggest winners don’t make enough money personally to cover the losses of all the individuals who went into businesses that failed. The big winners are usually people who, based on rational calculations, shouldn’t have bet their time, money and ideas. They overestimated their chances of striking it rich. But they were lucky and beat the odds. Even more important, the lucky fools create huge spillover benefits for society: new sources of wealth, new jobs, new industries offering less-risky opportunities, new technologies that improve life. Entrepreneurship does generate net gains, but most of those gains don’t go to the risk-takers. The gains are spread out to the rest of us. Capitalism, in this view, works by exploiting the capitalists themselves.”

Response to Petition: “Raise the Minimum Wage…”

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The author was invited to sign the following petition that recently appeared on change.org. This post is a response to this petition.

Petition:

“Every hardworking American deserves to earn a LIVING WAGE. Every small business needs CUSTOMERS. By raising the minimum wage, we create more customers for business–like Henry Ford did when he paid his workers the unheard-of wage of $5.00 a day so that they could afford to buy Ford cars. With every employed adult earning a living wage, we reduce the ranks of those on WELFARE and increase SELF-RESPECT. We protect FAMILIES by reducing divorce and dysfunction at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Instead of taxing people to pay for welfare, customers pay for this benefit through a slight rise in the price of goods and services they purchase from those with minimum wage jobs.”

Response:

Your aims are noble enough, to a) reduce the number of persons who receive assistance from the welfare state, b) to reduce the tax burden of the same, and c) to create more customers for business. Your proposed method of achieving these wonderful aims is, however, far from satisfactory.

Every hardworking American deserves to earn a LIVING WAGE.

Even if the concept could be defined objectively there is no such thing as a “living wage”. There is only what has been produced and this may be below, at or above the amount “necessary” on which to “live”. Nobody works for a money wage but rather for the goods and services that it can buy and a minimum quantity of these do not magically fall from the sky and present themselves for consumption.  Nor can The Congress make them appear by waving the legislative wand – they have to be worked for by someone.

Consider first of all an economy where I produce goods for only myself. If I bake three loaves of bread in a day then three loaves of bread is what I have. If, however, I bake eight loaves of bread in a day then eight loaves of bread is what I have. Assume for argument’s sake that the former situation is barely sufficient to keep me alive and the latter allows me to live comfortably. If I have produced only three loaves then three is what I have to enjoy at the end of the day. If this causes me to live at near-starvation point then nothing except more productivity on my part can change that. If, on the other hand, I have produced eight and can live handsomely from them then again it is only because I produced them.

This fact does not change when I do not produce goods for myself but instead offer them in exchange for other goods. If I swap my three loaves of bread for steak then the steak is now my “wages” for having worked to produce the bread and the bread is now the butcher’s “wages” for having produced the steak. But if the three loaves that I have paid the butcher is barely enough to keep him alive then why should I expect a quantity of steak in return that will do any more for me? Why do I “deserve” to earn a “living wage” when I can barely offer the same to the person producing it for me? Does he not “deserve” it also? Where does his “living wage” come from if I haven’t produced it?

None of this changes in a highly complex, industrial society where goods are not exchanged directly but for money. My wage is paid out of my employer’s revenue and his revenue is achieved only as a result of the productivity of the employees. Therefore if I am to earn a given wage then my productivity must enable my employer to earn at least that much in additional revenue as a result of employing me (and often much more as the total cost of employing a person is often much more than the wage paid). If the costs of my employment equal additional revenue then employing me is a break-even business and, while my employment is barely sustainable, there is no incentive for the employer to continue it. If the costs are greater than revenue then I am making a loss for the employer and I will have to be laid off.

Minimum wages therefore place a threshold of productivity which the worker must achieve before he can be legally employed; for if my ability or skill means that I cannot produce enough to enable my employer to earn enough revenue to pay me the minimum wage then I will simply not be hired. Highly skilled and experienced workers will have little problem in achieving this threshold (unless the minimum wage is set very high). But low-skilled or inexperienced workers, the very ones whom you appear to be saying are in need of help, may find it next to impossible. All you do is raise the bar over which they have to jump to get a job without improving their means to do so. Indeed, you totally impede any path to them gaining such means for the worker cannot use price as a bargaining tool. If he was unskilled or inexperienced he might happily say to a prospective employer “yes, you would pay $8/hour for someone with experience. How about I, not yet blessed with experience, do it for $5?” If the employer accepts he/she is compensated for the lack of ability or experience by the reduction in price; the worker, on the other hand, gains employment during which he may learn a valuable trade or skill that may enable him to progress to higher levels of productivity and, hence, higher wages at a later date. Even if he doesn’t quite achieve that, at least he is employed and such employment is likely to mould him into a responsible adult with self-respect. However, with an imposed minimum wage above $5 (in this example) this option is closed to both the employer and employee. The worker will simply not be hired.

The absurdity of the minimum-wage is highlighted even more when you consider what its advocates are really arguing. Presumably you think that if am not employed by an employer (i.e. I do work with a value of $0) it is fine for that employer to pay me $0? And also, if your ideal minimum wage is set at $8/hour and I do $8 worth of work for the employer, it is fine for me to earn $8/hour? But if I work to produce anything between $0 and $8 suddenly that is evil and immoral and should be outlawed. Why this lacuna? Why is producing $0 or $8+ fine but producing $4.50 is not? Is $4.50 not worth $4.50 in the same way that $0 is $0 and $8 is $8? Why is it that if I produce $0 it is moral and proper for me to be paid $0 yet if I produce just $0.01 for my employer the latter should be forced to pay me the “living wage” of $8? Further if I am not being paid for my productivity but instead am being paid a legally enforced form of charity then aren’t I in just the same position as if I was on welfare?

Finally, it is the fact that minimum wage legislation impacts upon the low-skilled or inexperienced that makes it so destructive. For these people are likely to be any combination of young, “unprivileged”, with few educational merits, or disabled – in short the most vulnerable in society who are more likely to succumb to a life of delinquency or welfare-dependency when faced with no other option. Such a person is likely to respond rather coolly to your demands for a “living wage” if he can’t get any wage at all.

By raising the minimum wage, we create more customers for business

If it is that easy then why not have an infinitely high minimum wage? Why stop at $6 or $8, why not raise it to $20, $100, or $1 000? In fact, why just not make everyone millionaires? Think of all those millions that will be spent in small businesses around the country!

Your proposal rests upon the fallacious theory that workers need enough “purchasing power” in order for businesses to expand production. The causal relationship is precisely the other way round – it is increased productivity that permits an expansion of purchasing power. Going back to the example of bread, if I bake three loaves of bread what I have is three loaves of bread with which to barter. If I bake eight loaves of bread I now have eight loaves of bread with which to barter. Eight loaves of bread will trade for more than three loaves of bread. I have more “purchasing power” because I have been more productive.

What, then, will be the effect of your proposal upon achieving your stating aims?

Regarding first of all those adults who are unemployed and are fully supported by assistance from the welfare state, why will raising the cost of employing them induce employers to do so? If they were not prepared to employ them to do a certain job at a lower rate, why on earth would they suddenly, all else being equal, be inspired to do so at a higher rate? Let’s say you go to the grocery store and see chicken on sale for $5/unit, having never bought it before. You decide that at that price it is too expensive for the benefit it will give you and you decline to purchase it. Suddenly, the Government decrees that everywhere chicken producers are not earning a “living wage” and decrees a minimum price for chicken of $8/unit. Hurrah, the plight of the exploited chicken farmers is over! But if you did not purchase the product at $5/unit why would you be any more inclined to purchase it at $8/unit? It’s the same thing, only now more expensive. Has the minimum price helped the chicken farmers vis-à-vis you in anyway whatsoever? If anything, wouldn’t lowering the price be the correct thing to do induce you to buy chicken? Exactly the same is true for businesses hiring employees. The same amount of productivity on offer for a higher price induces no new purchasing whatsoever. It seems impossible, therefore, that your petition would reduce the ranks of the unemployed who are dependent upon welfare.

For people who are both employed but remunerated at a rate below what you would call a “living wage” and who are partial recipients of welfare, raising the minimum wage will (if their current wages are below the proposed threshold) increase the costs to business of achieving the same amount of productivity. Employers have only the same stock of goods to sell to customers but now they must pay more for their employers to produce them. Revenue therefore remains equal while costs increase. How might employers respond?

First, they might gradually replace the employees with capital equipment (i.e. machines and tools). For now, with the cost of labour increased, the cost of capital relative to labour is lowered and it becomes more profitable to replace workers with labour-saving devices. However, as there has been no genuine saving (by necessity the cost of capital must be between the old wage and the new wage – if it was lower than the old wage then capital will already have replaced labour without your proposed minimum wage; if it is higher than the new wage then labour will remain employed) there are no spare funds with which to employ these workers elsewhere. So workers that were formerly partially employed would now be fully unemployed as a result of your proposal and, furthermore, will have increased the burden to the welfare state and its associated tax demands rather than have caused a decrease to either. An analogy is that if you were a purchaser of chicken at $5/unit, the new price of $8/unit you find to be too high and you switch to cheaper substitutes.

Second, the employing business may decide to absorb the extra cost from profit. But what if the increased wage completely consumes the profit margin so that the business now makes a loss? A business that loses money will have to close shop and the workers will, once again, simply have to join the ranks of the unemployed. If profit margins are so slim it means the employees were barely affordable before and their employers were no doubt straining to control costs to stay afloat which would – crucially – keep those people employed. But along you come to forcibly raise their costs thus destroying their profit margin and guaranteeing nothing to the workers but unemployment.

But assuming that a profit remains and the business can stay afloat, a lower profit margin means decreased funds for investment which the business can use to expand. It is such expansion that requires the business to increase its demand for workers, and increased demand results in increased wages. If they cannot do this then wages cannot be increased naturally. Furthermore, in the economy as a whole not all businesses will be affected in the same way. Labour-intensive industries will be the hardest hit while capital-intensive industries will suffer more lightly. Investment funds will therefore be withdrawn from the labour-intensive industries and diverted to the now more profitable capital-intensive industries; or the labour intensive stages of production will disappear overseas and the US will be left only with capital-intensive industries – plus an increased amount of unemployment from the displaced workers.

However, your proposal appears to indicate that businesses will attempt to pass these costs on to their customers. If the customers who have to bear the burden of the increased costs are the same people who have received the new, higher, wage, then you are not any step closer to weaning them off the welfare state. If their income increases but so do their costs then in real terms they are in exactly the same position as they were before. What are you going to tell them? “Congratulations, your wages have been doubled! But now you have to pay twice as much for everything as you did before!”

If, however, the burden is borne by those who do not receive an increased wage then, all else remaining equal, the customers can only do one of two things. Either they will reduce the quantity they purchase from the business, or they must divert spending from elsewhere in order to meet the added cost. If the former, then while the business’s nominal revenue may remain the same the quantity of goods needed to achieve that revenue is reduced. Reduced production therefore requires downsizing and downsizing means workers will be laid off. If customers divert spending from elsewhere then the businesses from where they withdraw funds will suffer from reduced revenue and they will lay off workers. The result in either case is increased unemployment and increased dependency upon the welfare state. Furthermore, the poor customers will have to suffer both from the increased costs of their purchases and from increased taxes to fund the now expanding welfare state.

Finally, regarding your desire to help small businesses, which type of businesses are more likely to be disadvantaged by a minimum wage? Large, multinational businesses which huge reserves of capital or the new start-up with limited investment and an unestablished market? Which of the two benefits more from being able to hire employees cheaply and which is likely to struggle from being forced to pay more for those same workers? Minimum wages, like all employment regulation, are a boon to large, established and politically connected businesses that can more easily absorb the increased costs while forcing their smaller rivals, the ones you are trying to help, out of business.

It is clear, therefore, that this proposal will not fulfil its noble intentions and, worse, will have the very opposite effect of exacerbating the very problems that it seeks to eliminate. For these reasons (aside from the fact that I am neither a US citizen nor resident) I cannot accept your invitation to support your petition and I urge you and everyone else whom you invited to abandon it.

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