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Walter E. Williams
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Embarrassing Economists

Comment

So as to give some perspective, I'm going to ask readers for their guesses about human behavior before explaining my embarrassment by some of my fellow economists.

Suppose the prices of ladies jewelry rose by 100 percent. What would you predict would happen to sales? What about a 25 or 50 percent price increase? I'm going to guess that the average person would predict that sales would fall.

Would you make the same prediction about auto sales if cars' prices rose by 100 percent or 25 or 50 percent? Suppose that you're the CEO of General Motors and your sales manager tells you the company could increase auto sales by advertising a 100 percent or 50 percent price increase. I'm guessing that you'd fire the sales manager for both lunacy and incompetency.

Let's try one more. What would you predict would happen to housing sales if prices rose by 50 percent? I'm guessing you'd predict a decline in sales. You say, "OK, Williams, you're really trying our patience with these obvious questions. What's your point?"

It turns out that there's a law in economics known as the first fundamental law of demand, to which there are no known real-world exceptions. The law states that the higher the price of something the less people will take of it and vice versa. Another way of stating this very simple law is: There exists a price whereby people can be induced to take more of something, and there exists a price whereby people will take less of something.

Some people suggest that if the price of something is raised, buyers will take more or the same amount. That's silly because there'd be no limit to the price that sellers would charge. For example, if a grocer knew he would sell more — or the same amount of — milk at $8 a gallon than at $4 a gallon, why in the world would he sell it at $4? Then the question becomes: Why would he sell it at $8 if people would buy the same amount at a higher price?

There are economists, most notably Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who suggest that the law of demand applies to everything except labor prices (wages) of low-skilled workers.

Krugman says that paying fast-food workers $15 an hour wouldn't cause big companies such as McDonald's to cut jobs. In other words, Krugman argues that raising the minimum wage doesn't change employer behavior.

Before we address Krugman's fallacious argument, think about this: One of Galileo's laws says the influence of gravity on a falling body in a vacuum is to cause it to accelerate at a rate of 32 feet per second per second. That applies to a falling rock, steel ball or feather. What would you think of the reasoning capacity of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who'd argue that because human beings are not rocks, steel balls or feathers, Galileo's law of falling bodies doesn't apply to them?

Krugman says that most minimum-wage workers are employed in what he calls non-tradable industries — industries that can't move to China. He says that there are few mechanization opportunities where minimum-wage workers are employed — for example, fast-food restaurants, hotels, etc. That being the case, he contends, seeing as there aren't good substitutes for minimum-wage workers, they won't suffer unemployment from increases in the minimum wage. In other words, the law of demand doesn't apply to them.

Let's look at some of the history of some of Krugman's non-tradable industries. During the 1940s and '50s, there were very few self-serve gasoline stations. There were also theater ushers to show patrons to their seats. In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. labor force was employed in agriculture. Now most gas stations are self-serve. Theater ushers disappeared. And only 2 percent of today's labor force works in agricultural jobs. There are many other examples of buyers of labor services seeking and ultimately finding substitutes when labor prices rise. It's economic malpractice for economists to suggest that they don't.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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Comments

26 Comments | Post Comment
So if we raise minimum wages we can expect that hotels are going to start offering rooms with dirty sheets? Giant body blow driers in the bathrooms instead of towels? That hotels are going buy beds that change their own sheets? How much more automated do you think a fast food restaurant can become? And you say you studied economics?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Mark
Mon Oct 20, 2014 11:48 PM
Sir;... If your article were an intelligence test, any one that would believe it for a moment would fail. Do you really think it is possible to rationally compare the laws of physics with the observations and conclusions of a soft science like economics? Simply consider how much of psychology is involved in advertizing, or how much fear plays a part in hoarding. If people labor for their dreams, they also labor for their needs, and if needs can be denied, then people can be made to labor in vain until they die.
If your economy demands the buying of labor beneath its value, bemeath the value it takes to reproduce that life, or make it productive in the economic sense then it is a death economy. And we have seen with the closing of the commons in England during their Industrial Revolution that poor people produced in the country went to die in the cities in vast numbers, with never more than enough to keep body and soul in the same location. Is this all you want for Americans. Is this your theory, that if it is good for the economy it does not matter how many fall into a poverty too deep to escape?.
It is a false choice given only be capitalism, of whether we should pay the underpaid more, or work the over paid harder while laying off others. Why is the choice never presented as lower profits against higher profit when high profits mean an absolute injury to people, and no corresponding good to society. Where is the virtue of poverty and why do the rich not give up their wealth if poverty is so great?. There are certainly a great number of idiots justifying poverty for others such as they would never suffer themselves. Well; we have to do what is good for the economy, and poverty is the lookout of the poor. No moral restraint, no restraint of any sort on the exploitation of people.
Why is it ok to worry about a handful jobless and not worry about vast numbers wallowing in a sump of want and despair. It hurts to be poor. it is worse to be poor and see all the rest of the world looking rich and looking down on you. And no one has the power to ask for more wages because the famous law of supply and demand say there are too many workers and not enough jobs. Okay; time to ask since we haven't in 60 years. Isn't it time for a shorter work day and more money for each? if we are democracy we can make some laws of our own. We may never break any laws of physics, but these nonsense laws of economy are meant to be trashed. A handful with all the goods making everyone else work like dogs for chicken feed and competing against slaves in other lands working for the sweat off their brows is nothing but a rigged game we can 't win unless we make the rules. Let's make the rules instead of having a tiny fraction making rules that we can't win.
Consider now, that if ancient peoples had not governed their economies, they would not have survived. We are not surviving because we refuse to govern that which left ungoverned, rules us. We the people have the right and the obligation to make the laws under which we will operate. Our lives are not abstractions, and the abstractions this Mr. Williams deals with do not reflect human needs or human conditions. If we do not act to save our fellows from injustice we will never have a nation, and the days of this society are numbered.
Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Oct 21, 2014 12:44 AM
Re: Mark;... Mr. Williams may say he studied economics, but no one who has ever read economics believes him. Clearly he has no degree in morality, and no understanding of the basic issues involved in ethics, and yet he forever washes his butt in that sacred fountain like he owns the place. That guy needs a clown degree. If he drove as bad as he reasons, they would yank his licence. He really needs to hang it up and quit trying to teach what he does not know.
Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Oct 21, 2014 12:51 AM
Re: James A, Sweeney
You should ask him nicely to get out of your fountain.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Jerry Litzler
Tue Oct 21, 2014 7:37 AM
When a product costs more to produce, the producer raises the cost to the public. If the minimum wage goes to $15.00, the hamburger is not going to taste any better, BUT it is going to get a lot more expensive. The jobs about which we are talking are ENTRY LEVEL jobs, not careers. Those who make them a career due to an utter lack of ambition deserve what they get, and it admittedly ain't much. Dr. Williams has explained this before. If you do not accept his argument from this article, then see if you can fathom the one above. It ain't brain surgery; just common business sense.
Comment: #5
Posted by: bdcorvette
Tue Oct 21, 2014 11:42 AM
Restaurants can be fully automated. Chamber maids prices may rise and if it is true they cannot be replaced then hotels will have to raise the price of the rooms and people at the margin will elect not to stay there. Business will fall off and that hotel will not need so many chamber maids. There you go - fewer people working at higher wages and some not working at all.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Steven Brooks
Tue Oct 21, 2014 12:01 PM
Re: Mark
No Mark, they will just tack the added cost onto your room rental.
They will also let the less efficient maids go & give extra hours to more efficient. They can, & often have, stop washing their own sheets & contract it out bulk contractors who can wash more sheets with less workers.
Either way, they will either find a way to lower cost, or pass it on. They will not just accept a lower profit margin just because you think it would be "fair".
Comment: #7
Posted by: TechnocraT
Tue Oct 21, 2014 12:30 PM
Re: James A, Sweeney
James, are you enjoying the Kool-Aid?
Minimum wage is intended to be an entry level position. If people do not try and better themselves to improve their position, they will earn what their labors are worth.
My high school did not prepare me for anything better than entry level (30+ years ago) and I do not think they have improved in that time. Rather than that I took advantage of training opportunities that were available to any one willing to work for them, and developed a better skill set. as my skills increased, so did my income. No one owes you a living. You have to earn it. You don't like minimum wage? take some training so you can get more. If you don't have the gumption to do that, don't expect me to pay more for what I consume to pay you more.
Comment: #8
Posted by: TechnocraT
Tue Oct 21, 2014 12:41 PM
In reply to all that suggest morality has a role here you obviously not only miss the point you also have never taken a basic economics class.
Yes, i foresee a day when the Maid has a Robot assist and instead of two maids that cost X per year the robot is a one time expense and forsake the other maid. Also it would be quite easy to arrange auto delivery to a drive through fast food restaurant. If you don't believe me look at some of the complexities of modern machinery on ALL they do...ever studied what some of these harvesters do or a die making machine.....the engineers design them and the elevator operators go away.
If you raise the cost to produce a product the price goes up and the owner of the business looks for ways to reduce costs. And since employees require unemployment insurance, compensation insurance, donations to 401K's or other government mandated stuff besides their pay the first cut on the chopping block is the employee.
Without profit there can be no jobs and all of our complaints about business and the rich and having a moral obligation mean nothing when you cant get a job because your job was "mechanized" because there just aint enough money or business to support all that moral obligation....
If you have no interest or motivation to improve yourself...then dont blame it on the employer....look in the mirror...all the moral pronouncements in the world cant change economic realities...a duh...supply and demand...ever heard of it?
Comment: #9
Posted by: Breck
Tue Oct 21, 2014 12:48 PM
Re: bdcorvette
Lots of those jobs are now going to the folks who had many years experience in now closed factories, etc. Imagine, you are 60 and always worked in the local mill, assembly plant, etc and have been laid off. Imagine, while you never went past high school, the job has always paid a middle class wage, but now the job is in China and McDonalds is hiring. Your "Those who make them a career due to an utter lack of ambition deserve what they get..." line is about as pure a dose of 200 proof "blame the victim" as I have read in a while.
.
Re: Steven Brooks
I haven't seen any fully automated fast food restaurants, even in places where labor is expensive. If it is so easy, why don't we see them? If every restaurant and hotel had to raise the wages at the same time, there would be an incremental increase in these goods and services, but it would be across the board, so the effect would be minimal. On the other hand, more money in the hands of the workers would go immediately back into the economy and that effect would likely be substantial.
Re: TechnocraT
Yes, they will add it to the cost of my hotel room. My $200 hotel room will now cost $210 and the maid will not have to work 3 jobs to feed her family top ramen. This is a good thing. Do you really believe that the hotels are not doing everything they can to squeeze profit from the maids now? That hotels would suddenly say, "Gosh, we have been carrying a lot of deadwood maids for years because it just wasn't worth our making the effort to trim this cost, but now that we have to pay a bit more, maybe we should look at who is doing a good job who is not?".
.
A common thread seems to run through many of these comments seems to be that people who work these jobs are somehow defective and don't deserve to make a living wage. I find it an odd morality play that we seem to need to write so we don't have to look these folks in the eye when we take their poverty for granted.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Mark
Tue Oct 21, 2014 11:48 PM
Re: TechnocraT;.. My professor, Mr. Marx told me there was a natural minimum wage. It was that amount necessary to keep skin on bones. Capitalism is no charity, It is pure anarchy. Anarchy is the Freedom in Free Enterprise. He also told me that while all capitalist want to pay their workers the smallest possible wage, they want every other employer to pay the highest possible wage, and the reason for that is obvious. While foreign trade is essential to capitalism and to profit, so is domestic trade, and a market with too few buyers, and a surplus of products is the definition of a depressiion. The solution to this problem and even to the problem of foreign markets with come at great expense, is a healthy domestic market with fair wages and working conditions.
We have been skirting along the edge of depression for many years, and all the while wages have been held flat or reduced by inflation. Each capitalist acting for his own benefit has not helped them as a class. Open markets has not helped them as a class either, but the benefit to a handful has been used to run many into an early grave. Again, with the closing of the commons in England great numbers were forced from their land to cath what ever life they might as wage labor, Whole generations left the fields and never in their lives of labor ever made enough to reproduce themselves, and they died childless. Today we see white Americans and Europeans dying at a faster rate than their reproduction can support. To the right who champion low wages because the rich tell them too, Abortion and birth control are moral issues, They are never moral issues so much as economic issues. Those people who tell mothers and fathers that they cannot have the wages necessary to support families are making the moral choice that results in Ambortion. People who must resort to abortion to avoid insanity are victims of immorality and not its agents. This Mr. Williams sees all moral issues as economic issues. He cannot tell them apart. Does it matter that minimim wages hurt more people than they help simply because the minimum is too low? That question is a side issue to Mr. Williams. He does not have the sense to realize that two facts more than any other have spurred technology. One was the shortage of labor, and the other was the high price of labor.
When England had machines that could sweep chimneys, they still used children for the job because of price. This dirty job invariable ended in testicular cancer for the youth. I know from personal experiance as an Ironworker that this was from the use of a spanish bowling for a boatwains chair, and from the creasolt in the soot. A sweep is as happy, as happy can be. It must be easier without your nads.
Some find happiness easier without a brain. The effect on the individual of living in a society where people are freely encourged to prey upon each other is corrosive. We the people, in spite of principals, and in spite of the moving parts of the constitution, should look for guidance at the preamble, and the Declaration of Independence. Aristotle said long ago that governments are created for good because good is the aim of all human activity. Some times that good goes against capitalist principals, and sees good through the eyes of the average individual, It is the good of real people we should care about. Are the little people doing okay, because a fixed minimum wage is not getting more people to work, but it is robbing those who are working through inflation.
Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #11
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Wed Oct 22, 2014 2:02 AM
It is just basic business sense.
Comment: #12
Posted by: Eric Jensen
Wed Oct 22, 2014 6:31 AM
Take lawn mowing. If I can hire someone to mow my lawn for 20 dollars, and someone is willing to mow it for that, I will gladly pay that. I will use that time for something else more productive. However, if the price of mowing goes up to 40 dollars, I have several options: look for someone cheaper, mow it myself, or let my lawn grow longer. That is what has happened over the last 15 years. It takes me about an hour to mow my lawn. So I am earning 40 dollars an hour, tax-free, for this. This is more like a net gain of 67 dollars with the tax implications. A 15 dollar employee actually costs the company quite a bit more money than that when you factor in health care, unemployment insurance, Social Security, workman's compensation, and other hidden costs. It is the most illogical, warped, and blinded thinking to think the way Krugman does. Many people have made careers out of fast food. Their income goes up quite rapidly with minimal effort.
The 2nd point that most people don't consider is that other people already working at fast food places that have had their own wages increased from 7.50 to 10 dollars an hour, and increase of 33%, will need much more than 15 dollars an hour to stay at their current location. So all wages will be increased by 5 to 7 dollars an hour, not just the entry level job.
Comment: #13
Posted by: Eric Jensen
Wed Oct 22, 2014 6:42 AM
Leftists cannot handle simple truths. Anyone with half a brain knows what happens when governments cause business to endure additional costs - the result is always less production, using less of the most expensive commodity. Were this not the case, the labor unions in Detroit would be celebrating the success of the Big Three. Ask any leftist why we should not raise the minimum wage to $75 per hour, and watch them babble and drool all over themselves. Non-subjective principles are wasted on leftists - they cannot grasp them.
Comment: #14
Posted by: Joel
Wed Oct 22, 2014 7:25 AM
Heard a funny argument when the fast food workers in leftist towns went on strike: "Those whose job is punching buttons on something like an Android tablet, to order a hamburger for one standing in front of them, ought to think twice about trying to double their reward for same through coercion." I am not certain why fast food restaurants have not already laid off the window service. At some wage level (as argued by Dr. Williams), those layoffs will occur.

The more insidious damage of the minimum wage law is the unseen, "those jobs that are never created." So many youth, including 40% of black youth, never get that entry level job and the valuable/irreplaceable experience, because government, in its benevolence, prevented the creation of the jobs. Wages and automation are interchangeable at a price, just as outsourcing is a function of tax rates.
Comment: #15
Posted by: Joel
Wed Oct 22, 2014 7:31 AM
The last time min wage was increased the owner of a sandwich shop in our small rural town exclaimed that no teenager was worth $7.25 making sandwiches. Guess what --= they moved to larger quarters and there are no teens working for her. We have a surplus of labor available and a shortage of jobs available. A better course is to change gov policy to a pro growth policy. The oil fields pay a rookie $60,000 per year --- not too shabby.
as an aside -- EPA rules have caused some coal mining operations to lay off miners or shut down. One program telling this story had a man on who had earned $95,000 per year digging coal. That job and this man's livelihood are gone. Not much else to do in portions of West Virgina and Kentucky.
Comment: #16
Posted by: John Stiegelmeyer
Wed Oct 22, 2014 12:27 PM
Re: James A, Sweeney

The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations.
Adam Smith
Comment: #17
Posted by: Daniel Arnswald
Wed Oct 22, 2014 1:11 PM
Comment: #18
Posted by: ABarkus
Wed Oct 22, 2014 2:24 PM
Comment: #19
Posted by: ABarkus
Wed Oct 22, 2014 2:25 PM
Anyone that can't follow Mr Williams article about the increase of the minimum wage certainly doesn't have a grasp of reality. This is the most basic, simplified example of economics that no one can rationally dispute. Comments that try to refute today's column are just gibberish.
Comment: #20
Posted by: Mandy
Wed Oct 22, 2014 3:19 PM
Masterminds like Krugman and his accomplices never stop telling us to give more freedom and money to government bureaucrats, and they will deliver Utopia. What metastasizing government actually delivers is hellholes like North Korea, Cuba, and Zimbabwe.
The self-importance of these masterminds is only exceeded by their shamelessness and hunger for totalitarianism.
We've had a shameless totalitarian mastermind in the White House for about six years. Only drones fail to see that It has been six years of jackass spending, debt, fiat money printing, expanded welfare, low GDP, suffocating regulation, corruption, lies, scandals, lawlessness, and other destruction.
Comment: #21
Posted by: MinimizeGovernment!
Thu Oct 23, 2014 11:13 AM
Re: Daniel Arnswald;... That is a tragedy for all of humanity. Think of how many are living at a stone age level, hand to mouth with starvation, exposure, and deprivation always at their door. The dreams of mankind have always led them to higher technology and greater security; but the reality is that people seeking their own advantage take their security and future out of the future and security of other people. Law should liberate when it delivers justice, but when it is only an expression of power, and of coercion, it cows people literally and figuratively until existence become the all of their lives. Those on the right preach spirtuality only because their economy robs so many of their spirits and their meaning. You cannot take what another man makes with his life without stealing his life. His life is the whole of his meaning, and if you say: My time and my life are meaningful, but to make certain, I will demean your life and your time. Value is meaning; and how do we really value each other. Are we human; and they only cattle because we can rob them of their dreams, their lives and futures quite legally. Such inhumanity is too outrageous to accept. What does our founding document say: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Poverty breeds pain and not happiness, and wages too low to support families and reproduction are slavery, and slavery is the theft of life and labor.
Adam Smith was a decent Economist, and even Marx said as much; but if you consider the time he lived in, where the meat grinder of the industrial revolution was beginning to eat the yeoman farmers of England, you might ask why we have such numbers living in poverty. Well; our wealthy are more billiantly and splendidly wealthy. Our wars, which are all wars for markets and material are more horrible and devestating. We have created better weapons and a worse humanity, better machines and a demeaned mankind. This progress is entirely superficial because where possible men have chosen to live as gods over a debased humanity. For many living the dream, many are living a nightmare.
Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #22
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Oct 23, 2014 1:01 PM
Re: Mandy; ... No one disputes that the price of labor is like the price of any other commodity; but out of capitalist theory and principal, that market has always been a buyers market. I do not mind you seeing labor and the price of labor as abstractions. The problem is that we are not abstractions, and our labor essential to our lives are no more abstractions to us than the water we drink, or the air we breathe. The Nazis could look at their death camp victims as so many numbers right down to the fat they could boil out of them and the hair on their heads. They even made them buy tickets on the trains that delivered them. Joe Stalin said the death of one is a tragedy, but the death of ten thousand is a statistic. That ability to see so much of life as abstraction is the enemy of humanity. Are you an abstraction? Is your labor and your life an abstraction. Here we have a question: Shall a few have a less miserable life because they are getting a living wage, or will more have a miserable wage and a more harried existence. Slavery is a job that does not pay. Our jobs do not pay. And rather than stating the obvious, that it is the job of government to change our reality and deliver the good of life to all; we want government to bow once more before the fetish of economic abstraction.
Once more; Mandy: Mr. Williams is no economist. Economics means House Management, and these false economist reject the very management that allowed our ancesters to survive with far less of technology or resources. We have more, but must in general suffer less only because we refuse to govern the economy that without government- governs us.
Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #23
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Oct 23, 2014 1:16 PM
Re: Jerry Litzler; it is not my fountain. As they say, the treasure with the greatest number of guards will be the soonest to disappear. My virtue presents me with a problem. Every question is a moral question. The truth, like virtue belongs to all of us, and each is essential to our lives. Still; I am only elected to speak for myself. I do not like what Mr. Williams does. I like what he says because it makes him look stupid, and is so easy to counter. Ultimately, it is not his eternal soul that concerns me, because his is lost. These ageless economic principals they take for granted are killing this people, but in a process where wide spread poverty first demoralizes everyone to such an extent that when the end comes, people will not resist. Slavery and morality do not mix. Morality and liberty go together everywhere
Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #24
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Oct 23, 2014 1:26 PM
Re: Joel... Economics may be a collection of simple truths tied together with a bow; but there are no simple moral truths, and it is the search for moral truth that makes leftists. If you think low wages are good for your economy, does that not depend upon perspective, and even then, is it true? And isn't your economy all encompassing? I mean; if poverty in a people does not support their government or any of their institutions, and finally does not support the people, is it good for the people. Poverty and immorality are twins, like want, and ignorance. Are a people ever made greater in a process by which they are made lesser, more poor, more ignorant, and less politically powerful. And do we not have government to control our reality, and was government not the great advantage of primitives over their environment. When government was the only technology that people had, they could control themselves, control their access to resources and products, and in that fashion survived. We pitiful people say: its the law. We are both sides of that law, selling labor one day, and buying the products of labor the next. If our wages will not buy our products, and taxes on our labor will not support our government and the military that enforces our claim to markets and resources internationally we are done anyway no matter how many people work for less than it takes for them to live. Our economy is sucking the life out of us, and only morality is demanding our resistence to these nonsense theories and principals...
No fooling. Primitive peoples could produce enough in their life times to support themselves in old age. They were supported in youth, and in their prime supported all, and in old age, they educated the young. Do you mean to say we must live with more personal and social insecurity than primitive humanity? Our lives are sucked out of us for low wages. This situation will end because it must, or because we out of necessity have accepted slavery, and sold our rights.
Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #25
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Oct 23, 2014 1:42 PM
Re: MinimizeGovernment!... Free enterprise is another name for anarchy; but if you will not govern your economy it will certainly govern you. Tell me if you find a better way than government to collectively defend your rights. standing as individuals before business which has always had the protection of government, we have no power, and must take what they offer. Too few jobs for too many people drives down the price, but we have seen through out history going back to the black death, how government would make higher wages impossible to have, but has never stopped business from colluding for higher profits. The minimum wage does not raise wages. That minimun is set below what is morally or financially sufficient.
Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #26
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Oct 23, 2014 1:49 PM
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