Wednesday 11 September 2013

Living Wages - Canadian economist(s) edition.

Simon Collins's Herald piece on living wages makes for interesting reading.

He opens with a story of a couple who both work shifts cleaning at a mix of buildings, some housing government-owned entities, some private. They both earn $14.10 per hour, less than the union's $18.40 living wage recommendation. He then points out the current version of Labor candidate pledges:
Grant Robertson pledged to set a timetable to pay the living wage to all government workers and contractors.
David Cunliffe promised to "roll out a living wage as a minimum for public servants and, as we can afford it, through the contractor process".
But the third contender, Shane Jones, refused to commit to the policy, and Prime Minister John Key said it would cost $2.5 billion and destroy 26,000 jobs.
If Labour puts in a $18.40 minimum wage for government workers, the featured family would likely only be getting this for their shift cleaning at a school unless the school contracts out facilities maintenance. And the school might shift to contracting out to keep costs down unless the government topped up its budget to make up the difference. If contractors also have to pay it, then the featured family does better in the short to medium term. But recall that if the potential benefits are large, so too are the incentives to shift to renting serviced facilities and so to have cleaners and other maintenance staff out from under the living wage mandate. So either it doesn't do much, or it gets circumvented. Collins also notes in passing that Ofa, one member of his featured family, is a delegate for the Service and Food Workers Union. I expect that the unions as a whole do well out of the measure, if it's extended to contractors, because it blunts the force of contracted outsourcing in keeping costs (and wages) down.

Collins then works through some of the costing estimates on living wage mandates, correctly noting that increasing the minimum wage to $18.40 would be very expensive. He then quotes me on the likely disemployment effects of an $18.40 minimum applied only to the government sector:
Those taxpayers would have less to spend, but low-paid state workers would have more. Even right-wing blogger Eric Crampton, a Canterbury University economist, wrote this week that the net effect would be minor: "Lots of people queue for jobs in the high-paying sector, but they'll take lower-paying jobs in the private sector."
I do expect that there wouldn't be much change in aggregate employment with a living wage mandate applied only to government workers and contractors because I expect that the government has close to a vertical labour demand curve for such workers and tasks.* There would be job rationing - in other words, more people wanting to work as cleaners in the public sector than there are available jobs - and the unions could extract higher dues as consequence. But Councils and Government would be likely, in the short term at least, just to pay more and make it up with increased taxes. In the medium to longer term, I still would expect a shift to government departments taking up tenancies in serviced buildings, but where the cleaning budget is a small part of the overall calculus, the effects mightn't be large.

Collins nicely does cite the literature on that living wage mandates are very poorly targeted and that we could do rather better by increasing targeted benefits. Then he cites U Vic's Morris Altman:
Morris Altman, a renowned Canadian economist who moved to Wellington's Victoria University in 2009, argues that a living wage is "a moral imperative situated in the natural rights of individuals".
His research suggests that a wage rise can actually pay for itself by raising productivity through motivating workers to work harder and stay in their jobs, and by inducing employers to introduce new technology and train workers to work smarter.
But that is only true, he warns, if wages are raised at a rate that productivity can keep up with. "So one has to be ultra-careful about by how much one increases. If it's a radical increase, that might be too much to deal with in the short-term," he says. "You might need a bit of an adjustment period to get productivity up."
I choose to take it as a compliment that Collins seems to have assumed that I'm Kiwi.

I haven't read Morris's work on living wages. I'd disagree pretty strongly with him on moral imperatives and natural rights, but I'm pretty sure neither of us gets to trump the other on that kind of question. And I can believe that, in some cases, salary increases can be self-financing - that's the general basis underlying efficiency wage theories (which also typically generate equilibrium unemployment). But we expect that firms choosing to increase wages on this kind of basis do so because they expect the salary increase to be worth the cost. I'm a bit curious why we'd expect those results to hold where employers are forced to pay more, but I'll perhaps have to look up his book this summer.

* I do hesitate a bit here though. I remember when the University set up a sustainability framing for a change in how they handled departmental waste collection. Instead of cleaning staff going into each office every night and emptying the bin, academic staff were asked to bring their trash and recycling bins to a central waste bin on each floor and those central bins would be collected every night. Maybe you could make some kind of sustainability case for it where staff who hate the cost of shuffling off doing a trash run every night might instead produce less waste. I'm not sure I believe it. But I am pretty sure they were able to cut the costs of building cleaning because of the policy change. At a minute per room for unlocking, collection, and relocking... well, it adds up. So there's often a margin, even where we don't expect there to be one.


  1. "His research suggests that a wage rise can actually pay for itself by raising productivity through motivating workers to work harder and stay in their jobs"

    But if this is true why haven't firms done it already? If firms really can increase productivity enough to pay for a wage increase then isn't it profit maximising for them to do so? The fact that firms haven't would suggest they don't believe productivity will increase enough.

    "I choose to take it as a compliment that Collins seems to have assumed that I'm Kiwi"

    A Kiwi may be, but a "right-wing" one and you're not "renowned".

  2. Agree with the "why haven't they done it already" bit... and noted as much in the post!