The $24 An Hour Minimum Wage

The push for a $15 an hour minimum wage has developed considerable political momentum over the last decade. It is a very real possibility that we will see legislation imposing a national minimum wage of $15 an hour by 2024 if Joe Biden wins the election this fall.

That would be a great thing, it would mean a large increase in pay for tens of millions of workers, but it is still very modest compared to what the minimum wage would be if it had kept pace with productivity growth. As is often mentioned, the purchasing power of the minimum wage hit its peak in 1968, at roughly $12 an hour in today’s dollars. However, productivity (output per hour work) has more than doubled over the last 52 years.[1]

This means that if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity growth it would be over $24 an hour today. Furthermore, if we go out four years to 2024, and we see normal inflation and productivity growth, a productivity adjusted minimum wage in that year would be almost $27 an hour, nearly twice the $15 an hour target.

The idea that the minimum wage would keep pace with productivity should not seem far-fetched. It actually did follow productivity growth fairly closely in the first three decades in which we had a national minimum wage, from 1938 to 1968. This did not lead to soaring unemployment. In 1968 the unemployment rate averaged 3.5 percent. So, the idea that the minimum wage track productivity growth should not be far-fetched.

Nonetheless, I would not advocate a $27 an hour minimum wage for 2024 or even phased in over a longer period of time. The reason is that we have restructured the economy in ways that it likely could not support a $24 an hour minimum wage in 2020. Raising the minimum wage to this level would almost certainly result in spiraling inflation.

We would then have to take steps to counter this inflation, such as interest rate hikes by the Fed or tax increases by the federal government. The result would be higher unemployment, and quite possibly a situation that left workers in the middle and bottom worse off than if we left the minimum wage at its current level. The key to allowing workers at the middle and bottom to get their fair share of the economic pay is to reverse the policies that redistributed so much income upward.

Reversing Upward Redistribution

I realize I must sound like a broken record on this stuff to regular readers, but the point is important. If workers at the middle and bottom are going to have more, people at the top have to get less. This is straightforward. If we could tell a story whereby the high pay for those at the top leads to more rapid economic growth so that their higher pay in effect paid for itself, then cutting pay for those at the top would not be freeing up resources for the middle and bottom. But this is not the case. By every measure, productivity growth has been slower in the period of inequality (from 1979 onward) then it was in the period of equally distributed growth, from 1947 to 1973. While it may not be the case that growing inequality is the reason for slower growth, it takes quite an imagination to claim that it led to faster growth.

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