A False Economy of Minimums

stack of money

Value of money

I saw another post on raising the minimum wage, and thought, I could either ignore it or take the time to explain what it means in a larger sense. (see the background article thru this link)

I think it’s necessary for each of us take a moment, if this topic is of interest, and understand some common ground.

Generally speaking, there are some things which we may find in agreement.

1 – Minimum wage isn’t a comfortable wage. It means living without a lot of things we’ve come to expect, such as a comfortable, safe place to live, decent food, heat, lights, transportation. A person can eek out a living, maybe better if shared with other family members or reliable wage earning roommates, but it’s still a constant challenge to live on a minimum wage.

2 – Minimum wage shouldn’t be something permanent. It’s usually considered a starting point for entry-level jobs requiring a minimum of skill. For some, it means just showing up and doing the minimum to keep the job. That’s the problem though, if a worker does only the minimum so they don’t get fired, but doesn’t take on added tasks which enhance their abilities / skills, they may end up staying at that level for most of their working life. A government may change it, but it’s always a poor income.

Ancient Egyptian literature - Horus

Money = trade substitute

Basic concepts of money

Money is merely a modern form of trade. In the past people would trade commodities which they valued against something the needed or wanted. The simple examples; you trapped fur-bearing animals for a living, you would trade their pelts for something you thought was valuable, like wheat, sugar or tobacco. Now don’t get lost on the morality of trapping animals, it’s merely a discussion point.

As societies developed, the need to find a useful substitute for trade spawned the need for coins and later currency. Instead of trading sacks of flour, animals, or pelts, people began to equate a specified amount of currency for each item. If you didn’t make, grow, or trap something, but provided a service / labor, currency became an easier way of setting a value for that time.

Here’s where people, who desire things to be altered to their way of thinking, misunderstand the concept of a minimum wage. Minimum wage is just as arbitrary of a concept as the value of a large polished diamond. We can say, a diamond shouldn’t cost that much, and a minimum wage should be a lot more. In the end, setting a price through a government law, doesn’t really alter it. Diamonds will still cost a lot, and minimum skills will earn a minimum wage. It’s a perceived value of each commodity.

If you raise the minimum wage through federal law, everything will start to adjust based on the perceived value. Review the history of the minimum wage from 1955 – 2015.

Let’s look at these items in 1950
The average family income: $3,300
The average car cost: $1,510
The median home price: $7,354
A standard American car could be purchased within a range of $1,339 to $2,262 depending on the model.

Home price / income = 2.2
Car cost / income = .45

Fast forward to 2014
The average family income: $51,017
The average car cost: $31,252
The median home price: $188,900

Home price / income = 3.7
Car cost / income = .61

Without trying to accommodate all the tuition ranges for an elite college, lets take a look at the University of Pennsylvania for undergraduate programs comparing 1950 to 2013-2014

In 1950, the annual tuition was ~ $600
In 2014 it was > $40,000 per year.

1950 Tuition / income = .18
2014 Tuition / income = .79

This upward trend was due to people demanding more for the same things. I’ve read many articles describing how much better the minimum wage was in 1950 or ‘60 vs. its earning power today, but all of these editorialized explanations fail to understand consumer fundamentals, we want more income & lower prices for goods & services. Inflation has increased the cost but our arbitrary demands haven’t changed economic realities. We pushed for cheaper goods at our local retailer, which was answered with offshore manufacturing. We want higher minimum wage, but the market adjusts, and everything costs more, while fewer people are in the work force.

An attorney may charge $350 to $1000 per hour. You or I didn’t set that price, however people are paying it. A server at a fast food restaurant may get minimum wage, but we we don’t want to pay $10 to $12 for an order of fries. Things will adjust based on how much we’re willing to pay, but in the end, it’s not that we’re really getting more, it’s all adjustable prices associated with commodities or services.

No matter what people pay for minimum wage, all other prices adjust, too. Inflationary costs rise disproportionately, as a result the low wage earner is back to the same problem, inadequate income for the cost of living. Worse still, retirees are really hurt because their fixed incomes and savings don’t adjust, and they become even more impoverished with rising prices.

What’s the solution? The solution for many is the same formula that I and millions of other discovered decades ago, minimum wage isn’t enough. You must learn skills that place you in a higher income bracket. Even many college graduates learned the hard way, a bachelor’s degree in history, art, or social science, may cost about the same as engineering or business, but the income ranges are quite different.

gold bullion

Our value is in what we do

The best choice, and the one that provides greater value to any person who wants to earn more, don’t wait on the government to provide a better standard of living. The marketplace will automatically change prices with a rise in minimums. Choose your options which provide a higher income. This is something you can control, not the government.