THE BLOG
01/25/2016 02:43 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2017

Think a $15 Minimum Wage is Too High? Think Again.

At the end of 2015, the New York Times Editorial Board endorsed a $15 federal minimum wage. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' proposal would phase in $15 an hour in small increments over a period of several years and would still, as the Times mentions, set a wage floor in 2020 below what most low-wage workers need to provide for their families. Yet Slate's Jordan Weissmann believes that "the argument in favor of a $15 federal minimum is...extremely weak," and that the endorsement is "emblematic of a progressive movement that has fixated on a much higher minimum as the answer to the problem of low-wage work while refusing to grapple with the potential downsides."

Weissmann supports a federal minimum wage above $10 an hour and possibly in the $12 an hour range; like Alan Krueger, one of the economists who authored some of the landmark research on the minimum wage, his argument against $15 surely comes from a good place. His assertions are substantively wrong, however; proponents of a $15 federal minimum have grappled with the points he makes and have decided that the case for a $15 federal minimum is actually much stronger than Weissmann's.

The crux of Weissmann's argument is that, "if the government forces wages too high, businesses will eventually cut back on hiring." $15 would be "too high," he argues, because it is higher than "historical and international norms."

Weissmann is correct to note that a $15 minimum wage would affect a larger share of low-wage workers in Little Rock, Arkansas than in Seattle, Washington, where a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour is already being phased in. He is also correct to note that the research literature on the minimum wage largely speaks to moderate increases in the minimum wage, not to what might happen if it were increased to $15 an hour. Proponents of a $15 minimum wage know these facts; they just don't agree that they're disqualifying.

The thing is, opponents of the minimum wage have been claiming for years, based on flawed but standard economic theory, that the mere existence of a minimum wage will kill jobs. A huge body of research over the past twenty years has shown that these arguments are wrong: most studies suggest that the minimum wage has negligible effects on employment, and while there are credible studies that find small negative employment effects, there are also alternative theories out there, and a few findings to back them up, about why a higher minimum wage could, in some cases, actually lead to more employment. Not having research about what would happen at $15 does not mean that it would cost jobs - it just means that, if we go to that level, we can't be certain that the minimum wage's opponents will continue to be so wrong about its effects on the job market.

Whether you think $15 will pose an employment problem is thus a matter of conjecture. Weissmann is entitled to his beliefs, but it's worth highlighting that a) the proposed increase is phased in in increments, giving businesses time to adjust, b) corporate profits are near all-time highs (as is executive compensation), suggesting that most businesses that employ low-wage workers can easily absorb the labor costs (one recent analysis of the fast food industry even suggests that firms could absorb a $15 minimum wage without a reduction in profits), c) Weissmann's arguments mirror those of the minimum-wage-increase naysayers who have repeatedly been wrong, d) Weissmann's summary of the evidence from Puerto Rico is woefully incomplete; a more thorough look does not actually support his case, e) even if there is a reduction in aggregate work hours for low-wage workers, which many economists believe to be a more appropriate concern than actual job loss, workers with fewer hours may still see their annual earnings rise because of the higher minimum wage, and f) even economists, who typically lean towards embracing standard but flawed supply-and-demand theory, have split opinions on what might happen under a gradually phased-in $15 federal minimum.

The fact that a $15 federal minimum wage would affect more workers in Little Rock, Arkansas than in higher-wage states can also be viewed as an argument in favor of larger increases in the minimum wage - they provide more help to a larger number of low-wage workers who are struggling to get by! As Weissmann himself acknowledges, it takes around $20 an hour for a single parent to raise a child even in states with the lowest costs of living. He gives surprisingly short shrift to the huge risk in not raising the minimum wage high enough: that it will lock in insufficient income support for millions of low-wage workers who desperately need additional money. The fact that the nationwide movement for $15 has been driven by the very workers who would be affected by the policy change suggests strongly that they view the definite downside posed by a lower minimum wage - less compensation for their hard work - as a whole lot scarier than the indefinite possibility that $15 might cause some reductions in employment.

The argument against $15 could theoretically be used to reject every bold new policy proposal that helps people, a fact embodied by a recent anti-Sanders article from Jonathan Chait. Such arguments miss that it's really hard to make progress when you're unwilling to challenge conventional thinking.

In addition, while I applaud Weissmann for his concern about low-wage workers being able to find jobs, advocating against higher wages for millions of people is an odd way to address this concern. The minimum wage does not exist in a vacuum; it is one policy among many that can be used to help low-wage workers. While Weissmann correctly notes that the Earned Income Tax Credit and minimum wage are complementary, he fails to consider whether direct job-creation programs and/or policy that addresses firms' decision-making in response to minimum wage increases could complement the minimum wage as well.

So while Weissmann thinks the New York Times underweights the potential and unknowable risk of heretofore unseen levels of job loss, I believe (along with hundreds of economists) that he underweights the immediate, definite risk of keeping the minimum wage too low. I encourage him and other detractors (like Chait) to, at the very least, start considering policy tools that can mitigate their concerns without depriving low-wage workers of much-needed income.

Correction: This post has been updated to correct the misspelling of Jordan Weissmann's last name.

Note: A version of this article first appeared on 34justice.