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Minimum Wages, Monopsony and Towns

Alan Manning has a very good articlein Foreign Affairs about minimum wages. The impact of minimum wages on employment is a politically charged issue in economics, and so is similar in that sense to most of macro. With minimum wages, the battlefield is empirical. I often think of this battle when people accuse mainstream economics as being hopelessly neoliberal: it was mainstream economists (David Card and Alan Krueger) who first showed that the data did not conform to what Manning describes as Econ 101 economics, and other mainstream economists who have continued to find this result.

I think two conclusions can be drawn from the many studies that followed Card and Krueger. First, empirical work clearly shows plenty of examples where imposing or increasing minimum wages did not reduce employment. However few would argue that result will hold in all situations for all levels of the minimum wage. That is why, before George Osborne raised it, the UK minimum wage level was set by the Low Pay Commission, who tried to assess these issues. Perhapsthe Commission became too cautious, but no doubt we will see more studies on the Osborne increase in due course.In my view another key issue future studies should address is whether increasing nominal wages has any impact on productivity.

Manning also makes a point about the limitations of minimum wages as a tool to deal with poverty. He points out that as “an hourly rate, the minimum wage on its own reveals little about the household income of those who earn it.” He suggests that minimum wages work well alongside earned income tax credits. Minimum wages can help prevent employers capturing part of tax credits by cutting wages in the knowledge that the state would make up the difference.

There are two main reasons why Econ 101 (first year undergraduate) economics gives the wrong answer on minimum wages: search and monopsony. Take search first. In the Econ 101 world no one celebrates getting a new job or worries about losing an existing one. One reason most people do both is search: it takes time and effort to find a new job. Equally it costs the firm money to recruit new people. That creates a zone around the Econ 101 wage within which variations in wages would not lead to job losses or people leaving. Where the actual wage is within that zone will depend on bargaining power between the worker and firm.

Monopsony is the situation where alternative employment opportunities for workers are scarce, which gives the firm the power to set wages below the perfectly competitive level of the standard Econ 101 model. (There is an element of search here too: the costs of moving location. These are much larger than the costs of looking for a job in your own area, particularly for families.) The classic example of monopsony is the town where there is just one major employer.

I suspect many labour economists regard monopsony in the labour market as something of a special case. That perception may need updating, argues Marshall Steinbaum here, drawing on recent work by him and coauthors for the US. They find “that most labor markets (as defined by occupation and geography) are very concentrated [few firms], and that this concentration has a robust negative impact on posted wages for job openings.” That is exactly what you would expect from monopsony: the fewer firms there are in a location, the less often vacancies occur, so the less these firms when suppressing wages have to worry that workers will quit.

The article considers a number of policy implications stemming from widespread monopsony that are worth reading. This could include, in the UK, improving rail communications into cities besidesLondon. The one directly relevant to this post is that these results may help explain why minimum wages do not reduce employment. In the absence of minimum wages, relatively poorly performing firms may be able to shift the impact of poor performance from profits to wages. The minimum wage stops that happening. 

If monopsony is prevalent in large towns but not big cities, I couldn't help wondering if this might have something to do with the difference between towns and cities in the Brexit vote I mentioned in my last post. Support for Trump is also strong in the rural parts of the US, which is where Steinbaum et al find monopsony is prevalent. What this monopsony study suggests is that working conditions within firms are likely to be worse in towns than in cities. What impact might that have on voters? One response to worker exploitation in towns is for people to leave, as they do. For those who stay, an overriding concern might be the survival of firms within the town. This in turn could have an important impact on voter attitudes.  

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