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If Wynne believes in carbon pricing, she knows a minimum wage spike is a bad idea
Friday, 9 June 2017 - 10:45am
At first blush, you might think that carbon pricing and minimum wages have nothing to do with each other. You’d be wrong.
Putting a price on carbon is a strategy inspired by an economic way of thinking. The argument is that carbon spewed into the atmosphere creates costs for everyone else, so the people burning the carbon should, in effect, have to pay to clean up the damage. An even more important aspect of the theory behind carbon pricing is the idea that the price of carbon, being too low, encourages people to use more carbon than they would if they were paying its full cost (including cleaning up the environmental damage).
In fact, one of the key arguments for carbon pricing is that raising the cost of carbon will make previously uncompetitive energy sources, like solar and wind, more price-competitive as people respond to higher carbon prices by moving to cheaper alternatives. That’s what such incentives are for: They reward entrepreneurs and innovators who come up with clever ways to do things in a more economical way than before.
Clearly, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne believes in the power of carbon pricing. She is collaborating with other jurisdictions on a so-called “cap and trade” system that will use market mechanisms to generate a higher price for carbon to achieve exactly the effects I’ve listed above. She believes that higher carbon prices will reduce fossil fuel use and reward the use of alternatives.
Ergo, she must believe in the power of prices to alter human behaviour — just as she must believe in one of the most fundamental propositions of economics, that if you raise the price of something, people will buy less of it.
In fact, I would make the case that the most powerful thing prices do is send signals to buyers and sellers about the state of supply and demand.
If the price of something (fuel, clothes, data services) rises, the market is signalling that we should try and reduce our use of those commodities because there wasn’t enough of them to go around at the previous price. On the other hand, falling prices encourage us to buy more. That’s why prices play a powerful co-ordinating role in human activity — because we respond intelligently to the information they’re giving us.
Just as carbon pricing creates incentives for innovators to come up with substitutes for carbon, a higher minimum wage gives incentives to those same innovators to find substitutes for low-wage labour.
So here’s the problem. If Premier Wynne believes in all these things, as she says she does, she cannot simultaneously believe (as she says she does) that putting up the minimum wage by 30 per cent won’t harm those people who work at the minimum wage.
Wages are just the name we give to the price of labour. Anyone who understands the power of prices to affect human behaviour knows that putting up the price of workers at the bottom end of the wage scale will have certain foreseeable consequences — exactly the sort of consequences predicted for putting up the price of carbon.
Seeing that it will be more expensive to hire low wage workers, employers will see a signal that they should reduce their reliance on such workers, especially ones whose productivity will not compensate employers for the wage they must now pay. That means the effects will fall most heavily on the weakest workers, such as those with some kind of productivity-lowering disability or young people with no job experience, or new immigrants with weak language skills.
Then there’s that pesky substitution effect. Just as carbon pricing creates incentives for innovators to come up with substitutes for carbon, a higher minimum wage gives incentives to those same innovators to find substitutes for low-wage labour. Previous minimum wage increases already have hastened this process, which is why those low-wage jobs that used to be so plentiful have been automated out of existence.
When was the last time you dealt with a parking lot attendant or a car washer, let alone an elevator operator? Soon, fast food — which provided a lot of entry-level employment — will be equally heavily automated.
It is these predictable economic effects, falling hardest on those with the fewest employment prospects, that led not one but two Ontario government expert panels to recommend against increasing the minimum wage. The authors of these reports were presumably unimpressed by the arguments of the minimum wage hikers that somehow, magically, people wouldn’t react to putting up the cost of labour in exactly the way the same governments expect them to react to putting up the price of carbon.
The Canadian data even put a number on it: For every ten per cent the minimum wage increases, teenage unemployment will rise three to six per cent.
Premier Wynne can either believe in the power of rising carbon prices or she can think rising minimum wages won’t cut employment. She cannot believe both at once.
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By Brian Lee Crowley. Published on Jun 9, 2017 3:57pm