The Minimum Wage and Land Rent
|May 18, 2014||Posted by Fred Foldvary under Editorials|
The debates on raising the minimum wage have ignored one important consequence: the effect on land rent. I illustrate the relationship between a raise in wages and land rent with a quantitative model.
Suppose there is a factory that produces dried papayas. The firm pays all workers the market wage of $10 per hour. There are 10 workers, and the “marginal product” of the 10th worker, i.e. the extra output added by that worker, is 10 units. The marginal product of the 11th worker is only 4 units. The 9th worker added 12 units The 8th worker added 14 units. If we add up the value added per hour by each worker, we get 10 + 12 + 14 + 16 + 18 + 20 + 22 + 24 + 26 + 28 = 190 units. The dried papayas sell for $1 each, so the sales per hour equal $190. The total wage per hour is 10 times $10 = $100.
The owners invested the equivalent of $400 per hour in the business, and seek a return of ten percent, or $40 per hour, which they withdraw from revenue. $190 – $100 – $40 leaves a surplus of $50. Where does it go? It is the rent charged by the landlord per hour for the work space.
Now impose a minimum wage which raises the wage rate to $12. The last worker hired produces only $10 worth, so he is fired. That last worker had the same skill as all the others, but one worker has to be fired so that the marginal product of labor is raised to $12. Total wages now equal 9 times $12 = $108. The total value sold is now 180 units, for sales of $180. After subtracting $108 for labor and $50 for rent, there remains $22 for the hourly return on investment, a return of only 5.5 percent.
Now there are four possible alternatives. First, the owners can get a return of 10 percent elsewhere, so they shut down the business. Second, the owners can offer to renegotiate the rent paid to the landlord. Third, the owners can raise the price of the product. Fourth, the owners can reduce their labor costs by substituting more machines, if possible.
If the firm competes in a global market, the third option is not possible; the owners cannot raise the price. So they negotiate with the landowner. If the owners kept their return at $40, the surplus becomes $180 – $108 – $40 = $32. The landlord replies that their assets are less productive, generating sales of $180 rather than $190, so a new firm would have capital goods of 18/19 of $400, for $379. A ten percent return is $38. Therefore the rent surplus is $180 – $108 – $38 = $34. The owners accept this as the new hourly rent. Much of the increase in the hourly wage has been at the expense of less commercial land rent. That is how the firm can stay in business while paying the higher wage.
The total purchasing power is now $108 in wages, $38 in capital yields, and $34 in land rent, for a total of $180. So the income is sufficient to buy back the product.
Now let us go back to the workers. The worker who is fired is now on government welfare, and the nine working at $12 per hour get taxed $1 per hour to generate $9 for food and housing subsidies for the former worker. The housing landlords realize that they can raise the rents by $1 per hour of labor, since the workers could afford to live their prior to the increase in the minimum wage. The higher taxes and rent eat up all the wage increase.
Thus the housing landlords gain $10 per hour of rent paid by the nine workers plus the laid-off former worker. This raises their total rent to $44, offsetting some of the loss of the commercial rent paid by the firm.
If the firms implement option 3 and raise the prices of their products, the workers are now worse off than before, after paying more for goods plus higher taxes and higher rent.
In effect, a minimum wage is a tax on the employers of low-wage workers. It is economic folly to concentrate the minimum-wage tax on employers. If the people wish to raise the lowest wages, a better tool is to widen and raise the earned income tax credit. The reduction of taxes on low-income workers would be paid for by raising taxes on everyone else.
But the best solution of all to the problem of poverty is to do what the American economist Henry George proposed: to abolish all taxes on earned income, and shift to public revenues from land rent. That shift would increase both employment and wages.
When the minimum wage is raised, people only see the superficial appearance of some workers getting a bigger paycheck. What is not so visible is the reduction of land rent in commercial real estate, and the increase in the rent of residential real estate, especially as it occurs over time. The reduction of rent is often relative rather than absolute, as rents rise but not by as much as they would if enterprises were more profitable. And people do not connect the rise in residential rent to the general increase in low-income wages.
The original problem is in not allowing the market to work. Wages are artificially reduced by taxation, while land values are raised by subsidies. If higher minimum wages are mostly at the expense of commercial rent, and end up being eaten by higher residential rent, it is simpler and more effective to directly tap the land rent for public revenue while eliminating taxes on wages.