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Remember, the real minimum wage is zero, and state-imposed unemployment is not justice. In the private economy, wages rise with productivity, and that’s true across workers at any point in time, for workers over time, and for workers in different industries over time. Don’t think so? Contrary to the blithe pronouncements of Barack Obama and reports by the union-backed Economic Policy Institute (EPI), there has been no divergence in productivity and pay since the early 1970s. This is shown convincingly by James Sherk in “Workers’ Compensation: Growing Along With Productivity“. Sherk’s work shows that hourly productivity increased by 81% since 1973, while average employee compensation increased 78%. In contrast, the EPI has claimed that productivity grew 91% since 1973, but  employee compensation grew just 10%.

How did the EPI (and Obama) reach such a faulty conclusion? Sherk breaks the error into three major parts: 1) comparing the pay of a subset of workers to the productivity of all workers; 2) excluding the pay growth of the self-employed; and 3) inconsistent adjustments of pay and productivity for inflation.

The link between wages and productivity is immutable in a market economy. The state can attempt to short-circuit the relationship, but such intervention comes at the cost of dislocations in resource utilization and damage to well-being. Veronique de Rugy discusses Sherk’s findings and emphasizes the folly in thinking that the government can somehow divorce the pay of workers from their underlying contribution to the value of output:

One of the assets of the American economic model is a relatively flexible labor market, especially when compared with labor markets in many European countries. It explains some of the consistently lower U.S. unemployment rates and higher economic growth. Unfortunately, this flexibility is increasingly threatened by government policies that would increase the cost of employing workers.

Populists and statists share some destructive tendencies, such as a fixation on increasing the cost of labor to employers. The current debate over a “living wage” of $15 per hour involves more than doubling the minimum wage in many parts of the country. This is so far out of line with the productivity of low-skilled workers as to make absurd claims that it won’t have a serious impact on their employment. There are employers who won’t be able to survive under those circumstances. There are others who will have to scale back operations. Employers having access to capital in industries such as car washes and fast food know that automation is more than viable as a substitute for low-skilled labor. And new labor-saving innovations are inevitable when creative entrepreneurs are confronted with an obstacle like high-cost labor: necessity is the mother of invention. But premature automation is not an obvious consequence to living-wage advocates. And that’s to say nothing of the futures destroyed when low-skilled workers are denied opportunities for work experience.

The connection between wages and productivity is part of a well-functioning economy and it is just as alive and well in today’s economy as ever. The “right” wage cannot be determined by central planners, bureaucrats or legislators apart from productive reality, and the adverse consequences of their attempts to do so cannot be wished away. Only markets that price the real value of productive contributions can put resources such as low-skilled labor to their best use, avoiding the waste inherent in regulation that is always ignorant of dynamic preferences and resource availability.