Alternate Assumption: The impact of unintended effects is frequently greater than the impact of the intended effect.
Let’s say we run a store. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say we have ten customers who each spend $1,000 per month for total sales of $10,000 per month. We set a goal of increasing sales by 10%. To do this, we raise prices by 10%. We expect that we will now have $11,000 in sales each month.
After we increase our prices nine out of the ten customers decides to shop with us as always, but one customer balks at our price increase and chooses to shop at a different store. Now nine customers spend $1,100 per month for total sales of $9,900/month. Instead of increasing our sales, we have decreased them.
The unintended effect exceeded the intended effect. Most people intuitively understand that you can’t just raise prices without losing customers. Typically, however, the unintended effects aren’t immediately obvious.
New York City had a problem. Rents were rising and elderly people could no longer afford to stay in their apartments. People were moved by the plight of elderly people being forced to leave their homes, and so they instituted rent control which limited how much landlords could increase rent on their tenants. This solved the problem of high rent increases forcing out the elderly, but what were the unintended effects? These included:
- There was a major housing shortage in New York City causing rents for new residents to skyrocket.
- As people age and their children move out, they need less room. Typically people would move to a smaller apartment to save money. After rent control, renting a new smaller apartment costed more than staying in the rent controlled apartment, so people stayed in apartments that were bigger than they needed. The unavailability of the large apartments forced young families into higher priced, smaller apartments.
- Landlords would often not perform proper maintenance on their apartments. The normal incentive is to keep your existing tenants happy as it is more costly to find a new tenant than to keep collecting checks from the old tenant. Under rent control, however, if the old tenant moved out the landlord could rent the apartment for much more to a new tenant so landlords were rewarded for performing shoddy maintenance,
Rent control had an intended effect that was good but it also had unintended effects that were bad. With some thought, the negative affects were fairly predictable. One just needs to look at what behaviors are being rewarded and what behaviors are being punished. You will get more of what you reward and less of what you punish. The people who pushed rent control didn’t do that, however. They wanted to stop elderly people from being evicted. If you opposed rent control, that meant you wanted elderly people to be evicted.
Right now there is a current push to substantially increase the minimum wage. There are proposals before Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.10. Fast food workers have been protesting demanding a $15 minimum wage. The argument is that if people work full-time, they should be able to earn a “living wage”, enough to pay rent and food and other basic necessary expenses. This certainly appears to be a reasonable argument. If the minimum wage increases, it will certainly achieve the intended effect where people who work for the minimum wage will get paid more.
What, however, are the unintended effects of increasing minimum wage? Employers now have an increased cost and they need to do something about it. What are their choices?
- They can absorb all of the costs and reduce profits. Some employers can and would do this. This is certainly what many who are pushing for the minimum wage increase are expecting. In some cases the profits aren’t large enough to cover this cost and the employer would be forced out of business. Also, if the profitability of a business decreases, it decreases the incentive for people to open new businesses and stops new jobs from being created. We will never know how many businesses aren’t even started because they are no longer perceived to be profitable.
- They can pass on the increased costs to consumers. This will cause everybody’s prices to rise. This is not a good thing. Some consumers will reject the price increases and shop elsewhere causing a loss of sales, profits, and eventually jobs.
- They can hire less people, reducing jobs. There might be one less person behind the counter and you will wait a little longer for your fast food.
- They can replace people with machines. The burger flipping machine might seem to expensive at an $8.25 minimum wage but attractive at a $10.10 minimum wage.
As a result, raising the minimum wage would cause a drop in minimum wage jobs. One can debate over how large that would be, but there would definitely be a drop. Also, many people who make minimum wage are teenagers who live at home. These teenagers do not need a living wage. They want to help their families or earn extra pocket money. Most importantly, the minimum wage job is the first rung on the ladder of a career. The minimum wage job for most is where you get initial experience, prove yourself, and work your way to a higher paying job. If the minimum wage job isn’t there, the teenager never gets to step on that first rung of the ladder and may never go any higher.
One could conceivably account for that by passing a higher minimum wage for adults than for teenagers. In this case, you are now favoring the hiring of teenagers over adults, so you are hurting the adults who need the job to survive and helping teenagers gain extra pocket money.
In short, we have a trade off. The intended effect is that minimum wage workers make more money. The unintended effect is that some businesses go out of business, other businesses never open, inflation rises, unemployment rises, and some young people never get their career started.
I personally think that the unintended negative effect is greater than the intended positive effect, This is debatable. The big problem though is that there is often no debate. This is because of Bad Assumption #2: The intended effect is the only affect. If you oppose the minimum wage increase, you don’t want people to earn a living wage. You must be mean. (See Bad Assumption #1.)
While I focused here on my examples of rent control and the minimum wage, this bad assumption is pernicious and can be seen in an endless number of policies that on the surface do good but below the surface do a lot of harm. It is easy to make this awful assumption. We need to recognize it and fight against it.