David R. Henderson  

Up From Poverty

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"Up From Poverty" is the title of my review [scroll down to page 12] of Walter Williams's book, Up From the Projects: an Autobiography. Why do I review an autobiography in a publication titled Regulation? Here's why:

When economists want to discuss the damage done by the minimum wage, for example, we tend to cite studies that show that an x percent increase in the minimum wage led to a y percent drop in the number of jobs held by youths. But another way to understand the damage is to view the experience of one particular person who was not bound by the minimum wage and to see the benefits he reaped. Williams' book tells of how he was able to jump from job to job in the early years of the minimum wage when it was less constraining than it is now. In each job, he learned something that made him more productive and eventually led him to become a wealthy economist.

I lay out the fact that although there was a minimum wage when Williams was a kid, it wasn't binding on him: he was generally paid somewhat more than the minimum. I also tell his story of how one of his employers fired him, not because he wasn't a good worker but because another employee complained to the government about child labor. I continue:
The child labor laws didn't stop Williams, though. He lists a number of jobs he had while still very young, most of which would be hard to enforce child labor laws against: caddying at a golf club, picking blueberries in New Jersey, peddling fruits and vegetables in North Philadelphia, shoveling snow from residential and business sidewalks, and collecting and returning bottles to claim the deposit. (While reading this list, I felt nostalgic. If you substitute "crab apples in Manitoba" for "blueberries in New Jersey," I did four of the five jobs when I was about the same age.)


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CATEGORIES: Labor Market , Regulation



COMMENTS (5 to date)
Doug writes:

The left wants to crush any work ethic, desire for economic self-sufficiency or pride of accomplishment in the lower classes. Using a combination of labor regulations, minimum wage, unions, child labor rules, and taxes the left has driven lower class labor force participation to unprecedented lows.

This is combined with heavy welfare benefits (with very high implicit marginal tax rates to discourage work). Of course all of this is funded by the upper classes, who are continually encouraged to work (at very high marginal tax rates) to fund the welfare state. No one complains about the labor abuse of investment bankers or surgeons who have to work 80 hours a week...

Thus an in built constituency for socialism is built, while maintaining some semblance of productive capitalism at the top. This allows the middle men in the system: overpaid government workers, leftist politicians, progressive academics and journalists, community activists and civil rights pimps to extract a very healthy vig for themselves.

Eric Evans writes:

I'm glad you appreciated Williams' autobiography as much as I did. It was truly an amazing read for me, but then his reading is as simple and pleasurable on the eyes as can be. I thought of the incident where he baffled a group of university socialists by mentioning the coincidental benefits of slavery, after hearing about Michael Johnson's comments, which seemed to be in a similar vein.

JimS writes:

I wonder if regulation on child labor is why we no longer have paper boys. I got a route when I turned 11, the youngest age you could get a Detroit Free Press route at the time and kept it until I turned sixteen, and could get a better job flipping burgers at McDonalds. Today, all the papers are delivered by adults leaving babysitting as probably the only way for middle school age kids to earn spending money year round.

liberty writes:

It seems to me that sometimes when free market individualists swoon over the benefits of gaining a work ethic, including having many jobs when young and learning from each low paid low-skill job until one can become a wealthy, "success" in later life, it isn't so different from when communists speak of the great benefits of learning about how to be a great collectivist, starting out as a Young Pioneer in childhood, learning about the party values...

...whatever happened to climbing trees and having a real, adventurous, creative childhood?

I'm not arguing for child labor laws or a minimum wage - just musing.

Greg Jaxon writes:

@liberty: Yup; swooning covers a multitude of sins.

The educational effects of early employment center on mobilizing oneself as an economic actor. What are "great young collectivists" taught?

Is it even possible to inculcate "party values" without learning how to pursue "value"? Even collectivists have to act as individuals in the process of forming their proletariat mob every morning and keeping it going through a busy day of liberating and distributing the scarce resources of the (scarcer and scarcer) bourgeoisie.

My childhood became much more creative once I could afford the supplies ;-)

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