What If Wal-Mart Is Bluffing

My post yesterday afternoon focused on why D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray should veto the living wage bill that the D.C. council passed a few weeks ago. As part of that analysis, I assumed that Wal-Mart will follow through on its threats to scrap plans to build six stores in the region if Gray signs the bill into law. I still believe that assumption is rock solid. As I noted in that article, if Mayor Gray signs the bill and Wal-Mart builds the stores anyways, it will set the precedent for every other city in America to enact similar laws. Wal-Mart could soon be paying a higher minimum wage than all of its competitors. So, I’m fairly confident that my assumption is correct.

But what if it’s not? What if Wal-Mart is bluffing? Should Mayor Gray veto the bill still?

The answer is still yes.

Under this assumption, Wal-Mart builds its stores no matter what, except in one scenario, it is paying significantly higher wages to its employees. In the current economy with unemployment high, the new stores would add 1,800 much-needed jobs to the District. Since we’re still not at full employment, the new jobs won’t impact wages for other firms in the area. That means Wal-Mart would be paying its workers at least $12.50 an hour while competing firms can pay them just $8.25/hour. The companies would be competing in the same market but forced to face different prices for labor. This gives smaller stores a big advantage over the giant retailer. Less efficient shops can compete with Wal-Mart thanks purely to favorable city policies.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray should veto the living wage bill.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.

As we slowly get back to full employment, the living wage bill would start to affect other firms’ wages. At full employment, workers have more bargaining power and would want to work for Wal-Mart with its higher pay. This would force competing firms to increase their own wages to stay competitive in the labor market. When there isn’t excess supply of labor (as there is now), workers have more bargaining power. And when one firm is forced to offer wages at a 50% premium, workers have a lot more bargaining power.

This is fundamentally against free markets.

Wal-Mart would undoubtedly pass on some of the increased labor costs to consumers in the form of higher prices in the D.C. area. The same would be true at competing stores when they eventually face higher labor costs themselves. The 1,800 Wal-Mart employees would all earn more at the expense of consumers. And the market would still be distorted: Wal-Mart would still be paying higher labor costs and less efficient firms will be able to compete with it.

If the city believes that Wal-Mart’s entrance into the region will cause negative side effects (externalities) to occur, it can levy a tax against the firm and distribute the revenue to compensate those harmed. But distorting the labor market is not a smart way to correct the externality. The living wage bill does not compensate those who are harmed by Wal-Mart’s arrival, but instead helps the new employees of the company.

I also noted in yesterday’s article that D.C. council member Vincent Orange argued that Wal-Mart’s low wages forced the city to pay more in social services. But the same is true of any other minimum wage job in the area. If minimum wage jobs at Wal-Mart increase the amount D.C. pays in SNAP benefits (for instance), then every other minimum wage job does so as well. If the  council member is looking to help the city’s finances by enabling people to rely less on the government, it should raise the minimum wage for everyone. Doing so for Wal-Mart hurts the company, but doesn’t address the underlying problem.

So, no matter whether Mayor Gray believes Wal-Mart is bluffing or not, he should veto the bill.

It simply doesn’t make sense to sign it.


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