President Obama visited a CostCo today to champion the wages they pay their workers and boost support for increasing the minimum wage. Other businesses should follow suit, he said, as a higher wage “helps build a strong workforce and profitability over the long run.” And he's right: the main motivation for CostCo's wages is because it builds employee loyalty. Henry Ford knew this well. One hundred years ago he offered twice as much as other employers which led to boosted productivity and low turnover. But that logic does not translate to the larger economy. To use it as a justification for increasing the minimum wage is completely backwards.
Economists call the strategy an "efficiency wage." It's a wage purposely set above the market wage so they improve the pool of job candidates, retain good workers, and encourage productivity. Because it's above market wage, this high wage will attract the best workers. Because it will be hard to find a comparable wage elsewhere, they are less likely to quit and more likely to work hard.
But if everyone has a higher wage, many of these benefits disappear. It becomes an expectation, not a perk, and because everyone offers it, fewer workers will be particularly motivated by it.
If politicians think companies should embrace raising the minimum wage because it will increase their profits then they should remember that these companies don't need government permission to increase them. If they're not doing it on their own, one can only conclude it's not the free lunch the President is telling us.