AEI Professor Mark Perry Can’t Tell the Difference Between a Human Being and Ground Beef

AEI economist Professor Mark Perry has a lot of issues. First of all, he was busted last week for data manipulation, which is pretty much unforgivable in his line of work. But yesterday, he committed another unforced error: he published a blog post comparing human beings to ground beef. Well, technically, he quoted another economist comparing human beings to ground beef, but Perry enthusiastically ran with the analogy. Here’s the passage, which Perry employed in opposition to raising the minimum wage:

soylentgreenEconomist Walter E. Williams has used the following example to illustrate the competition described above between unskilled and skilled workers by looking at the market for different qualities of beef. Suppose that hamburger sells for $4 per pound and sirloin steak sells for $8 per pound. Hamburger is a much lower quality variety of beef compared to sirloin steak, but can attract a significant number of buyers who choose hamburger over the higher quality option for the 50% savings in price. Likewise, many employers may choose lower quality, unskilled workers over higher skilled employees for the significant savings in labor costs.

But now suppose the government imposes a “$8 per pound minimum beef price law.” In that case, most shoppers who buy beef will then purchase more sirloin steak and less hamburger because the lower quality meat has lost it main weapon to successfully compete against higher quality sirloin steak – a significantly lower price that compensates for the lower quality. Result? Hamburger sales will suffer due to the “minimum beef price law” and sirloin steak sales will increase. Just like in the labor market, a $15 an hour minimum wage will remove the most effective weapon that unskilled workers currently have to compete against skilled workers – the ability to work for a lower wage. Result? Employment opportunities for unskilled and limited-experience workers will contract, while employment opportunities for skilled workers will increase.

So first of all, as Goldy proved in his post when conservative not-an-economist Tim Worstall compared people to bananas, labor is not a commodity.  That exact phrase—”labor is not a commodity”—was a traditional union protest chant for decades because employers used to use the labor-as-soybean argument to explain why they couldn’t pay workers more. The analogy is just as faulty now as it was then. Any economic vision that doesn’t provide a nuanced-enough vision to differentiate between labor and commodities is a total waste of time.

 As Goldy explained:

Minimum wage opponents like Worstall insist that the market determines the value of labor. And yet the wage-suppressing evidence of extra-market forces are all around us. Walk into a Sam’s Club and observe cashiers doing the exact same job for $5 an hour less than cashiers at the Costco down the street. The market didn’t set those prices; employers did. Or, look at the history of manufacturing in America, which didn’t broadly generate middle-class wages until collective bargaining forced it to. Supply and demand didn’t build the Great American Middle Class; unions did.

Or, look around your own workplace. You’ll likely find similar people with similar skill sets performing similar jobs but for different wages. Sometimes dramatically different wages. The invisible hand of the market? No. Some people are simply better at negotiating their own wage than others.

So next time you’re about to bite into a Big Mac, Professor Perry, you should ask yourself a couple questions first:

  1. Can this burger negotiate its own salary?
  2. Can this burger purchase the services that its own employer provides?

If the answer to either one of those questions is “yes,” you’d better watch out, Professor Perry, because you’re about to eat a human being, not a hamburger!

Here’s another piece of advice for trickle downers like Worstall and Perry: even if comparing human beings to food was a legitimate tactic—which, again, it isn’t—comparing human beings to food is an incredibly dumb rhetorical position, especially when you’re arguing that poor people make too much money. You’re veering into Jonathan Swift territory when you compare low-wage workers to cheap food that is created on an assembly line; it’s like a blend of “A Modest Proposal” and Soylent Green. This is about the most reprehensible, condescending stance you can take. If this is the best argument you can summon, you should probably give up now.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.