Author Archives: Tate

How do we get the US government to stop aiding the war on Yemen?

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If you want to know why I think centralized “democracy” is an illusion and calling people in Congress “representatives” is an Orwellian torture of language, the following letter I received from the office of Idaho Senator James Risch provides a great example of why. I wrote a letter to the Senator, asking that the US stop selling weapons to the Saudis, who are creating a horrible humanitarian crisis in Yemen. This is what I got back:

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding military aid to Saudi Arabia.  I really appreciate hearing from you.

Saudi Arabia has been a strong partner of the United States in the Middle East and played an important role in containing Iran.  While the U.S. has provided a lot of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have paid for all of it.  No equipment has been provided as foreign aid.

As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I closely follow Saudi Arabia.  If legislation regarding U.S. assistance to Saudi Arabia comes before the Senate, I will give it full consideration.

Again, I really value your effort to get in touch with me to share your thoughts, as many Idahoans do.  Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future on this or other issues.

Very Truly Yours

James E. Risch
United States Senator

I suppose his office didn’t have the proper canned response for my particular objection, but it’s rather insulting that when I say, “Please stop helping to kill civilians in Yemen,” the response I get is, “Hey, we’re at least making money off the deal.”

Update:

After contacting Risch again, expressing that my concern was about innocent people in Yemen, not foreign aid spending, I got this response:

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding Yemen.  I really appreciate hearing from you.

Over the past decade Yemen has been home to some of the largest terrorist networks in the world at the same time ethnic divisions and a weak government have produced substantial humanitarian suffering.  U.S. policy has tried to help alleviate some of this suffering while helping eliminate terrorism in the country.

As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I very closely monitor what is happening in countries in the Middle East.  If legislation regarding Yemen and the should come before the Senate, I will give it full consideration.

Again, I really value your effort to get in touch with me to share your thoughts, as many Idahoans do.  Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future on this or other issues.

Very Truly Yours

James E. Risch
United States Senator

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British Neoliberals and Consequentialism

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Recently on the Libertarianism.org podcast Free Thoughts, Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute was interviewed about ASI’s embrace of the term “neoliberalism” and how they distinguish it from libertarianism. Here is a portion of what Bowman had to say:

I think what’s fundamental about neoliberalism is that it’s about the world as it is, right now. It doesn’t really mean anything when the left uses it. They just use it to attack anybody that likes markets to any extent. But there’s a real strand of kind of anti- [00:03:30] establishment and anti-status quo thinking in the Libertarian world, which is understandable given that libertarianism is sort of a very radical, very ,very kind of change the world, shake everything up, and have a lot of disorder right now. Which is fine, but for a neoliberal, somebody needs to defend the world as it is right now. The world is very globalized, the world is very free market, compared to lots and lots of potential alternatives. And I think that really since at least 1989, since the fall of the Berlin wall, we had won [00:04:00] the argument until maybe 2015, 2016. Somebody needs to defend the way the world was between 1989 and 2016. And say, look for all of its imperfections, this was the period, where more people were lifted out of poverty than ever before in human history put together. More technological advances were spread to more people than ever before.

The problem for me, or the reason that I thought that Libertarian wasn’t sufficient, or wasn’t that useful, was that Libertarian preoccupations [00:04:30] were so different from where the debate actually was. And where the debate actually is that we were sort of losing the argument and the argument was taking place without us even being involved in it. We were focusing on very interesting things to do with central banking and stuff like that, while the political kind of center of gravity in the UK and in Europe and in the US was to do with trade, was to do with what should this specific monetary policy be, what should we should on labor market reforms. There’s nothing … you know [00:05:00] I see neoliberalism and libertarianism as sort of compliments of each other. They’re different ways of approaching the world and different ways of approaching debate.

(Find the full transcript and full audio here.)

It was good to hear his explanation for why they would choose to self-identify with a term that many leftists use as a catch-all for almost literally anything bad. I guess we’ll see how well that works out for them. As far as how they distinguish themselves from libertarians and why they think their approach is better, I’m unconvinced. Bowman brings up the example of the minimum wage debate: libertarians, by arguing that there should be no minimum wage, essentially disqualify themselves from the debate. Neoliberals, who instead argue simply that the minimum wage should not be increased, make themselves part of the debate. And similar reasoning applies to most other policy debates: arguing for marginal changes makes one’s ideas more relevant. Once they’ve shown me that they’ve had influence on any debate, maybe I’ll take that seriously.

Also part of U.K. neoliberalism, or at least Bowman’s version, is the rejection of non-consequentialist arguments for liberty.

I call myself a bullet-biting consequentialist. I think [the natural rights view is] both untrue and unhelpful. So I [00:43:00] don’t think you have to agree with me. I’m not claiming to speak for all … I don’t even speak for my colleague on this one, but it’s neither true nor is it helpful. And it’s in fact profoundly unhelpful, so it doesn’t matter that much if it’s true. Even if you think it’s true, the fact that it’s very unhelpful should be enough to make you think twice about how you approach it. Certainly unhelpful in the context I’m working in and it might be different in the US.

The fact that it seems like it’s based on a very … and I say brittle, an [00:43:30] easily rejected way of looking at the world, and the fact that it always ends up making an extremely difficult case that seems to most people completely insane. The idea that it’s better for a person to go hungry, than it is for a rich person to have a pound or a dollar taken away from them. That seems like a very strange reductio ad absurdum. But that’s the position if you are a strict natural rightist you need to adopt, right?

What I find interesting about many consequentialists, who believe they are more pragmatic and empirical because of their consequentialism, is that they often don’t look to historical experience to defend their position or attack their opponents. Perhaps my own view of history is a bit myopic, but when I think of episodes starvation on a massive scale, no instances of governments not being able to tax rich people come to mind. Rather, what come to mind are totalitarian regimes that could take everything from rich dissidents as they pleased. How many people starved to death under the Soviet and Chinese communist regimes? Compare that to how many people starved under any system where a government was not empowered to take resources from some and transfer it to others.

My challenge to libertarian, classical liberal, and neoliberal consequentialists who use such arguments to justify state empowerment is to demonstrate how their imaginary ideal state won’t kill more people than their imagined lack of one. Even ‘liberal’ Western democracies kill foreigners by the thousands. They should not be discounted.

A Note on Weddings, Economic Efficiency, and Externalities

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Jason Kuznicki, editor of Cato Unbound, offered the following economic analysis of traditionalists’ refusal to offer their services for same-sex weddings:

Traditionalists, who would like to discriminate against gays and lesbians, should be permitted to do so. It’s not that they’re doing anything noble or even efficient. They are behaving both contemptibly and to some degree inefficiently when they discriminate. (Note that they impose externalities on others, for the sake of a benefit that they alone consume, namely the satisfaction that they take in discriminating. If they could take this satisfaction from some other act, the externality might disappear. They might also be better neighbors.) In a better world, this sort of behavior would not exist. But by the very same token, we should not prohibit it – doing so would also shrink the extended economic order, the one from which we all benefit regardless of belief.

I am unsure what standard of economic efficiency Kuznicki is using in this analysis, because none that I can fathom would consider the behavior of the wedding cake bakers (or whomever) to be inefficient.

There is the concept of Pareto efficiency, which holds under the condition that no one can be made better off without making someone else worse off. In this case, the bakers have demonstrated their preference not to participate; thus, they would be worse off by being forced to participate, resulting in an economic loss. The bakers and the betrothed, failing to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, made no transaction. This is not an indication of inefficiency. Rather, the lack of transaction between the bakers and betrothed is Pareto efficient.

There is the Kaldor-Hicks standard, also known as the compensation principle, which is less stringent. It is usually used in policy analysis in an attempt to determine whether a change in policy would be more efficient. With any policy change, there are typically winners and losers; i.e., some are made better off and some are made worse off. The question from a Kaldor-Hicks view is whether the winners are made so better off that they can compensate the losers so that they are better off than they were prior to the policy change. From a Kaldor-Hicks perspective, the lack of transaction between bakers and betrothed is efficient: in order to compensate the bakers for baking the cake (something which they value less than not baking the cake), the betrothed would have to make them an offer such that they would bake the cake willingly. Since they did not make the offer (presumably because the price would be higher than how much they valued the cake), we see that the efficient outcome was for no deal to be made.

Kuznicki argues that by not engaging in the transaction, the bakers are imposing an externality on the betrothed, but this is not what economists would consider an externality. And it leads to absurdities. That is, any hypothetical transaction that doesn’t occur, under Kuznicki’s conception of externality, would involve an externality. Not only that, the non-transaction would be a mutual externality imposition. The grocery store, by selling beer for a higher price than I am willing to pay, would be imposing an externality on me. By the same token, I would be imposing an externality on them by not offering a high enough price for them to willingly sell me beer. By Kuznicki’s conception, one could just as easily argue that the betrothed imposed an externality on the bakers by not offering them enough money such that they would willingly perform the service. Moreover, even on Kuznicki’s own terms (that the bakers are consuming the benefit of discrimination at the expense of the betrothed), they are not doing so for free – the price they paid to do so is the foregone revenue they could have earned if they had baked the cake, and the “recipients” of that foregone revenue are the betrothed. Thus, even if we were to consider this an example of an externality, it is not inefficient because the betrothed were compensated for it.

Aside

I wanted to share some solutions that worked for me to some different technical problems. Hopefully someone finds them helpful.

Fixing Chrome OS

For some reason I have not yet determined, my Chromebook (an ASUS C300S) came up with an error message telling me that Chrome OS had an error. Following the instructions given by Google, I created a Chrome OS Recovery program on a USB drive. However, when I inserted this into my Chromebook, I received the error message that Chrome OS was not detected on the USB drive. I tried this with 2 different USB drives and got the same result.

At this point, I am told to contact tech support. They ask me to find the error message and tell me to turn the Chromebook on and off 10-15 times. On the ninth cycle, Chrome OS started normally.

Fixing the USB Drives

After installing the Chrome OS Recovery program on my 2 USB drives, Windows wanted to reformat them, which I did. However, these 7.5 GB USB drives then had only 17 MB of space.

I followed the instructions in the following video and it solved the problem:

It took some effort, since I had many partitions to delete. Furthermore, I ran into an error when trying to delete certain partitions: “Cannot delete a protected partition without the force protected parameter set.” To fix this problem, I had to type “delete partition override” (H/T to TechJourney).

Getting rid of “Activate Service” Notification on Android

I have an LG G4 that I use exclusively with wifi and it brought up an annoying notification that I could not get rid of. Most forums said you could simply hold down on the notification and the “App Info” option would eventually appear, allowing you to force stop the app. This, unfortunately, didn’t happen for me. Other options required having root access to your Android system, and this was more effort than I wanted to put in.

A quick fix that worked for this particular problem was putting the phone into airplane mode and restarting it (it actually took a couple of restarts to work). But in airplane mode, the phone will not search for a cellular signal and will ignore the fact that your phone isn’t activated.

Fixing Chrome OS, Fixing Your USB Drive After Trying to Fix Chrome OS, and Getting rid of “Activate Service” Notification on Android

Some Links

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Nick Turse has done some great research on the extent the US military is involved in Africa’s affairs. Apparently no single person in the US Army knows the extent of SOCOM’s operations in Africa.

Glenn Greenwald calls out most of the mainstream media’s unabashed support of Hillary Clinton and shaming anyone who questions her. (He belittles Paul Krugman’s self-perception as someone who is so brave for supporting her).

David Edwards, a math professor, writes a thought-provoking article at FEE, claiming that an 8th grade level of mathematical understanding with knowledge of Excel is adequate for the vast majority of professionals. So why is there so much emphasis placed on higher-level math?

The New Republic’s Case for Orwellian Newspeak

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Elizabeth Bruenig, writing for The New Republic, argues that we all should stop using the word “taxpayer.” Unfortunately, it is difficult to extract a coherent argument anywhere in her article.
She begins by criticizing House Republicans’ budget for FY 2016, stating that it is
…an ideological document meant to advance a particular set of beliefs about how government should function, and toward what end.
This is a strange observation in that it is impossible for a government budget to be value-free. Even if it contained no narrative and only consisted of spreadsheets and figures, it still assumes a proper role of government. Particularly nefarious to Mrs. Bruenig, however, is that it uses the word “taxpayer” or a permutation of this term “24 times, as often as the word ‘people’.”
While “people” designates the broadest possible public as the subject of a political project, “taxpayer” advances a considerably narrower vision—and that’s why we should eliminate it from political rhetoric and punditry.
It’s hard to see how she reaches this conclusion, even when considering the full context of her article. As far as I can tell, she dislikes the fact that the narrower category of “taxpayer” implies that there is a productive class and a parasitic class. Acknowledging reality seems to be problematic, for some reason.
Her primary contention appears to be that taxpayers have no right whatsoever to decide how or on what that money should be spent. She scoffs at the idea that government “expenditures that do not correspond to an individual’s will are some kind of affront,” and argues that,
If money owed in taxes is imagined…to belong to the taxpayer, then programs operating off of public revenue do seem to have some obligation to correspond to their funders’ consent, and serving the interests of others does seem unfair. But these are all obfuscations brought on by the term.
Why? Because taxes are spent on “the public good,” that’s why. In what can only be called hypocrisy or arrogance on the part of Mrs. Bruenig, she, while decrying several types of spending cuts in the House Republican budget, also criticizes their “disturbing gestures toward more military spending.” While she is right to call such gestures disturbing, on what basis is she able to make any statement on the propriety of public spending, if taxpayers themselves, the ones being fleeced to pay for all these wonderful programs, have no right? She continues:
The same laws that determine that money deposited into a person’s bank account belongs to that person also determine that taxes owed on that deposit do not.
In what sense are they “the same laws”? Because they come from the same infallible government? If that’s the case, couldn’t we also say, “The same laws that determine that murder is unlawful also determine that someone who sells marijuana twice should go to prison for more than twice as long as someone who hijacks an airplane?  I really don’t know what point she’s trying to make with this statement.
Public revenue is just that: a pool of public money to be used for the good of the public, not 300 million pools of private money each to be used to serve private individuals’ interests. What is in the interest of the public may involve expenditures that can’t be filed in a pay-in-cash-out formula, as the “taxpayer” terminology would suggest. Kids, for example, usually don’t pay taxes whatsoever, but spending on children is a necessary social function. Our roads and public utilities, too, are available to anyone inside our borders, not because they have been purchased, but because strong infrastructure provides for the common good.
In other words, we can’t do a perfect accounting of benefits received from tax expenditures, therefore “taxpayer” as a category doesn’t exist. Just because you can’t easily determine the distribution of the benefits, how does that imply that we can’t tell who the taxpayers are? She then mixes in a public goods “argument” (which is very difficult to call an argument, since calling something a “necessary social function” or “providing for the common good” does not readily imply that the state should be in full control of serving these functions, the will of the taxpayer be damned). She feels no need to justify the idea that the state shall be able to take whatever resources it wishes from you for whatever purposes it (or Mrs. Bruenig) deems fit, and imprison (or kill) you should you wish to say, “No, I’d rather not.”
But this view [that taxpayers should have some say in where their money goes] is precisely contrary to the democratic vision invoked in historical verbiage like “consent of the governed,” as it mistakes the source of a person’s rights. Our share in democracy arises not from what we can pay into it, but from the fact that we are persons and personhood confers certain obligations and dues.
Here we see Mrs. Bruenig’s Orwellian tendencies come to full fruition. In her mind, “consent of the governed” has nothing to do with what the governed consent to, and prefers not to tell us where a person’s rights come from. (Indeed, it’s not even clear what she considers to be the mistaken view of the source of a person’s rights.) Instead, she asserts the “personhood confers certain obligations and dues.” But what obligations and dues? And why does “personhood” confer them? This is left unanswered.
Mrs. Bruenig says that the slogan “power to the taxpayers!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “power to the people!” (though a more accurate slogan for her own view may as well be “power to the state!”) and that US Constitution doesn’t begin “We the taxpayers” because it “would have been an odd construction for a nation born from a revolt against British taxation.” I imagine that if Mrs. Bruenig had been alive during the American secession from Great Britain, by what she has written, she would have been staunchly in favor of British taxation and against the American colonists, saying, “What? You think you have a grievance in being forced to pay for your own oppression? Shut up and pay your taxes!”
Finally, she writes “So let’s leave ‘taxpayer’ to the IRS and remove it from everyday speech. With every thoughtless repetition of the word, we’re carrying political water.” Does she believe that eliminating the word to describe the people that are robbed by the IRS carries no “political water”? This is truly one of the most incoherent things I have ever read.

Just So We’re Clear…

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…Senate Democrats explicitly want expanded power to disarm law-abiding people. Lots of them. And it’s not hard to see how such power could be used to disarm political dissidents. We are no longer in the territory of “slippery slope” arguments.

What else can we infer from these politicians’ claims that if whatever gun confiscation measure they are currently trying to pass were in effect the Orlando shooting would have been prevented when the FBI had already interviewed the shooter twice and deemed him not to be a threat? Despite my skepticism of the FBI’s ability to perform law enforcement competently, I believe that they are right the vast majority of the time when they consider a suspect not to be a threat. After all, they have to fabricate terrorist plots in order to entrap terror suspects. So how could this legislation proposed by these senators have prevented the Orlando shooter from obtaining a gun (setting aside the issue of the efficacy of legal prohibitions in actually eradicating the availability of the prohibited item)?

The only answer is that it would have to cast a wide net that automatically excludes law-abiding people from owning a gun without any due process, necessarily including a huge number of false positives. How else could such legislation have excluded the Orlando shooter? They would have to define risk factors and make an algorithm to decide who loses their right to carry a firearm that would override decision-making by human beings in the FBI, as this case makes clear.

Furthermore, it does not take much imagination to see how such power could be used to punish/disarm political opponents and dissidents. By designating a “terrorist watch list” and making it so that those on this list are legally unable to own a gun, the federal government can disarm anyone it chooses. Do a web search of the words “Bundy” and “terrorist” and notice how many news outlets accused Cliven Bundy of being a terrorist and that, perhaps more importantly, Senator Harry Reid accused Bundy’s supporters of being terrorists. This stretches the definition of “terrorism” so far as to mean whatever the federal government wants it to mean – that is, anyone showing resistance to the will of the federal government.

Thus, I think it’s unreasonable to discount the fears of those concerned about how far the federal government will reach into people’s gun safes under the ostensible justification of public safety. Ultimately, the politicians have little to lose in terms of their own safety if they are wrong about the effects of civilian disarmament on violence – they are extremely privileged and have armed agents of the state at their beck and call regardless. And, more crucially, the effect of such expanded powers for the federal government is to take away individuals’ ability to protect themselves from the state, as demonstrated in the Bundy case.

A Good Example of the Economic Way of Thinking

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Requiring cars to include more safety features will make people more safe by reducing traffic fatalities, right? Not necessarily. This blog post by Alex Tabarrok explains why not.

Bottom line: there is a trade-off between extra safety features and affordability. At certain levels of income, people will choose more of the latter before they choose more of the former. Taking away the ability to choose the latter may make these individuals choose no car at all and decide to use much more dangerous, but relatively affordable, motorcycles. Thus, regulations that make cars more expensive by requiring people to pay for safety features they would not buy if they were free to choose can make them less safe.

I’m Disappointed with Scientific American

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In the December 2015 issue of Scientific American, Naomi Oreskes writes,

For the past 30 years the ideology of the unfettered marketplace has so dominated our discourse that most of use can scarcely imagine an alternative way of organizing our affairs. Individuals who try are dismissed as unrealistic, romantic, polemical or (in America) communists.

Like many others, she cites the 2008 financial crisis as the result of “deregulated capitalism” and the blames the Great Depression on “market failure.” She goes on to cite other favorite complaints of those with an anti-market ideology, such as inequality or the environment.

It seems that no matter how much the government will intervene into the economy, the “unfettered,” “deregulated” market will always be the alleged culprit. Indeed, Ms. Oreskes acknowledges the “spectacular government intervention” apparatus that was created after the Great Depression. How can she believe that with the modern regulatory state that creates thousands of new regulations every year that the US economy can accurately be described as laissez-faire? I can see one making an argument that perhaps the currently existing regulatory scheme for various sectors of the economy do not have the optimal rules or that certain regulatory agencies are under-powered. But at what point will the US economy have to be regulated in order for people like Ms. Oreskes to classify them as non-free market?

Furthermore, what I find particularly ironic about Ms. Oreskes’ article (which is called “How to Break the Climate Deadlock” but reads more like an anti-market diatribe) is that she does nothing to reassure those who question the efficacy of government efforts to abate the effects of climate change that their concern is unwarranted. Near the beginning of her essay, she makes a reference to those who suspect that empowering supranational governments to implement grand plans to combat climate change might significantly impact their freedom.However, instead of addressing their concerns (which I think would be more in line with breaking “the climate deadlock”), she seems to confirm them. Instead of explaining how people’s lives wouldn’t need be dramatically changed or how the power of the state wouldn’t need to be greatly expanded, she writes of how we “can scarcely imagine an alternative way of organizing our affairs.” She throws in the red herring of how the absence of state authority “opens the door to tyranny and tragedy.” The title of her article led me to believe that she was going to attempt to bridge the gap and try to foster a legitimate dialogue with those with differing opinions than her own. Her essay did not seem like one written by a level-headed scientist trying to find areas of agreement about climate policy, but an ideologue that should be relegated to the opinion section.

 

Ford paid his workers the equivalent of $15 an hour in 1914. Should that be the minimum wage?

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The following is a comment I wrote on a post published by The Intercept about raising the minimum wage in New York, which argued that since Ford paid his workers the inflation adjusted equivalent of $15 per hour in 1914, a $15 minimum wage would be appropriate today.

I appreciate Mr. Schwarz’s concern for low-skilled workers. We all want everyone to be able to afford a decent living. However, in economics, it is important to separately consider positive and normative questions (though, of course, the former can inform the latter). So part of the positive question in this instance is, what factors determine prices? As Mr. Schwarz alludes to (though expressing contempt for such an idea), and what most economists would say is, price is a function of supply and demand. Employers provide the demand for labor. However, if the price of labor is higher than the marginal productivity of that labor engaged in a certain purpose, employers will generally not hire labor for that purpose because it will result in a loss. Thus, any jobs at which people are employed in which they create less than $15 per hour in productivity will not be profitable with a $15 per hour minimum wage. Perhaps one could make an argument that employers have a certain level of bargaining power (for reasons such as occupational licensure, costs of starting a business, etc.) such that they are able to pay employees less than their marginal productivity, but regardless of this, employers will not pay their employees above their marginal productivity without incurring losses.

Thus, there are some limitations in Mr. Schwarz’s analysis. One is that he has not established that the marginal productivity of Ford employees in 1914 is directly comparable to the marginal productivity of all workers currently making less than $15 per hour. If the marginal productivity of Ford workers then was higher than the marginal productivity of low-skilled workers today, then we are comparing apples to oranges. For similar reasons, there are limitations in comparing a 1914 Model T to a 2015 Ford Fiesta, which are obviously quite different products in terms of technology, comfort, performance, etc. Although value is subjective, there is a good case to be made that, other than for collector purposes, the latter car is much more valuable than the first in terms of actual function (in other words, if Ford made the Model T today with the same physical properties that it had in 1914, it would likely fetch a much lower price than the Fiesta. Therefore, in terms of actual purchasing power, being able to buy a Ford Fiesta is evidence of much greater purchasing power).

The fact that GDP per capita is several times higher now than in 1914 does not mean that a $15 minimum wage will increase the incomes of those with a marginal productivity below $15 an hour, for the reasons mentioned above. No matter how rich an employer is, they will not willingly pay a wage that is greater than a worker’s marginal productivity because they will incur a loss by hiring that worker. The empirical question is whether those workers making less than $15 an hour are being paid significantly less than their marginal productivity. For those whom the answer is no, a minimum wage will not increase their wages if their productivity remains below $15 per hour.