Prominent minimum wage researcher suggests proponents cherry pick the analysis. Bait and switch?

Backers of Seattle’s $15 minimum wage suggested the city could be a model for the nation. Maybe, although the nation is still trying to figure out just what the Seattle experience demonstrates. For certain, the research continues to be dissected. 

In the Wall Street Journal, economist David Neumark, who has written extensively on the minimum wage, writes that proponents of the wage hike are working overtime to criticize University of Washington research that they find, well, uncomfortable.

Researchers who support raising the minimum wage often advocate a “close comparison”—using an area geographically nearby…

A comprehensive study by academics at the University of Washington estimated that the higher minimum “reduced hours worked in low-wage jobs by around 9 percent.” Consequently, earnings for these employees actually dropped “by an average of $125 per month.”

What’s especially inconvenient for minimum-wage proponents is that the Seattle study used a “close comparison” method similar to the one they have favored for years. The authors of the study compared workers in Seattle with those in other metropolitan areas in Washington, like Olympia, Tacoma and Spokane.

To no one’s surprise, that hasn’t stopped minimum-wage supporters from attacking the Seattle research. In a June letter to city officials, Mr. Reich, the Berkeley professor, wrote that the study “draws only from areas in Washington State that do not at all resemble Seattle.”

Neumark continues,

But this gives away the game: Any researchers doing this kind of study should explicitly choose control areas that show similar trends, as did the University of Washington team. More to the point, if the controls for Seattle can’t be trusted, it undermines the whole idea of “close comparison.”

As we’ve written previously, the UW research garnered favorable reviews in the national press, including praise from academic authorities.

…the paper has already received positive reviews.

“This strikes me as a study that is likely to influence people,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the research. He called the work “very credible” and “sufficiently compelling in its design and statistical power that it can change minds.”

Critic Reich is a well-known supporter of the $15 minimum wage, writing last year that a statewide $15 minimum wage would not cost New York jobs.

As Neumark says, the UW study will not settle the debate.

It is one analysis, and it examines one city’s experience over a short period. In my view, more of the evidence, and the best evidence, points to job losses from higher minimum wages. But additional research will refine the academic consensus. The trouble is that the debate will suffer if researchers use their influence to attack results they don’t like, as seems to be happening with the Seattle study.

Right. But we can at least hope that it will keep the debate honest.