Not surprisingly, the nonpartisan analysts at the Congressional Budget Office have found that President Barack Obama's proposal to raise the minimum wage would have costs as well as benefits. Increasing the minimum from its current level, $7.25 an hour, to $10.10 by the second half of 2016, as the president advocates, would lift 900,000 individuals out of poverty while reducing total employment by about 500,000 workers. This finding is perfectly consistent with both economic theory and the empirical literature.
Equally unsurprisingly, Democrats and Republicans immediately turned the CBO report into more fodder for their long-running dispute over increasing the minimum wage which the former tout as a panacea for economic inequality and the latter demonize as a job-killer. The prospect of an election-year legislative compromise on this issue, never bright, now seems fainter than ever.
That's doubly unfortunate, since the CBO report is best read as a gentle argument in favor of a middle path on the minimum wage. Of course, the necessary precondition for seeing it in those terms is the ability to recognize that both sides in the age-old minimum-wage debate have valid points: A decent society would neither price entry-level workers out of jobs nor leave them completely without leverage in the labor market. The real issue is not so much whether to have a minimum wage, or even how much it should be, but how best to set it.