You can lead a horse to a carousel, but you can’t make him eat a free lunch

A persistent myth in this country is that even though the government may do things we do not approve of, We the People ultimately have control of the reigns. We elect representatives, senators, and a President and it is they that decide how this country is run. So the theory is that if we don’t like what they do we can “vote the bums” out. That Congress’ approval rating is perennially in the low teens and yet incumbents are re-elected at a rate exceeding 80% speaks volumes about how successful that strategy has been. However, the dirty little secret is that most government functions originate not from elected officials but rather faceless bureaucrats who write, approve, and enforce what is known as “administrative law.” This process proceeds quietly in the dark underbelly of Washington, completely immune from “outsider” (that is, “the peoples”) influence. Like the static animals and chariots of a carousel, the unchanging bureaucracy provides support to our elected officials, who come and go like so many children believing they are driving when in fact they are merely passengers.

Case in point: The Department of Labor. Last month President Obama announced that the Department of Labor would be implementing a doubling of the white-collar salary threshold for overtime exception to $50,440. Although there is a request for comments period from the public, ultimately none of that really matters. The DOL committee voting on the change is in no way bound by those comments. President Obama knows that getting a minimum wage increase through Congress is likely to fail. However he can unilaterally ramrod a change to the overtime rules with little oversight if he employs the autonomous rule making authority of the DOL. Such changes do not require a new law or public debate. Only a handful of bureaucrats need to simply decide “ok, let’s just change this” and that’s it.

The shockingly sad part about all of this is not so much that a handful of people get to substitute their personal opinion of acceptable work conditions for the opinions of 120 million employees and employers but rather that they actually think this change will, in the words of Obama “help promote higher take-home pay… and shore up the middle class.” You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. These people seem to labor under the fairy tale that employers are just sitting on a big pile of cash that they selfishly refuse to share with their employees. So to rectify this we need the government to step in and force them to share. Employee wages are a business transaction just like any other. Each transaction is negotiated between both parties to a level that is acceptable, otherwise were it not acceptable there would be no exchange. If these transaction costs are externally forced upward then employers will respond just as anyone else would, cut back in other areas to compensate.

There is no free lunch. Newly overtime-eligible employees will find their base hourly rate decreased so that at the end of the year they still have made the same dollar figure. Employers will also cut back on discretionary bonuses and benefits or simply cut back on hours so that there is no overtime. This will force such employees to become more efficient with their time and those that can’t will find themselves demoted or unemployed. Another way employers may respond is to reduce the number of managerial positions, which ultimately makes it harder for people to climb the corporate ladder into solidly middle class wage territory.

Another aspect often overlooked by the ivory tower elite is that many employees do not want to be classified as overtime eligible. A job requiring clocking in and out is viewed by employees as a job that is “not important.” Somebody with a college degree making $45k a year feels demeaned if they are told they must now clock in and out like some pimply-faced fry cook. Being on salary is a point of pride for these employees who feel they have worked quite hard to earn that status. That the government is now condescendingly informing them that this is for their own protection reflects the magnitude by which those in government are out of touch with the real world. As with all government interventions, conditions are made worse, not better. Employees either lose benefits and bonuses, get demoted, or end up making the exact same as before but not without first being made to feel less important due to their new status as “just” hourly.