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Every single economic school of thought agrees with the proposition that investment is a key factor in driving wages and growth.

Even foolish concepts such as socialism and Marxism acknowledge this relationship, though they want the government to be in charge of deciding where to invest and how much to invest (an approach that has a miserable track record).

Another widely shared proposition is that higher tax rates will discourage whatever is being taxed. Even politicians understand this notion, for instance, when arguing for higher taxes on tobacco.

To be sure, economists will argue about the magnitude of the response (will a higher tax rate cause a big effect, medium effect, or a small effect?).

But they’ll all agree that a higher tax on something will lead to less of that thing.

Which is why I always argue that we need the lowest-possible tax rates on the activities – work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship – that create wealth and prosperity.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that Joe Biden, as part of his platform in the presidential race, has embraced class-warfare taxation.

And it’s even more disappointing that he specifically supports policies that will impose a much higher tax burden on capital formation.

How much higher? Kyle Pomerleau of the American Enterprise Institute churned through Biden’s proposals to see what it would mean for tax rates on investment and business activity.

Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has proposed several tax increases that focus on raising taxes on business and capital income. Taxing business and capital income can affect saving and investment decisions by reducing the return to these activities and distorting the allocation across different assets, forms of financing, and business forms. Under current law, the weighted average marginal effective tax rate (METR) on business assets is 19.6 percent… Biden’s tax proposals would raise the METR on business investment in the United States by 7.8 percentage points to 27.5 percent in 2021. The effective tax rate would rise on most assets and new investment in all industries. In addition to increasing the overall tax burden on business investment, Biden’s proposals would increase the bias in favor of debt-financed and noncorporate investment over equity-financed and corporate investment.

Here’s the most illuminating visual from Kyle’s report.

The first row of data shows that the effective tax rate just by almost 8 percentage points.

I also think it’s important to focus on the last two rows. Notice that the tax burden on equity increases by a lot while the tax burden on debt actually drops slightly.

This is very foolish since almost all economists will acknowledge that it’s a bad idea to create more risk for an economy by imposing a preference for debt (indeed, mitigating this bias was one of the best features of the 2017 tax reform).

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In early June, I pontificated about the upside-down incentives that are created when government pays people more to be idle than they could get by working.

This is a real-world concern because the crowd in Washington earlier this year approved a $600-per-week bonus for people getting unemployment benefits.

And that resulted in many people getting far more from benefits than they could get from employment. In some cases, even twice as much.

Anyhow, that bonus expired at the end of July, which has triggered a debate on whether to renew the policy.

In her Washington Post column, Catherine Rampell argues that super-charged benefits don’t discourage employment.

State benefits, on average, cover about 40 percent of the typical worker’s lost wages…  Given the extraordinary economic crisis, federal lawmakers wanted to “top up” state benefits so that workers would get close to 100 percent of their lost wages. …So Congress passed a $600 weekly supplement because it seemed about the right amount to make the average worker whole. …a majority of unemployed workers received more in benefits than they earned in their most recent paychecks. …this prompted concerns that the benefits themselves might slow down the recovery, discouraging people from returning to work because being on the dole was too darn comfortable. …five…recent studies…concluded the…$600 federal supplement does not appear to have depressed job growth. …Yes, at some point, …fears about work disincentives may materialize, as the economy recovers and job opportunities become more plentiful. We’re nowhere near that point now.

The Wall Street Journal also opined on this topic, specifically debunking one of the studies cited by Ms. Rampell.

Most Americans understand intuitively that if people make more money by not working, fewer people will work. Then there are politicians and economists who want to pass out more money while claiming that disincentives to work are irrelevant. …a study by Yale economists…purportedly finds the $600 federal enhancement to jobless benefits hasn’t affected the incentive to work. …Yet the study excluded part-time workers and those who hadn’t been working at a business in their sample last year. In other words, the study focused on workers with more loyalty to their employers. …Notably, states with more generous unemployment benefits for low-wage workers generally have had larger declines in labor-force participation. In Kentucky the lowest-paid 25% of unemployed workers on average have made 216% of what they did working. The state’s labor-force participation has declined 4.8 percentage points since February. …If you subsidize not working, you get less work.

In this Rampell vs. WSJ debate, I’m more sympathetic to the latter.

When the big fight over extended unemployment benefits during the Obama years was finally resolved, it showed that people are significantly more likely to find jobs when they’re no longer getting paid for not working.

This doesn’t mean that it will be easy (especially in an environment where there is still uncertainty about the coronavirus), or that we shouldn’t have sympathy for people facing pressure to find jobs after losing their previous positions.

But if we want prosperity and rising living standards, there’s really no alternative.

I’ll close with another excerpt from Ms. Rampell’s column She cites an economist who found that some people went back to work even though they received less money than they were getting from the government.

Evercore ISI economist, Ernie Tedeschi, …observed that in June, around 70 percent of unemployment recipients who resumed working had been receiving more from benefits than their prior wage — yet nonetheless returned to work.

This is largely good news since it shows that America still enjoys a high degree of societal capital (work ethic, desire to earn rather than get handouts, etc).

But this underscores why we shouldn’t erode that valuable form of capital by making people feel like chumps for doing the right thing (a point I emphasized earlier this year when criticizing Elizabeth Warren’s dependency agenda).

Otherwise we wind up with the real-world version of this satirical Wizard-of-Id cartoon.

P.S. Speaking of satire, Nancy Pelosi actually argued that paying people not to work was a form of stimulus.

P.P.S. Here are a couple of anecdotes, one from Ohio and one from Michigan, about the perverse impact of excessive unemployment benefits during the last downturn.

P.P.P.S. If you want more academic literature on the relationship between government benefits and joblessness, click here and here.

P.P.P.P.S. Last but not least, prominent economists on the left (including Paul Krugman) actually agree the unemployment benefits encourage joblessness.

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Yesterday, I shared some research showing how misguided redistribution policies lead to high implicit marginal tax rates that discourage work.

Then I was interviewed about a very tangible example of this phenomenon – jobless benefits that give people more money than they could earn by working.

I wrote about this specific issue in late April and shared the nearby chart to show how many people can get a lot more money if they simply choose not to work. Which is the economic equivalent of a marginal tax rate of more than 100 percent.

As I noted in yesterday’s interview, creating this kind of upside-down incentive system is crazy even by the bizarre standards of Washington policy.

The federal government is – for all intents and purposes – bribing people not to work. This will be especially harmful for low-income workers since steady employment is their best route for upward mobility.

Part of the interview focused on the Keynesian argument that unemployment benefits are “stimulus” because recipients will have more money to spend. This is not satire. I mentioned that Nancy Pelosi actually asserted the economy becomes stronger when people are paid not to work.

Needless to say, this simplistic argument overlooks the fact that government can’t give people goodies without taking the money out of the private economy in the first place.

Sadly, the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics is still part of the Congressional Budget Office’s methodology. Here are some excerpts from the CBO’s report on the issue of super-charged benefits.

CBO has examined the economic effects of extending the temporary increase of $600 per week in the benefit amount provided by unemployment programs. …CBO estimates that extending that increase for six months through January 31, 2021, would have the following effects: …Roughly five of every six recipients would receive benefits that exceeded the weekly amounts they could expect to earn from work during those six months. …The estimated effects on output and employment are the net results of two opposing factors. An extension of the additional benefits would boost the overall demand for goods and services, which would tend to increase output and employment. That extension would also weaken incentives to work as people compared the benefits available during unemployment to their potential earnings, and those weakened incentives would in turn tend to decrease output and employment.

Since I’ve already written many times about the flaws of Keynesian theory, let’s focus on the deleterious effect of government-subsidized unemployment.

In a column two days ago for the Wall Street Journal, Congressman James Comer of Kentucky explained how super-charged benefits have hurt his state’s economy.

Employers in Kentucky are finding it difficult to persuade employees to return to work, as nearly 40% of the state’s labor force has filed for unemployment benefits… It is clear that a system of excessive unemployment benefits has run its course. More than 60 of my colleagues in Congress plan to join me in sending a letter to House and Senate leadership to express our concerns and demand that these payments expire July 31, as the Cares Act intended. …It defies logic to extend disincentives to work when businesses are beginning to reopen. …efforts to spend the nation into oblivion and discourage Americans from working…are fundamentally opposed to the American spirit of the dignity of work. …to get back on the right track, we cannot extend the $600-a-week incentive not to return to work.

I applaud Rep. Comer.

It’s not popular to remove goodies from voters. Indeed, that’s the message of my Second Theorem of Government.

But it’s necessary if we want to restore incentives to work.

I’ll close by elaborating on the point I made in the interview about this battle being a repeat of the Obama-era fight about extended unemployment benefits.

Obama and other folks on the left said extended benefits were necessary because the unemployment rate was still high, while people like me argued that the jobless rate was still high precisely because the government was paying people not to work.

Extended benefits were finally halted in 2014, meaning we had a real-world test to see who was right. So what happened? Lo and behold, the jobless rate fell as more people went back to work.

The moral of the story, as illustrated by this satirical cartoon strip, is that people are more likely to work when the benefits of having a job and greater than the benefits of not having a job.

P.S. Here are a couple of anecdotes, one from Ohio and one from Michigan, about the perverse impact of excessive unemployment benefits during the last recession.

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Remember the “jobless recovery” of the Obama years?

Part of the problem was that President Obama kept extending unemployment benefits, which subsidized joblessness, as even Paul Krugman and Larry Summers had warned.

The good news was that Congress eventually said no in 2014 (actually one of the three best things to happen that year).

After that happened, the labor market improved.

But politicians apparently didn’t learn anything. As part of emergency coronavirus legislation, they turbo-charged unemployment benefits.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial from yesterday has a good summary.

Much of the harm from the coronavirus is unavoidable, but it would be nice if politicians didn’t compound the damage by ignoring the laws of economics. The worst blunder so far on that score is the $600 increase in federal jobless benefits… Why would anyone take a pay cut to go back to work? …Employees say they’ll take the unemployment check for as long as they can make more money by not working. …This does not mean these workers are lazy. Workers are making rational decisions based on the economic incentives the political class has created. …The question now is whether the Trump Administration will learn from its negotiating mistake. Democrats will try to extend the $600 for another few months, and then a few more after that, as they describe anyone who disagrees as heartless.

Tim Kane, in a piece for the Hill, explains why this doesn’t make sense.

The UI system is a case study in perverse incentives in the best of times, but the four-month “fix” in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) makes it far worse. …Existing UI provides a government payment to each worker who is involuntarily laid off, in essence paying people not to work. The amount varies slightly according to state-based formulas. But UI checks are generally set to replace 50 percent of the individual’s wages until they find a new job. …Pandemic UI jacks up the replacement rate with a supplemental $600 per unemployed worker for the next four months. That’s roughly an extra $2,400 each month that will go to you only if you are unemployed. …Now that the CARES Act is the law of the land, any American with an annual salary of $62,000 has no financial incentive to work, certainly not until August. …the federal government is going to pay non-working Americans way more than working Americans.

In a column for Bloomberg, Conor Sen explores the implications.

It’s also important to be mindful of how, once the economy is growing again, a $600 weekly benefit can distort the labor market. That works out to the equivalent of $15 an hour for a 40-hour work week, a level that substantially exceeds the minimum wage in most states. When restaurants are open for business again, they are likely to complain if they can’t hire dishwashers who understand that it’s not worth giving up unemployment benefits. One step to winding down the program might be reducing the benefit over time in response to labor-market conditions and monitoring the impact that’s having on workers accepting jobs.

Sam Hammond, writing for National Review, opines on the potential human cost.

…the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program…will…add an extra $600 per week to the base benefit (equal to half the state’s regular unemployment benefit) for up to four months. …This $600 per week add-on — equivalent to a $15-per-hour full-time income — means that many workers will soon be eligible to receive more in unemployment compensation than they would make on the job. …It should go without saying that no government in history has ever designed an unemployment-insurance program quite like this — one that virtually anyone can qualify for, and with benefits on par with the median weekly earnings of full-time workers. …a worst-case scenario is easy to imagine…once quarantines begin to lift, a fraction of Pandemic UI recipients will choose to stay on “extended benefits”… Temporary unemployment will become structural, and a jobless recovery will drag out for decades.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center cites some of the academic literature.

The unintended consequences and moral hazard of UI during normal times and normal recessions are well known. Put briefly, generous UI benefits create an incentive for workers to delay looking for jobs until the expiration of the benefit. In 2010, Harvard University economist Robert Barro estimated that the Great Recession expansions in UI benefits raised the US unemployment rate by about 2.7 percentage points. …In addition, economists Lawrence F. Katz and Bruce D. Meyer observe that workers receiving unemployment benefits were likely to postpone their job searches until their benefits expired. This finding was confirmed by many other studies, including one by economist Alan Krueger,  who wrote in 2008 that “job search increases sharply in the weeks prior to benefit exhaustion.”

And she points out that there is a better approach.

…an old policy proposal that should receive new attention—a proposal that by design encourages people to go back to work as quickly as they can… Personal unemployment insurance savings accounts (PISAs) are designed to maintain a financial incentive to return to work as soon as possible. These accounts are individually owned by workers who, during spells of unemployment, can make orderly withdrawals to partially compensate for the loss to their income but can keep and build the balance during their regular times of employment. …This form of UI is not a mere theoretical proposition. The experience of Chile is worth noting, but other countries such as Austria and Colombia have adopted similar plans.

Making a related point, Congressman Justin Amash points out that it would be less harmful to simply give people money rather than giving them money on the condition that they don’t work.

By the way, a study from the Bank for International Settlements, published well before coronavirus became an issue, notes other negative effects of unemployment benefits.

Many countries provide unemployment insurance (UI) to reduce individuals’ income risk and to moderate fluctuations in the economy. However, to the extent that these policies are successful, they would be expected to reduce precautionary savings and hence bank deposits–households’ main saving instrument. In this paper, we study this reduced incentive to save and uncover a novel distortionary mechanism through which UI policies affect the economy. In particular, we show that, when UI benefits become more generous, bank deposits fall. Since deposits are the main stable funding source for banks, this fall in deposits squeezes bank commercial lending, which in turn reduces corporate investment.

Just another chapter in the government’s book on how to discourage savings.

Let’s close with some real world illustrations of how Washington’s approach is backfiring.

A story from National Public Radio shows how workers respond logically to perverse incentives.

…the extra money can create some awkward situations. Some businesses that want to keep their doors open say it’s hard to do so when employees can make more money by staying home. “We basically have this situation where it would be a logical choice for a lot of people to be unemployed,” said Sky Marietta, who opened a coffee shop along with her husband, Geoff, last year in Harlan, Ky. …The shop had been up and running for only a few months when the coronavirus hit. …Marietta was determined to stay open. …But even though she had customers, Marietta reluctantly decided to close the coffee shop just over a week ago. “The very people we hired have now asked us to be laid off,” Marietta wrote… “Not because they did not like their jobs or because they did not want to work, but because it would cost them literally hundreds of dollars per week to be employed.” …the $10 to $15 an hour they’d make serving coffee is no match for the new jobless benefits.

Maxim Lott also wrote about another tragic example.

An additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits…causing concern that some workers could be in a position to actually make more money by leaving their jobs. . …That angers some essential workers on the front lines on the crisis. “I can tell you as a worker who barely makes over minimum wage, at $12 an hour, the whole thing is complete BS,” Otis Mitchell Jr., who works in West Virginia transporting hospital patients to get medical tests, told Fox News. Mitchell Jr. added that he has unemployed friends who already are getting the extra $600, and that “I prefer to work, but sadly I’d make more staying home.” …generous payments are…scheduled to last for four months, ending July 31.

A report from CNBC also found perverse consequences.

Jamie Black-Lewis felt like she won the lottery after getting two forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program. …When Black-Lewis convened a virtual employee meeting to explain her good fortune, she expected jubilation and relief that paychecks would resume in full even though the staff — primarily hourly employees — couldn’t work. She got a different reaction. “It was a firestorm of hatred about the situation,” Black-Lewis said. …The anger came from employees who’d determined they’d make more money by collecting unemployment benefits than their normal paychecks. …“I couldn’t believe it,” she added. “On what planet am I competing with unemployment?”

If you want to see why people are choosing unemployment, here’s a chart from the CNBC story. Using examples from three states, it shows the normal generosity of unemployment benefits on the left and the new approach on the right.

Needless to say, it’s economic malpractice to make unemployment more attractive than jobs paying $20-$30 per hour.

It’s the real-world version of this satirical Wizard-of-Id cartoon.

P.S. Speaking of satire, Nancy Pelosi actually argued that paying people not to work was a form of stimulus.

P.P.S. Here are a couple of anecdotes, one from Ohio and one from Michigan, about the perverse impact of excessive unemployment benefits during the last downturn.

P.P.P.S. If you want more academic literature on the relationship between government benefits and joblessness, click here and here.

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There’s endless “spin” in over-politicized and self-serving Washington, with Democrats and Republicans both trying to convince people why any particular bit of economic data is either wonderful news or horrible news.

Since I care about policy rather than politics, I like to think I’m largely immune from this tendency. I criticize either Republicans or Democrats when they do something wrong, and I also offer praise when either Republicans or Democrats do something right.

That applies to Trump, of course.

For instance, the Department of Labor just released new numbers on the job market and Trump loyalists are bragging that this is additional confirmation that the president has steered the economy into glorious prosperity after the supposed wretched misery of the Obama years.

Is that true?

Well, here’s a chart showing total employment in the United States, taken directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We see that jobs have been increasing, but can anybody identify a change in the trend line when Trump took office in January 2017?

For what it’s worth, the average monthly increase in employment has actually been smaller under Trump than it was under Obama.

Though Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute correctly observes that it’s harder to get more jobs when the unemployment rate is low.

Now that we’ve looked at total employment, let’s examine the BLS numbers for the unemployment rate.

Yes, we see better numbers during the Trump years, but we’ve been getting better numbers ever since 2010.

Can anyone look at this data and make a compelling case that there was some big change starting in 2017?

Next we have the BLS chart showing the employment-population ratio, which measures the share of the adult population which is actually employed (a key factor since economic output is a function of the quantity and quality of both labor and capital).

Notice, once again, that there’s no obvious change in the trend line when Trump took over from Obama.

It’s not good news, by the way, that the employment-population ratio is still below where it was before the 2008 crisis.

Though it’s worth noting that the employment-population numbers look much better if they’re adjusted for demographic change.

But adjusting the numbers for demographic change doesn’t have any impact on the point I’m making today. Notice that there hasn’t been any obvious change in the trend since Trump got to the White House.

So why do I keep making the point that the trend hasn’t changed?

Because I want people to understand that policy matters, not partisan affiliation. And the bottom line is that the trend line hasn’t noticeably changed because Trump hasn’t noticeably changed the overall level of economic freedom compared to Obama.

Yes, Trump has moved policy in the right direction on some issues (taxes and regulation), but he’s also moved policy in the wrong direction on other issues (trade and spending). Simply stated, his bad policies are offsetting his good policies.

Obama moved policy in the wrong direction, of course, but that was largely during his first two years. There was a policy stalemate his final six years.

And in terms of overall economic liberty, the post-2010 policy stalemate under Obama produced similar scores to the zig-zag policy we’re getting under Trump. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the trend lines are so similar.

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When I did this video about public-sector compensation almost 10 years ago, I focused on why it is unfair that bureaucrats get much higher levels of compensation than people working the private sector.

Today, let’s consider the economic consequences of excessive bureaucracy.

And what will make this column particularly interesting is that I’ll be citing some research from economists at the International Monetary Fund (a bureaucracy which is definitely not an outpost of libertarian thinking).

The two authors, Alberto Behar and Junghwan Mok, investigated whether nations lowered unemployment rates by employing more bureaucrats.

The contribution of this paper is to investigate the effects of public hiring of workers on labor market outcomes, specifically unemployment and private employment. In particular, does public hiring increase (“crowd in”) private employment or decrease (“crowd out”) private employment? …It is arguably the case that a private-sector job is more desirable than a public-sector job from a public policy point of view…there is evidence that a large government share in economic activity can be negative for long-term growth because of the distortionary effects of taxation, inefficient government spending due in part to rent-seeking or lower worker productivity, and the crowding out of private investment. …Crowding out could occur through a number of channels. Derived labor demand can be affected through crowding out of the product market, possibly via higher taxes, higher interest rates, and competition from state-owned enterprises. It can occur through the labor market, where higher wages, more job security, or a higher probability of finding a public-sector job can make an individual more likely to seek or wait for public-sector employment rather than search for or accept a job in the private sector… Finally, it can occur in the education market, where individuals seek qualifications appropriate for entering the public sector rather than skills needed for productive employment

As you can see, the authors sensibly consider both the direct and indirect effects of public employment.

Yes, hiring someone to be a bureaucrat obviously means that person is employed, but it also means that resources are being diverted to government.

And that imposes costs on the economy’s productive sector.

So the real question is the net impact.

In their study for the IMF, the authors cite other academic research suggesting that government employment crowds out (i.e., reduces) private employment.

…there is prior evidence that crowding-out effects are sufficiently large to increase unemployment in a number of advanced countries. However, there has hitherto not been a thorough investigation of how public employment affects labor market outcomes in developing countries. We fill this gap in the literature by investigating the effects of public employment on both private employment and on unemployment. An important part of our contribution lies in the assembly of the dataset to expand the number of non-OECD countries… The most related and relevant work to this paper is by Algan et al. (2002), who explore the consequences of public-sector employment for labor market performance. Using pooled cross-section and annual time-series data for 17 OECD countries from 1960 to 2000, they run regressions of the unemployment rate and/or the private-sector employment rate on the public-sector employment rate. Empirical evidence from the employment equation suggests that the creation of 100 public jobs crowds out 150 private-sector jobs.

In the study, the authors look at two main measures of public sector employment.

And, as you can see in Figure 4, they look at data for nations in different regions.

They wisely utilize the broader measure of public employment, which includes the people employed by state-owned enterprises.

We have collected data for up to 194 countries over the period 1988–2011. …Our contribution to the literature includes the assembly of data on public and private employment and other indicators for a wide range of developing and advanced countries. …Definitions of “public sector” are different across countries and organizations, so we choose two definitions and generate corresponding public employment datasets, namely a “narrow” measure also referred to as “public administration” and a “broad” measure. …This dataset includes not only governmental agencies but also state-owned enterprises (SOEs). We call this the ‘broad’ measure of public employment, preserving the term ‘public sector’.

In Figure 7, they use a scatter diagram to show some of the data.

The diagram on the left is most relevant since it shows that private employment (vertical axis) declines as government jobs (horizontal axis) increase.

And when they do the statistical analysis, we get confirmation that government jobs displace employment in the economy’s productive sector.

…all coefficients indicate a very strong negative relationship between public- and private-sector employment rates. For example, 100 new public jobs crowd out 98 private job… Taken together with the unemployment results, public employment just about fully crowds out private-sector employment regardless of the definition, such that a rise in government hiring would be offset by decreases in private employment… Regressions of unemployment on public employment and of private employment on public employment, each of which is based on two definitions of public employment, find robust evidence that public employment crowds out private employment. …Public-sector hiring: (i) does not reduce unemployment, (ii) increases the fiscal burden, and (iii) inhibits long-term growth through reductions in private-sector employment. Together, this would imply that public hiring is detrimental to long term fiscal sustainability.

The final part of the above excerpt is critical.

In addition to not increasing overall employment, government jobs also increase the fiscal burden of government and undermine long-run growth.

So the long-term damage is even greater than the short-run damage.

P.S. The IMF isn’t the only international bureaucracy to conclude that government employment is bad for overall prosperity. A few years ago, I shared research from the European Central Bank which also showed negative macroeconomic consequences from costly bureaucracy.

P.P.S. While I’m usually critical of the IMF because it has a statist policy agenda, it’s not uncommon for the professional economists who work there to produce good research. In the past, I’ve highlight some very good IMF studies on topics such as spending caps, the size of government, taxes and business vitality, fiscal decentralization, the Laffer Curve, and class-warfare taxation.

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As I discuss in this recent interview, a higher minimum wage is a terrible idea if we care about facts and evidence (and also want to help poor people).

In the interview, I mentioned that minimum wage mandates aren’t good news for workers who lose their jobs.

One of them, Simone Barron, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about her unfortunate experience after the minimum wage was increased in Seattle.

This city’s minimum wage is rising to $16.39 an hour on Jan. 1. Instead of receiving a bigger paycheck, I’m left without any pay at all… That’s because the restaurant where I’ve worked for six years is closing as a consequence of the city’s harmful minimum-wage experiment. …When rent is too high, labor costs too much, and customers don’t want to pay $40 for a roast-chicken entree, the only way for many operators to ease the pain is to close. So now, after six years working at Mr. Douglas’s restaurant Tanakasan, I need to find a new work home. My first thought was to go back to Sitka & Spruce, a restaurant where I had once worked. …As it turns out, I can’t return to Sitka & Spruce. Its James Beard Award-winning owner, Matt Dillon, is closing Sitka after 14 years, defeated by the one-two punch of rising rents and labor costs. …I often hear people in Seattle lament that it’s becoming “more corporate.” The truth is that the city has made it nearly impossible for many small businesses to survive. …I’ve started applying for other open positions around town. I landed an interview at a restaurant called Super Bueno, owned by another established chef, Ethan Stowell. Before I could even confirm the interview, Mr. Stowell announced that he will close down Super Bueno at the end of the year.

Just in case you’re tempted to dismiss Ms. Barron’s story as a mere anecdote, let’s now look at some broader evidence.

There’s a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research that measures the impact of minimum wage mandates. The results are not encouraging.

Using intertemporal variation in whether a state’s minimum wage is bound by the federal rate and credit-score data for approximately 15.2 million establishments for the period 1989–2013, we find that increases in the federal minimum wage worsen the financial health of small businesses in the affected states. Small, young, labor-intensive, minimum-wage sensitive establishments located in the states bound to the federal minimum wage and those located in competitive and low-income areas experience higher financial stress. Increases in the minimum wage also lead to lower bank credit, higher loan defaults, lower employment, a lower entry and a higher exit rate for small businesses. …Our results document some potential costs of a one-size-fits-all nationwide minimum wage, and we highlight how it can have an adverse effect on the financial health of some small businesses.

But not everybody cares about evidence.

The New York Times just opined in favor of the Bernie Sanders approach on the topic.

Over the past five years, a wave of increases in state and local minimum-wage standards has pushed the average effective minimum wage in the United States to the highest level on record. The average worker must be paid at least $11.80 an hour… Millions of workers are being left behind because 21 states still use the federal standard, $7.25 an hour… House Democrats passed legislation in July that would gradually increase the federal standard, to $15 an hour in 2025…the legislation also would require automatic adjustments in the minimum wage to keep pace with wage growth in the broader economy. …For most companies, the bill is relatively small, and it can be defrayed by giving less money to shareholders, or by raising prices. …The American economy is generating plenty of jobs; the problem is in the paychecks. The solution is a $15 federal minimum wage.

Interestingly, the editorial actually acknowledged that a one-size-fits-all $15 mandate would backfire.

It is possible that a national $15 standard would produce the kinds of damage critics have long predicted; the Congressional Budget Office puts the potential increase in unemployment…3.7 million people… Workers may be most vulnerable in areas where prevailing wages are relatively low. In California, for example, the minimum wage for large employers (more than 25 workers) will rise to $13 an hour on Wednesday. That is unlikely to cause problems in San Francisco — but the new minimum is quite close to the median hourly wage of $15.23 in the Visalia metropolitan area in the Central Valley. The federal minimum would apply to metropolitan areas like Daphne, Ala., and Sumter, S.C., where the median worker earned less than $15 an hour in 2018. One simple corrective, proposed by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, would be to include exemptions from the $15 standard for low-wage metropolitan areas and rural areas.

In other words, the NYT endorsed a $15 federal minimum wage, and then concluded by admitting it would be very bad if there actually was a $15 federal minimum wage.

This is why I prefer this editorial from the New York Times.

…there’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed. Raising the minimum wage by a substantial amount would price working poor people out of the job market. …An increase in the minimum wage…would increase employers’ incentives to evade the law, expanding the underground economy. More important, it would increase unemployment: Raise the legal minimum price of labor above the productivity of the least skilled workers and fewer will be hired. …Those at greatest risk from a higher minimum would be young, poor workers, who already face formidable barriers to getting and keeping jobs. …The idea of using a minimum wage to overcome poverty is old, honorable – and fundamentally flawed. It’s time to put this hoary debate behind us, and find a better way to improve the lives of people who work very hard for very little.

Sadly, that editorial was from 1987, back when the newspaper had a more rational perspective.

In those days, the New York Times also favored the flat tax.

Today, the publication is almost a parody of “woke” emotion since many reporters and editors push a statist agenda, presumably because (their perceptions of) good intentions matter more than good results.

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A couple of years ago, I praised federalism in part because state and local governments would be less likely to adopt bad policy (such as higher minimum wages) if they understood that jobs and investment could simply migrate to jurisdictions that didn’t adopt bad policy.

But “less likely” isn’t the same as “never.” Some state and local politicians can’t resist the temptation to raise taxes, even though that means workers “vote with their feetfor places with lower tax burdens.

And some state and local politicians continue to mandate higher minimum wages (see here, here, here, and here), even though that means workers have fewer job opportunities.

Today, we’re going to look at some fresh evidence from Emeryville, California.

The local newspaper has an impressively detailed look at what’s happened to the town’s labor market.

Representatives from the Mills College Lokey School presented data from its recent ‘business conditions’ survey to our City Council on Tuesday. The study confirmed what restaurant owners warned when the ordinance was hastily passed in 2015. They are struggling, rapidly raising menu prices and increasingly looking to leave. …It’s getting harder to find small food service businesses that were around in 2015 when the MWO was passed. Emeryville institution Bucci’s, Commonwealth, Farley’s, Scarlet City … all gone. In fact, nearly all the brick & mortar businesses that comprised the short-lived Little City Emeryville small business advocacy group have moved, folded or sold. …The survey also identified that “the restaurant industry is clearly struggling.” Specifically, small, independent, non-franchise establishments are having the most difficulty.

Here’s some of the survey data on the negative effect.

Here’s some specific information on how restaurants have been adversely impacted.

…nearly all the new businesses that have opened have embraced the counter service model that requires fewer employees. Paradita Eatery, whose original plan was for a full service sit-down restaurant, cited Emeryville’s wage ordinance specifically for ‘pivoting’ to a counter service model. Counter service models require fewer employees to offset higher labor costs. …The only full service restaurant that has opened since the Minimum Wage was passed was 612One Asian Fusion which folded after just two years in business.

One of the reasons for the economic damage is that Emeryville has gone further and faster in the wrong direction.

The local law is more onerous than the state law and more onerous than other nearby communities.

But it’s not just workers who are suffering.

Consumers are adversely impacted as well.

One commenter, who identified herself as a resident, questioned why the survey did not include consumer data noting her dining frequency was altered by the drastic price increases she’s observed. …She noted that she used to frequent her local Doyle Street Cafe 2-3 times per month but last year went only twice. …Once franchise owner noted that the price increases they’ve been forced to pass along have ironically had the biggest impact on vulnerable communities that are more price-sensitive. “Our largest decrease in guests are folks over 50. Obviously our elderly, disabled, and folks on fixed incomes are unable increase their income to compensate for the price increases.”

Let’s close with a new video from Johan Norberg, which looks at the impact of minimum wage increases in San Diego.

P.S. If local communities are allowed to mandate minimum wages higher than the state level or federal, shouldn’t they also have the freedom to allow minimum wages that are lower than the state level or federal level?

P.P.S. A number of European nations have no mandated minimum wage. As explained in this video, that’s an approach we should copy.

P.P.P.S. If you want some minimum-wage themed humor, you can enjoy cartoons herehereherehere, and here.

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I shared a video last year that pointed out that Americans live in a nation that became prosperous thanks to “creative destruction.”

That’s the term developed by Joseph Schumpeter to describe the economic churning caused by competition, innovation, and markets (international trade is just a minor part of this process, though it’s the part that generates the most controversy).

The bad news is that some people lose their jobs as the economy evolves and changes. And some companies go bankrupt. There are real victims and tragic stories.

But the good news is that other jobs are created. And entrepreneurs start new businesses.

And the better news is that our living standards increase. Especially over time. Even for many of those who lost jobs in the short run.

That’s why we’re much richer, on average, than our parents and grandparents.

Needless to say, a key measure of a healthy and dynamic economy is for the job gains to exceed the job losses.

So when I spoke to congressional staff earlier this week about trade and protectionism, I figured I should go beyond theory and include some numbers.

I went to the relevant website at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that more than 28 million jobs were lost in 2017 (final data for 2018 is still not available).

That sounds terrible. And for many workers, it was horrible news.

But the good news, as you can see in the screenshot below (click to expand), is that the U.S. economy created more than 30 million new jobs that year.

The obvious takeaway from this data is that the crowd in Washington should adopt policies that ensure we have strong growth so that people who lose jobs have lots of good options for new employment.

In other words, don’t impose the kind of policies that have created high unemployment and economic stagnation in many European welfare states.

For what it’s worth, that message seems to be lost on Bernie Sanders, who has a long list of policies that would turn America into a version of GreeceFrance, and Italy.

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Time for a confession.

I don’t particularly enjoy writing columns about the minimum wage because it’s such a slam-dunk issue. Simply stated, it is cruel and illogical when politicians mandate wage levels that are higher than the productivity of low-skilled workers.

Yet, at the risk of being repetitive, I periodically share evidence showing that higher minimum wages lead to more unemployment (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

The issue also is disturbing because I’ve had several friends on the left privately admit that they understand that jobs are lost when the minimum wage goes up, but they think that’s okay because it’s a good political issue for their side.

How utterly immoral. And racist, at least in outcome if not intent.

Today, though, I’m actually excited to write about the topic because I have a new angle.

As reported by the New York Times, a bunch of millionaire celebrities are trying to convince the governor of New York to raise the minimum wage for restaurant staff.

…a group of Hollywood actresses waving the banner of the Time’s Up movement have been pressing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to apply New York’s minimum wage to workers who earn tips, arguing that it would make waitresses less vulnerable to sexual harassment. Among the celebrities weighing in are Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Williams, Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer. …advocates like Ms. Jayaraman and celebrity activists are focused on state-by-state battles. Last week, Hillary Clinton wrote to Mr. Cuomo and other leaders in Albany, calling on them to eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers. …a letter sent to Mr. Cuomo by Hollywood celebrities including Ms. Poehler, Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman…urged the governor to eliminate the lower minimum wage for servers.

Do the workers appreciate this display of “solidarity” from the Hollywood crowd?

Not exactly.

Waitresses and other servers are resisting the proposal, saying they can make more money from tips and do not need celebrities to help protect them from harassment. …In New York City, many servers at busy restaurants and bars earn more than enough in tips to push their hourly wage well above the $15 minimum. …Raising wages for tipped workers, many waitresses say, could threaten an economic lifesaver if it forces restaurants to change tipping policies or, worse, puts them out of business.

The best part of the story is that the supposed beneficiaries clearly have a much better understanding of economics than the virtue-signaling celebrities.

…“The resounding message from servers in New York to these actresses in Hollywood is to just leave us alone,” said Maggie Raczynski, a bartender at an Outback Steakhouse in upstate New York. “These celebrities have literally no idea. I feel like they need to butt out.” …D. Sweeney, a former actor who said he made a “very comfortable living” as a bartender in New York, was adamant about his opposition to the proposed change. …Raising restaurant labor costs any further, he said, could trigger several changes in the business model that would hurt workers more than they would help. “Immigrant support staff will be the first to be fired,” he said. …The servers fired back in a letter to the actresses, saying, “Thank you for your concern. But we don’t need your help and we’re not asking to be saved.” In an interview this week, Ms. Raczynski said her employer had already trimmed staff to offset the steady rise in wages that Mr. Cuomo championed a few years ago.

This is a heartwarming story.

The fact that restaurant owners are opposed to intervention is not surprising, but it’s great to see that restaurant workers are savvy enough to realize that they’ll get hurt if politicians increase the minimum wage.

Reminds me of the great story from Seattle when employers and workers both protested against additional tax hikes on companies.

To paraphrase an evil man, “workers and capitalists of the world unite!”

Let’s close by recycling this video tutorial on the minimum wage.

P.S. Switzerland doesn’t have a minimum wage, and Swiss voters very much prefer that outcome.

P.P.S. You can enjoy additional cartoons on the minimum wage by clicking here and here.

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When I write about Social Security, I normally focus on the program’s huge fiscal imbalance ($44 trillion and climbing).

But it’s not just a fiscal crisis. Social Security is also an increasingly bad deal for workers. Especially minorities with lower average lifespans. When compared to what they would get from a private retirement system, people are paying in too much and getting out too little.

There’s also another major problem with the program.

Academic experts have quantified how older workers are lured out of the labor force when they get money from the government. And since economic output is a function of the quality and quantity of labor and capital, this means we’re sacrificing wealth and reducing prosperity.

Here are some excerpts from a study by Professors Daniel Fetter and Lee Lockwood.

Many of the most important government programs, including Social Security and Medicare, transfer resources to older people… Standard economic theory predicts that such programs reduce late-life labor supply and that the implicit taxation reduces the ex-post value of the programs to recipients. Understanding the size and nature of such effects on labor supply and welfare is an increasingly important issue, as demographic trends have increased both the potential labor supply of the elderly and its aggregate importance, while simultaneously increasing the need for reforms to government old-age support programs. …We address these questions by investigating Old Age Assistance (OAA), a means-tested program introduced in the 1930s alongside Social Security that later became the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

Here are charts illustrating how people are retiring earlier in part because of government payments.

And here are some calculations from the study.

Our estimates indicate that OAA significantly reduced labor force participation among older individuals. The basic patterns that we explore in the data are evident in Figure 2, which plots male labor force participation by age, separately for states with above- and belowmedian OAA payments per person 65 and older. Up to age 65, the age pattern of labor force participation was extremely similar in states with larger and smaller OAA programs. At age 65, however, there was a sharp divergence in labor force participation between states with larger OAA programs relative to those with smaller programs, and this divergence continued at older ages. Our regression results, which isolate variation in OAA program size due to state policy differences, imply that OAA can explain more than half of the large 1930–40 drop in labor force participation of men aged 65–74. …Our results suggest that Social Security had the potential to drive at least half—and likely more—of the mid-century decline in late-life labor supply for men. …Taken as a whole, our results suggest that government old-age support programs can have large effects on labor supply, through both their transfer and taxation components.

This chart captures how old-age payments in various states were associated with varying degrees of labor force participation.

By the way, I’m not sharing this information because it’s bad for people to retire at some point.

I’m merely establishing that there’s academic support for the common-sense observation that people are more likely to leave the labor force when there’s an alternative source of income (though it’s worth noting that there should be a sensible and sustainable system for providing that retirement income).

Moreover, people are likely to stop working when government systems give them money before age 65.

Three academics, Andres Erosa, Luisa Fuster, and Gueorgui Kambourov, have a study quantifying this problem in European nations.

There are substantial differences in labor supply and in the design of tax and transfer programs across countries. The cross-country differences in labor supply increase dramatically late in the life cycle…while differences in employment rates among eight European countries are in the order of 15 percentage points for the 50-54 age group, they increase to 35 percentage points for the 55-59 age group and to more than 50 percentage points for the 60-64 age group. In this paper we quantitatively assess the role of social security, disability insurance, and taxation for understanding differences in labor supply late in the life cycle (age 50+) across European countries and the United States. … The social security, disability insurance, and taxation systems in the United States and European countries in the study are modelled in great detail.

Here’s a sampling of their results.

The main findings are that the model accounts fairly well for how labor supply decreases late in the life cycle for most countries. The model matches remarkably well the large decline in the aggregate labor supply after age 50 in Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands. The results support the view that government policies can go a long way towards accounting for the low labor supply late in the life cycle for these European countries relative to the United States, with social security rules accounting for the bulk of these effects… relative to the United States, the hours worked by men aged 60-64 is…49% in the Netherlands, 66% in Spain, 44% in Italy, and 29% in France. …government policies can go a long way towards accounting for labor supply differences across countries. Social security rules account for the bulk of cross country differences in labor supply late in the life cycle (with its contribution varying from 50% to 100%), but other policies also matter. In accounting for the low labor supply relative to the US at ages 60 to 64, taxes matter importantly in the Netherlands (6%), Italy (6%), and France (5%); disability insurance policies are important for the Netherlands (7%) and Spain (10%).

And here’s one of their charts comparing hours worked at various ages in Switzerland, Spain, France, and the United States.

The good news is that we don’t push people out of the labor force as much as the French and the Spanish.

The bad news is that we’re not as good as Switzerland (probably in part because the Swiss have a retirement system based on private saving, so they have the ideal combination of good work incentives and comfortable retirement).

But it shouldn’t matter whether other countries have good systems or bad systems. What does matter is that America’s demographic profile is changing. We’re living longer and having fewer children and our system of entitlements is a mess.

We should be reforming these programs, both for fiscal reasons and economic reasons.

P.S. It’s not just Social Security. Other programs also lure people out of the job market and into government dependency, with Obamacare being an especially harmful example.

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Washington is a place that gets infatuated with trendy ideas. A few years ago, everyone was talking about a “universal basic income” because of the strange assumption that millions of people will be unemployable in the future.

That idea was mostly embraced by folks on the left (though not Joe Biden), but there’s now a related idea on the right to provide “wage subsidies” so that unemployable (or difficult to employ) people can get work.

A leading proponent is Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, who wrote The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.

National Review published an excerpt from his book.

Work has enormous social value for the individuals who engage in it and for the formation and stability of their families, the opportunities of their children, and the vibrancy of their communities. Ideally, the labor market would settle in a place where productive, family-supporting work was available to all people in all places. But nothing in the theory of economics guarantees such an outcome… If we really want to “pay for jobs” — and we should — then we should do it directly. …a…“Federal Work Bonus,”…an additional $3 into your check for every hour worked? That would be a wage subsidy. …a wage subsidy aims to produce that effect in the labor market. Workers unwilling to sell their labor for less than $12 per hour may be worth only $9 per hour to an employer. No job will emerge in that scenario. With the insertion of a $3-per-hour wage subsidy, by contrast, the employer can pay the $9 per hour that the work is worth and the worker can receive the $12 per hour that he demanded. Thus will appear a job where none existed before. …The value of the subsidy would be set relative to a “target wage” of, say, $15 per hour and would close half the gap between the market wage and the target. A worker would initially receive a subsidy of $3 per hour in this case, equal to approximately $6,000 per year if he worked full-time.

The wage subsidy Cass advocates is similar to the “earned income tax credit,” which is basically a redistribution program that is administered through the tax code.

But Cass wants the EITC to be universally available rather than primarily targeted at households with children.

The federal earned income-tax credit (EITC) already operates something like a wage subsidy, offering low-income households large tax refunds that can exceed what they paid in taxes to begin with. But the EITC gets paid long after the income is earned — at tax time the following year — based on an opaque formula. It creates none of a wage subsidy’s immediate, transparent effect in the labor market. …The EITC also skews its benefits heavily toward households with children. A single person working full-time at minimum wage would get a credit of $41, less than 1 percent of what his colleague with kids can expect.

For what it’s worth, Cass acknowledges that employers might capture some of the benefits of a wage subsidy.

If the government offers a $3 subsidy atop a $9-per-hour job, the result will not necessarily be a $12-per-hour job. The employer might instead cut the market wage to $8, to which the government would add $3.50 — half the $7 gap to the target wage of $15 — leaving the worker with $11.50. …How workers and employers respond to the subsidy will vary based on labor-market conditions. What we do know from studies of the EITC and a similar program in the United Kingdom is that, in those instances, roughly 75 percent of the financial benefit accrued to workers.

Now let’s discuss the policy implications.

Cass openly admits that a wage subsidy is a form of redistribution, and – much to my dismay – he doesn’t object if at least some of that new spending is financed by higher taxes.

Subsidizing wages is a particularly well-tailored response to the challenges that globalization presents for American workers. First, the wage subsidy is the appropriate mechanism for redistributing gains from the economy’s “winners” to its “losers.” It comes closest to doing this directly, by taking tax revenue drawn from higher earners and inserting it directly into the paychecks of lower earners. …it is redistribution. And yes, high-income taxpayers will finance it. …The roughly $200 billion price tag for a wage subsidy might require some new tax revenue, but its funding could come largely from the existing safety net, which already dedicates more than $1 trillion annually to low-income households — including many with workers.

The following excerpt also rubbed me the wrong way since he seems to be saying that it would be better if Washington had expanded redistribution instead of lowering the corporate tax rate.

…in debates over the 2017 tax-reform package, which ultimately increased the ten-year federal deficit by $1.5 trillion for the sake of reducing the corporate tax rate, while failing to deliver even the small EITC increase for childless workers that Ryan had once championed. Indeed, while the Khanna proposal in its 2017 form is not a serious one, even it could have been implemented more cheaply than the tax reform that ultimately passed. The deficit spending would have been equally costly, but at least the labor market and its low-wage workers would have been the chief beneficiaries. …the Republican party’s relative disinterest in the labor market is made apparent by its preference for a tax cut over a wage subsidy.

This is very troubling. In the long run, faster growth is much better for low-income workers.

I’m not the only skeptic of this plan.

Writing for the Week, AEI’s Jame Pethokoukis argues that Cass bases his idea on a misreading of the economy.

One of his innovative analytical insights is that economic growth from globalization is bad for workers. …This is a terrible reading of history… America would be worse off today if it had somehow kept the closed “golden age” economy of the 1950s and 1960s. Its lack of openness greatly harmed American workers… Too much of American industry became complacent, unproductive… Likewise, would America have a more thriving economy today without Silicon Valley? …Cass’ reading of the data isn’t much better as he adopts the stance of many leftists that most Americans are no better off than decades ago. Yet a recent Congressional Budget Office study shows a nearly 50 percent increase in middle-class incomes since 1970, with incomes for the bottom fifth up some 80 percent.

And Michael Strain, also with the American Enterprise Institute, was similarly critical in a column for Bloomberg.

Economic growth is under attack. Or, more specifically, the idea that public policy should place a large amount of emphasis on the economy’s rate of growth is under assault… Traditionally, conservatives have placed a premium on growth as the best way to advance the fortunes of all Americans. But in recent years, some on the right have [been] playing down the importance of growth to the well-being of many working-class Americans. The latest argument for that position comes from Oren Cass… Cass argues that the results from decades of policies designed to encourage GDP growth are “embarrassing” and have “steered the nation off course.” …conservatives have been right in their traditional focus on growth. Let’s recall why. …the hot U.S. economy is the best jobs program available for lower-wage and vulnerable workers. …this strength is benefiting low-wage workers more than other groups. …Growth doesn’t just help low-income and working-class households in the short term. Over longer periods, seemingly small changes in the growth rate have large consequences. In the past four decades, for example, real GDP per person has increased from about $28,000 to over $55,000, growing at about 1.7 percent per year. If growth instead had been 1 percent, average GDP per head would be about three-quarters what it is today.

Needless to say, I strongly agree with Strain’s final point about the importance of faster growth.

Though I confess to being at a disadvantage when judging these anti-Cass columns since I haven’t read the book.

However, to the degree that Cass truly has given up on growth (i.e., accepting some form of the “secular stagnation” hypothesis), then I side with Pethokoukis and Strain.

But that’s not my main concern. Here are the four reasons that motivate my objection to wage subsidies.

  1. Redistribution should not be a responsibility of the federal government. Indeed, I want all redistribution devolved to state and local governments (or to the private sector).
  2. Cass says the program will cost $200 billion. Like with most government programs, I assume the actual fiscal burden will wind up being much higher. Especially after the left starts a bidding war.
  3. Existing wages subsidies are riddled with fraud because the government effectively gives people lots of money simply for filing a tax return, yet rarely bothers to confirm they actually earned the income.
  4. Wage subsidies actually turn into wage penalties (i.e., punitive implicit marginal tax rates) when income rises above the target level and the handouts are withdrawn.

The bottom line is that Cass is right that it’s better to subsidize work rather than idleness.

However, Americans already are too dependent on Uncle Sam. It would be even better if we simply achieved more growth by adopting the tried-and-tested recipe for prosperity.

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Politicians can interfere with the laws of supply and demand (and they do, with distressing regularity), but they can’t repeal them.

The minimum wage issue is a tragic example. If lawmakers pass a law mandating wages of $10 per hour, that is going to have a very bad effect on low-skilled workers who can only generate, say, $8 of revenue per hour.

You don’t need to be a libertarian to realize this is a problem.

Catherine Rampell leans to the left, but she warned last year in the Washington Post about the danger of “helping” workers to the unemployment line.

…the left needs to think harder about the unintended consequences of…benevolent-seeming proposals. In isolation, each of these policies has the potential to make workers more costly to hire. Cumulatively, they almost certainly do. Which means that, unless carefully designed, a lefty “pro-labor” platform might actually encourage firms to hire less labor… It’s easier, or perhaps more politically convenient, to assume that “pro-worker” policies never hurt the workers they’re intended to help. Take the proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour… raising wages in Seattle to $13 has produced sharp cuts in hours, leaving low-wage workers with smaller paychecks. And that’s in a high-cost city. Imagine what would happen if Congress raised the minimum wage to $15 nationwide. …Why wouldn’t you want to improve the living standards of as many people as possible? The answer: You won’t actually be helping them if making their labor much more expensive, much too quickly, results in their getting fired.

By the way, while I’m glad Ms. Rampell recognizes how big increases in the minimum wage will have an adverse impact, I think she is rather naive to believe that there are “carefully designed” options that wouldn’t be harmful.

Or does she have a cutoff point for acceptable casualties? Maybe she thinks that an increase in the minimum wage is bad if it throws 500,000 people into unemployment, but a small increase that leads to 200,000 fewer jobs is acceptable?

In any event, the voters of DC apparently didn’t read her column and they voted earlier this year to restrict the freedom of employers and employees in the restaurant sector to engage in voluntary exchange.

But then something interesting happened. Workers and owners united together and urged DC’s government to reverse the referendum.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this development.

…last week Washington, D.C.’s Democratic city councillors moved to overturn a mandatory minimum wage for tipped workers after bartenders, waiters and restaurant managers served up a lesson in economics. …The wage hike was billed as a way to give workers financial stability… But tipped workers realized the policy came with serious unintended consequences. …workers pushed for repeal. Though restaurants pay a $3.89 hourly wage to tipped workers, “we choose these jobs because we make far more than the standard minimum wage” from tips, bartender Valerie Graham told the City Council. …“Increasing the base wage for tipped workers who already make well above minimum wage threatens those who do not make tips,” such as cooks, dishwashers and table bussers, Rose’s Luxury bartender Chelsea Silber told the City Council. …Repeal requires a second council vote, but Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser says she agrees. Congratulations on the revolt of the restaurant masses.

Let’s review another example.

There’s now a mandate for a higher minimum wage in New York. Ellie Bufkin explains some of the consequences in a column for the Federalist.

This minimum wage spike has forced several New York City businesses to shutter their doors and will claim many more victims soon. Businesses must meet the $15 wage by the end of 2018, the culmination of mandatory increment increases that began in 2016. …For many businesses, this egregious law is not just an inconvenience, it is simply unaffordable. The most recent victim is long-time staple, The Coffee Shop… In explaining his decision to close following 28 years of high-volume business, owner Charles Milite told the New York Post, “The times have changed in our industry. The rents are very high and now the minimum wage is going up and we have a huge number of employees.” …Of all affected businesses, restaurants are at the greatest risk of losing their ability to operate under the strain of crushing financial demands. They run at the highest day-to-day operational costs of any business, partly because they must employ more people to run efficiently. …Eventually, minimum wage laws and other prohibitive regulations will cause the world-renowned restaurant life in cities like New York, DC, and San Francisco to cease to exist.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think restaurants will “cease to exist” because of mandates for higher minimum wages.

But there will definitely be fewer establishments with fewer workers.

Why? Because business aren’t charities. They hire workers to increase profits, so it’s unavoidable that we get bad results when government mandates result in some workers costing more than the revenue they generate.

Which is what we’re now seeing in Seattle.

I’ll close by recycling this debate clip from a few years ago. I made the point that faster growth is the right way to boost wages.

And I also gave a plug for federalism. If some states want to throw low-skilled workers out of jobs, I think that will be an awful outcome. But it won’t be as bad as a nationwide scheme to increase unemployment (especially for minorities).

P.S. As is so often the case, the “sensible Swiss” have the right perspective.

P.P.S. Here’s a video making the case against government wage mandates. And here’s another interview I did on the topic.

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One of the more elementary observations about economics is that a nation’s prosperity is determined in part by the quantity of quality of labor and capital. These “factors of production” are combined to generate national income.

I frequently grouse that punitive tax policies discourage capital. There’s less incentive to invest, after all, if the government imposes extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

Bad tax laws also discourage labor. High marginal tax rates penalize people for being productive, and this can be especially counterproductive for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Though we shouldn’t overlook how government discourages low-income people from being productively employed. Only the problem is more on the spending side of the fiscal equation.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Early and Phil Gramm share some depressing numbers about growing dependency in the United States.

During the 20 years before the War on Poverty was funded, the portion of the nation living in poverty had dropped to 14.7% from 32.1%. Since 1966, the first year with a significant increase in antipoverty spending, the poverty rate reported by the Census Bureau has been virtually unchanged. …Transfers targeted to low-income families increased in real dollars from an average of $3,070 per person in 1965 to $34,093 in 2016. …Transfers now constitute 84.2% of the disposable income of the poorest quintile of American households and 57.8% of the disposable income of lower-middle-income households. These payments also make up 27.5% of America’s total disposable income.

This massive expansion of redistribution has negatively impacted incentives to work.

The stated goal of the War on Poverty is not just to raise living standards, but also to make America’s poor more self-sufficient and to bring them into the mainstream of the economy. In that effort the war has been an abject failure, increasing dependency and largely severing the bottom fifth of earners from the rewards and responsibilities of work. …The expanding availability of antipoverty transfers has devastated the work effort of poor and lower-middle income families. By 1975 the lowest-earning fifth of families had 24.8% more families with a prime-work age head and no one working than did their middle-income peers. By 2015 this differential had risen to 37.1%. …The War on Poverty has increased dependency and failed in its primary effort to bring poor people into the mainstream of America’s economy and communal life. Government programs replaced deprivation with idleness, stifling human flourishing. It happened just as President Franklin Roosevelt said it would: “The lessons of history,” he said in 1935, “show conclusively that continued dependency upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.”

In another WSJ column on the same topic, Peter Cove reached a similar conclusion.

America doesn’t have a worker shortage; it has a work shortage. The unemployment rate is at a 15-year low, but only 55% of Americans adults 18 to 64 have full-time jobs. Nearly 95 million people have removed themselves entirely from the job market. According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, the labor-force participation rate for men 25 to 54 is lower now than it was at the end of the Great Depression. The welfare state is largely to blame. …insisting on work in exchange for social benefits would succeed in reducing dependency. We have the data: Within 10 years of the 1996 reform, the number of Americans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program fell 60%. But no reform is permanent. Under President Obama, federal poverty programs ballooned.

Edward Glaeser produced a similar indictment in an article for City Journal.

In 1967, 95 percent of “prime-age” men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. During the Great Recession, though, the share of jobless prime-age males rose above 20 percent. Even today, long after the recession officially ended, more than 15 percent of such men aren’t working. …The rise of joblessness—especially among men—is the great American domestic crisis of the twenty-first century. It is a crisis of spirit more than of resources. …Proposed solutions that focus solely on providing material benefits are a false path. Well-meaning social policies—from longer unemployment insurance to more generous disability diagnoses to higher minimum wages—have only worsened the problem; the futility of joblessness won’t be solved with a welfare check. …various programs make joblessness more bearable, at least materially; they also reduce the incentives to find work. …The past decade or so has seen a resurgent progressive focus on inequality—and little concern among progressives about the downsides of discouraging work. …The decision to prioritize equality over employment is particularly puzzling, given that social scientists have repeatedly found that unemployment is the greater evil.

Why work, though, when government pays you not to work?

And that unfortunate cost-benefit analysis is being driven by ever-greater levels of dependency.

Writing for Forbes, Professor Jeffrey Dorfman echoed these findings.

…our current welfare system fails to prepare people to take care of themselves, makes poor people more financially fragile, and creates incentives to remain on welfare forever. …The first failure of government welfare programs is to favor help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor people to become self-sufficient in the future. …It is the classic story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Government welfare programs hand out lots of fish, but never seem to teach people how to fish for themselves. The problem is not a lack of job training programs, but rather the fact that the job training programs fail to help people. …The third flaw in the government welfare system is the way that benefits phase outs as a recipient’s income increases. …a poor family trying to escape poverty pays an effective marginal tax rate that is considerably higher than a middle class family and higher than or roughly equal to the marginal tax rate of a family in the top one percent.

I like that he also addressed problems such as implicit marginal tax rates and the failure of job-training programs.

Professor Lee Ohanian of the Hoover Institution reinforces the point that the welfare state provides lots of money in ways that stifle personal initiative.

Inequality is not an issue that policy should address. …Society, however, should care about creating economic opportunities for the lowest earners. …a family of four at the poverty level has about $22,300 per year of pre-tax income. Consumption for that same family of four on average, however, is about $44,000 per year, which means that their consumption level is about twice as high as their income. …We’re certainly providing many more resources to low-earning families today. But on the other hand, we have policies in place that either limit economic opportunities for low earners or distort the incentives for those earners to achieve prosperity.

I’ve been citing lots of articles, which might be tedious, so let’s take a break with a video about the welfare state from the American Enterprise Institute.

And if you like videos, here’s my favorite video about the adverse effects of the welfare state.

By the way, it isn’t just libertarians and conservatives who recognize the problem.

Coming from a left-of-center perspective, Catherine Rampell explains in the Washington Post how welfare programs discourage work.

…today’s social safety net discourages poor people from working, or at least from earning more money. …you might qualify for some welfare programs, such as food stamps, housing vouchers, child-care subsidies and Medicaid. But if you get a promotion, or longer hours, or a second job, or otherwise start making more, these benefits will start to evaporate — and sometimes quite abruptly. You can think about this loss of benefits as a kind of extra tax on low-income people. …Americans at or just above the poverty line typically face marginal tax rates of 34 percent. That is, for every additional dollar they earn, they keep only 66 cents. …One in 10 families with earnings close to the poverty line faces a marginal tax rate of at least 65 percent, the CBO found. …You don’t need to be a hardcore conservative to see how this system might make working longer hours, or getting a better job, less attractive than it might otherwise be.

To understand what this means, the Illinois Policy Institute calculated how poor people in the state are trapped in dependency.

The potential sum of welfare benefits can reach $47,894 annually for single-parent households and $41,237 for two-parent households. Welfare benefits will be available to some households earning as much as $74,880 annually. …A single mom has the most resources available to her family when she works full time at a wage of $8.25 to $12 an hour. Disturbingly, taking a pay increase to $18 an hour can leave her with about one-third fewer total resources (net income and government benefits). In order to make work “pay” again, she would need an hourly wage of $38 to mitigate the impact of lost benefits and higher taxes.

Agreeing that there’s a problem does not imply agreement about a solution.

Folks on the left think the solution to high implicit tax rates (i.e., the dependency trap) is to make benefits more widely available. In other words, don’t reduce handouts as income increases.

The other alternative is to make benefits less generous, which will simultaneously reduce implicit tax rates and encourage more work.

I’m sympathetic to the latter approach, but my view is that welfare programs should be designed and financed by state and local governments. We’re far more likely to see innovation as policy makers in different areas experiment with the best ways of preventing serious deprivation while also encouraging self-sufficiency.

I think we’ll find out that benefits should be lower, but maybe we’ll learn in certain cases that benefits should be expanded. But we won’t learn anything so long as there is a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington.

Let’s close with a political observation. A columnist for the New York Times is frustrated that many low-income voters are supporting Republicans because they see how their neighbors are being harmed by dependency.

Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net. …The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns. …I’ve heard variations on this theme all over the country: people railing against the guy across the street who is collecting disability payments but is well enough to go fishing, the families using their food assistance to indulge in steaks.

It’s not my role to pontificate about politics, so I won’t address that part of the column. But I will say that I’ve also found that hostility to welfare is strongest among those who have first-hand knowledge of how dependency hurts people.

P.S. If you want evidence for why Washington should get out of the business of income redistribution, check out this visual depiction of the welfare state.

P.S. The Canadians can teach us some good lessons about welfare reform.

P.P.S. The Nordic nations also provide valuable lessons, at least from the don’t-do-this perspective.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, there’s a Laffer-type relationship between welfare spending and poverty.

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One of the core principles of economics is that prices are determined by supply and demand. That includes the price of labor – i.e., the wages received by workers.

Another core principle is that taxes create distortions by reducing demand and supply. Which is why it’s not a good idea to impose high tax rates on behaviors that contribute to prosperity, such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

That’s the theory. Now let’s consider some real-world implications of taxes on work.

Here are some excerpts from new research by the European Central Bank.

Several reforms can be enacted to reduce the unemployment rate in the euro area. Among them is a permanent reduction in the labour tax. Typically, a decrease in labour taxes reduces labour costs to employers and increases the net take-home pay of employees, positively impacting both labour demand and labour supply. Reducing taxes on labour can contribute to increase employment and activity rates in the EA, by increasing incentives to hire, to look for, and take up, work. …In this paper we contribute to the debate on those issues by evaluating the macroeconomic effects of a fiscal reform in the EA countries.

The study look at what happens with employment-related taxes are lowered at either the employer level or the employee level.

Permanently reducing labour tax rates paid by Home firms would have stimulating effects on economic activity and employment, and would permanently reduce the unemployment rate. The same is true when tax rates paid by Home households are reduced.

Here are some of the specific estimates of the positive impact of lower labor taxes at the firm level.

The tax rate is reduced by almost 2 p.p. (trough level). The reduction of labour taxes paid by firms reduces the gross wage bill of firms and hence increases the value of having a worker. Workers are able to obtain part of the increase in firms’ surplus in the bargaining process, which results in a real wage increase. Nevertheless, the wage increase is not sufficient to undo the increase in the value of having a worker for firms, which leads to an increase in labour demand through vacancy posting. The number of matches increases as well and, consistently, the probability of finding a job and that of filling a vacancy increases and decreases, respectively. Employment increases (and unemployment rate decreases) by roughly 0.3 p.p. after two years and 0.4 p.p. in the medium and in the long run, respectively. …Home GDP increases by 0.5% after two years. Both consumption and investment increase. Consumption increases because of households’ larger permanent income, associated with the increase in employment, hours and production. Investment increases because firms augment physical capital to accompany the rising employment.

I’ve combined some of the key results from Figures 3 and 4, all of which show the benefits over time of lower tax rates on work (the horizontal axis is quarters, so 20 quarters equals five years).

And here are the specific estimates of the good outcomes when labor tax are reduced at the household level.

Qualitatively, results are similarly expansionary as those obtained when reducing labour taxes paid by firms. Hours worked, employment, matches, and the probability of finding a job increase, while the probability of filling a vacancy decreases. …hours worked now increase by 0.4% (0.3% in the previous simulation), employment by almost 0.5% (0.35% in the previous simulation), while the unemployment rate falls by almost 0.5 p.p. (0.4 p.p. in the previous simulation). …Home GDP increases by around 0.7% after two years.

Once again, let’s look at some charts showing the benefits over time of lower tax rates on workers.

Interestingly, it appears that there are slightly better outcomes if labor taxes are reduced for workers rather than employers, but the wage numbers are better if the tax cuts take place at the business level.

I’ll take either approach, for what it’s worth.

Let’s close with one additional excerpt. The study incorporated the impact of government employment, which can have a very distorting effect on private employment given the excessive size of the bureaucracy and above-market compensation for bureaucrats.

…we allow for public sector employment and for the possibility of directed search between the private and public sector labour market… In fact, a proper assessment of the impact of the labour market reforms on private-sector employment should take into account that a common characteristic of the EA labour market is the important share of the public employment in total employment, which is, according to OECD (2015), around 20% in France, 15% in Spain, Italy and Portugal, and 13% in Germany. Thus, this component is important to understand the labour market dynamics in the EA, given also that, during a crisis period, public and private labour markets tend to be more inter-related (when the unemployment rate is high, the number of applicants to the public sector is larger).

P.S. I’m periodically asked whether I’m exaggerating when I assert that something (such as taxes distorting the supply and demand for labor) is a “core principle” in economics. But I don’t think left-leaning economists (and there are plenty) would disagree about taxes impacting supply and demand. But they presumably would quibble about the “elasticity” of supply and demand curves (in other words, how sensitive are people to changes in tax rates). Moreover, they surely would claim in some instances that any “deadweight loss” would be offset by supposed economic benefits of government spending (and pro-market people acknowledge that’s possible, at least when government is small). And, when push comes to shove, some folks on the left would openly argue that it’s okay to have less prosperity if there’s more equality.

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When I wrote about “crazy Bernie Sanders” in 2016, I wasn’t just engaging in literary hyperbole. The Vermont Senator is basically an unreconstructed leftist with a disturbing affinity for crackpot ideas and totalitarian regimes.

His campaign agenda that year was an orgy of new taxes and higher spending.

Though it’s worth noting that he’s at least crafty enough to steer clear of pure socialism. He wants massive increases in taxes, spending, and regulation, but even he doesn’t openly advocate government ownership of factories.

Then again, there probably wouldn’t be any factories to nationalize if Sanders was ever successful in saddling the nation with a Greek-sized public sector.

He’s already advocated a “Medicare-for-All” scheme with a 10-year price tag of $15 trillion, for instance. And now he has a new multi-trillion dollar proposal for guaranteed jobs.

In a column for the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson dissects Bernie’s latest vote-buying scheme. Here’s a description of what Senator Sanders apparently wants.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants the federal government to guarantee a job for every American willing and able to work. The proposal sounds compassionate and enlightened, but in practice, it would almost certainly be a disaster. …Just precisely how Sanders’s scheme would work is unclear, because he hasn’t yet submitted detailed legislation. However, …a job-guarantee plan devised by economists at Bard College’s Levy Economics Institute…suggests how a job guarantee might function. …anyone needing a job could get one at a uniform wage of $15 an hour, plus health insurance (probably Medicare) and other benefits (importantly: child care). When fully deployed, the program would create 15 million public-service jobs, estimate the economists. …the federal government would pay the costs, the program would be administered by states, localities and nonprofit organizations.

As you might expect, the fiscal costs would be staggering (and, like most government programs, would wind up being even more expensive than advertised).

This would be huge: about five times the number of existing federal jobs (2.8 million) and triple the number of state government jobs (5 million). …The proposal would add to already swollen federal budget deficits. The Bard economists put the annual cost at about $400 billion. …overall spending is likely underestimated.

But the budgetary costs would just be the beginning.

Bernie’s scheme would basically destroy a big chunk of the job market since people in low-wage and entry-level jobs would seek to take advantage of the new government giveaway.

…uncovered workers might stage a political rebellion or switch from today’s low-paying private-sector jobs to the better-paid public-service jobs… The same logic applies to child-care subsidies.

And there are many other unanswered questions about how the plan would work.

Does the federal government have the managerial competence to oversee the creation of so many jobs? …Can the new workers be disciplined? …Finally, would state and local governments substitute federally funded jobs for existing jobs that are supported by local taxes?

If the plan ever got adopted, the only silver lining to the dark cloud is that it would provide additional evidence that government programs don’t work.

The irony is that, by assigning government tasks likely to fail, the advocates of activist government bring government into disrepute.

But that silver lining won’t matter much since a bigger chunk of the population will be hooked on the heroin of government dependency.

In other words, just as it’s now difficult to repeal Obamacare even though we know it doesn’t work, it also would be difficult to repeal make-work government jobs.

So we may have plenty of opportunity to mock Bernie Sanders, but he may wind up with the last laugh.

P.S. Regarding getting people into productive work, I figure the least destructive approach would be “job training” programs.

Beyond that, I’m not sure whether make-work government jobs are more harmful or basic income is more harmful.

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A few years ago, John Stossel did an undercover investigation of a government job-training program and he found that the operation was basically a scam.

Not that we should be surprised. Back in 2014, I explained to a C-Span audience that a healthy private sector was the only sure-fire way of producing a good job market. Which is why politicians (assuming they actually want job creation) should simply “get out of the way.”

Let’s now take a fresh look at the issue. The Wall Street Journal editorialized on this topic a few days ago.

…a new report from the Labor Department’s inspector general shows that the $1.7 billion federal Job Corps training program is a flop. …Nearly 50,000 people enrolled in 2017…the Job Corps provides meals, medical care, books, clothing and supplies, as well as an allowance for child care and living expenses. Such comprehensive support doesn’t come cheap—the taxpayer cost per student last year was $33,990—and the IG suggests that the investment often doesn’t pay off. …in 27 of 50 cases where full employment data existed, graduates were working the same sort of low-wage, low-skill jobs they held before training.

But there are beneficiaries of the program. The bureaucrats and contractors involved in the program make out like bandits.

The new report suggests that Job Corps’ biggest beneficiaries may be government contractors, not rookie job seekers. Job Corps spent more than $100 million between 2010 and 2011 on transition-service specialists to place students in a job after training. But among 324 sampled Job Corps alumni, the IG found evidence that contractors had helped a mere 18 find work. The contractors often claimed credit for success even though they provided no referrals or résumé and interview help.

Once again, this should not be surprising. It’s what we find over and over and over again.

Here are some excerpts from a report prepared a few years ago by then-Senator Tom Coburn.

…the government has taken on a role for which it was never intended, pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into a broken web of job training and employment programs that are rife with waste, fraud and abuse and lacking demonstrable effectiveness. …In FY 2009, nine federal agencies spent approximately $18 billion to administer 47 separate employment and job training programs, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO identified another 51 federal programs that could be categorized as federal job training programs… The GAO found all but three of the 47 programs overlap with at least one other program in that they provide similar services to similar populations – yet maintain separate administrative structures.

All that bureaucracy and duplication might be an acceptable price to pay to get good results.

Except the programs are a miserable flop.

GAO finds ―little is known about the effectiveness of most programs. …impact studies that were conducted ―generally found the effects of participation were not consistent across programs, with only some demonstrating positive impacts that tended to be small, inconclusive or restricted to short-term impacts.

The report then lists 25 separate examples of wasteful and fraudulent spending.

It’s difficult to pick the most egregious example, but #14 caught my attention.

…a Department of Labor official was found to be taking bribes from a Job Corps contractor, even approving contracts that billed for ghost employees. …the government provided Job Corps with $1.68 billion in fiscal year 2009 and $1.7 billion in FY 2010. Job Corps also received $250 million in stimulus funding in addition to regular annual appropriations. …As part of the Inspector General‘s investigation, a search warrant was executed at the contractor‘s home. The contractor said that Brevard assisted in getting him contracts in exchange for payments. The contractor paid Brevard because if he did not do so, she would not process his invoices. When asked by law enforcement, Brevard admitted to receiving payments from the contractor paid her, and that she approved contracts – of which she knew were false.

Let’s look at a recent real-world example of failure.

The Daily Signal has done some solid reporting on this topic, including this look at the high cost and low benefits of job-training programs.

A government-funded job training program that promised to turn hundreds of residents of Kentucky’s coal country into computer coders so far has spent $2 million to place 17 people in tech jobs and may have left others worse off… The job training program, budgeted for a total of $4.5 million, was supposed to last through 2019 and train up to 200 people from an economically depressed region of Kentucky for middle- to high-skill careers in information technology. …But less than a year later, workers have torn down signs at Big Sandy Community and Technical College, where the program was based, and are closing shop on what appears to be a government-funded program run amok. A total of 32 of the 49 Kentuckians who originally enrolled in the TechHire program in Eastern Kentucky, known as TEKY, have not obtained jobs in the tech industry, according to government figures.

Predictably, the contractors were beneficiaries.

EKCEP spent $1.98 million on the partnership with Interapt. That total includes payments of $861,612 to Interapt for staff salaries and management fees, $706,146 for program service fees, and $115,287 for travel. In one case, Interapt billed EKCEP $5,200 a month for rental of a five-bedroom, five-bathroom house in Paintsville, complete with swimming pool, for Interapt staffers working on the training program. But Gopal, Interapt’s CEO, submitted as an expense and was reimbursed $1,022.40 in December alone for staying at a Ramada Inn in Paintsville, which is about 200 miles east of Louisville. …“Companies like Interapt can rely on the federal government as a crutch because the government has traditionally funded these job training programs, and it creates this vicious circle where industry supports it, politicians support it, but the results don’t bear out the intentions of the programs,” said Nick Loris, an economist who researches and writes about energy policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Let’s close with a meaty excerpt from an overview of job-training programs by Chris Edwards and Daniel Murphy.

The most thorough assessment of federal job training programs was a $25 million National JTPA study in 1994, which was commissioned by the Department of Labor. It tracked 20,000 people over a four-year period who used various training services, and compared them to control groups who did not. The study found that for most participants, federal programs had no significant benefits. …(Labor experts James Heckman and Jeffrey Smith note: “For youth, the record of government training programs for the disadvantaged is almost uniformly negative.”) All in all, the National JTPA study found that the modest benefits of the program were outweighed by the program’s costs. A 2002 book, The Job Training Charade, examines the failures of federal job training programs over the decades. The author, Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon, is very liberal in his politics… But based on his detailed review, he finds that federal job training programs have provided very small or insignificant benefits. He argues that these programs exist for political reasons alone. Politicians have championed these programs in order to be seen as “doing something” to help workers, and whether they actually work or not is less important. Lafer argues that “as successive generations of job training programs fail to produce the hoped for results, policymakers have cycled through a stock repertoire of procedural fixes that promise to solve the problem.” CETA was supposed to fix problems of the 1960’s training programs. JTPA was supposed to fix CETA, and the WIA was supposed to fix JTPA. Lafer notes that “repeated reports of [JTPA’s] failure seem to have little impact on its political popularity… JTPA was succeeded by the Workforce Investment Act which . . . largely repeats the same strategies found to have failed under JTPA.” Job training legislation is little more than “political symbolism,” he says.

Unfortunately, empty “political symbolism” is the specialty of Washington.

Politicians don’t see the “unseen” and they don’t understand “creative destruction.”

So their efforts at job creation hinder rather than help.

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There is a lot of good news about the job market in America.

The official unemployment rate, released just yesterday, is down to 4.1 percent, which is the lowest its been since the end of the Clinton years. Even more impressive, the number of people getting unemployment benefits (i.e., getting paid not to work) has dropped to the lowest level since the early 1970s.

I don’t want to rain on this parade, but the numbers aren’t as good as they seem.

Back during the Obama years, I repeatedly pointed out the real health of the labor market should be measured by looking at either the rate of labor force participation or the employment-population ratio.

These are the numbers that give us a more accurate picture of the extent to which labor is being productively utilized (remember, national income is determined by the quality and quantity of labor and capital in the economy).

So let’s dig into the government’s database on labor force statistics and see where we stand when examining these more-insightful numbers.

We’ll start with the data on the rate of labor force participation, which is basically a measure of those working and looking for work as a share of the adult population. As you can see, that rate dropped significantly at the end of the Bush years/beginning of the Obama years. And it hasn’t recovered even though the recession ended back in 2009.

By the way, we shouldn’t expect this rate to be 100 percent, or even anywhere close to that high. After all, the 16-and-up population includes plenty of full-time students, retired people, disabled, stay-at-home moms (or dads), and others.

But I worry about the downward trend.

Now let’s look at the employment-population ratio, which is slightly more encouraging. We see a precipitous drop during the recession, but at least the number has been trending in the right direction for several years.

Though it’s nonetheless semi-depressing that the increase has been rather slow and we haven’t come anywhere close to recovering from the downturn.

To help understand the rate of joblessness, here’s a video from the Mercatus Center.

And to better understand the rate of employment, here’s a video from Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute.

As far as I’m concerned, the key factoid is near the end, where he points out that we would have 10 million additional working-age men productively employed if the rate of employment today was the same as it was in 1965.

And that’s largely the fault of government programs – such as unemployment insurance, disability, Obamacare, licensing, etc – that make it easier for people to choose to be unproductive.

Speaking of which, let’s close with some excerpts from one of Jason Riley’s columns in the Wall Street Journal.

Peter Cove dropped out of a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison more than 50 years ago to enlist in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. These days, he’s fighting a war on dependency. …Mr. Cove moved to New York in 1965 to work for the city’s new Anti-Poverty Operations Board… Mr. Cove…noticed… “The government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty that Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse.” Between 1962 and 2012, the percentage of the U.S. population receiving government assistance in the form of cash transfers almost doubled to 21% from 11.7%. …Between 1965 and 2011, the official poverty rate was essentially flat, while government spending per person on poverty programs rose by more than 900% after inflation. “…But as welfare spending soared, the decline in poverty came to a grinding halt.” …Mr. Cove…came to understand that the answer to poverty is prosperity, that the private sector is the better generator of prosperity, and that the best antipoverty program is a job. “Not only does big government get in the way when it provides disincentives to work, it also has a profoundly negative effect on community,”… The increase in government dependency that Mr. Cove laments predates President Obama by decades, but it did accelerate on Mr. Obama’s watch.

Great points, particularly about how the welfare state actually undermined progress on reducing poverty and also eroded societal capital.

All of which is captured in this Wizard-of-Id satire.

P.S. Some honest leftists admit that the welfare state has caused collateral damage.

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The notion that government should automatically give everyone money – a policy known as “universal basic income” – is now getting a lot of attention.

From an economic perspective, I acknowledge that the idea should not be summarily rejected. Here’s some of what I wrote earlier this year.

…there actually is a reasonable argument that the current welfare state is so dysfunctional that it would be better to simply give everyone a check instead.

But I’m nonetheless very skeptical. Simply stated, the math doesn’t work, people would have less incentive to work, and there would be “public choice” pressures to expand the size of the checks.

So when the topic came up as part of a recent interview, I criticized the proposal and praised Swiss voters for rejecting – by an overwhelming margin – a referendum that would have created a basic income in that nation.

My reaction was probably even more hostile than normal because I don’t like it when guilt-ridden rich people try to atone for their wealth by giving away my money.

Moreover, it’s silly for Zuckerberg to use Alaska as an example because of its oil wealth and small population.

That being said, if I had more time, I would have been more nuanced and pointed out that we hopefully will learn more from some of the experiments that are happening around the world. Especially what’s happening on the other side of the north pole from Alaska.

The New York Times published an in-depth preview of Finland’s experiment late last year. Here’s a description of the problem that Finnish policymakers want to solve.

…this city has…thousands of skilled engineers in need of work. Many were laid off by Nokia… While entrepreneurs are eager to put these people to work, the rules of Finland’s generous social safety net effectively discourage this. Jobless people generally cannot earn additional income while collecting unemployment benefits or they risk losing that assistance. For laid-off workers from Nokia, simply collecting a guaranteed unemployment check often presents a better financial proposition than taking a leap with a start-up.

For anyone who has studied the impact of redistribution programs on incentives to work, this hardly comes as a surprise.

Indeed, the story has both data and anecdotes to illustrate how the Finnish welfare state is subsidizing idleness.

In the five years after suffering a job loss, a Finnish family of four that is eligible for housing assistance receives average benefits equal to 73 percent of previous wages, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is nearly triple the level in the United States. …the social safety net…appears to be impeding the reinvigoration of the economy by discouraging unemployed people from working part time. …Mr. Saloranta has his eyes on a former Nokia employee who is masterly at developing prototypes. He only needs him part time. He could pay 2,000 euros a month (about $2,090). Yet this potential hire is bringing home more than that via his unemployment benefits. “It’s more profitable for him to just wait at home for some ideal job,” Mr. Saloranta complains.

So the Finnish government wants to see if a basic income can solve this problem.

…the Finnish government is exploring how to change that calculus, initiating an experiment in a form of social welfare: universal basic income. Early next year, the government plans to randomly select roughly 2,000 unemployed people — from white-collar coders to blue-collar construction workers. It will give them benefits automatically, absent bureaucratic hassle and minus penalties for amassing extra income. The government is eager to see what happens next. Will more people pursue jobs or start businesses? How many will stop working and squander their money on vodka? Will those liberated from the time-sucking entanglements of the unemployment system use their freedom to gain education, setting themselves up for promising new careers? …The answers — to be determined over a two-year trial — could shape social welfare policy far beyond Nordic terrain.

The results from this experiment will help answer some big questions.

…basic income confronts fundamental disagreements about human reality. If people are released from fears that — absent work — they risk finding themselves sleeping outdoors, will they devolve into freeloaders? “Some people think basic income will solve every problem under the sun, and some people think it’s from the hand of Satan and will destroy our work ethic,” says Olli Kangas, who oversees research at Kela, a Finnish government agency that administers many social welfare programs. “I’m hoping we can create some knowledge on this issue.” …Finland’s concerns are pragmatic. The government has no interest in freeing wage earners to write poetry. It is eager to generate more jobs.

As I noted above, this New York Times report was from late last year. It was a preview of Finland’s experiment.

People have been getting checks for several months. Are there any preliminary indications of the impact?

Well, the good news is that recipients apparently like getting free money. Here are some excerpts from a report by Business Insider.

…some of the 2,000 recipients are already reporting lower levels of stress. The $600 they receive each month might not be much, but it’s enough to put some people’s anxiety at ease.

But the bad news is that the handouts are giving people the flexibility to reject work.

Marjukka Turunen, head of Kela’s legal benefits unit, told Kera News. “There was this one woman who said: ‘I was afraid every time the phone would ring, that unemployment services are calling to offer me a job,'”… Scott Santens, a basic income advocate and writer…says basic income redistributes power into the middle-class — namely, to turn down unappealing jobs.

The last sentence of the excerpt is particularly worrisome. Some advocates think universal handouts are good precisely because people can work less.

It’s obviously too early to draw sweeping conclusions, especially based on a couple of anecdotes.

However, a recent column in the New York Times by two left-leaning Finns suggests that the data will not be favorable to universal handouts. The authors start with a basic explanation of the issue.

Universal basic income is generating considerable interest these days, from Bernie Sanders, who says he is “absolutely sympathetic” to the idea, to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and other tech billionaires. The basic idea behind it is that handing out unconditional cash to all citizens, employed or not, would help reduce poverty and inequality… As a rich country in the European Union, with one of the highest rates of social spending in the world, Finland seemed like an ideal testing ground for a state-of-the-art social welfare experiment. …Kela, the national social-insurance institute, randomly selected 2,000 Finns between 25 and 58 years of age who were already getting some form of unemployment benefits. The subsidies were offered to people who had been unemployed for about one year or more, or who had less than six months of work experience.

But then they denigrate the study.

…the Finnish trial was poorly designed… The trial size was cut to one-fifth of what had originally been proposed, and is now too small to be scientifically viable. Instead of giving free money to everyone, the experiment is handing out, in effect, a form of unconditional unemployment benefits. In other words, there is nothing universal about this version of universal basic income. …The government has made no secret of the fact that its universal basic income experiment isn’t about liberating the poor or fighting inequality. Instead, the trial’s “primary goal” is “promoting employment,” the government explained in a 2016 document proposing the project to Parliament. Meaning: The project was always meant to incentivize people to accept low-paying and low-productivity jobs.

Maybe I’m reading between the lines, but it sounds like they are worried that the results ultimately will show that a basic income discourages labor supply.

Which reinforces my concerns about the entire concept.

Yes, the current system is bad for both poor people and taxpayers. But why would anyone think that we’ll get better results if we give generous handouts to everyone?

So if we replace all those handouts with one big universal handout, is there any reason to expect that somehow people will be more likely to find jobs and contribute to the economy?

Again, we need to wait another year or two before we have comprehensive data from Finland. But I’m skeptical that we’ll get a favorable outcome.

P.S. The Wizard-of-Id parody shown above contains a lot of insight about labor supply and incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

P.P.S. Since I rarely write about Finland, I should point out that it is ranked #20 for economic liberty, only four spots behind the United States (and the country is more pro-market than America when looking at non-fiscal policy factors).

P.P.P.S. On the minus side, Finland has decided that broadband access is somehow a human right. On the plus side, the country’s central bank produces good research on the burden of government spending, and its former president understood the essential flaw of Keynesian economics.

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It’s time to channel the wisdom of Frederic Bastiat.

There are many well-meaning people who understandably want to help workers by protecting them from bad outcomes such as pay reductions, layoffs and discrimination.

My normal response is to remind them that the best thing for workers is a vibrant and growing economy. That’s the kind of environment that produces tight labor markets and more investment, both of which then lead to higher pay.

Even statists sort of understand that this is true, but it’s sometimes difficult to get them to grasp the implications. They oftentimes are drawn to specific forms of government intervention, even if you explain that there are adverse unintended consequences.

Let’s explore this issue further.

In a column for the New York Times, Megan McGrath writes about a big new mining project in a remote part of Australia that “has the potential to create 10,000 jobs.” While that’s obviously good news, she worries that the company “will repeat the mistakes made by companies during the last mining boom by using workplace practices that hurt workers and their families.”

And what are these mistaken “workplace practices”? Apparently she thinks it is terrible that workers don’t want to move to the outback and instead prefer to continue living in cities and suburbs. So she think it is bad that they fly in for multi-week shifts, stay in temporary housing, and then fly back (at company expense) to their homes.

Employees…fly to remote mines from major cities to work weeks at a time, and fly home for several days off before starting the cycle again. These so-called fly-in, fly-out jobs, which offer hefty pay, are widely known here as “fifo.” At the peak of the boom in 2012, …more than 100,000 of these held fifo positions.

Though it seems these workers are making very rational decisions on how to maximize the net benefits of these positions.

…fifo workers in the last boom were young, undereducated men lured by salaries that far surpassed what they could earn for similar work outside the industry — up to $100,000 a year to shift earth and drive trucks. The average full-time mining employee in 2016 earned $1,000 more per week than other Australians.

So what’s the downside? Why are workers supposedly being exploited by these lucrative jobs?

According to McGrath, the mining camps don’t have a lot of amenities.

…fifo life comes at a steep price. The management in many mines controls the transient workers’ schedules — setting times for meals, showers and sleep. The workers often can’t visit nearby towns and recreational facilities such as gyms and swimming pools because of a lack of transportation. Many employees have to share beds. They work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, up to three weeks at a time.

That doesn’t sound great, but this also explains why the mining companies have to pay a boatload of money to attract workers. This is a well-established pattern that is familiar to labor economists. If working conditions are unpalatable, then employers have to compensate with more remuneration.

But Ms. McGrath doesn’t think workers should get extra cash. She would rather the mining company compensate workers indirectly.

A lot can be done to improve life in the camps. Shorter swings would help workers maintain bonds with their families. More stable living situations, with less sharing of living spaces, would increase a sense of value and belonging. Workers should be encouraged to visit nearby towns to reduce their isolation. The Adani megamine could be in operation for 60 years, experts say. Roads for the mine and the region should be improved so employees can move with their families to existing townships and drive to work.

Of course, she doesn’t admit that she wants workers to get less cash compensation, but that would be the real-world impact of her proposed policies.

She says that the mining companies should “put people ahead of profits.” But that’s a vacuous statement. Projects like this new mine only exist because investors expect to earn a return. Otherwise, they wouldn’t take the enormous risk of sinking so much capital into such endeavors.

All this new investment is good news for unemployed or under-employed Australians since they’ll now have an opportunity to compete for jobs that pay very well, particularly for workers without a lot of education.

By the way, if workers really valued all the things that are on Ms. McGrath’s list, the company would offer those fringe benefits instead of higher wages. But that’s obviously not the case. The market has spoken.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that she also does not understand tax policy. In a sensible system, companies calculate their taxable profit by adding up their total revenue and then subtracting all their costs. What’s left is profit, a slice of which is then grabbed by government.

But that’s not enough for Ms. McGrath. She apparently believes that mining companies shouldn’t be allowed to subtract many of the costs associated with so-called fifo workers when calculating their annual profit. I’m not joking.

Mining companies are encouraged through tax incentives to use the transient workers. Some costs associated with a fifo worker — meals, transportation and airline tickets — can be claimed as production expenses, helping to lower a company’s tax bill.

I hope the Australian government isn’t dumb enough to buy this argument. Allowing a firm to subtract costs when calculating profit is simply common sense. And if doesn’t matter if those costs reflect fifo costs, investment expenditures, luxury travel, or band costumes.

For what it’s worth, if the government does get pressured into forcing companies to pay tax on these various business expenses, one very safe prediction is that the net effect will be to lower the wages offered to workers. Or, if the mandates, taxes, and regulations reach a certain level, the business will simply close down or new projects will be abandoned.

And those options obviously are not good news for workers.

Let’s now shift from the specific example of fifo workers to the broader issue of labor regulation. What happens if governments listen to people like Ms. McGrath and impose all sorts of rules that prevent flexible labor markets? According to recent scholarly research from three European economists, the consequence is more unemployment.

They start by pointing out that European nations with mandates and red tape have a lot more unemployment (particularly when the economy is weak) than countries with lightly regulated labor markets.

The Great Recession has brought a substantial increase in unemployment in Europe. Overall, unemployment rate in the euro area has grown from 8 percent in 2008 to 12 percent in 2014. The change in unemployment has been very heterogenous. In northern Europe, unemployment did not grow substantially or even fell: in Germany, for example, unemployment rate has actually declined from 7 to 5 percent. At the same time, in Greece unemployment has grown from 8 to 26 percent, in Spain — from 8 to 24 percent, and in Italy — from 6 to 13 percent. Why has unemployment dynamics been so different in European countries? The most common explanation is the difference in labor market institutions that prevents wages from adjusting downward. If wages cannot decline, negative aggregate demand shocks (such as the Great Recession) result in growth of unemployment.

The three economists wanted some way to test the impact of regulation, so they looked at the labor market for immigrants in Italy since some of them work in the formal (regulated) economy and some of them work in the shadow (unregulated) economy.

While this argument is straightforward, it is not easy to test empirically. Cross-country studies of labor markets are subject to comparability concerns. The same problems arise in comparing labor markets in different industries within the same country. In order to construct a convincing counterfactual for a regulated labor market, one needs to study a non-regulated labor market in the same sector within the same country. This is precisely what we do in this paper through comparing formal and informal markets in Italy over the course of 2004-12. We use a unique dataset, a large annual survey of immigrants working in Lombardy carried out by ISMU Foundation since 2004. …Our data cover 4000 full-time workers every year; one fifth of them works in the informal sector. The dataset is therefore sufficiently large to allow us comparing the evolution of wages in the formal and in the informal sector controlling for occupation, skills and other individual characteristics.

And what did they find?

In the absence of regulation, labor markets can adjust. The bad news for workers is that they get less pay. But the good news is that they’re more likely to still have jobs.

Our main result is presented in Figure 1. We do find that the wage differential between formal and informal sector has increased after 2008. Moreover, while the wages in the informal sector decreased by about 20 percent in 2008-12, the wages in the formal sector virtually did not fall at all. This is consistent with the view that there is substantial downward stickiness of wages in the regulated labor markets. …we find that both before and during the crisis, undocumented immigrants (those without a regular residence permit) are 9 percentage points more likely than documented immigrants to be in the labor force

Here’s the relevant chart from the study.

And here are some concluding thoughts from the study.

…despite the substantial growth of unemployment in 2008-12, the wages in the formal labor market have not adjusted. In the meanwhile, the wages in the unregulated informal labor market have declined substantially. The wage differential between formal and informal market that has been constant in 2004-08 has grown rapidly in 2008-12 from 18 to 35 percentage points. …These results are consistent with the view that regulation is responsible for lack of wage adjustment and increase in unemployment during the recessions.

For what it’s worth (and this is an important point), this helps explain why the Great Depression was so awful. Hoover and Roosevelt engaged in all sorts of interventions designed  to “help” workers. But the net effect of these policies was to prevent markets from adjusting. So what presumably would have been a typical recession turned into a decade-long depression.

So what’s the moral of the story? Good intentions aren’t good if they lead to bad results. Which brings me back to my original point about helping workers by minimizing government intervention.

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There’s a meme on Facebook and Twitter that asks people to “confess your unpopular opinions.”

I suppose I could play that game by saying that I’d rather eat fast food than patronize most fancy restaurants (especially if I have to pay the bill!). And I’ve unintentionally played that game already by admitting that politicians aren’t always sinister and evil.

But I have something even more astounding to confess: My leftist friends are right when they assert that the free market destroys jobs.

Not only are they right, they probably underestimate the number of jobs that are destroyed by capitalism. Over time, millions of jobs vanish because of the greedy pursuit of profits.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute shares some very sobering data on how almost all of the big companies of the 1950s have faded over the past 60 years.

Comparing the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 to the Fortune 500 in 2014, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists. In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 59 years later in 2014, and almost 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged, or still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues). Most of the companies on the list in 1955 are unrecognizable, forgotten companies today (e.g. Armstrong Rubber, Cone Mills, Hines Lumber, Pacific Vegetable Oil, and Riegel Textile). …That’s a lot of churning and creative destruction, and it’s probably safe to say that almost all of today’s Fortune 500 companies will be replaced by new companies in new industries over the next 59 years.

And why did these companies disappear or shrink in size, thus leading to major job losses?

Mostly because capitalists, seeking profits, invested money in ways that displaced old technologies, hurt old competitors, and made old products less attractive.

Sounds terrible, right? Jobs are lost because of greedy rich people trying to increase their wealth.

And if you’re one of the people in the unemployment line, it is terrible.

But keep in mind that this process of creative destruction led to new technologies, new competitors and new products. And the net effect of all these changes is that – on average – we are much richer.

Mark elaborates.

…for that we should be thankful. The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy… In the end, the creative destruction that results in a constantly changing group of Fortune 500 companies is driven by the endless pursuit of sales and profits that can only come from serving customers with low prices, high quality and great service.

Indeed, this system is what has given us the “hockey stick” of human progress.

All this disruption and change is what enables our society, over time, to grow faster and produce more goods and services and lower prices.

At least when the market is allowed to operate with the right set of policies – what I call the recipe for growth and prosperity.

In my speeches, I sometimes make similar points by using historical examples.

  • I ask audiences to think about how personal computers have made our lives more enjoyable and productive, but I then ask them to ponder what happened to the people who had jobs making, selling, and servicing typewriters.
  • I ask audiences to think about how the automobile boosted productivity and increased mobility, but I then ask them to consider the lost jobs of people in the horse and buggy industry.
  • I ask audiences to think about how electrification and the light bulb improved the economy in countless ways, but I then ask them to speculate on the number of jobs that were destroyed in the candle-making sector.

The sad reality is that progress has a price tag. Yes, we are far richer because of great inventions that boosted productivity and improved lives. But that doesn’t change the fact that real workers with real families often experienced genuine anguish when jobs in some sectors disappeared. And that’s still happening today.

And workers are largely blameless when job losses occur. All they did was exchange honest work for honest pay. It was the capitalists who made mistakes by not managing companies effectively and not allocating capital efficiently (or, to be more charitable, they simply failed to anticipate major changes that were about to occur).

By the way, this isn’t an argument for government intervention. We would be much poorer today if politicians tried to save jobs every time there was creative destruction in the economy. Perhaps most important, every job that they “saved” would be offset by the jobs (and prosperity) that weren’t created or didn’t materialize because the clumsy foot of government replaced the invisible hand of the market.

What Bastiat taught the world in the 1800s is still true today. We have to consider both the seen (the jobs that are saved) and the unseen (the greater number of jobs that don’t get created) when contemplating the impact of government.

This is why I want the economy to be as dynamic and innovative as possible so that displaced workers can find new positions as quickly as possible, hopefully earning even more money.

Here’s a short video from Learn Liberty that teaches about this process of creative destruction.

P.S. There’s also another Learn Liberty video that teaches about creative destruction. I’m a big fan of all their videos, including the ones on the Great Depression, central banking, government spending, and the Drug War. And the videos on myths of capitalism, the miracle of modern prosperity, and the legality of Obamacare also should be shared widely. You also should watch their videos on job creation, the price system, public choice, and the Food and Drug Administration.

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Frederic Bastiat, the great French economist (yes, such creatures used to exist) from the 1800s, famously observed that a good economist always considers both the “seen” and “unseen” consequences of any action.

A sloppy economist looks at the recipients of government programs and declares that the economy will be stimulated by this additional money that is easily seen, whereas a good economist recognizes that the government can’t redistribute money without doing unseen damage by first taxing or borrowing it from the private sector.

A sloppy economist looks at bailouts and declares that the economy will be stronger because the inefficient firms that stay in business are easily seen, whereas a good economist recognizes that such policies imposes considerable unseen damage by promoting moral hazard and undermining the efficient allocation of labor and capital.

We now have another example to add to our list. Many European nations have “social protection” laws that are designed to shield people from the supposed harshness of capitalism. And part of this approach is so-called Employment Protection Legislation, which ostensibly protects workers by, for instance, making layoffs very difficult.

The people who don’t get laid off are seen, but what about the unseen consequences of such laws?

Well, an academic study from three French economists has some sobering findings for those who think regulation and “social protection” are good for workers.

…this study proposes an econometric investigation of the effects of the OECD Employment Protection Legislation (EPL) indicator… The originality of our paper is to study the effects of labour market regulations on capital intensity, capital quality and the share of employment by skill level using a symmetric approach for each factor using a single original large database: a country-industry panel dataset of 14 OECD countries, 18 manufacturing and market service industries, over the 20 years from 1988 to 2007.

One of the findings from the study is that “EPL” is an area where the United States historically has always had an appropriately laissez-faire approach (which also is evident from the World Bank’s data in the Doing Business Index).

Here’s a chart showing the US compared to some other major developed economies.

It’s good to see, by the way, that Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands engaged in some meaningful reform between 1994-2006.

But let’s get back to our main topic. What actually happens when nations have high or low levels of Employment Protection Legislation?

According to the research of the French economists, high levels of rules and regulations cause employers to substitute capital for labor, with low-skilled workers suffering the most.

Our main estimation results show an EPL effect: i) positive for non-ICT physical capital intensity and the share of high-skilled employment; ii) non-significant for ICT capital intensity; and (iii) negative for R&D capital intensity and the share of low-skilled employment. These results suggest that an increase in EPL would be considered by firms to be a rise in the cost of labour, with a physical capital to labour substitution impact in favour of more non-sophisticated technologies and would be particularly detrimental to unskilled workers. Moreover, it confirms that R&D activities require labour flexibility. According to simulations based on these results, structural reforms that lowered EPL to the “lightest practice”, i.e. to the US EPL level, would have a favourable impact on R&D capital intensity and would be helpful for unskilled employment (30% and 10% increases on average, respectively). …The adoption of this US EPL level would require very largescale labour market structural reforms in some countries, such as France and Italy. So this simulation cannot be considered politically and socially realistic in a short time. But considering the favourable impact of labour market reforms on productivity and growth. …It appears that labour regulations are particularly detrimental to low-skilled employment, which is an interesting paradox as one of the main goals of labour regulations is to protect low-skilled workers. These regulations seem to frighten employers, who see them as a labour cost increase with consequently a negative impact on low-skilled employment.

There’s a lot of jargon in the above passage for those who haven’t studied economics, but the key takeaway is that employment for low-skilled workers would jump by 10 percent if other nations reduced labor-market regulations to American levels.

Though, as the authors point out, that won’t happen anytime soon in nations such as France and Italy.

Now let’s review an IMF study that looks at what happened when Germany substantially deregulated labor markets last decade.

After a decade of high unemployment and weak growth leading up to the turn of the 21th century, Germany embarked on a significant labor market overhaul. The reforms, collectively known as the Hartz reforms, were put in place in three steps between January 2003 and January 2005. They eased regulation on temporary work agencies, relaxed firing restrictions, restructured the federal employment agency, and reshaped unemployment insurance to significantly reduce benefits for the long-term unemployed and tighten job search obligations.

And when the authors say that long-term unemployment benefits were “significantly” reduced, they weren’t exaggerating.

Here’s a chart from the study showing the huge cut in subsidies for long-run joblessness.

So what were the results of the German reforms?

To put it mildly, they were a huge success.

…the unemployment rate declined steadily from a peak of almost 11 percent in 2005 to five percent at the end of 2014, the lowest level since reunification. In contrast, following the Great Recession other advanced economies — particularly in the euro area — experienced a marked and persistent increase in unemployment. The strong labor market helped Germany consolidate its public finances, as lower outlays on unemployment benefits resulted in lower spending while stronger taxes and social security contribution pushed up revenues.

Gee, what a shocker. When the government stopped being as generous to people for being unemployed, fewer people chose to be unemployed.

Which is exactly what happened in the United States when Congress finally stopped extending unemployment benefits.

And it’s also worth noting that this was also a  period of good fiscal policy in Germany, with the burden of spending rising by only 0.18 percent annually between 2003-2007.

But the main lesson of all this research is that some politicians probably have noble motives when they adopt “social protection” legislation. In the real world, however, there’s nothing “social” about laws and regulations that either discourage employers from hiring people and or discourage people from finding jobs.

P.S. Another example of “seen” vs “unseen” is how supposedly pro-feminist policies actually undermine economic opportunity for women.

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I thought it was a remarkable development last year when a columnist from the New York Times reported that supposedly pro-feminist policies actually backfire against women.

Maybe this would help readers recognize that there are adverse unintended consequences of government intervention. Bastiat would be very happy!

Now we have a new example from the academic world. Two economists, one from the University of Virginia and the other from the University of Oregon, conducted a study of “ban the box” laws that restrict employers from figuring out whether job applicants have criminal records.

The purpose of these laws almost surely is noble. Everyone presumably would like to help ex-convicts mainstream back into society. Especially since many of them are minorities who may already face discrimination and other challenges (and maybe they were thrown in jail for silly reasons, such as draconian drug laws).

So it sounds very compassionate to impose these laws, right? Who could object to helping ex-cons get in the door for interviews, at which point they can hopefully show potential employers that they have value.

Well, the study shows that these laws hurt more than they help. Here are some passages from the abstract.

Jurisdictions across the United States have adopted “ban the box” (BTB) policies preventing employers from conducting criminal background checks until late in the job application process. Their goal is to improve employment outcomes for those with criminal records, with a secondary goal of reducing racial disparities in employment. However, removing information about job applicants’ criminal histories could lead employers who don’t want to hire ex-offenders to try to guess who the ex-offenders are, and avoid interviewing them. In particular, employers might avoid interviewing young, low-skilled, black and Hispanic men when criminal records are not observable. This would worsen employment outcomes for these already-disadvantaged groups. In this paper, we use variation in the details and timing of state and local BTB policies to test BTB’s effects on employment for various demographic groups. We find that BTB policies decrease the probability of being employed by 3.4 percentage points (5.1%) for young, low-skilled black men, and by 2.3 percentage points (2.9%) for young, low-skilled Hispanic men. These findings support the hypothesis that when an applicant’s criminal history is unavailable, employers statistically discriminate against demographic groups that are likely to have a criminal record.

The most relevant bit of info from the abstract is that these laws reduce employment for young black men and young Hispanic men with low skill levels (and don’t forget these are groups that already are disadvantaged thanks to minimum wage laws).

And if you dig into the study, you can learn more about what’s really happening.

Figure 2 shows a local linear graph of the residuals from equation 1, for young, low-skilled black men. Time is recentered so that 0 is the effective date of a jurisdiction’s BTB policy. …Based on the pre-BTB period, the identifying assumption that BTB and non-BTB jurisdictions would evolve similarly in the absence of BTB…looks reasonable: the two lines follow each other closely before the date-zero threshold. After that date, however, the lines quickly diverge, with employment outcomes worsening in BTB-adopting places and improving slightly elsewhere. …it appears that BTB dramatically hurt employment outcomes for this group.

And here’s the accompany chart from the study.

Here’s another section that I found fascinating.

The laws restricting criminal background checks lead to more discrimination all across the nation, but the least amount of additional discrimination against African-Americans is in the south.

Given differences in racial composition and labor markets across the country, we might expect BTB to have different effects in different places. …young, low-skilled white men are not affected by BTB anywhere. However, the employment probabilities of their black peers are significantly reduced in three regions: the Northeast (7.4%), the Midwest (7.5%), and the West (8.8%). The negative effect on black men is much smaller (2.3%) and not statistically significant in the South… These results suggest that the larger the black or Hispanic population, the less likely employers are to use race/ethnicity as a proxy for criminality.

For what it’s worth, I also wonder if the South, on a person-to-person basis, actually is less racist.

Here’s another interesting – albeit discouraging – bit of information from the study. When the economy is weak, these laws are even more damaging for minorities.

…at all unemployment rates the effect of BTB on white men is near-zero and statistically insignificant. …the effect on black men…is more negative when unemployment is high, but now the estimated total effects are relatively large and negative even at low unemployment. The negative total effect becomes statistically significant at 7% or 8% unemployment, and at 9% unemployment the total effect of BTB on black men is over 3.6 percentage points and statistically significant.

The most logical interpretation of these results it that there’s more discrimination when employers have a buyer’s market, meaning lots of potential job applicants for each position.

Here’s the most depressing bit of data from the study. The effects of these laws last a long time.

BTB’s effect on black men is large and grows over time. BTB reduces employment for black men by 2.7 percentage points (not statistically significant) during the first year, 5.1 percentage points (p < 0.01) during the second year, 4.1 percentage points (p < 0.10) during the third year, 8.4 percentage points (p < 0.01) during the fourth year, and an average of 7.7 percentage points (p < 0.05) during the fifth and later years. This suggests that BTB has a permanent effect on employment for black men.

And here’s the man-bites-dog conclusion. Blacks and other minorities are hurt by the laws, so guess which group benefits?

BTB has a positive effect on white men with no high school diploma. On average, white men in this group are 3.9 percentage points (5.6%) more likely to be employed after BTB than before.

That may be the perfect (in a bad way) example of government in action: Good intentions leading to bad results. Just like the War on Drugs. And the War on Poverty. And licensing laws. And antitrust laws. And…oh, never mind. You get the idea.

No wonder this is my favorite poster.

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The United Kingdom is getting a lot of attention because voters just chose to leave the European Union.

I think this was the smart choice. Yes, there will be some short-run economic volatility, but the long-run benefits should make it worthwhile. Sort of like chemotherapy being painful, but still being much better than the alternative of cancer.

My main argument for Brexit was that the European Union is a sinking ship. The continent is in trouble because the bureaucrats in Brussels reflexively support centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization. And it’s in trouble because most member governments support dirigiste policies on the national level.

Consider France. The country is so statist that even some folks from the establishment media have warned that government has too much power. Heck, even some of the people at the European Commission have complained that taxes are too high.

Perhaps most miraculously, there was even a column in the New York Times last month explaining how bad government policy is killing France’s job market.

It’s obvious that the current system isn’t working. …business owners are reluctant to hire employees, because it’s so complicated and expensive to fire them when times are bad. …times are pretty bad: France has 10 percent unemployment, roughly twice the levels in Germany and Britain. For young people, it’s around 24 percent. …While many other European countries have revamped their workplace rules, France has barely budged.

The most important thing to understand is that employers are extremely reluctant to hire full-time workers because it’s nearly impossible to fire them if they don’t do a good job or if the company hits hard times. And that translates into temporary jobs combined with lots of unemployment.

The Hollande government has proposed to tinker with this system.

The new labor bill — weakened after long negotiations — wouldn’t alter the bifurcated system, in which workers either get a permanent contract called a “contrat à durée indéterminée,” known as a C.D.I., or a short-term contract that can be renewed only once or twice. Almost all new jobs have the latter.

But even though the reforms are very timid, the French are protesting.

…it isn’t just unions that oppose the bill. So do more than 60 percent of the population, who fear the bill would strip workers of protections without fixing the problem. Young people took to the streets to oppose it, demanding C.D.I.s, too. Why are the French so wedded to a failing system? …they believe that a job is a basic right — guaranteed in the preamble to their Constitution — and that making it easier to fire people is an affront to that. Without a C.D.I., you’re considered naked before the indifferent forces of capitalism. …young protesters held a banner warning that they were the “génération précaire.”

Here’s the most amazing part of the story. The protesters think that a government-protected job is a rite of passage into adulthood. They want the “right to grow up,” even though their version of adulthood involves complete blindness to economic reality.

They were agitating for the right to grow up. …getting a permanent work contract is a rite of adulthood. Without one, it’s hard to get a mortgage or car loan, or rent an apartment. Mainstream economic arguments can’t compete. “Basic facts of economic science are completely dismissed,” said Étienne Wasmer, a labor economist at Sciences Po. “People don’t see that if you let employers take risks, they’ll hire more people.” Instead, many French people view the workplace as a zero-sum battle between workers and bosses.

The obvious answer is to dramatically reduce government intervention in labor markets. But since that’s a near impossibility in France, high levels of joblessness almost surely will continue and short-term employment contracts will be the norm for those who do manage to find work.

By the way, the system doesn’t even work that well for the workers with the government-protected positions.

Many workers here have permanent contracts that make it very hard to fire them. So some companies resort to an illegal strategy: They try to make someone so miserable, he’ll quit. “What happens next is, I’ll lose my team and my staff, and therefore I’ll have nothing to do,” the man predicted. “You still have to come to work every day, but you have no idea why.” …those lucky enough to have C.D.I.s can struggle at work. In one study, workers with C.D.I.s reported more stress than those with short-term contracts, in part because they felt trapped in their jobs. After all, where else would they get another permanent contract?

No wonder so many people in France want to work for the government. That way they can get lavish pay and benefits with very little pressure to perform.

In any case, the net result is that the French economy is stagnant. Potentially valuable labor (one of the two factors of production) is being sidelined or misallocated.

Writing for Market Watch, Diana Furchtgott-Roth shares her analysis of crazy French labor law.

…reforms are vital because the French economy is stagnant. GDP growth for the latest quarter was 0.6%. Over the past decade, growth has rarely risen above 1%. The unemployment rate is over 10% and the youth unemployment is 25%. Clearly tax and regulatory reform, including more labor flexibility, are needed to encourage employers to hire. …a French court this week ruled that Société Générale rogue trader Jérôme Kerviel, who lost $5.5 billion of the bank’s assets in 2008 and almost caused its bankruptcy, had been unfairly dismissed. Société Générale was ordered to pay Kerviel $511,000 because it decided he was dismissed “without cause.” …When employers cannot fire workers, they are less likely to hire them, leading to a sclerotic labor market and high unemployment. This is what the left-wing Hollande is trying to repair. …Some view France as a worker’s paradise where the government protects workers from abusive employers. The reality is that France is a worker’s nightmare where jobs are scarce and work ethic is prohibited by law.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is even more negative in his column for the U.K.-based Telegraph.

An intractable economic crisis has been eating away at the legitimacy of the French governing elites for much of this decade. This has now combined with a collapse in the credibility of the government, and mounting anger… The revolt comes as Paris battles a wave of protest against labour reform, a push that has come close to rupturing the Socialist Party. The measures were rammed through by decree to avoid a vote. Scenes of guerrilla warfare with police on French streets have been a public relations disaster… Rail workers are demanding a maximum 32-hour week. Eric Dor from the IESEG School of Management in Lille says powerful vested interests have made France almost unreformable. …Dor said the labour reforms have been watered down and are a far cry from the Hartz IV laws in Germany in 2004, which made it easier to fire workers and screw down wages.

He points out that the damage of labor-market intervention is exacerbated by a wretched tax system (I’ve written that the national sport of France is taxation rather than soccer).

France’s social model is funded by punitively high taxes on labour. The unintended effect is to create a destructive ‘tax wedge’ that makes it too costly to hire new workers. It protects incumbents but penalizes outsiders, leading to a blighted banlieu culture of mass youth unemployment. There are 360 separate taxes, with 470 tax loopholes. The labour code has tripled… Public spending is 57pc of GDP, a Nordic level without Danish or Swedish levels of labour flexibility. Unemployment is still 10.2pc even at this late stage of the global cycle.

Given the various ways that government discourages employment, is anyone surprised that the French work less than any other nation in Europe? Here’s a blurb from a report in the EU Observer.

French put in the least working hours in the EU, according to the bloc’s statistical office Eurostat. Full-time workers in France clocked up 1,646 hours of labour last year.

By the way, there’s a tiny possibility of change.

There’s an election next year and one of the candidates has a platform that sounds vaguely like he wants to be the Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher of France.

Here are some of the details from a report by Reuters.

French presidential hopeful Alain Juppe, the frontrunner in opinion polls 20 years after serving as a deeply unpopular prime minister, said on Tuesday he would roll back France’s iconic 35-hour working week and scrap a wealth tax if elected next year. In the mid-1990s Juppe triggered France’s worst unrest in decades because he would not budge on pension reforms. He eventually had to drop them after weeks of strikes and protests. …”The French are being kept from working by excessive labor costs. I want to cut those costs,” Juppe told hundreds of supporters as he outlined his economic platform. …Juppe said he would raise the retirement age to 65 from 62 while cutting both taxes and state spending. Juppe said he would aim to cut public spending by 80-100 billion euros over five years and to reduce payroll taxes by 10 billion euros and corporate taxes by 11 billion euros. …Juppe also said he would cap welfare subsidies.

Amazingly, Juppe is the favorite according to the polling data.

So maybe French voters finally realize (notwithstanding the bad advice of Paul Krugman) that becoming another Greece isn’t a good idea.

P.S. My “Frexit” title simply recognizes the reality – as shown in this video – that productive people already are fleeing France. Hollande’s punitive tax policy has driven many of them to other nations. French entrepreneurs in particular have flocked to London.

P.P.S. Watch Will Smith’s reaction after being told France has a top tax rate of 75 percent.

P.P.P.S. France’s effective tax rate actually climbed to more than 100 percent, though Hollande mercifully decided that taxpayers now should never have to pay more than 80 percent of their income to government.

P.P.P.P.S. The big puzzle is why the French put up with so much statism. Polling data from both 2010 and 2013 shows strong support for smaller government, and an astounding 52 percent of French citizens said they would consider moving to the United States if they got the opportunity. So why, then, have they elected statists such as Sarkozy and Hollande?!?

P.P.P.P.P.S. In my humble opinion, the most powerful comparison is between France and Switzerland.

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The American economy is in the doldrums. And has been for most this century thanks to bad policy under both Obama and Bush.

So what’s needed to boost growth and create jobs? A new video from Learn Liberty, narrated by Professor Don Boudreaux (who also was the narrator for Learn Liberty’s superb video on free trade vs. protectionism), examines how to get more people employed.

A very good video. There are three things that grabbed my attention.

First, there’s a very fair compilation of various unemployment/labor force statistics. Viewers can see the good news (a relatively low official unemployment rate) and the bad news (a lowest-in-decades level of labor force participation)

Second, so-called stimulus packages don’t make sense. Yes, some people wind up with more money and jobs when politicians increase spending, but only at the expense of other people who have less money and fewer jobs. Moreover, Don correctly notes that this process of redistribution facilitates cronyism (the focus of another Learn Liberty video) and corruption in Washington (an issue I’ve addressed in one of my videos).

Third, free markets and entrepreneurship are the best routes for more job creation. And that requires less government. Don also correctly condemns occupational licensing rules that make it very difficult for people to get jobs or create jobs in certain fields.

The entire video was very concise, lasting less than four minutes, so it only scratched the surface. For those seeking more information on the topic, I would add the following points.

  1. Businesses will never create jobs unless they expect that new employees will generate enough revenue to cover not only their wages, but also the cost of taxes, regulations, and mandates. This is why policies that sometimes sound nice (higher minimum wages, health insurance mandates, etc) actually are very harmful.
  2. Redistribution programs make leisure more attractive than labor. This is not only bad for the overall economy because of lower labor force participation. This is why policies that sometime sound nice (unemployment benefits, food stamps, health subsidies, etc) actually are very harmful.

Let’s augment Don’s video by looking at some excerpts from a recent column in the Wall Street Journal by Marie-Joseé Kravis of the Hudson Institute.

In economics, as far back as Joseph Schumpeter, or even Karl Marx, we have known that the flow of business deaths and births affects the dynamism and growth of a country’s economy. Business deaths unlock resources that can be allocated to more productive use and business formation can boost innovation and economic and social mobility. For much of the nation’s history, this process of what Schumpeter called “creative destruction” has spread prosperity throughout the U.S. and the world. Over the past 30 years, however, with the exception of the mid-1980s and the 2002-05 period, this dynamism has been waning. There has been a steady decline in business formation while the rate of business deaths has been more or less constant. Business deaths outnumber births for the first time since measurement of these indicators began.

Why has entrepreneurial dynamism slowed? What’s happened to the creative destruction described in a different Learn Liberty video?

Unsurprisingly, government bears a lot of the blame.

Many studies have also attributed the slow rate of business formation to the regulatory fervor of the past decade. …in a 2010 report for the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Administration, researchers at Lafayette University found that the per employee cost of federal regulatory compliance was $10,585 for businesses with 19 or fewer employees.

Wow, that’s a powerful real-world example of how all the feel-good legislation and red tape from Washington creates a giant barrier to job creation.

And it’s worth noting that low-skilled people are the first ones to lose out.

P.S. My favorite Learn Liberty video explains how government subsidies for higher education have resulted in higher costs for students, a lesson that Hillary Clinton obviously hasn’t learned.

P.P.S. Perhaps the most underappreciated Learn Liberty video explains why the rule of law is critical for a productive society. Though the one on the importance of the price system also needs more attention.

P.P.P.S. And I’m a big fan of the Learn Liberty videos on the Great Depression, central banking, government spending, and the Drug War. And the videos on myths of capitalism, the miracle of modern prosperity, and the legality of Obamacare also should be shared widely.

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What’s the most important economic statistic to gauge a society’s prosperity?

I often use per-capita economic output when comparing nations.

But for ordinary people, what probably matters most is household income. And if you look at the median household income numbers for the United States, Obamanomics is a failure. According to the Census Bureau’s latest numbers, the average family today has less income (after adjusting for inflation) than when Obama took office.

In an amazing feat of chutzpah, however, the President is actually arguing that he’s done a good job with the economy. His main talking point is that the unemployment rate is down to 4.7 percent.

Yet as discussed in this Blaze TV interview, sometimes the unemployment rate falls for less-than-ideal reasons.

Since I’m a wonky economist, I think my most important point was about long-run prosperity being dependent on the amount of labor and capital being productively utilized in an economy.

And that’s why the unemployment rate, while important, is not as important as the labor force participation rate.

Here’s the data, directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As you can see, the trend over the past 10 years is not very heartening.

To be sure, Obama should not be blamed for the fact that a downward trend that began in 2008 (except to the extent that he supported the big-government policies of the Bush Administration).

But he can be blamed for the fact that the numbers haven’t recovered, as would normally happen as an economy pulls out of a recession. This is a rather damning indictment of Obamanomics.

By the way, I can’t resist commenting on what Obama said in the soundbite that preceded my interview. He asserted that “we cut unemployment in half years before a lot of economists thought we could.”

My jaw almost hit the floor. This is a White House that promised the unemployment rate would peak at only 8 percent and then quickly fall if the so-called stimulus was approved. Yet the joblessness rate jumped to 10 percent and only began to fall after there was a shift in policy that resulted in a spending freeze.

In effect, the President airbrushed history and then tried to take credit for something that happened, at least in part, because of policies he opposed.

Wow.

One final point. I was asked in the interview which policy deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the economy’s tepid performance and weak job numbers.

I wasn’t expecting that question, so I fumbled around a bit before choosing Obamacare.

But with the wisdom of hindsight, I think I stumbled onto the right answer. Yes, the stimulus was a flop, and yes, Dodd-Frank has been a regulatory nightmare, but Obamacare was (and continues to be) a perfect storm of taxes, spending, and regulatory intervention.

And even the Congressional Budget Office estimates it has cost the economy two million jobs.

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Let’s take a look at President Obama’s economic legacy.

The Washington Examiner opines on President Obama’s remarkable claim that he saved the world economy.

President Obama…wants to be remembered for…[being]…the savior of the American and global economies. “There are things I’m proud of,” he said, citing Obamacare, then added, “Saving the world economy from a Great Depression, that was pretty good.”

Not so fast. Looking at the economy’s anemic numbers the editors are less than impressed.

Obama will end eight years in office without presiding over a thriving economy of the sort America enjoyed in the past. It also suggests that even the mediocre growth of recent years depended on high oil prices, which have collapsed by more than half. This is the bitter fruit of creationist economics, the erroneous belief that government activity can somehow conjure new wealth and value.

The Wall Street Journal is similarly dour about Obama’s economic legacy.

When did Americans decide that 1% or 2% economic growth is acceptable, that puny wage increases are inevitable, and that we should all merely shrug and get used to the country’s diminished expectations? …the first quarter is further evidence of what has been the weakest economic expansion in the postwar era. …All of this continues the slow-or-slower pace of this entire expansion that began nearly seven years ago. Each year has had a similar GDP dip, and growth has never exceeded 2.5% (2010). The American economy hasn’t grown by more than 3% since 2005 (3.3%), the longest such stretch of malaise that we can find in the Bureau of Economic analysis tables going back to 1930. …Faster growth is possible, but it will take better policies.

In a column for Bloomberg, Narayana Kocherlakota, looks at what’s happened and compares it to what CBO projected would happen.

it’s not hard to see why many people are disappointed with the performance of the economy during Obama’s time in office. In January 2009, at the beginning of Obama’s first term, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a 10-year forecast for the U.S. economy, including such indicators as unemployment, gross domestic product, the budget deficit, government debt and interest rates. …The unemployment rate has come closest to expectations. …Elsewhere, the story is less positive. Total income growth in the U.S. has fallen well short of expectations, in both nominal and inflation-adjusted terms. …the federal budget deficit…still much larger than the CBO forecast in 2009 — as is the ratio of government debt to GDP.

Here’s his chart.

Last, but not least, Louis Woodhill shares some numbers that capture Obama’s real legacy.

America’s elites have largely given up on growth, and are now distracting themselves with academic musings about “secular stagnation.” …assuming 2.67% RGDP growth for 2016, Obama will leave office having produced an average of 1.55% growth. This would place his presidency fourth from the bottom of the list of 39*, above only those of Herbert Hoover (-5.65%), Andrew Johnson (-0.70%) and Theodore Roosevelt (1.41%)

What makes this final comparison so damning is that Obama had the comparative good fortune to enter office in the middle of a recession. Which means, all things equal, that his numbers should look very positive.

Instead, he’s managed to compile one of the worst track records.

When I do comparisons, I like using the interactive recession/recovery site of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, which allows users to compare every recession and recovery since the end of World War II.

Here’s how President Obama (red line) ranks on GDP growth.

As you can see, whether your starting point is the beginning of the recovery or the beginning of the recession, Obama is in last place.

He does slightly better on employment. He still has one of the worst records (again, the red line), but he does beat George W. Bush’s also-anemic performance on job creation.

By the way, some of you may be wondering why the employment data for Obama is so weak when the unemployment rate has significantly fallen.

The answer is that the unemployment rate doesn’t count people who have given up on finding a job, whereas the Minneapolis Fed data counts how many new jobs are being created.

And it’s the amount of people productively employed that matters if we want more economic output, so the Minneapolis Fed data is far more important and revealing than the official unemployment rate numbers.

Unfortunately, Obama and his team haven’t figured out (or simply don’t care) that jobs are more likely to be created when government is smaller rather than bigger.

By the way, this analysis presumably won’t be very compelling for Obama supporters because they’ll simply assert things could have been much worse without his policies.

They may even believe the President’s claim that he saved the American economy from a Great Depression.

But they overlook the fact that the economy normally bounces back quickly from a downturn. It was only during the 1930s, when Hoover and Roosevelt competed to impose bad policy, that a recession became a depression.

The bad news is that President Obama’s policies haven’t helped today’s economy, but the good news is that his policies are nowhere near as harmful as the combined statist agendas of Hoover and Roosevelt.

So if we want to learn a lesson on what works, the economy’s very strong boom under Reagan is a good case study. And if you want to go back further, the anti-Keynesian booms after World War I and World War II also teach important lessons.

P.S. President Obama is completely correct when he points out that America’s economy is generally stronger than European economies. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to realize what this implies.

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James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute has an intriguing idea. Instead of a regular debate, he would like presidential candidates to respond to a handful of charts from the recent Economic Report of the President that supposedly highlight very important issues.

We’d quickly find out — I hope — who has real deep knowledge on key economic issues and challenges facing America.

I don’t always agree with Pethokoukis’ views (see here, here, and here), but he has a very good idea. He may not have picked the charts I would rank as most important, but I think 5 of the 6 charts he shared are worthy of discussion (I’m not persuaded that the one about government R&D spending has much meaning).

Let’s look at them and elaborate on why they are important.

We’ll start with the chart of labor productivity growth, which has been declining over time.

I think this is a very important chart since productivity growth is a good proxy for the growth in living standards (workers, especially in the long run, get paid on the basis of what they produce).

So what should we think about the depressing trend of declining productivity numbers?

First, some of it is unavoidable. The United States has an advanced economy and we don’t have a lot of “low-hanging fruit” to exploit. Simply stated, it’s much easier to boost labor productivity in a poor country.

Second, to the degree we want to boost labor productivity, more investment is the best option. That’s why I’m so critical of class-warfare policies that penalize capital formation. When politicians go after the “evil” and “bad” rich people who save and invest, workers wind up being victimized because there’s less saving and investment.

But this isn’t just an issue of machines, equipment, and technology. We also should consider human capital, which is why it is a horrible scandal that America spends more on education – on a per-capita basis – than any other nation, yet we get very mediocre results because of a government monopoly school system that – at least in practice – seems designed to protect the privileges of teacher unions.

The next chart looks at the number of companies entering and exiting the economy. As you can see, the number of businesses that are disappearing is relatively stable, but there’s been a disturbing decline in the rate of new-company formation.

As with the first chart, some of this may simply be an inevitable trend. In a mature economy, perhaps the rate of entrepreneurship declines?

But that’s not intuitively obvious, and I certainly haven’t seen any evidence to suggest why that should be the case.

So this chart presumably isn’t good news.

Some of the bad news is probably because of bad government policy (capital gains taxes, regulatory barriers, licensing mandates, etc) and some of it may reflect undesirable cultural trends (less entrepreneurship, more risk-aversion, more dependency).

Speaking of which, the next chart looks at the share of the workforce that is regulated by licensing laws.

This is a very disturbing trend.

Licensing rules basically act as government-created barriers to entry and they are especially harmful to poor people who often lack the time and money to jump through the hoops necessary to get some sort of government-mandated certification.

By the way, this is one area where the federal government is not the problem. These are mostly restrictions imposed by state governments.

The next chart looks at how much money is earned by the rich in each country.

I think this chart is very important, but only in the sense that any intelligent candidate should know enough to say that it’s almost completely irrelevant and misleading.

The economy is not a fixed pie. Income earned by the “rich” is not at the expense of the rest of us (assuming honest markets rather than government cronyism). It doesn’t matter if the rich are earning more money. What matters is whether there’s growth and mobility for people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

A good candidate should say the chart should be replaced by far more important variables, such as what’s happening to median household income.

Lastly, here’s a chart comparing construction costs with housing prices.

This data is important because you might expect there to be a close link between construction costs and home prices, yet that hasn’t been the case in recent years.

There may be perfectly reasonable explanations for the lack of a link (increased demand and/or changing demographics, for instance).

But in all likelihood, there may be some undesirable reasons for this data, such as Fannie-Freddie subsidies and restrictionist zoning policies.

As with the licensing chart, this is an area where the federal government doesn’t deserve all the blame. Bad zoning policies exist because local governments are catering to the desires of existing property owners.

By the way, while I think Pethokoukis shared some worthwhile charts, I would have augmented his list with charts on the rising burden of government spending, the tax code’s discrimination against income that is saved and invested, declining labor-force participation, changes in economic freedom, and the ever-expanding regulatory burden.

If candidates didn’t understand those charts and/or didn’t offer good solutions, they would be disqualifying themselves (at least for voters who want a better future).

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Let’s dig into the issue of whether the United States should become more like France.

In a 2014 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Stanford University’s Robert Hall wrote about America’s sub-par economic performance. His opening line was basically a preemptive refutation of Obama’s claim – made during the State-of-the-Union Address – that the economy is strong.

The years since 2007 have been a macroeconomic disaster for the United States of a magnitude unprecedented since the Great Depression.

I don’t know that I would use “disaster” to describe the economy. That word would be much more appropriate for failed welfare states such as Italy and Greece.

But Professor Hall was definitely correct that the U.S. economy has been sputtering, as illustrated by comparative business-cycle data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve.

So what accounts for America’s anemic economy? Hall has about 50 pages of analysis, but since brevity is a virtue, let’s look at some of what he wrote in his final paragraph.

Labor-force participation fell substantially after the crisis, contributing 2.5 percentage points to the shortfall in output. The decline showed no sign of reverting as of 2013. …an important part may be related to the large growth in beneficiaries of disability and food-stamp programs. Bulges in their enrollments appear to be highly persistent. Both programs place high taxes on earnings and so discourage labor-force participation among beneficiaries. The bulge in program dependence…may impede output and employment growth for some years into the future.

In other words, he pointed out that a large number of people have left the labor force, which obviously isn’t good since our economy’s ability to generate output (and boost living standards) is a function of the degree to which labor and capital are being productively utilized.

And his work suggests that redistribution programs are a big reason for this drop in labor-force participation.

Now let’s look at another study from NBER, this one from 2015 that was authored by economists from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Oslo, and Stockholm University.

They examine the specific impact of unemployment insurance.

We measure the effect of unemployment benefit duration on employment. …Federal benefit extensions that ranged from 0 to 47 weeks across U.S. states at the beginning of December 2013 were abruptly cut to zero. …we use the fact that this policy change was exogenous to cross-sectional differences across U.S. states and we exploit a policy discontinuity at state borders. We find that a 1% drop in benefit duration leads to a statistically significant increase of employment by 0.0161 log points. In levels, 1.8 million additional jobs were created in 2014 due to the benefit cut. Almost 1 million of these jobs were filled by workers from out of the labor force who would not have participated in the labor market had benefit extensions been reauthorized.

Wow, that’s a huge impact.

To be sure, I’ll be the first to admit that empirical work is imprecise. Ask five economists for an estimate and you’ll get nine answers, as the old joke goes.

Professor Hall, for instance, found a smaller impact of unemployment insurance on joblessness in his study.

But even if the actual number of people cajoled back into employment is only 500,000 rather than 1 million, that would still be profound.

Though at some point we have to ask whether it really matters whether people are being lured out of the labor force by food stamps, disability payments, unemployment insurance, Obamacare, or any of the many other redistribution programs in Washington.

What does matter is that we have a malignant welfare state that is eroding the social capital of the country. The entire apparatus should be dismantled and turned over to the states.

But not everyone agrees. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the White House is impervious to data and evidence. Indeed, notwithstanding the evidence that the left was wildly wrong about the impact of ending extended unemployment benefits, the White House is proposing to expand the program.

Here’s some of what’s being reported by The Hill.

The president’s three-pronged plan includes wage insurance of up to $10,000 over two years, expanded unemployment insurance coverage… The plan comes on the heels of Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday, in which he committed to fighting for expanded out-of-work benefits during his last year in office. …The plan would also extend benefits to part-time, low-income and intermittent workers who can’t already take advantage of the out-of-work programs. And it would mandate states provide at least 26 weeks of coverage for those looking for work.

The part about mandating that all states provide extended coverage is particularly galling.

It’s almost as if he wants to make sure that no states are allowed to adopt good policy since that would show why the President’s overall approach is wrong.

I joked in 2012 about a potential Obama campaign slogan, and I suggested an official motto for Washington back in 2014.

Perhaps we should augment those examples of satire with a version of the Gospel according to Obama: Always wrong, never in doubt.

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I normally enjoy working for the Cato Institute since it’s a principled and effective organization.

But every so often, my job requires an unpleasant task, and watching the State-of-the-Union Address as part of Cato’s live-tweeting program counts as one my least enjoyable experiences since joining the team.

But let’s make lemonade out of lemons by looking at lessons that can be learned from Obama’s speech. The most jarring part of the evening was when Obama bragged about the American economy.

Since we’re suffering through the weakest recovery since the Great Depression, that was rather bizarre.

Moreover, being proud that we’re doing better than Europe is akin to getting a participation ribbon in a soccer league for kids.

And the chest thumping about the unemployment rate was very misplaced since that piece of data only looks good because so many Americans have given up on finding a job.

I’ve pontificated on that issue before and cited the Labor Department’s overall data, but let’s dig a little deeper to fully understand why Obama should have apologized rather than patted himself on the back.

Here’s the employment/population ratio for the prime, working-age population of those between 25 and 54 years of age.

As you can see, this ratio has improved a bit over the past five years, but it appears that there’s very little hope that the overall employment situation will ever recover to where it was before the recession.

At least not with current policies.

Here’s another way of looking at the same data. It’s labor force participation by age. The lines don’t seem that far apart, but a 3-4 percentage point decline across age groups adds up to millions of people no longer productively employed.

Last but not least, here’s another way of approaching this data.

We have a chart from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank showing the number of working-age people not in the labor force.

There are two takeaways from this chart.

First, it’s clear that the problem started well before Obama.

But it’s also clear that the problem has gotten much worse during his tenure.

The bottom line is that the expansion of redistribution programs has lured more and more people out of the labor force, particularly when matched by government policies that have hindered the private sector’s ability to create jobs.

So you’ll understand why I cited labor-force participation (along with stagnant household income) as Obama’s real legacy in this interview.

By the way, one of the perils of live TV is that you sometimes get curve balls. And since the Ted Cruz birther controversy is now big news, I was asked my opinion even though I don’t have the slightest competency to discuss the issue.

Sort of like the time I went on a program for the ostensible purpose of discussing trade and wound up trapped in a discussion on America’s relationship with North Korea.

My only regret from yesterday’s interview is that I wasn’t clever enough to say that I was more worried about Cruz supporting a Canadian-style tax system than I was about Cruz being born in Canada.

P.S. While I’m not happy about Cruz including a value-added tax in his reform proposal, don’t read too much into that grousing since there are warts in the other candidates’ plans as well.

With one exception.

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