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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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