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Archive for the ‘Unemployment’ Category

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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Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s pseudo-socialist senator, thinks that America can learn from Europe.

He’s right.

But he’s also wrong. That’s because he thinks that Europe is a role model to emulate rather than a warning signal of mistakes to avoid. Needless to say, that’s borderline crazy.

Heck, even President Obama has pointed out that the United States out-performs our European counterparts.

In his Washington Post column, Robert Samuelson warns that it would be a mistake to follow the European model of more taxes and additional regulation. He starts with (what should be) an obvious point about businesses responding to incentives.

We can learn from Europe about job creation, but many Americans may reject the underlying lesson. It is: If you price labor too high — pay workers more than they produce — businesses will slow or stop hiring.

He then points out that bad incentives in Europe are leading to bad results.

Europe’s economy is in the doldrums. Growth in the eurozone (the 19 countries using the euro) is weak… Eurozone unemployment is 11.1 percent, barely down from the peak of about 12 percent. This contrasts with the United States, where the jobless rate has dropped from 10 percent in October 2009 to 5.3 percent now.

And what exactly are the bad incentives in Europe?

Simply stated, governments are imposing too many burdens on the economy’s productive sector.

In a fascinating article in the latest “Journal of Economic Perspectives,” economist Christian Thimann — a former top adviser at the European Central Bank and now at the French investment bank AXA — argues that Europe’s debt crisis and the weak recovery both stem from high wage and compensation costs. “Jobs fail to be created in a number of [eurozone] countries not because of a ‘lack of demand’ as often claimed,” Thimann writes,” but mainly because wage costs are high relative to productivity, social insurance and tax burdens are heavy, and the business environment is excessively burdensome.”

Which brings us back to the point Samuelson made earlier.

If the costs of new workers exceed the likely benefits in higher sales and profits, companies will hire less or not at all.

And just in case the implications aren’t obvious, he spells it out.

…we should not ignore the implications for the United States. …it’s tempting to load the costs of social policies onto business. …The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) requires firms to provide health insurance for workers; a $15 minimum wage would raise labor costs sharply for many firms; and there are proposals mandating paid maternity and sick leave. All these seem worthy causes, but we need to be alert to unintended consequences. If we make hiring too expensive, there will be less hiring.

Amen. As I’ve already noted, businesses aren’t charities. They won’t hire new workers if that means lower profits!

But Europe has a lot of these policies, so unemployment is higher. And we have politicians in America who want to copy Europe’s mistakes.

The problem is not just that politicians are making it more expensive to hire workers. Bad government policy also is making it more expensive to do almost anything.

The U.K.-based Telegraph has a story looking at how some European governments are making other business activities needlessly costly and difficult.

…doing business in Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain is more difficult, expensive and slower than in stronger, neighbouring countries. …Looking at the average time it takes to get construction permits, electricity connected, contracts enforced and goods exported shows the disparity.

This chart shows that the problem is especially acute in Southern Europe.

Let’s close by making a very important point about differences within Europe. While it’s sometimes useful and interesting to look at big-picture comparisons (such as average unemployment in the EU vs US or average income in the EU vs US), it’s also important to realize that European nations (notwithstanding pressures for harmonization, centralization, and bureaucratization from the European Commission) still have considerable leeway to determine their own economic policies.

And if you peruse Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Northern European nations such as Finland (#10), Denmark (#19), Germany (#28), and the Netherlands (#34) are all considered market-friendly, while Southern European countries such as Spain (#51), France (#58), Italy (#79), and Greece (#84) are much lower in the rankings.

The Nordic nations are especially interesting. They have large welfare states, but they have very pro-market policies in other areas. So to elaborate on what Senator Sanders asserted, we actually could learn some good lessons from Scandinavian nations in areas other than fiscal policy.

P.S. Since we picked on Bernie Sanders already, let’s create some balance by also mocking Hillary Clinton.

Here’s a clever satirical video about her email scandal.

And if that doesn’t satisfy your craving, click here for more Hillary humor.

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A few days ago, we used supply-and-demand curves to illustrate how taxes reduce economic output.

Supply-and-demand curves also can be used to examine the impact of minimum wage laws on the labor market.

Workers understandably will be willing to supply more labor at higher wages.

Employers are just the opposite. They demand more labor when wages are low.

In an unfettered market, the interplay of supply and demand will result in an “equilibrium wage.”

But as you can see from the chart, if politicians impose a minimum-wage mandate above the equilibrium level, there will be unemployment.

Some folks, though, may not be overly impressed by theory. So how about empirical research.

Other folks, though, may prefer real-world examples rather than academic studies.

We’ve already looked at the bad results when the minimum wage was increased in Michigan.

Now we have some more unfortunate evidence from the state of Washington. Seattle Magazine has a story about a bunch of restaurants closing because of an increase in the minimum wage.

The article starts by noting a bunch of eateries are being shut down.

Last month—and particularly last week— Seattle foodies were downcast as the blows kept coming: Queen Anne’s Grub closed February 15. Pioneer Square’s Little Uncle shut down February 25. Shanik’s Meeru Dhalwala announced that it will close March 21. Renée Erickson’s Boat Street Café will shutter May 30… What the #*%&$* is going on?

Hmmm…so what’s changed. It’s not higher food prices. It’s not a change in dining preferences of consumers.

Instead, government intervention is having a predictable effect.

…for Seattle restaurateurs recently, …the impending minimum wage hike to $15 per hour. Starting April 1, all businesses must begin to phase in the wage increase: Small employers have seven years to pay all employees at least $15 hourly; large employers (with 500 or more employees) have three. Since the legislation was announced last summer, The Seattle Times and Eater have reported extensively on restaurant owners’ many concerns about how to compensate for the extra funds that will now be required for labor: They may need to raise menu prices, source poorer ingredients, reduce operating hours, reduce their labor and/or more.

An industry expert tries to explain the new reality of coping with higher costs.

Washington Restaurant Association’s Anton puts it this way: “It’s not a political problem; it’s a math problem.” …he says that if restaurant owners made no changes, the labor cost in quick service restaurants would rise to 42 percent and in full service restaurants to 47 percent. “Everyone is looking at the model right now, asking how do we do math?” he says. “Every operator I’m talking to is in panic mode, trying to figure out what the new world will look like.”

Well, we know what “the new world will look like” for many workers. They’ll be unemployed.

So you can understand why this issue is so frustrating. Politicians posture about helping workers, but they wind up displaying their economic ignorance and real-world innumeracy.

And innocent people pay the price, as shown in the Branco cartoon.

P.S. Walter Williams explains the racist impact of minimum-wage laws.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, here are a couple of additional clever cartoons illustrating the negative impact of minimum-wage mandates.

P.P.P.S. And this video is a must-watch on the issue.

P.P.P.P.S. Shifting to a different topic, I’m not quite sure this guy deserves to be in the Moocher Hall of Fame, but I’m glad he’s going to jail.

Champion golfer Alan Bannister, who played off a handicap of seven, was convicted of benefits fraud after being caught on camera walking around the course on his daily game. He even had a taxpayer-funded mobility car by claiming he was in too much pain to walk. …Inspectors discovered he used his mobility car – intended for people “virtually unable to walk” – to drive to the golf club to play with the “Sunday Swingers” and “The Crazy Gang” players, despite claiming he could barely walk 50 metres at a time. …The court was told Bannister dishonestly claimed £26,090.55 from 2007 until 2012 in Disability Living Allowance.

And while he’s only a borderline case for the Moocher Hall of Fame, he’s a perfect example of eroding social capital.

He’s a dirtbag who decided that it is perfectly okay to scam off taxpayers. When enough of his fellow citizens make the same choice, a society is in deep trouble.

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It’s very frustrating to write about the minimum wage. How often can you make the elementary observation, after all, that you’ll get more unemployment if you try to make businesses pay some workers more than they’re worth?

But it’s my mission to promote economic liberty, so I’ve written on why government-mandated wages can create unemployment by making it unprofitable to hire people with low work skills and/or poor work histories. And I’ve attacked Republicans for going along with these job-killing policies, and also pointed out the racist impact of such intervention.

Heck, just about everything sensible that needs to be said about the topic is contained in this short video narrated by Orphe Divougny

But I guess I’m the Sisyphus of the free-market movement because once again I’m going to try to talk some sense into those who think emotion can trump real-world economics.

Let’s start by citing some new reasearch.

States are allowed to increase minimum wages above the federal level. This creates interesting opportunities to measure what happens to employment when the national minimum wage is increased, since the change presumably doesn’t impact states that already are at or above that level.

Two economists from the University of California at San Diego took advantage of this natural experiment and examined employment changes in states that were “bound” and “unbound” by the law.

…we find that minimum wage increases significantly reduced the employment of low-skilled workers.  By the second year following the $7.25 minimum’s implementation, we estimate that targeted workers’ employment rates had fallen by 6 percentage points (8%) more in ‘bound’ states than in ‘unbound’ states.  …Over the late 2000s the average effective minimum wage rate rose by nearly 30% across the United States.  Our best estimate is that these minimum wage increases reduced the employment of working-age adults by 0.7 percentage points.  This accounts for 14% of the employment rate’s total decline over this time period and amounts to 1.4 million workers.  A disproportionate 45% of the affected workers were young adults (aged 15 to 24).

Gee, what a surprise. Fewer jobs.

But the mandated hike in wages didn’t just reduce employment.

There were also negative effects on income.

We find that binding minimum wage increases reduced low-skilled individuals’ average monthly incomes.  Targeted workers’ average incomes fell by an average of $100 over the first year and by an additional $50 over the following two years. …We provide direct evidence that such losses translate into meaningful reductions in upward economic mobility.  Two years following the minimum wage increases we study, low-skilled workers had become significantly less likely to transition into higher-wage employment in bound states than in unbound states. 

This evidence on income is particularly important because some statists make a rather utilitarian argument that it’s okay for some people to lose jobs because others will benefit.

Jared Bernstein is Exhibit A, as you can see in this debate we had for CNBC.

But let’s not just focus on numbers. There are painful human costs when low-skilled workers are priced out of the labor market.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the Wall Street Journal about a real-world example of people losing their jobs.

It’s well-established in the economic literature, if not in the minds of proponents of these laws, that the result will be job losses. Yet this empirical reality fails to capture the emotional reality of the employees who are let go, or of the business owners who had no choice but to let them go. …Michigan’s minimum wage rose in September to $8.15 an hour from $7.40 (the minimum wage for tipped employees rose 17%, to $3.10 an hour). The wage will rise to $9.25 by January 2018.

Now let’s look at the impact on a non-profit restaurant that helped disadvantaged people.

The staff at Tastes of Life was made up of recovering addicts, recently incarcerated individuals and others who would have a hard time landing a job elsewhere. Mr. Mosley explained that on-the-job offenses for which an employee would have been “gone that day” in a traditional work setting were instead used as training opportunities at Tastes of Life. …Mr. Mosley’s financial goal was to break even and use any excess funds to subsidize Life Challenge participants. After more than two years of operation on Beck Road, 2½ miles from the center of town, Tastes of Life had a steady flow of loyal customers, but rising food costs presented a challenge.Mr. Mosley and Ms. Tucker had planned to print new menus with higher prices to cover the food costs, but the September wage hike complicated those plans, in particular because the increase covered both tipped and non-tipped employees. …“If we had a $10 menu item, it would have to be $14,” Mr. Mosley said. The restaurant’s customer base of seniors on a fixed income and Hillsdale locals made this option a nonstarter. The restaurant also had to find roughly 250 new customers a month, unrealistic in a small town of about 8,300.

So the inevitable happened.

The increased minimum wage, he told me, was “the straw that broke that camel’s back,” forcing him to close his doors and lay off his 12-person staff. …with the higher wage costs, the arrangement was no longer feasible, and Tastes of Life closed on Sept. 28. …Four former employees have been able to leverage their restaurant experience to find new employment, but Mr. Mosley told me that eight are still out of work. …the loss of Tastes of Life cuts deep, because the benefit for Life Challenge participants was both valuable and is not easily attained elsewhere. These unintended consequences of a minimum wage hike aren’t unique to small towns in south-central Michigan. Tragically, they repeat themselves in locales small and large each time legislators heed the populist call to “raise the wage.”

Understanding “unintended consequences” is a key characteristic of a good economist.

Indeed, Bastiat’s wise words about the “seen” and “unseen” help to explain why Krugman makes so many mistakes.

But that’s a topic for another column (actually, a whole series of columns).

Today, the goal is simply to understand that it is pointlessly destructive to make low-skilled labor less affordable.

P.S. Given all the evidence that minimum-wage laws destroy jobs, why do some people persist in supporting such a destructive policy? In this post, I provide six possible reasons.

P.P.S. No wonder I get so frustrated on this topic.

P.P.P.S On the lighter side, here are some good cartoon on the minimum wage from Steve Breen, Lisa Benson and Henry Payne.

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For the past several years, on the issue of jobs, I’ve focused more on the employment-population ratio rather than the official unemployment rate.

Both figures are important, of course, but I think the employment-population ratio has more economic meaning since our prosperity ultimately is based on how many people are productively employed.

To put this in wonkish terms, our national economic output is a function of the efficient allocation of labor and capital.

The reason I bring this up is that many people think the job market is now in great shape because the unemployment rate has dropped to 5.6 percent.

To be sure, that’s good news when compared to the much higher rates of joblessness that plagued the nation a few years ago. But one of the reasons the unemployment rate has dropped is that many people have left the labor force.

Here’s a chart based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing how many people have jobs compared to the working-age population. As you can see, there’s been scant improvement in this important indicator.

The problem isn’t that the ratio plummeted during the downturn. That always happens.

What’s worrisome is the fact that there wasn’t a bounce back in the right direction after the economy started to improve.

Indeed, it’s become such a problem that the establishment media has started to notice.

Here’s some of what Reuters reported on Fridays good news/bad news jobs report.

…wages posted their biggest decline in at least eight years in a sign the tightening labor market has yet to give much of a boost to workers. …The jobless rate fell 0.2 percentage point to a 6-1/2-year low of 5.6 percent, but that was mainly because people left the labor force. The drop in labor participation and a surprise five-cent, or 0.2 percent, decrease in average hourly earnings…the labor force participation rate, the percentage of the working age population who either have a job or are looking for one, dropped back to the 36-year low of 62.7 percent reached in September.

The labor force participation rate, which is mentioned in the Reuters article, is another set of data that is rather similar to the employment-population rate.

Here’s a chart that’s been circulating on Twitter, based on data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve. You can see that the labor force participation rate jumped significantly between 1970 and 1990, in large part because more women were entering the job market. But in recent years, the trend has been in the wrong direction.

And if you parse the data, you can see that the big problem is among those without a college degree.

Now that we’ve cited lots of data, let’s speculate on why we have fewer and fewer people productively employed.

There are several possible answers, including the big increase in people scamming the disability system.

There’s also the jump in tax and regulatory burdens, though that presumably impacts all economic statistics.

Obamacare deserves its own special mention since it imposes a significant penalty on work.

And, until recently, the government had a policy of endless unemployment benefits that made work relatively less attractive.

So the bottom line, as you might expect, is that the problem is too much intervention and bloated government. Which means the answer is free markets and less government.

P.S. Some readers will have noticed that this piece cites both the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate. These two data series are sometimes used interchangeably, though I prefer the former for reasons explained in this article for the BLS’s Monthly Labor Review.

P.P.S. If you want a humorous take on labor economics, I recommend this Wizard-of-Id parody, as well as this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

P.P.P.S. To end on a glum note, Obama wants to increase the minimum wage. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know whether that’s going to help or hurt the job market.

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Exactly one year ago, we looked at the best and worst policy developments of 2013.

Now it’s time for a look back at 2014 to see what’s worth celebrating and what are reasons for despair.

Here’s the good news for 2014.

1. Gridlock – I’ve been arguing for nearly three years that divided government is producing better economic performance. To be sure, it would have been difficult for the economy to move in the wrong direction after the stagnation of Obama’s first two years, but heading in the wrong direction at a slower pace is better than speeding toward European-style statism.

Indeed, the fact that policy stopped getting worse even boosted America’s relative competitiveness, so there’s a lot to be thankful for when politicians disagree with each other and can’t enact new laws.

David Harsanyi explains the glory of gridlock for The Federalist.

Gross domestic product grew by a healthy 5 percent in the third quarter, the strongest growth we’ve seen since 2003. Consumer spending looks like it’s going to be strong in 2015, unemployment numbers have looked good, buying power is up and the stock market closed at 18,000 for the first time ever. All good things. So what happened? …the predominant agenda of Washington was doing nothing. It was only when the tinkering and superfluous stimulus spending wound down that fortunes began to turn around. …spending as a percent of GDP has gone down. In 2009, 125 bills were enacted into law. In 2010, 258. After that, Congress, year by year, became one of the least productive in history. And the more unproductive Washington became, the more the economy began to improve. …Gridlock has caused an odd, but pervasive, stability in Washington. Spending has been static. No jarring reforms have passed — no cap-and-trade, which would have artificially spiked energy prices and undercut the growth we’re now experiencing. The inadvertent, but reigning, policy over the past four years has been, do no harm.

Amen. Though I should hasten to add that while gridlock has been helpful in the short run (stopping Obama from achieving his dream of becoming a second FDR), at some point we will need unified government in order to adopt much-needed tax reform and entitlement reform.

The key question is whether we will ever get good politicians controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

2. Restrained Spending – This is the most under-reported and under-celebrated news of the past few years, not just 2014.

Allow me to cite one of my favorite people.

In fiscal year 2009, the federal government spent about $3.52 trillion. In fiscal year 2014 (which ended on September 30), the federal government spent about $3.50 trillion. In other words, there’s been no growth in nominal government spending over the past five years. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves, but there’s been a spending freeze in Washington. …the fiscal restraint over the past five years has resulted in a bigger drop in the relative size of government in America than what Switzerland achieved over the past ten years thanks to the “debt brake.” …The bottom line is that the past five years have been a victory for advocates of limited government.

And this spending restraint is producing economic dividends, though Paul Krugman somehow wants people to believe that Keynesian economics deserves the credit.

3. Limits on Unemployment Benefits – Although the labor force participation rate is still disturbingly low, the unemployment rate has declined and job creation numbers have improved.

The aforementioned policies surely deserve some of the credit, but it’s also worth noting that Congress wisely put a stop to the initiative-sapping policy of endlessly extending unemployment benefits. Such policies sound compassionate, but they basically pay people not to work and cause more joblessness.

Phil Kerpen of American Commitment elaborates, citing recent research from the New York Fed.

According to empirical research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York: “most of the persistent increase in unemployment during the Great Recession can be accounted for by the unprecedented extensions of unemployment benefit eligibility.” Those benefits finally ended at the end of 2013, triggering a sharp rise in hiring… Specifically, they found that the average extended unemployment benefits duration of 82.5 weeks for four years had the impact of raising the unemployment rate from 5 percent to 8.6 percent. …Good intentions are not enough in public policy.  It might seem kind and compassionate to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on “emergency” unemployment benefits forever, but the effect is to keep millions of people unemployed.  Results matter.

Phil’s right. If you pay people not to work, you’re going to get foolish results.

But the three above stories are not the only rays of sunshine in 2014. Honorable mention goes to North Carolina and Kansas for implementing pro-growth tax reforms.

I’m also pleased that GOPers passed the first half of my test and told the Democrat appointee at the Congressional Budget Office that he would be replaced. Now the question is whether they appoint someone who will make the long-overdue changes that are needed to get better and more accurate assessments of fiscal policy. That didn’t happen when the GOP had control between 1995 and 2007, so victory is far from assured.

And another honorable mention is that Congress has not expanded the IMF’s bailout authority.

Now let’s look at the three worst policy developments of 2014.

1. Obamacare Subsidies – Yes, Obamacare has been a giant albatross for the President and his party. Yes, the law has helped more and more people realize that big government isn’t a good idea. Those are positive developments.

Nonetheless, 2014 was the year when the subsidies began to flow. And once handouts begin, politicians get very squeamish about taking them away.

This is why I wrote back in 2012 that Obamacare may have been a victory (in the long run) for the left, even though it caused dozens of Democrats to lose their seats in the House and Senate.

I think the left made a clever calculation that losses in the last cycle would be an acceptable price to get more people dependent on the federal government. And once people have to rely on government for something like healthcare, they are more likely to vote for the party that promises to make government bigger. …This is why Obamacare – and the rest of the entitlement state – is so worrisome. If more and more Americans decide to ride in the wagon of government dependency, it will be less and less likely that those people will vote for candidates who want to restrain government.

Simply stated, when more and more people get hooked on the heroin of government dependency, I fear you get the result portrayed in this set of cartoons.

2. Continuing Erosion of Tax Competition – Regular readers know that I view jurisdictional competition as a very valuable constraint on the greed of the political class.

Simply stated, politicians will be less likely to impose punitive tax policies if the geese with the golden eggs can fly away. That’s why I cheer when taxpayers escape high-tax jurisdictions, whether we’re looking at New Jersey and California, or France and the United States.

But this also helps to explain why governments, either unilaterally or multilaterally, are trying to prevent taxpayers from shifting economic activity to low-tax jurisdictions.

And 2014 was not a good year for taxpayers. We saw further implementation of FATCA, ongoing efforts by the OECD to raise the tax burden on the business community, and even efforts by the United Nations to further erode tax competition.

Here’s an example, from the Wall Street Journal, of politicians treating taxpayers like captive serfs.

Japan could become the latest country to consider taxing wealthy individuals who move abroad to take advantage of lower rates. The government and ruling party lawmakers are considering an “exit tax”… Such a rule would prevent wealthy individuals moving to a location where taxes are low–such as Singapore or Hong Kong… some expats in Tokyo are concerned the rule could make companies think twice about sending senior professionals to Japan or make Japanese entrepreneurs more reluctant to go abroad.

My reaction, for what it’s worth, is that Japan should reduce tax rates if it wants to keep people (and their money) from emigrating.

3. Repeating the Mistakes that Caused the Housing Crisis – A corrupt system of subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, combined with other misguided policies from Washington, backfired with a housing bubble and financial crisis in 2008.

Inexplicably, the crowd in Washington has learned nothing from that disaster. New regulations are being proposed to once again provide big subsidies that will destabilize the housing market.

Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute warns that politicians are planting the seeds for another mess.

New standards were supposed to raise the quality of the “prime” mortgages that get packaged and sold to investors; instead, they will have the opposite effect. …the standards have been watered down. …The regulators believe that lower underwriting standards promote homeownership and make mortgages and homes more affordable. The facts, however, show that the opposite is true. …low underwriting standards — especially low down payments — drive housing prices up, making them less affordable for low- and moderate-income buyers, while also inducing would-be homeowners to take more risk. That’s why homes were more affordable before the 1990s than they are today. … The losers, as we saw in the financial crisis, are borrowers of modest means who are lured into financing arrangements they can’t afford. When the result is foreclosure and eviction, one of the central goals of homeownership — building equity — is undone.

Gee, it’s almost as if Chuck Asay had perfect foresight when drawing this cartoon.

Let’s end today’s post with a few dishonorable mentions.

In addition to the three developments we just discussed, I’m also very worried about the ever-growing red tape burden. This is a hidden tax that undermines economic efficiency and enables cronyism.

I continue to be irked that my tax dollars are being used to subsidize a very left-wing international bureaucracy in Paris.

And it’s very sad that one of the big success stories of economic liberalization is now being undermined.

P.S. This is the feel-good story of the year.

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