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Archive for the ‘Unemployment’ Category

Over the past couple of years, one of the most disturbing – and also revealing – things to happen in Washington is when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed giving more money to people “unwilling to work.”

As discussed in this interview, the left seems to want more dependency.

This is a very unfortunate development. Just four years ago, Joe Biden rejected no-strings-handouts such as “basic income.”

But now he’s proposing a massive expansion of the welfare state, including huge per-child handouts that effectively would repeal Bill Clinton’s very successful welfare reform.

The obvious takeaway is that many politicians in Washington want to create a society where government dependency is normal and desirable.

That may be a good vote-buying strategy, but it has horrible consequences. Both morally and economically.

Let’s address one of the specific issues from the interview.

Regarding bonus unemployment benefits. I warned that we should be careful about over-interpreting short-run data. And that’s especially true because the states providing extra payments for joblessness are generally the states that also had the most onerous lockdown policies during the pandemic.

So, if unemployment is dropping in a state, is it because extra benefits have been cancelled, or is it a result of relaxed lockdown policies? Or is it something else, like lower tax rates?

One obvious way of trying to answer these questions is to ask people why they’re not working.

Here are the results of a recent poll, as reported by Λxios.

About 1.8 million out-of-work Americans have turned down jobs because of the generosity of unemployment insurance benefits, according to Morning Consult poll results released Wednesday. …U.S. businesses have been wrestling with labor supply shortages as folks capable of working have opted not to work for a variety of reasons. … Morning Consult surveyed 5,000 U.S. adults from June 22-25, 2021. Of those actively collecting unemployment benefits, 29% said they turned down job offers during the pandemic. In response to a follow-up question, 45% of that group said they turned down jobs specifically because of the generosity of the benefits.

So our friends on the left tell us that bigger handouts have no adverse economic consequences while the people getting the payments openly admit that they aren’t working because they can live off the taxpayers.

I know which group I believe.

P.S. Both this Wizard-of-Id parody and this cartoon do a great job of showing the economics of incentives.

P.P.S. Since the interview also included some discussion of basic income, here’s a recent study showing how those universal handouts would cripple work incentives.

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Politicians impose higher tax costs on tobacco because they want less smoking. And environmentalists want higher gas prices so there will be less driving.

And, as explained in this video, higher minimum wages for low-skilled labor will reduce employment.

For economists, none of this is surprising and none of this is newsworthy.

Minimum wage laws are a form of price controls, and we have centuries of evidence that bad things happen when politicians try to rig the market.

When I discuss this issue, people often respond by asserting that businesses will treat people like dirt in the absence of government intervention.

I answer them by agreeing with their premise (businesses would like to pay everyone as little as possible), but I then share this data, which shows that they’re wrong on facts. To be more specific, nearly 99 percent of workers make more than the minimum wage.

In other words, the free market leads to higher wages (which is why today’s workers earn so much more than previous generations).

And we’ll continue to enjoy economic progress, so long as politicians give the private sector enough breathing room to create more prosperity.

Which is why a mandate for higher minimum wages would be a bad idea.

Indeed, research published by the Harvard Business Review shows that the minimum wage even can be bad news for the workers who don’t lose their jobs.

Here is a description of the methodology used by the authors (Qiuping Yu, Shawn Mankad, and Masha Shunko).

…minimum wage policies…can influence firms’ behavior in a variety of complex, interrelated ways. In addition to changing employment rates, studies suggest that firms may strategically respond to minimum wage increases by changing their approaches in other areas, such as worker schedules. This can have significant implications for employee welfare… To address these challenges, we conducted a study in which we…looked at worker schedule and wage data from 2015 to 2018 for more than 5,000 employees at 45 stores in California — where the minimum wage was $9 in 2015, and has increased every year since then — and at 17 stores in Texas, where the minimum wage was $7.25 for the duration of our study. We then controlled for statewide economic and employment differences between California and Texas in order to isolate just the impact of increasing the minimum wage.

Here are some of their results.

For every $1 increase in the minimum wage, we found that the total number of workers scheduled to work each week increased by 27.7%, while the average number of hours each worker worked per week decrease by 20.8%. …which meant that the total wage compensation of an average minimum wage worker in a California store actually fell by 13.6%. This decrease in the average number of hours worked not only reduced total wages, but also impacted eligibility for benefits. We found that for every $1 increase in minimum wage, the percentage of workers working more than 20 hours per week (making them eligible for retirement benefits) decreased by 23.0%, while the percentage of workers with more than 30 hours per week (making them eligible for health care benefits) decreased by 14.9%. …our data suggests that the combination of reduced hours, eligibility for benefits, and schedule consistency that resulted from a $1 increase in the minimum wage added up to average net losses of at least $1,590 per year per employee — equivalent to 11.6% of workers’ total wage compensation.

Gee, is anybody surprised to see bad results from California?

But let’s focus on the minimum wage, not on the (formerly) Golden State.

Here’s the bottom line: I’ve explained that a higher minimum wage is theoretically bad.

And I’ve shown that it leads to higher unemployment.

But this new research is important because it shows that a higher minimum wage also backfires on the workers who don’t lose their jobs.

That’s an argument I’ve made before, but it needs to become a bigger part of the discussion.

The goal should be to help people climb the ladder of economic opportunity, which is why the minimum wage should be abolished rather than increased.

P.S. It’s disgusting that labor bosses push for a higher minimum wage to hurt low-skilled workers who compete with union members and it’s disgusting that big companies like Amazon push for a higher minimum wage to hurt small businesses that compete with them for customers

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During the Obama years, I shared a cartoon strip that cleverly makes the point that some people will choose not to work if they can get enough goodies from the government.

That Wizard-of-Id parody has been viewed more than 56,000 times, which suggests many readers also thought it was worth sharing.

But it obviously hasn’t been shared often enough with the crowd in Washington. Politicians have created a welfare state that penalizes work and rewards dependency.

Especially now that there are bonus payments for staying unemployed. Which makes it hard to businesses to find workers.

Our friends on the left, however, think there’s a solution to this problem.

In his column for the New York Times, David Leonhardt says there is not a labor shortage because employers can simply raise wages.

The idea that the United States suffers from a labor shortage is fast becoming conventional wisdom. But before you accept the idea, it’s worth taking a few minutes to think it through. Once you do, you may realize that the labor shortage is more myth than reality. …one of the beauties of capitalism is its mechanism for dealing with shortages. In a communist system, people must wait in long lines when there is more demand than supply for an item. That’s an actual shortage. In a capitalist economy, however, there is a ready solution. …When a company is struggling to find enough labor, it can solve the problem by offering to pay a higher price for that labor — also known as higher wages. More workers will then enter the labor market. Suddenly, the labor shortage will be no more. …Sure enough, some companies have responded to the alleged labor shortage by doing exactly this. …companies that have recently announced pay increases include Amazon, Chipotle, Costco, McDonald’s, Walmart, J.P. Morgan Chase and Sheetz convenience stores.

Leonhardt is correct that businesses can lure workers back into the job market by boosting wages. I’m glad he recognizes how the price system works.

But he completely ignores the issue of whether some jobs will simply disappear because they’re not worth the amount of money that would be required to out-compete government handouts.

That’s the key argument from the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on the topic.

…the U.S. labor market turned in its second disappointing result in a row in May, according to Friday’s Labor Department report. That’s what happens when government pays Americans not to work. Employers created 559,000 net new jobs in the month, which sounds great until you notice that 1.5 million fewer workers in May said they were unable to work because their employer closed or lost business due to the pandemic. …The civilian labor force shrank in May by 53,000, and the number of men over age 20 who were employed fell by 8,000. …What gives? The Occam’s razor explanation is that in March the Biden Administration and Congress ladled out another mountain of cash to Americans—work not required. The extra $300 a week in enhanced jobless benefits is one problem, since millions of Americans can make more staying on the couch. …This is on top of regular jobless benefits, plus new or extended cash payments such as the $3,000 per child tax credit, additional ObamaCare subsidies, and the $1,400 checks to individuals. Again, no work required.

For all intents and purposes, politicians in DC have been undoing the great achievement of welfare reform. That 1996 law was designed to push people from idleness into employment, and it was largely successful.

But over the past couple of decades, laws like Obamacare have given people goodies without any conditionality, which has resulted in many people deciding once again that they don’t need to work.

And if Biden’s per-child handouts are made permanent, expect the problem to get even worse.

Since we started with a cartoon, let’s close with another cartoon.

This gem from Henry Payne captures the problem facing many small businesses.

Big companies have enough financial depth that they can adapt. They have considerable ability to get rid of low-skilled jobs, invest in labor-saving technologies, and even give some raises to employees they retain.

Many small businesses, however, are simply out of luck. That’s one group of victims.

The other victims are the people who get goodies from politicians. Yes, the various handouts make their lives easier in the short run, but once they get trapped in the quicksand of government dependency, it’s very difficult to escape.

P.S. Because he said some sensible things about “basic income” back in 2017, I had hoped Biden would be better on this issue. I should have known better based on his track record.

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Last year, I compared the economic performance of red states and blue states.

My big takeaway from that column is that we should pay attention to the data on internal migration. More specifically, there’s a reason why Americans have been moving from high-tax states to low-tax states.

Today’s let’s follow up on that discussion.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an editorial on the gap between blue states and red states. This accompanying illustration shows that there is a clear relationship between joblessness and the degree to which states pursue big-government policies.

And here’s how the WSJ explained the big differences.

The unemployment rate in April nationwide was 6.1%, but this obscures giant variations in the states. With some exceptions, those run by Democrats such as California (8.3%) and New York (8.2%) continued to suffer significantly higher unemployment than those led by Republicans such as South Dakota (2.8%) and Montana (3.7%). It’s rare to see differences that are so stark based on party control in states. But the current partisan differences reflect different policy choices over the length and severity of pandemic lockdowns and now government benefits such as jobless insurance. Nine of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment rates are led by Republicans. The exception is Wisconsin whose Supreme Court last May invalidated Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s lockdown. …Most states in the Midwest, South and Mountain West aren’t far off their pre-pandemic employment peaks. One obstacle to a faster recovery may be the $300 federal unemployment bonus, which many GOP governors are rejecting. Meantime, states with Democratic governments continue to reward workers for sitting on the couch. The longer that workers stay unemployed, the harder it will be to get them to return to work.

For what it’s worth, I’m more upset about the subsidized unemployment than the differences in lockdown policies, particularly because the former is more indicative of economic illiteracy.

P.S. One of the worst parts of Biden’s waste-filled stimulus plan is that it gave a big bailout for states, based on a formula that actually rewarded them for having bad numbers.

P.P.S. Click here and here if you want to peruse comprehensive measures of state economic policy.

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I wrote two days ago about subsidized unemployment, followed later in the day by this interview.

This controversy raises a fundamental economic issue.

I explained in the interview that employers only hire people when they expect a new worker will generate at least enough revenue to cover the cost of employment.

There’s a similar calculation on the part of individuals, as shown by this satirical cartoon strip.

People decide to take jobs when they expect the additional after-tax income they earn will compensate them for the loss of leisure and/or the unpleasantness of working.

Which is why many people are now choosing not to work since the government has increased the subsidies for idleness (a bad policy that began under Trump).

The Wall Street Journal editorialized about this issue a couple of days ago.

White House economists say there’s no “measurable” evidence that the $300 federal unemployment bonus is discouraging unemployed people from seeking work. They were rebutted by Tuesday’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Jolts survey, which showed a record 8.1 million job openings in March. …But these jobs often pay less than what most workers could make on unemployment. That explains why the number of job openings in many industries increased more than the number of new hires in March. …The number of workers who quit their jobs also grew by 125,000. …some quitters may be leaving their jobs because they figure they can make more unemployed for the next six months after Democrats extended the bonus into September.

Dan Henninger also opined on the issue for the WSJ. Here’s some of what he wrote.

President Biden said, “People will come back to work if they’re paid a decent wage.” But what if he’s wrong? What if his $300 unemployment insurance bonus on top of the checks sent directly to millions of people (which began during the Trump presidency) turns out to be a big, long-term mistake? …Mr. Biden and the left expect these outlays effectively to raise the minimum wage by forcing employers to compete with Uncle Sam’s money. …Ideas have consequences. By making unemployment insurance competitive with market wage rates in a pandemic, the Biden Democrats may have done long-term damage to the American work ethic. …The welfare reforms of the 1990s were based on the realization that transfer payments undermined the work ethic. The Biden-Sanders Democrats are dropping that work requirement for recipients of cash payments.

Amen.

I made similar arguments about the erosion of the work ethic last year when discussing this issue.

And this concern applies to other forms of redistribution. Including, most notably, the foolish idea of big per-child handouts.

P.S. The WSJ editorial cited above mentioned the Labor Department’s JOLT data. Those numbers are also useful if you want proof that federal bureaucrats are overpaid, and you’ll also see that the same thing is true for state and local government employees.

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Back in 2010, I applauded Paul Krugman for acknowledging that government unemployment benefits can encourage joblessness.

And I even cited Krugman in this 2012 debate on the topic.

We’re debating this issue again today, but it’s an even bigger problem because politicians in Washington have added a special bonus payment for people who stay unemployed.

So we’re naturally finding that people are more reluctant to work, which is a rational choice for many of them since they’re getting more money for sitting on their butts.

So if Krugman recognized back in 2009 that regular-sized unemployment benefits lead to more joblessness, he must be even more worried about today’s super-sized unemployment benefits.

But there’s a catch. Krugman made his sensible observations on this issue in a textbook when he was still an academic economist, back when he felt some professional obligation to be rational and pay attention to the academic evidence and empirical research.

Today, he’s an ideologue and polemicist. So we get nonsense like this column in the New York Times.

…the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the U.S. economy added only 266,000 jobs in April, far short of consensus expectations that we’d gain around a million new jobs. Was this evidence that the economy really is being held back because we’re “paying people not to work”? No. For one thing, you should never make much of one month’s numbers, especially in an economy still distorted by the pandemic. …Also, if unemployment benefits were holding job growth back, you’d expect the worst performance in low-wage industries, where benefits are large relative to wages. …on the face of it the data don’t support an unemployment-benefits story. So what actually happened? We don’t know. Maybe it was a statistical aberration.

For what it’s worth, I prefer the sober-minded analysis available in editorials from the Wall Street Journal.

Such as this one.

Employers nationwide have complained for months that Washington’s $300-a-week bonus has made it harder to find willing workers. Yet Mr. Biden brushed aside the complaints, saying he and his staff “don’t see much evidence” that the payments are a “major factor.” …The perverse incentive of the bonus is clear, and the evidence goes beyond the anecdotes from tens of thousands of employers. …Bank of America economist Joseph Song notes that any worker earning less than $32,000 annually would get a raise by going on unemployment… The President intended his remarks to depict his Administration as the driver of job growth instead of its main hindrance. It was a tall order. But the bright side is that his urgent appearance showed that more Americans are figuring out that when the government pays people not to work, millions choose not to.

The good news is that some governors are opting out.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the Washington Post.

An unexpected slowdown in hiring nationwide has prompted some Republican governors to start slashing jobless benefits in their states, hoping that the loss of generous federal aid might force more people to try to return to work. …Arkansas on Friday became the latest to announce plans to cancel the extra benefits, joining Montana and South Carolina earlier in the week… Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signaled to local reporters that the state could soon follow suit, while Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is considering the same.

I’m tempted to comment about the Post‘s usual bias (saying GOP governors want to “slash” when they’re simply proposing to return to regular-sized benefits).

But let’s stick to the topic.

Here’s another interview on the issue, but it’s about the current fight rather than the Obama-era fight.

I’m especially concerned, as I noted in the interview, that bad government policy may erode the work ethic.

I’ll close with a comment about the fight we had during the Obama years. Back then, the battle revolved around extended unemployment benefits rather than turbo-charged benefits.

Republicans eventually prevailed in blocking the extended benefits. So what happened? As you might expect, there was an increase in employment.

P.S. I imagine this story from Michigan and this example from Ohio will ring a bell with many people because they have some relative or buddy who also has used government benefits as an excuse to stay unemployed.

P.P.S. Senator Rand Paul and I wrote about this issue back in 2014.

P.P.P.S. For some unintentional humor, Nancy Pelosi actually argued that the economy is stronger when people are paid not to work.

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Today we’re going to mix two things that seem disconnected.

Our first topic is federalism, which is the sensible principle that deciding things at the local level, or even state level, is better than being ruled by faraway politicians and a big, centralized bureaucracy.

You can still get awful policies from local politicians and state politicians, of course, but at least it is easier to monitor their actions, remove them from power, or move away if necessary.

A big reason I’m a fan of federalism because it creates competition among governments. For instance, I cheer when businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs escape from high-tax states like California and New York and move to zero-income tax states such as Florida and Texas.

When programs are centralized in Washington, by contrast, you simply add another layer of bureaucracy and expense.

But it’s not just a money issue. When Washington is in charge, you get a one-size-fits-all approach. That means there’s no room for innovation and diversity, which makes it much less likely that policy makers can learn what works and what doesn’t work.

Our second topic involves a story about record-setting levels of waste in California.

In a column published by Reason, Steven Greenhut describes how the unemployment insurance program in the Golden State has experienced jaw-dropping levels of fraud.

This is one of the most infuriating scandals ever to plague our state. The department, which is responsible for paying out unemployment insurance claims, has been incapable of paying legitimate claims even as it has paid as much as $31 billion in fraudulent ones, often to inmates. …Here’s a desk-pounder from CBS Los Angeles: “A Fresno girl who just celebrated her first birthday is collecting $167 per week in unemployment benefits after a claim was filed on her behalf stating that she was an unemployed actor.” The Southern California News Group reported last month that one man “is suspected of using the identities of 23 inmates and others to obtain more than $3 million in state unemployment benefits.” Approximately 10 percent of the paid claims have been fraudulent, with another 17 percent under suspicion. This will be “the largest fraud investigation in the history of America,” according to one expert.

I suspect that we’ll discover that most of the suspicious payments also were fraudulent, which means one-fourth of the money went to crooks.

Meanwhile, the same bureaucrats who blindly sent out checks to the wrong people also managed to ignore inquiries from the right people.

The department’s call center only answered 1 percent of calls that Californians had made to check on their claim status.

Amazingly, the Biden Administration has decided that the person in charge of all this waste and fraud should be rewarded.

Julie Su, the state labor secretary who was responsible for the department, may receive a big promotion…to serve as President Joe Biden’s pick for deputy secretary of the federal department of labor.

I fully agree with Mr. Greenhut’s concluding observation.

Welcome to…government, where no good deed goes unpunished and no level of incompetence goes unrewarded.

At this point, you may be wondering about the connection between our two topics.

To show how they are related, I’ll ask this rhetorical question: Why aren’t people in California upset about losing at least $31 billion to fraud, especially since the entire state budget is about $134 billion?

The answer is that they’re not wasting their own money!

The vast majority of the pandemic-related unemployment funds were provided by Washington, most notably (1) extended benefits under existing UI, (2) pandemic expansion of UI to cover people not normally eligible for UI, and (3) bonus payments.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that California bureaucrats didn’t care how much of the money was lost to fraud. As Milton Friedman wisely pointed out, there’s no incentive to be responsible when spending other people’s money on other people.

Now I’ll ask another rhetorical question: What would have happened if California was in charge of not only spending the money, but also was in charge of raising the money?

I’m sure there would have been plenty of waste and fraud, but even profligate California officials would have figured out it wasn’t a good idea to squander $31 billion of their own money.

After all, consider the case of Vermont, which quickly retreated from a proposal for single-payer health care once they realized the implications if they paid for it themselves.

The bottom line is you get better outcomes when there’s genuine decentralization. Simply stated, politicians have to be at least semi-responsible when they have to raise the money that they spend. It’s called accountability.

Which is why even the left-leaning OECD and left-leaning IMF have produced research confirming superior results with real federalism.

P.S. Switzerland is a great example of genuine federalism, whereas our system in the United States has been substantially eroded.

P.P.S. Big chunks of the federal budget should be wiped out and transferred back to state and local governments, including redistribution, health care, transportation, and education.

P.P.P.S. To see what Hayek and Mises wrote about federalism, click here.

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While I understandably don’t like politicians, I rarely think they are stupid. They do lots of idiotic things, of course, but they are making calculated decisions that it’s okay to hurt the economy if they achieve some political benefit. That’s immoral, but not dumb.

However, sometimes politicians say things so absurdly inaccurate that it makes me wonder if they actually are…what’s the politically correct term?…cognitively challenged.

Consider, for instance, some of Donald Trump’s trade tweets, which were jaw-dropping examples of economic illiteracy.

And now Joe Biden is showing he can be similarly detached from the real world, claiming this past weekend that a $15-per-hour minimum wage is a good idea because, “all the economics show that if you do that the whole economy rises.”

Though maybe that’s true if one can somehow claim that “1 out of 40” is the same as “all.”

Moreover, it appears that “all” doesn’t include the Congressional Budget Office.

The bean counters at CBO don’t have a reputation for being fire-breathing libertarians, so it’s especially noteworthy that its new estimates show that a higher minimum wage will reduce economic output, destroy 1.4 million jobs, raise prices, and increase the burden of government spending.

As the old joke goes, “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?”

And “all” doesn’t include America’s premier source for financial news. The Wall Street Journal opined on Biden’s plan this morning.

…his proposal for a $15 federal minimum wage…by 2025, according to the CBO’s new average estimate, would result in a loss of 1.4 million jobs.The idled workers would be disproportionately younger and less educated, and CBO projects that half of them would drop out of the labor force. …The federal budget deficit through 2031 would increase $54 billion, CBO says, as the government spent more on unemployment benefits and health-care programs. …setting the minimum wage at a high of $15 would essentially put the country through an economic experiment. This would mean imposing the urban labor costs of San Francisco and Manhattan on every out-of-the-way gas station in rural America.

Of course, we’ve already experienced some real-world experiments.

Higher minimum wages already have wreaked havoc and destroyed jobs in places such as Seattle, New York City, Oakland, and Washington, DC, so we already have plenty of evidence (and don’t forget the European data as well).

I’ll close with this clever cartoon strip, which mocks people who support higher mandated wages for reasons of naivete rather than stupidity.

P.S. Here’s my most recent interview about the minimum wage, here’s the interview that got me most frustrated, and here’s my interview debate with Biden’s economic advisor.

P.P.S. I strongly recommend this video on the topic from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

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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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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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Looking through an economic lens, what’s the best country in the world?

If your benchmark is economic liberty, then Hong Kong is the answer according to both the Fraser Institute and Heritage Foundation.

If per-capita GDP or per-capita wealth is your benchmark, then Monaco wins the prize.

And you get different answers if you focus on specific features such as competitiveness (the United States) or ease of doing business (New Zealand).

You can also measure national performance by looking at key economic variables.

And that’s what Professor Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University has done.

In the sphere of economics, misery tends to flow from high inflation, steep borrowing costs and unemployment. …Many countries measure and report these economic metrics on a regular basis. Comparing them, nation by nation, can tell us a lot about where in the world people are sad or happy. …To answer this question, I update my annual Misery Index measurements.

Hanke explains the evolution of the Misery Index and how he puts together his version.

The first Misery Index was constructed by economist Art Okun in the 1960s as a way to provide President Lyndon Johnson with an easily digestible snapshot of the economy. That original Misery Index was just a simple sum of a nation’s annual inflation rate and its unemployment rate. The Index has been modified several times, first by Robert Barro of Harvard and then by myself. My modified Misery Index is the sum of the unemployment, inflation and bank lending rates, minus the percentage change in real GDP per capita. Higher readings on the first three elements are “bad” and make people more miserable. These are offset by a “good” (GDP per capita growth), which is subtracted from the sum of the “bads.”

You can see the entire list of 95 nations (some countries don’t report adequate data, so they aren’t counted) by clicking here.

And here are the nations with the best scores (remember, this is a Misery Index, so the top results are at the bottom of the list).

Professor Hanke comments on Thailand’s first-place results and Hungary’s second-place results.

Thailand takes the prize as the least miserable country in the world on the 2018 Misery Index. It’s 2018 rank of No. 95 out of 95 countries is a stunner. …Hungary delivered yet another stunner, making a dramatic improvement from 2017 to 2018.  It comes in at No. 94 as the second least miserable country in the world. While the European Union and the international elites have thrown everything they can throw at Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, it’s easy to see why he commands a strong following at home.

Keep in mind, by the way, that Hanke’s list is a measure of annual economic outcomes.

So a relatively poor country can get a very good score. Indeed, they should get comparatively good scores according to convergence theory.

Assuming, of course, that they have decent policy.

However, if you look at the nations with the most miserable outcomes, you can see that many countries don’t have decent policy.

Here’s Hanke’s analysis of the world’s worst performers.

Venezuela holds the inglorious title of the most miserable country in the world in 2018, as it did in 2017, 2016, and 2015. The failures of President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist, corrupt petroleum state have been well documented… Argentina jumped to the No. 2 spot after yet another peso crisis. Since its founding, Argentina has been burdened with numerous economic crises. Most can be laid at the feet of domestic mismanagement and currency problems (read: currency collapses). To list but a few of these crises: 1876, 1890, 1914, 1930, 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1985, 1989, 2001, and 2018.

For what it’s worth, if you look at the actual Misery Index numbers, Venezuela is in first place by an enormous margin. Chalk that up as another “victory” for socialism.

Moreover, I’m not surprised to see that Jordan, Ukraine, and South Africa are doing poorly. Sadly, there’s not much hope for improvement in those nations.

It’s also not a surprise to see Brazil on the list, though there may be room for optimism if the new government can adopt meaningful reforms.

P.S. Professor Hanke noted that Arthur Okun created the first Misery Index. Okun also is famous for his explanation of the equity-efficiency tradeoff. Okun supported redistribution in order to increase equality of outcomes, but he was honest and admitted that this would mean less prosperity. Too bad international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF don’t share Okun’s honesty.

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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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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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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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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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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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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 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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