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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then they denigrate the study.

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

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

Which reinforces my concerns about the entire concept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s explore this issue further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And those options obviously are not good news for workers.

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

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

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

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

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

And what did they find?

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

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

Here’s the relevant chart from the study.

And here are some concluding thoughts from the study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark elaborates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what were the results of the German reforms?

To put it mildly, they were a huge success.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s the accompany chart from the study.

Here’s another section that I found fascinating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder this is my favorite poster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hollande government has proposed to tinker with this system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsurprisingly, government bears a lot of the blame.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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