Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category.

Are Markets Still Efficient (Vis a Vis Individual Equity Valuations) If Everyone Is An Index Fund Investor?

From the WSJ, the dying business of picking stocks.

Pension funds, endowments, 401(k) retirement plans and retail investors are flooding into passive investment funds, which run on autopilot by tracking an index. Stock pickers, archetypes of 20th century Wall Street, are being pushed to the margins.

Over the three years ended Aug. 31, investors added nearly $1.3 trillion to passive mutual funds and their brethren—passive exchange-traded funds—while draining more than a quarter trillion from active funds, according to Morningstar Inc.

Advocates of passive funds have long cited their superior performance over time, lower fees and simplicity. Today, that credo has been effectively institutionalized, with government regulators, plaintiffs' lawyers and performance data pushing investors away from active stock picking.

Why the Minimum Wage is A Bad Anti-Poverty Policy in One Chart

This is a regular chart used by Mark Perry, updated for the most recent data.  It is one of my favorites.

click to enlarge

Mark has a lot of great analysis of this data, too long to excerpt, so I refer you back to the link to see his comments.  But I want to add one of my own.

Let me restate the numbers in this chart one other way to give a pretty stark view of utility of raising the minimum wage as a poverty program. Let's look at the first lowest vs. the second lowest quintile.

Raising current workers in the poorest quintile to second quintile earnings ($28,970 to $35,858) would increase the first quintile's average income by $2,962. On the other hand, keeping first income wages flat but raising first quintile household's average earners to second quintile number of earners (0.43 to 0.91) increases the first quintile's average income by $13,905.

By this analysis, increasing first quintile hours worked (and % employment) has 4.7 times more leverage than fiddling with wage rates.

So now consider raising the minimum wage, which will raise some wages but reduce unskilled employment -- it is exactly the wrong thing to do, even before we consider that the majority of minimum wage earners who benefit from such an increase and keep their jobs are not in the lowest quintile but are 2nd and third earners in rich and middle class households.

Remember When I Said It Was All About the Mix?

Perfect Example of Blaming the Free Market for Government Interventions

Hillary Clinton, along with many politicians and most of the media, is arguing that the recent large price increase in Epipens is some sort of market failure requiring government intervention to solve.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton jumped into the fray over rapid price increases for the EpiPen, a life-saving injection for people who are having severe allergic reactions.

Mrs. Clinton called the recent price hikes of the EpiPen “outrageous, and just the latest example of a company taking advantage of its consumers.”

In a written statement calling for Mylan to scale back EpiPen prices, Clinton added, “It’s wrong when drug companies put profits ahead of patients, raising prices without justifying the value behind them.”

Why aren't similar government interventions required to curb greed in the pricing of paint, or tacos, or toilet paper?  Because the markets are allowed to operate and competitors know that if they raise prices too high, their existing competitors will take sales from them, and new competitors may enter the market.  The reason this is not happening with Epipens is that the Federal government blocks other companies from competing with Mylan for the Epipen business with a tortuous and expensive and pointless regulatory process (perhaps given even more teeth because Mylan's CEO has a lot of political pull).  The MSNBC article fails to even mention why Mylan has no competition, and in fact essentially assumes that Epipens are a natural monopoly and should be treated as such, despite the fact that there are 3 or 4 different companies that have tried (and failed) to clear the regulatory process over the last several years with competing products.  Perhaps these other companies would have been smarter to appoint a Senator's daughter to a senior management position.

Hillary Clinton is proposing a dumb government intervention to try to fix some of the symptoms of a previous dumb government intervention.  It would be far better to work the root cause instead.

Postscript:  Credit Vox with the stupid argument of the day:  

Other countries do this for drugs and medical care – but not other products, like phones or cars – because of something fundamentally unique about medication: If consumers can’t afford the product, they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying. So most governments have decided that keeping these products affordable is a good reason to introduce more government regulation.

Hmm, let me pick a slightly different example -- food.  I will substitute that into the Vox comment.   I think it would be perfectly correct to say that there is not price regulation of food in the US, and that "If consumers can’t afford [food], they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying."  In fact, the best place today to face high odds of dying due to lack of food is Venezuela, where the government heavily regulates food prices in the way Vox wished to regulate drugs prices.

The United States Is Doing Better Than Europe on Poverty: An Economics Rorschach Test

Kevin Drum, in commenting on a Binyamin Appelbaum article in the NY Times, writes that the Presidential candidates should be talking more about poverty in part because the US is way behind Europe.  Specifically, Appelbaum quotes a Harvard Sociology (!) Professor as the source for the poverty claim:

“We don’t have a full-voiced condemnation of the level or extent of poverty in America today,” said Matthew Desmond, a Harvard professor of sociology. “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a
serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”

Drum argues that Desmond is right, because of this chart from the OECD:


One of the dirty secrets about poverty measurement is that the actual measurement seldom has anything to do with absolute well-being.  And this is the case with the OECD numbers.  The OECD's poverty measurement is based on the country's median income, and is the percentage of people who are below a certain percentage (generally 50%) of the country's own median income.  As such, this is more rightly thought of as a graph of income inequality rather than absolute poverty.

Here is an example.   Image country A with a median income of $50,000 and an income of the 20th percentile at $20,000.  Now imagine country B where the median income is $30,000 and the 20th percentile income is $15,000.  In this example, the poorest 20th percentile in country A are better off on an absolute basis, but the OECD (and most other poverty numbers) will show country B doing better because the poor are closer to the (much lower) median income.  In an extreme example, if everyone in a country were equally impoverished, the OECD would show that country as doing the best on poverty -- Yes, you read that right.  By this metric, the OECD would show a country where every person made just $10,000 a year as having 0% poverty.

Obviously, what one would really like to do is compare across nations the absolute well-being of the lowest 10th or 20th percentile.  On a purchasing power parity basis, which country's poor has, after transfers and taxes, more money?  Unfortunately, you likely have never ever seen this.  Yes, the data comparison is hard, but it is possible, so one has to wonder if there is some ulterior political motive for never showing this quite obvious analysis.

I tried to do this analysis myself for years (I describe some false starts here) but was unsuccessful until I actually identified a data source that would work, ironically from two folks on the Left (Kevin Drum and John Cassidy) who were using data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center to make comparisons of income inequality.  It turned out the data they were using could do what I wanted.

So now we get to the chart I call the poverty Rorschach test.  It is a comparison of the absolute income, by income percentile and including transfers and taxes, of the US vs. Denmark (the country by Drum's chart that should be the "best" on poverty)

click to enlarge

(The date is old, alas, because this kind of cross-country data is only gathered every so often)

This chart shows, on a purchasing power parity basis, that for every single income percentile, all the way to the bottom, an equivalent person in the US has more income than that a similarly situated person in Denmark.  In short, the poor in the US are wealthier than the poor in Denmark.  The only reason Denmark does better than the US in the way the OECD and others measure poverty is that the middle class in the US are a LOT wealthier than the middle class in Denmark.

I call it the Rorschach test because one either sees the US doing a good job, because everyone is better off, or the Danish doing a better job, because everyone is more even.  Proponents of the latter view tend to believe that the size of the economic pie is an exogenous variable, unrelated to the method one chooses to slice it.

I picked the Danish because they were the obvious comparison from Drum's chart, but here is the US vs. all the European countries for which there was data in the survey.  The US is better than all but 3 at the 10th percentile and better than all but one country at the 20th percentile.  And better -- by a huge margin-- for the middle class than any of the countries in Europe.


Update:  One more note on Drum's chart.  As I said above, the exact definition of the OECD numbers is percentage of people with income less than 50% of the country's own median income.  The US has a median household income, per the OECD, 41% higher than Denmark's.   So the US has 9% more people under a number that is 41% higher.   That is hardly a fair or meaningful comparison.

For reasons that are beyond my understanding, I am banned at Mother Jones so I cannot post the comments directly to his article.  If someone wanted to cut and paste this under his or her own name, I wouldn't complain.


Demand Curve? What Demand Curve?

Today's little slice of economic ignorance comes from tech site Engadget, a frequent contributor of such morsels.  Apparently California is considering new penalties on auto makers for not selling enough electric cars, penalties which by their structure will be fed right into the pocket of Tesla, already a gaping maw of government subsidy consumption:

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke tells the Associate Press that she's introducing a bill requiring that car manufacturers sell at least 15 percent zero-emissions free vehicles within a decade. Companies operating in the state already have to hit yearly emissions targets and get credits for sales, but this would require that they embrace electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars in a big way -- not just one or two novelty models. And if they don't sell enough eco-friendly cars, they'd have to either pay a fine to the state or pay rivals that meet the targets. Yes, they might inadvertently help the competition.

If the bill becomes law, it could light a fire under car makers that have so far been slow to adopt emissions-free tech. Only 3 percent of all California car sales are either electric or plug-in hybrids.

The underlying assumption, both by Ms. Burke as well as the article's author, seems to be that lack of electric car sales is entirely a supply-side problem -- low sales are because auto makers don't make enough of them.  While I have no doubt that there would be incrementally more sales if auto makers had a larger variety of models with different combinations of features, all of this seems to ignore the demand side.  Automakers, who are constantly locked in a death struggle over tiny increments of market share, and who already pay penalties for not selling as many electric cars as politicians would wish them to, have every incentive to sell as many as they can.  The issue strikes me as one of demand rather than supply - given current technology limits and costs, and despite large financial incentives from the government in the form of tax subsidies, most buyers have eschewed electric vehicles to date.  Neither Ms. Burke nor the author even pretend that this law will change this demand situation.

Which is why critics rightly argue that this is just another way to funnel other people's money into Elon Musk's pocket, without his actually having to sell any more cars.  Tesla already depends on payments from other auto makers for electric vehicle indulgences for much of its revenue, and this can only go up under this kind of law.

Example of the Impact of Minimum Wages on Consumer Prices

I thought folks might be interested in a letter I just wrote to the US Forest Service.  I have left some of it out, but these are the guts of it.  As many of your know, we manage parks and campgrounds under concession contract for public entities.  As such, we typically must get changes to customer fees approved in advance by the agency.  This is a version of a letter we just wrote to a number of US Forest Service offices in California explaining the substantial increases to camping rates that must occur over the coming years to accommodate the new California minimum wage laws.

2017 Fee Proposal & Impact of California Minimum Wage Increases on Camping Rates

The purpose of this letter is to make you aware of the substantial effect that the recent increase in California minimum wages will have on use fees. I will get into details below, but in short the newly-legislated 50% increase in the state minimum wage is likely to increase our costs by about 22%, even ahead of inflation in other categories of expenses. Just to stay at parity and to avoid cuts in service, we (and other California concessionaires) are going to need substantial increases in fees over the next five years. Frankly, this does not make me very happy – our company will have to struggle with public resentment of the new fees without making an extra dollar in profit – but it is the reality we must face together. The only other alternative would be large cuts in service (e.g. bathroom cleaning frequency) which frankly I am not going to accept.

Background on the Minimum Wage Increase

California minimum wages have already risen over the last three years by 25% from $8 to $10 an hour. The new California law, which will apply to most concessionaires, demands the following timetable for minimum hourly wages (smaller companies with fewer employees than we have will have one extra year to comply):

2016: $10.00

2017: $10.50

2018: $11.00

2019: $12.00

2020: $13.00

2021: $14.00

2022: $15.00

Note that given the terms of other portions of labor law, these same sorts of percentage increases must trickle up to all managers and salaried employees in California as well.

Background on Concessionaire Cost Structures

Not surprisingly, as a labor-intensive service business, a substantial portion of concessionaire costs are directly tied to wage rates. The minimum wage increase will increase at least three categories of our costs:

  • Wages
  • Payroll taxes (which are calculated as a percentage of wages, so will go up by the same percentages as wages go up)
  • Workers compensation insurance premiums (which like payroll taxes are calculated as a percentage of wages and go up by the same percentage wages go up)

Looking at our financials for our California permits (we have three large permits in the Inyo NF and one in the Cleveland NF) these three categories make up 44% of our total costs.

Preliminary Estimated Fee Impacts

Let’s look, then, and how much our costs may rise between now and 2022.

For the labor and labor-related charges discussed above, we know that costs will rise 50% between now and 2022. A 50% price increase on 44% of our costs raises our total cost structure by 22% (0.5 * 0.44).

But all of our other costs will also continue to rise during this period by at least the national rate of inflation. It is very possible that these costs will increase faster in the future due to this minimum wage increase – for example, our waste disposal costs will almost certainly go up as the labor costs of waste disposal companies rise. For a starting point, we will assume 3% general inflation in 2016 and 2017 and 4% in the years after that. This would yield a 24% increase in the other 56% of our costs for an impact on our total costs of 13.4% (0.24*0.56). Combining these two effects, we can expect a total cost increase to operate campgrounds in California by 2022 of 35.4%.

Note that though we bid based on trying to earn a profit margin around 9%, our actual profit margin in the USFS campgrounds we operate in California has been between 3% and 7% of revenues (5% in 2013, 7% in 2014, 3% in 2015). There is simply no room in that margin to absorb a 35.4% cost increase. We are going to have to therefore seek fee increases over the next 6 years in the 35% range, or between $6 and $8 on the $18-$23 camping rates that currently obtain. This is about a dollar or year, or two dollars every other year.

Competitor Analysis

We understand that the USFS wants to justify fee increases based on market conditions. One problem we will have is that even though we don’t open until April or May at seasonal locations, we need to get fee approval the previous September or October. We fully expect private operators will have to pursue fee increases of a similar magnitude; however, they may not announce their new higher rates in time for our very early fee-setting process. This makes local competitive analysis misleading.

Fortunately, in California we have another large public campground provider, California State Parks (CSP), that has many of the same public service and land management goals as has the US Forest Service. They therefore make a very good comparison. While rates vary by park, CSP is typically charging $35 a night for a no-hook-up campsite in parks that are very comparable in their natural settings to USFS campgrounds.

We currently charge no more than $23 for a no-hook-up site in the USFS in California (both in the Inyo and Cleveland NF). Even with a $6 fee increase, we would still be offering no-hookup campsites at 17% lower cost than does the State of California today (and presumably even lower in 6 years given that CSP is likely to continue to increase its camping fees).

[Rest of the letter on exact fee recommendations and other contract issues omitted]

China Doesn't Kill American Jobs, Politicians Do

I am simply exhausted with the notion that seems to have taken over both political parties that trade with China is somehow the source of US economic woes.

Remember that voluntary trade can't happen unless both parties are benefiting from each trade.  Remember the masses of academic evidence that the (largely hard to see) benefits of trade in terms of lower costs and more choice tend to be greater than the (easier to see) job losses in a few trade-affected industries.  But even if none of that is compelling to you, consider that our trade deficit with China is just 2% of GDP.  It's almost a rounding error.

If politicians want to know why lower-skilled laborers struggle to find employment, they need to look past imports from China and Mexican immigration and look at their own policies that are making it more and more expensive for businesses to hire people in this country.   I have written about this many times before, but some of the most prominent include:

  • minimum wage laws, rising to $15 an hour in many parts of the country, and increasingly draconian overtime rules, both of which substantially raise the cost of hiring someone.
  • minimum benefit laws, including expensive health care requirements in Obamacare and a myriad of other state-level requirements such as mandatory paid sick leave or family leave
  • payroll taxes that act as sales taxes on labor  -- we understand that cigarette taxes are supposed to reduce cigarette purchases but don't understand that payroll taxes reduce purchases of labor?
  • employment regulations, such as chair laws and break laws in California, that make employing people more expensive and risky
  • employer liability laws, that make employers financially responsible for any knuckleheaded thing their employees do, even when these actions violate company policy (e.g. making racist or sexist statements)**
  • laws that make hiring far more risk, including those that limit the ability to do due diligence on potential employees (e.g. ban the box) and those that limit the ability of employers to fire poor performing employees.

And this is just employment law -- we could go on all day with regulations that make life difficult for lower income workers, such as the numerous laws that restrict the housing stock and drive up housing prices and rents for these same folks who are struggling to find a job.

Let's say you live in California.  Who has killed more jobs in your state -- China or the California legislature?  The answer is no contest.   The California legislature wins the job destruction race in a landslide.   While California's high-tech community enjoys a symbiotic relationship with China that has created immense wealth, the California legislature works overtime to make sure low-skilled workers in the state don't benefit.


**Postscript:  Of all the factors here, I won't say that this is the largest but I think it is the most underrated and least discussed.  But think about it.  If you are going to be personally financially libel for ignorant, insensitive, or uncouth remarks made by your employees, even when you have explicitly banned such behavior in company rules and don't personally tolerate it, how likely are you going to be to hire a high school dropout without a good work history to interact with customers?

Another Problem With the National Minimum Wage

Beyond the basic lunacy of attempting to help the poor by mandating that they sell their labor for more than most businesses are willing to pay, I am reminded of another problem with proposals for a higher national minimum wage.

This problem is related to one that is seldom discussed in the context of most economic statistics, and that is the differences in the cost of living in different parts of the country.   The Tax Foundation looks at the cost of living by state, showing the value of $100 ($100 is worth more in states with lower prices and cost of living, since one's money will go further).  Magenta states are lower cost of living, yellow states are higher.

$100 Map-state-01

I have written before that not taking this into account messes up our view of things like poverty and income by state.  Well-being of folks in high cost states like California and New York are often exaggerated, as is poverty in states like those in the deep south.

But another issue is that this large variation in cost of living changes the effective value of a minimum wage.  Based on these numbers, a $15 minimum wage in Washington DC becomes, effectively, a $20.43 minimum wage in Mississippi.  Employment effects are likely to be much worse in these lower costs states.  Since the higher cost states all vote Democrat in Presidential elections, and the lower cost states all vote Republican, one wonders if this is a bug or a feature of Democrat-proposed $15 minimum wage plans.

The Middle Class Is Shrinking Because They Are Becoming Rich

I have made this point before, but Tyler Cowen has a great chart from a new study.  The explanation is here, but basically they have defined the bands based on some income break points corrected for family size and inflation over time.


A reader sent me a nice note with this link, saying that I had been right many years ago when I began making this point.  That's good, but I will also confess to be wrong on a related point -- I said 8 years ago that the one good thing about having a Democratic President was that the media would become much more positive suddenly about the economy.  On that, I was wrong.  The media still has a strong bias towards telling everyone that their life is getting ever worse, even when no such thing is true.

Job Turnover and the Minimum Wage

Don Boudreaux criticizes an academic article that puports to tell business people that they should be able to easily absorb minimum wage hikes without consequence:

The authors are above not doing economics, properly speaking.  Instead, they offer business advice – or, rather, present themselves as possessing knowledge and information that is salable as business advice.  The authors write as if they are management or business-operations consultants rather than economists.  Pollin and Wicks-Lim here implicitly assert that their information on the details the state of the market and their knowledge of the particulars of how to run actual, real-world businesses are so real, full, and trustworthy that we should accept their conclusion that higher minimum wages will not cause businesses to change their operations in ways that result in fewer hours of paid work for low-skilled workers.

Indeed, the trust that we are asked to put in Pollin’s and Wicks-Lim’s alleged business acumen is so high that we are supposed to accept their conclusions as justification to unleash the force of the state to alter the actual, real-world business decisions of actual, real-world people who are actually operating – with their own actual money – in actual, real-world markets.

In his comments, I focused on one issue in the academic analysis -- that pro minimum wage folks in such analyses always give businesses a big profitability boost from reduced turnover due to higher wages, and it is reduced turnover and resulting increased productivity which provides the resources to "pay" for the wage increase.  I think there is something inconsistent in this thinking:

I can't see how the assumption of turnover reduction is consistent with the assumptions made by pro-minimum wage folks. There are two possibilities. First, assume the turnover is due to employees moving on at their own choice, presumably for a better deal. But how is this consistent with the frequent assumption of monopsony and that employees have no bargaining power? If employees are imposing high turnover costs on employers and frequently shifting jobs for better deals, there can't be a monopsony. It would mean that folks are taking these jobs for a short period of time to gain job skills and experience, and then moving to higher-skilled, better paying jobs, exactly how things should work in a free market without an absurdly high price floor on wages (I remember the old stat form the 80's that 10% of all Fortune 500 CEOs had their first job at McDonald's).

OK, assume the other possibility that the turnover is due to the employer choices, that all the employees they hire are unacceptable because their skills or demeanor or productivity is insufficient in some way. Well if they were unacceptable at $7, how are they suddenly going to be acceptable at $15? Proponents seem to assume some magic occurs when one raises wages, that unskilled employees who can't show up on time will suddenly become attentive and skilled. In my experience, it never happens.

For the record, given our 50% wage costs (and costs tied to wages like payroll taxes), we have had to increase prices 10% for every 20% increase in the minimum wage, and even then we have seen our profits fall, as we never see the magic productivity increase that is supposed to come with suddenly paying the same people higher wages and at the same time we do see a drop in customer demand due to the higher prices, which reduces our fixed cost coverage.

A Journalist Actually Addresses "Compared to What" When Discussing Child Labor in the 3rd World

And in Engadget, no less, a site I frequently mock for its economic ignorance.  This is from an article about Adidas totally automating the shoe-making process with robots:

But there's a dark side to all of this, which is what's going to happen to those communities when the sweatshops eventually close. In 1992, US Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation that would block imports of goods produced by children under the age of 15. A year later, the Bangladesh garment industry dismissed 50,000 children in anticipation of the bill, which was never passed. A 1997 report by UNICEF tracked those children, and found that their situation had gotten worse, not better. As the report explains, the children wound up in "hazardous situations" where they were "paid less, or in prostitution."


The Asymmetry of How the Government Values My Time

I was struck recently by a stark asymmetry in how the government values the time of private individuals.

On the one hand, they insist on a high value for my time, with the state of California ruling that no one may sell their time for less than $15 an hour.

On the other hand, in numerous ways, the government values our time at zero.  They, for example, treat recycling as "free" and ignore the value of the millions of man-hours spent sorting trash.  The IRS certainly values our time at zero, as does most tax agencies.  Certain sales tax agencies do provide a collection and paperwork credit (since technically the business is acting as an agent of the state in collecting the tax) but that credit generally amounts to pennies per hour of labor.  Mono County California changed their tax filing process in a way that created thousands of extra man hours of private filing labor all to save a few dozen of their hours every 3 years on audits.

And then there is this.  Germany is considering eliminating their unlimited autobahn speed limits to save energy:

…the head of Germany’s Federal Environmental Office, Andreas Troge, says a speed limit of 120 km/h on motorways “costs nothing and would immediately reduce C02 emissions by 2.5 million tonnes per year”.

That is it "costs nothing" as long as you value private individual's time at zero dollars an hour.

Private Businesses in Europe Understand the Cost of Labor, But Public Agencies Don't Seem To

Most folks know that labor costs in Europe are high, both because of high minimum wages, high required benefits, and various government regulations that raise the cost of labor (e.g. making it impossible to fire anyone).

My observation so far is that private businesses understand this perfectly.  Given higher labor costs than in the US, most service businesses have fewer employees.  In restaurants in the US a waiter might cover 4-6 tables -- in most European restaurants I have been in the waiter covers the whole restaurant.  In fact, two of the places we have eaten are 12 table restaurants run entirely by a couple, with one being the totality of the waitstaff and the other being the totality of the kitchen staff.  In this case, the married owners of a small business might be hiring nobody.

But for reasons I don't know but I can guess, public agencies -- which presumably have higher labor costs than in the US -- are simply profligate with labor.  The example I will cite is trash pickup, both in Amsterdam and Bruges.  In these two lovely cities, every business and residence throws their trash on the curb in bags and boxes and even loose in piles.  Here is a portion of the 9 streets district in Amsterdam, an important upscale shopping area that lives and dies by attracting tourists.  Look how ugly the streets are:

CameraZOOM-20160607111815276 CameraZOOM-20160607105135443 CameraZOOM-20160607105122016

In Phoenix we all put our trash into standard cans which are a heck of a lot more attractive than basically just throwing garbage on the street.  These cans are then emptied by a truck with just one employee, a driver that has an arm that reaches out and grabs each can and dumps it in the truck.

In Amterdam, trash is picked up far slower and requires three people, a driver and two guys running around like crazy picking up trash and throwing it in the back.  The compactor on this truck was terrible and slow and so the truck compactor could not keep up with the workers, who had to bend down and pick up the same trash two or three times to get it to stay in the truck.


It looked like a total custerf*ck

Minimum Wage Pits Employees vs. Customers, Not Employees vs. Management

This post earlier on the customer service downsides of the new salaried overtime rules got me thinking more broadly about the impact of minimum wage type laws.  Progressives justify such laws by saying that there is a power imbalance between management and employees, and that the government needs to have minimum wage laws to make up for the fact that employees lack power.

But from my experience in the service world, it is wrong to look at the situation as a power struggle between managers and employees.  It is much more correct to look at this as a power struggle between employees and customers.  Let me explain.

Service and retail firms tend to live on razor-thin margins.  Retailers typically live on single-digit profit margins, and those of companies like Wal-Mart are as low as 2% of revenues.  Our company in the service business has a similar experience, averaging profit margins of 3-5% of revenues over the last 10 years.

This is not an accident.  Most service and retail businesses depend on simple service-delivery models using relatively low-skilled workers.  There are many low-skilled workers in the world.  If a company were to start making huge profits with a service model using such workers, it would be easy for others to copy it and hire the same types of workers and undercut them on price.  Margins tend to get competed down to the bare minimum.

No matter how much progressives would like it to be so, when California raises its minimum wage, it probably is not going to come out of company margins, at least in the near term.  Over the 10 years from about 2013 to 2022, California will have raised its minimum wage over 87% from $8 an hour to $15.  Wages and costs like workers comp premiums that are tied to wages are about half my costs.  This means an 87% labor cost increase will increase my total costs 44%.  How is that going to come out of a 4% margin?  It is not.

There are really only two things we can do, individually or in combination.  First, we can raise prices 44%, just to try to stay even.  Of course, some customers will balk and stop buying, and then we will lose business and perhaps have to close (we have already closed over half our businesses in California for just this reason).  Or second, we could cut staff in half to keep wages under control.  Of course, this means customers get served much more poorly, which also may drive customers away.  Other companies like fast food restaurants have a third option of automation, replacing people with machines -- I wish we could do this but right now we have run out of ideas for automating bathroom cleaning and landscape work.

Hopefully, you can see what is going on here.  The real tension here is between employees and customers.  When the state mandates a minimum wage in low margin service businesses (such laws are largely irrelevant to high-margin technology companies and such), compliance is paid for by the customer, either in the form of higher prices or worse service or both.

Dumbest Thing I Have Seen Written in A Long While, Courtesy of Douglas Ruchkoff

Thanks to Don Boudreax for the quote, this is from Douglas Rushkoff’s new (apparently execrable) book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus.

The same goes for agriculture, textiles, and many other sectors where returning to local, human-scaled enterprise will lead to less worker exploitation and environmental damage while producing better, healthier products.  Nonindustrial practices may be more labor-intensive, but they’re also better for us all.  For those of us used to white-collar jobs, the idea of growing vegetables or making clothes may seem like a big step backward toward more menial labor.  But consider for a moment the sorts of activities the wealthiest Americans or most satisfied retirees engage in enthusiastically: brewing craft beers, knitting, and gardening.  If there’s really not enough work to go around and there are so many extra people to employ, we can always farm in shifts.

My response to anyone who told me this:  You first.  Ugh, this would be a one-way ticket to poverty and starvation.  Ghandi had this same idea for India, and if he had had his way the poverty would have been even more mind-blowing than what actually obtained.

Our Permission-Based Economy

The decline in new business formation in this country shouldn't be a surprise -- in industry after industry, numerous bits of government permission are needed to proceed with a new idea into a new market.  If, like Uber, you plow ahead ignoring these roadblocks, you will likely spend the rest of your life in court (as does Uber).

I thought about all this when reading this article on awesome portable automated systems that can maintain a person's insulin level.  What an amazing advance in safety and life quality for people!  The part that struck me was this line from a woman when she first saw one:

Sarah Howard became interested after she met Ms. Lewis last year. “My first question was: Was it legal?” said the 49-year-old, who has Type 1 diabetes, as does one of her two sons. “I didn’t want to do anything illegal.”

It is pathetic that this is the first reaction of Americans when they see an awesome new innovation.  And it turns out that she is right to worry.  Because if one avails oneself of the normal division of labor, in other words if one lets someone more expert to build the device or program it, then it is illegal.  Only if one downloads all the specs from the Internet and builds and programs it oneself is this fabulous device legal.

The only restriction of the project is users have to put the system together on their own. Ms. Lewis and other users offer advice, but it is each one’s responsibility to know how to troubleshoot. A Bay Area cardiologist is teaching himself software programming to build one for his 1-year-old daughter who was diagnosed in March.

This is roughly the equivalent of having to go fell a tree and mine graphite in order to makes one's own pencils.  It is simply stupid.   All because the government will not let us make our own decisions about the risks we want to take with medical products.  So if you don't have the skills or the time to put one together, you can wait 5 or 10 years for the FDA to get around to approving a professionally-made version.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen, who by the title of his post obviously also saw the I, Pencil analogy.

Update:  I give it 12 months before someone at the FDA demands that these home-made devices be regulated, and at least registered with the government.  I wonder if in 10 years the government will be demanding registration of 3D printers?  After all, they potentially incredibly empowering to individuals and can let folks work around various product bans like this.   Exactly the kind of empowerment that government hates.

2016 Presidential Election: Battle of the Crony Capitalists

I am not sure that many politicians are good on this score, but Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are likely as bad as it gets on crony capitalism.  Forget their policy positions, which are steeped in government interventionism in the economy, but just look at their personal careers.  Each have a long history of taking advantage of political power to enrich themselves and their business associates.  I am not sure what Cruz meant when he said "New York values", but both Trump and Clinton are steeped in the New York political economy, where one builds a fortune through political connections rather than entrepreneurial vigor.   Want to build a new parking lot next to your casino or start up a new energy firm -- you don't bother with private investors or arms length transactions, you go to the government.

With that in mind, I particularly liked Don Buudreaux's quote of the day:

First, we labor under a ubiquitous threat of being shackled by crony capitalists.  [Adam] Smith wondered how internally stable a free market could be in the face of a tendency for its political infrastructure to decay into crony capitalism.  (The phrase “crony capitalism” is not Smith’s.  I use it to refer to various of Smith’s targets: mercantilists who lobby for tariffs and other trade barriers, monopolists who pay kings for a license to be free from competition altogether, and so on.)  Partnerships between big business and big government lead to big subsidies, monopolistic licensing practices, and tariffs.  These ways of compromising freedom have been and always will be touted as protecting the middle class, but their true purpose is (and almost always will be) to transfer wealth and power from ordinary citizens to well-connected elites

Yes the Middle Class is Shrinking. And the Ranks of the Poor Are Shrinking. Because Americans are Getting Wealthier

Mark Perry has a number of good graphs that show that the shrinking of the middle class is real, but only because they are moving to "rich" -- hardly the implication of those on the Left who are trying to demagogue the issue.  Check them out if you have not seen them but this animated graph was new to me:


Note the general movement to the right.

Interestingly, the only block on the low side getting larger is the percent of people at "zero".    In my mind, this just reinforces my point that the poverty issue is primarily one of having a job, not the rate paid at the job.  For that growing cohort at zero, raising the minimum wage only makes it more likely they stay at zero.

So @tylercowen, You Want to Understand the Great Stagnation? Here It Is

Certainly the government's current permission-based approach to business regulation combined with an overt hostility of government (or at least those parties that influence it) to radically new business models (see: Uber) is a big part of the great stagnation story.

But insanity like this is also a big part:

Vague but expensive-if-not-correct rules on employee seating just got vaguer and harder to figure out

Weighing in on two California laws that require employers to provide suitable seating to workers when “the nature of the work” permits it, the California Supreme Court said the phrase refers to an employee's tasks performed at a given location for which the right to a suitable seat is asserted.

In response to questions certified by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the state high court said April 4 that the phrase “nature of the work” doesn't require a holistic evaluation of the full range of an employee's tasks completed during a shift.

An employer's business judgment and the layout of the workplace are relevant in determining whether sitting is permitted, but courts should apply an objective analysis based on the totality of the circumstances, the California Supreme Court said.

It held that “if an employer argues there is no suitable seat available, the burden is on the employer to prove unavailability.”

As a business owner in California, I am going to have to do a ton of research to figure out just how we can comply with all this, and even then I will likely be wrong because whether one is in compliance or not is never actually clear until it is tested in court.  I had to do the same thing with California meal break law (multiple times), California heat stress law, new California harassment rules, California sick leave rules, the California minimum wage, Obamacare rules, Obamacare reporting, the new upcoming DOL rules on salaried employees, etc.

Five or ten years ago, I spent most of my free time thinking about improving and growing the business.  Now, all my mental bandwidth is consumed by regulatory compliance.  I have not added a new business operation for years, but instead have spent most of my time exiting businesses in California.  Perhaps more important is what I am doing with my managers.  My managers are not Harvard MBAs, they are front-line blue collar folks who have been promoted to manager because they have proven themselves adept at our service process.  There are only a finite number of things I can teach them and new initiatives I can give them in a year.  And instead of using this limited bandwidth to teach some of the vital productivity enhancement tools we should be adopting, I spend all my training time on compliance management issues.

Raising the Cost of Hiring Unskilled Workers by 50% is A Bad Way to Fight Poverty

After my prior post, I have summarized the chart I included from Mark Perry to the key data that I think really makes the point.  Household income is obviously a product of hours worked and hourly wages.  Looking at the chart below, poverty seems to be much more a function of not working than it is of low wages.  Which makes California's decision to raise the price of hiring unskilled workers by 50% (by raising their minimum wage from $10 to $15) all the more misguided.

click to enlarge

Note the calculations in the last two lines, which look at two approaches to fighting poverty.  If we took the poorest 20% and kept their current number of hours worked the same, but magically raised their hourly earnings to that of the second quintile (ie from $14.21 to $17.33), it would increase their annual household income by $2,558, a 22% increase (I say magically because clearly if wages are raised via a minimum wage mandate, employment in this groups would drop even further, likely offsetting most of the gains).  However, if instead we did nothing to their wages but encouraged more employment such that their number of workers rose to that of the second quintile, this would increase household income by a whopping $13,357, a 115% percent increase.

From this, would you logically try to fight poverty by forcing wages higher (which will almost surely reduce employment) or by trying to increase employment?

Why The Minimum Wage Does Not Make Moral Sense: Unemployment, Not Low Wage Rate, Causes Most Poverty

In response to his new $15 minimum wage in California, Governor Jerry Brown said:

Economically, minimum wages may not make sense. But morally, socially, and politically they make every sense because it binds the community together to make sure parents can take care of their kids.

Let me explain as briefly as I can why this minimum wage increase is immoral.  We will use data from the chart below which was cribbed from Mark Perry in this post.

click to enlarge

The average wage of people who work  in the poorest 20% in the US is already near $15 ($28,417 divided by 2000 full time hours - $14.20 per hour).    This is not that much lower than the hourly earnings of those in the second poorest or even the middle quintiles.  So why are they poor?  The biggest different is that while only 16% of the middle quintile households had no one who worked, and 31.5% of the second poorest quintile had no one who worked, of the poorest 20% of households a whopping 63% had no one who worked.  Only 16.1% of poor adults had a full time job.

The reason for poverty, then, is not primarily one of rate, it is one of achieving full time employment.  Many of these folks have limited education, few job skills, little or no work experience, and can have poor language skills. And California has just increased the cost of giving these folks a job by 50%.  The poor will be worse off, as not only will more of them miss out on the monetary benefits of employment, but also the non-monetary ones (building a work history, learning basic skills, etc.)

Past studies have shown that most of the benefit of the minimum wage goes to non-poor households (ie second and third earners in middle class homes).  The targets Jerry Brown speaks of, parents earning the minimum wage to take care of families, are perhaps only 1/8 of minimum wage earners.

MaCurdy found that less than 40% of wage increases [from a minimum wage hike] went to people earning less than twice the poverty line, and among that group, about third of them are trying to raise a family on the minimum wage.

Of course, the price of a lot of stuff poor people have to buy in California is about to go up.  We are going to have to raise our campground rates by 20-25% to offset the labor cost increase.  But that is another story.

California Creates Another Setback of Unskilled Workers -- And Possibly A Setback for Immigrant Integation

It appears that California is going to increase its state minimum wage to $15 in steps over the next five or six years.  This is yet another body blow for unskilled workers in the state.  As I wrote a while back, it is already overly difficult to build a business based on unskilled labor in that state, and increasing the price people have to pay for that labor by 50% is only going to make things worse.  It is possible low-skill workers in large wealthy cities like San Francisco will be OK, as service businesses are still going to want to be there to access all that wealth, and will just raise their prices even higher to account for the higher wages.   For laborers in rural areas that are already suffering from high unemployment, the prospects are not very bright.

As most readers know, we run a service business operating campgrounds across the country, including a number in California.  Over the last  years, due to past regulation and minimum wage increases, and in anticipation of further goofiness of this sort, we exited about 2/3 of our business in California.

Our problem going forward is that in rural locations, sometimes without even electricity or cell phone service on site, we have simply exhausted all the productivity measures I can think of.  There appears to be a minimum amount of labor required to clean a bathroom and do landscaping.  Which leaves us the options of exiting more businesses or raising prices.  Most of our customers in California are blue collar rural folks whose lot is only going to be worse as a result of these minimum wage increases, and so I am not sure how far they will be able to bear the price increases we will need to cover our higher costs.   Likely we will keep raising prices until customers can bear no more, and then exit.

By the way, the 5-6 year implementation time is a frank admission by the authors of the law, not matter what they say in pubic to the contrary, that they know there will be substantial negative employment effects from the minimum wage increase.   They are hoping that by spreading it out over several years, those negative effects will lost in the noise of economic fluctuations.  The Leftist playbook is to do something like this that trashes the earnings of the most vulnerable low-skilled workers, and then later point to the income inequality of those low-skilled workers as a failure of free markets.

On a related note, one of the more interesting things I have read lately is this comparison of successful integration of Muslim immigrants in the US vs. poor integration in Europe.  Alex Tabarrok raises the hypothesis that high minimum wages and labor market rigidity in Europe may be an important factor in reducing immigrant integration.  He quotes from the OECD:

Belgian labour market settings are generally unfavourable to the employment outcomes of low-skilled workers. Reduced employment rates stem from high labour costs, which deter demand for low-productivity workers…Furthermore, labour market segmentation and rigidity weigh on the wages and progression prospects of outsiders. With immigrants over-represented among low-wage, vulnerable workers, labour market settings likely hurt the foreign-born disproportionately.

…Minimum wages can create a barrier to employment of low-skilled immigrants, especially for youth. As a proportion of the median wage, the Belgian statutory minimum wage is on the high side in international comparison and sectoral agreements generally provide for even higher minima. This helps to prevent in-work poverty…but risks pricing low-skilled workers out of the labour market (Neumark and Wascher, 2006). Groups with further real or perceived productivity handicaps, such as youth or immigrants, will be among the most affected.

In 2012, the overall unemployment rate in Belgium was 7.6% (15-64 age group), rising to 19.8% for those in the labour force aged under 25, and, among these, reaching 29.3% and 27.9% for immigrants and their native-born offspring, respectively.

Wow, I guess it is sure lucky California does not have a very large immigrant population.  Oh, wait....

Mark Perry's "Best of Venn Diagrams" .... But Where Did They Start?

Mark Perry loves to use the Venn diagram format to point out hypocrisy or inconsistent arguments.  He has a sort of best-of post with 12 of them here.

I am actually fairly certain the first one of these actually appeared here, on Coyote Blog.  This was the chart I made:

click to enlarge


Update:  Good lord I wrote Rick Perry instead of Mark Perry.  I am officially going senile.  Sorry Mark.

Another Trump Triumph -- He Has The Left Defending the American Economic System

The American Left generally spends most of its time telling us how much better things are in Denmark or France.  I can't find a lot of reasons to like Trump, but he has apparently convinced the Left that they need to defend the American economic model against other countries.  This post by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones reasd more like what one might expect from Mark Perry at AEI.

"We're a poor country now." I wonder how many people believe that just because Donald Trump keeps saying it? In case anyone cares, the actual truth is in the chart on the right. There's not a single country in the world bigger than 10 million people that's as rich as the US.

I agree!   In fact, not only are American rich richer, but the American middle class is richer and the American poor are richer.  From an earlier post, here is the purchasing power of individuals across the income spectrum in the US vs. Denmark

click to enlarge