Posts tagged ‘minimum wage’

Creating Income Inequality in Seattle

So Seattle made a public policy change that caused lower-skill, lower-wage employment to lag way behind employment of wealthier, higher-skill folks.

One would expect the Progressive Left to freak out in opposition to this policy.  But in fact this policy is their absolutely most cherished, favorite public policy intervention -- the minimum wage.  As reported earlier, the city of Seattle engaged an economic study of the minimum wage change using some of the best data ever made available for such a study.  This was the result (table 3, in which I removed low-wage employment from all employment to get low wage and all other employment)

AP Writes Over 1300 Words on the Loss Of Summer Jobs for Teens, Never Mentions Minimum Wage

If one is curious why the public is economically illiterate, look no further than our media.  The AP's Paul Wiseman managed to write 1300 words on the loss of teenage summer jobs, and even lists a series of what he considers to be the causes, without ever once mentioning the minimum wage or the substantial restrictions on teen employment in place in many states.  I do not know Paul Wiseman and so I will not guess at his motivations - whether ignorance or intentional obfuscation - but it is impossible to believe that this trend isn't in part due to the minimum wage.  As I wrote in the comments on the AZ Republic:

How is it possible to write over 1300 words on the disapearance of teenage summer jobs without once mentioning the minimum wage?

Two of the most substantial criticisms of the minimum wage are 1. it prices low-skilled workers out of the market (and there is no one more unskilled than an inexperienced teenager) and 2. it put 100% emphasis on pay as the only reward for work, while giving no credit for things like gaining valuable experience and skills. We clearly see both at work here, and it is likely no coincidence that we are seeing this article in the same year minimum wages went up by 25% in AZ, as they have in many other states.

By the way, in addition to the minimum wage, AZ (as has many other states) has established all sorts of laws to "protect" underrage workers by adding all sorts of special work rules and tracking requirements. In our business, which is a summer recreation business, we used to hire a lot of teenagers. Now we have a policy banning the hiring of them -- they are too expensive, they create too much liability, and the rules for their employment are too restrictive.

Without evidence, he treats it entirely as a supply problem, ie that teens are busy and are not looking for work. But the data do not support this.  The teen unemployment rate, defined as employment by teens actively looking for work, is up.  The workforce participation rate for teens is down, but the author has nothing but anecdotal evidence that this is a supply rather than a demand issue.  It could be because teens are busier or buried in their cell phones or whatever or it could be because they have given up looking for work.

What Differentiates Republicans and Democrats

I saw this chart from Cato a while back (click to enlarge)

With the proviso that it is super dangerous to analyze this sort of data by eyeballing a scatter chart, it sure looks to me like the difference between Republicans and Democrats is mainly on economic rather than social issues.  This is surprising, I suppose, because Democrats and the media focus most of their criticism on Republicans for being social dinosaurs, but it looks like the social issues are not as much of a discriminator.  I also find it surprising given recent the Republican affinity for what strike me as liberal economic ideas, including Trump's protectionism and the strong vote for a minimum wage in red-state Arizona.

I will say however that Bryan Caplan has been on this for years.  As he reiterated the other day,

I regretfully invoke my Simplistic Theory of Left and Right.  The heart of the left isn't helping the poor, or reducing inequality, or even minority rights.  The heart of the left is being anti-market.... The second half of my Simplistic Theory says: The heart of the right is being anti-left.

I like the way he puts the last bit, because I SURE would struggle to call modern Republicans pro-market.

In this post, by the way, Caplan is skeptical about the feasibility of progressive-libertarian concerted action on certain issues.  I know my friend Brink Lindsey is working on a book to be released in the fall which will make a case for such areas of cooperation.

I will say from my personal experience that as a libertarian I was able for years to make common cause with the Left on certain issues and on the Right for other issues.  I found, starting a couple of years ago when I tried to participate in the leadership of a pro gay marriage effort, that it was increasingly hard for me to work with the progressive Left.  To work with me, they demanded not just that I agree with the issue at hand, but that I also had to pass any number of other litmus tests unrelated to the issue we were working on -- ie I could not be allowed to work for gay marriage given that I had expressed skeptical opinions on the minimum wage and catastrophic man-made climate change.

Thinking About Checking Out of Blogging

I am not sure I am able to continue blogging in the current environment.  When I began blogging over 12 years ago, it was to report on my various adventures in trying to run a small business.  It soon morphed into a platform for me to think out loud about various policy issues.  For example, while I didn't really understand this when I started, it became a platform for me to think through mistakes I made in my initial enthusiasm for the Iraq War.  You can see me in the early years evolve from a kind of knee-jerk global warming absolute denier to a lukewarmer with much more understanding of the underlying science.  I think of myself as an intellectual (though one who cannot spell or proof-read) who likes to discuss policy.

But I am not sure this is the time for that.  The world seems to be moving away from intellectualism.  I say this not because Trump voters were somehow rejecting intellectualism, but because intellectuals themselves seem to be rejecting it.  They act like children, they are turning universities into totalitarian monoculters, and they compete with each other to craft mindless 140-character "gotchas" on Twitter.  I challenge you to even find a forum today for intellectual exchange between people who disagree with one another.  In politics, Trump clearly rejects intellectualism but for whatever reasons, the Democratic opposition has as well.

We have a tribal war going on in this country that has officially gone beyond any real policy issues.  While the US and the Soviet Union had real differences in philosophy and approach, most of their confrontations were in proxy wars which bore little resemblance to these values.  That is what politics are now -- a series of proxy wars.  We spend several days focusing attention on Jeff Sessions, but spend pretty much zero time talking about real issues like approaches to the drug war, and police accountability, and sentencing reform.  Instead all we can focus on is the political proxy war of this stupid Russia hacking story.   Obama's birth certificate and Hillary's servers and Russian hacking and Trump's real estate sales -- all we fight are proxy wars.

And like most tribal warfare, the two tribes are incredibly similar.  I have called them the Coke and Pepsi party for years.  Go talk to the the rank and file and sure, one group may like Nascar and barbecue while the other likes Phish concerts and kale, but you will see them asking for the same sorts of things out of government.   Take the minimum wage, a traditional blue tribe issue.  In Arizona, a heavily red state (we have a super-majority in the legislature of the red team), a $10 minimum wage referendum passed by nearly 60% of the vote last year.  The members of the two tribes absolutely hate each other, but they support the same laws.  I guess I should be happy they don't get together, since as a libertarian I think many of these things they want are bad ideas.

People tell me I need to just deal with the adversity.  But I don't mind opposition per se.  I love when I get a chance to respond to real criticism.  Hell, I wrote 5000 words or so here in response to such criticism.  It's fun.  But more likely nowadays I will write a couple thousand words on school choice and the response will be, in total, "Your a Trump cuckservative."  Several years ago I wrote a long article on rail in response to a Joel Epstein piece.  Epstein had argued the US rail rail system was inferior to those in Europe and Asia because we don't have enough passenger rail.  I argued with a series of charts and analysis that the US rail system was superior because it focused on freight over passengers, and that shifting freight to rail had far more environmental benefits than shifting passengers to rail.  Epstein's entire response to my article was, "You should get out of the country more often."  This is the classic intellectual argument of our day.  It was smug.  It implied my article was based on being part of the wrong tribe, the narrow-minded denizens of flyover country rather than the coastal set that have been to Gstaad but not Tulsa.  At it did not even bother addressing the issues raised.

Or look at Black Lives Matter.  BLM actually had what looked to me to be the outlines of a pretty good plan.  To really achieve their goals, though, was going to take a lot of work jurisdiction by jurisdiction, establishing some model legislation and best practices and bringing it to various municipalities.  It didn't even try.  It abandoned this plan in favor of just disrupting sh*t and shaming the unwoke for saying that "all lives matter."  Today, invocations of BLM consist pretty much 100% of virtue signalling for one's own tribe or shaming of the other tribe.  Its the equivalent of dueling fans at a game yelling "Yankees suck!" "No, Red Sox suck!"

People also tell me to just deal with it, that if I love the policy stuff I should ignore these problems.  But let me give you an analogy.  Let's say you absolutely love English Premier League football, but every time you try to go to a game, you miss most of what happens on the field because hooligans are fighting around you in the stands.  Do you keep going for your love of football or at some point is the mess that surrounds it just too much?

Anyway, I am highly tempted just to say "screw it" for a while and focus on something else entirely.  I am trying a different approach as a change of pace, trying to write a more formal policy piece for a think tank, but I am having a surprising amount of trouble doing it well.  Writing such pieces was not really my forte at McKinsey when I was a consultant and I am not sure it is now.  Not disciplined enough in my writing, I think.

Anyway, on a positive front, I now have a dedicated (though very small) room for my model railroad and I installed the first bit of benchwork.  This is sort of like laying the keel for a new ship.  Coyoteblog readers, I know, will be hanging on the edges of their seats for further updates.

From Parks and Recreation:

Jean-Ralphio: Why don’t you use that time to go after one of your passions? Like model trains, or toy Gandalfs or something.

Ben: I don’t know why you jumped straight to model trains. I mean, it’s accurate…

Why Monopsony Power May Be Irrelevant to the Effects of A Minimum Wage Increase

Most of us who took Econ 101 would expect that an increase in the minimum wage would increase unemployment, at least among low-skilled and younger workers.  After all, demand curves slope downards so that an increase in price of labor should result in a decrease in demand for that labor.

Supporters of the minimum wage, however, argue that employers have monopsony power when hiring low-skill workers. What they mean by this is that due to a bargaining power imbalance, employers can hire workers for less than they would be willing to pay in a truly competitive market.  As the theory goes, this in turn creates an additional consumer surplus for employers, which manifests itself as higher profits.  A minimum wage increase would thus reduce this surplus but not effect employment because companies before the new minimum wage were paying less than they were willing to pay.  Thus minimum wage supporters argue that higher wages mandated by minimum wage laws will be paid out of these excess profits, and not result in higher prices or less employment.

My understanding (and I am not an economist) is that the evidence for monopsony power in hiring low-skill workers is weak or at best limited to niche circumstances.  However, I am going to argue that it does not matter. Even if companies are able to pay workers less than they might via such monopsony power, whatever gains they reap from workers ends up in consumer hands.  As a result, minimum wage increases still must result either in employment reductions or consumer price increases or more likely both.

Why Monopsony Power May Not Matter

Why? Well, we need to back up and do a bit of business theory.  Just as macroeconomics (all the way back to Adam Smith) spends a lot of time thinking about why some countries are rich and some are poor, business theory spends a lot of time trying to figure out why some firms are profitable and some are not.  One of the seminal works in this area was Michael Porter's Five Forces model, where he outlines five characteristics of markets and firms that tend to drive profitability.  We won't go into them all, but the most important for us (and likely for Porter) is the threat of new entrants -- how easy or hard is it for new firms to enter the marketplace and begin competing against an incumbent firm.  If new companies can enter into competition easily, a profitable firm will simply attract new competitors, and keep attracting them until the returns in that market are competed down.

So let's consider a company paying minimum wage to most of its employees.  At least at current minimum wage levels, minimum wage employees will likely be in low-skill positions, ones that require little beyond a high school education.  Almost by definition, firms that depend on low-skill workers to deliver their product or service have difficulty establishing barriers to competition. One can’t be doing anything particularly tricky or hard to copy relying on workers with limited skills. As soon as one firm demonstrates there is money to be made using low-skill workers in a certain way, it is far too easy to copy that model.  As a result, most businesses that hire low-skill workers will have had their margins competed down to the lowest tolerable level.  Firms that rely mainly on low-skill workers almost all have single digit profit margins (net income divided by revenues) -- for comparison, last year Microsoft had a pre-tax net income margin of over 23%.

As a result, the least likely response to increasing labor costs due to regulation is that such costs will be offset out of profits, because for most of these firms profits have already been competed down to the minimum necessary to cover capital investment and the minimum returns to keep owners invested in the business. The much more likely responses will be

  1. Raising prices to cover the increased costs. This approach may be viable competitively, as most competitors will be facing the same legislated cost pressures, but may not be acceptable to consumers
  2. Reducing employment. This may take the form of stealth price increases (e.g. reduction in service levels for the same price) or be due to a reduction in volumes caused by price increases. It may also be due to targeted technology investments, as increases in labor costs also increase the returns to capital equipment that substitutes for labor
  3. Exiting one or more businesses and laying everyone off. This may take the form of targeted exits from low-margin lines of business, or liquidation of the entire company if the business Is no longer viable with the higher labor costs.

An Example

When I discuss this with folks, they will say that the increase could still come out of profitability -- a 5% margin could be reduced to 3% say.  When I get comments like this, it makes me realize that people don't understand the basic economics of a service firm, so a concrete example should help. Imagine a service business that relies mainly on minimum wage employees in which wages and other labor related costs (payroll taxes, workers compensation, etc) constitute about 50% of the company’s revenues. Imagine another 45% of company revenues going towards covering fixed costs, leaving 5% of revenues as profit.  This is a very typical cost breakdown, and in fact is close to that of my own business.  The 5% profit margin is likely the minimum required to support capital spending and to keep the owners of the company interested in retaining their investment in this business.

Now, imagine that the required minimum wage rises from $10 to $15 (exactly the increase we are in the middle of in California).  This will, all things equal, increase our example company's total wage bill by 50%. With the higher minimum wage, the company will be paying not 50% but 75% of its revenues to wages. Fixed costs will still be 45% of revenues, so now profits have shifted from 5% of revenues to a loss of 20% of revenues. This is why I tell folks the math of absorbing the wage increase in profits is often not even close.  Even if the company were to choose to become a non-profit charity outfit and work for no profit, barely a fifth of this minimum wage increase in this case could be absorbed.  Something else has to give -- it is simply math.

The absolute best case scenario for the business is that it can raise its prices 25% without any loss in volume. With this price increase, it will return to the same, minimum acceptable profit it was making before the regulation changed (profit in this case in absolute dollars -- the actual profit margin will be lowered to 4%). But note that this is a huge price increase. It is likely that some customers will stop buying, or buy less, at the new higher prices. If we assume the company loses 1% of unit volume for every 2% price increase, we find that the company now will have to raise prices 36% to stay even both of the minimum wage increase and lost volume. Under this scenario, the company would lose 18% of its unit sales and is assumed to reduce employee hours by the same amount.  In the short term, just for the company to survive, this minimum wage increase leads to a substantial price increase and a layoff of nearly 20% of the workers.   Of course, in real life there are other choices.  For example, rather than raise prices this much, companies may execute stealth price increases by laying off workers and reducing service levels for the same price (e.g. cleaning the bathroom less frequently in a restaurant).  In the long-term, a 50% increase in wage rates will suddenly make a lot of labor-saving capital investments more viable, and companies will likely substitute capital for labor, reducing employment even further but keeping prices more stable for consumers.

As you can see, in our example we don’t need to know anything about bargaining power and the fairness of wages. Simple math tells us that the typical low-margin service business that employs low-skill workers is going to have to respond with a combination of price increases and job reductions.

How My Company Has Responded

Just to put a bit more flesh on this, I will give a real example from my own company.  My company operates public recreation facilities, mainly campgrounds, under bid contracts.  To understand our response to rising minimum wage, you need to understand some background:

  • In bidding these, we bid both the camping fee we will charge to customers as well as the rent we will pay to the government for the concession.  Given the weights the government uses in the bid process, keeping customer price low is more important than the rent we pay, so in most cases the prices we charge customers are well below the private market rate for similar campgrounds.
  • We have limited ability to further increase productivity, in part because our ability to invest in these campgrounds in limited.
  • Because we have many contracts across the country, our reputation is important and so we seldom will entertain reductions in service, such as cleaning frequency
  • Labor and labor-related costs are about 50% of revenues, and most employees are paid minimum wage.  Profit margins hover around 5% of revenues

One of the states we operate in is California.  We are in the midst of a minimum wage increase there from $8 an hour several years ago to $15 several years hence, or an increase of 87.5%.  Basically we have had two responses:

  • In places where we are under the market price, we have been able to raise prices without a lot of drop in volume.  But this means that our camping rates in some locations have risen from $18 to a future $26 a night, an enormous increase in just a few years.
  • In places where we did not think the market would bear such a rate increase, or where our contract did not allow such a rate increase, we closed our operation.  In fact, we have exited about half our business in California (while simultaneously growing it aggressively in states like Tennessee).  In all cases this has resulted in a loss of employment -- either the location was never reopened by anyone else, or else it was reopened by a competitor with different reputational concerns who staffed the location with far fewer employees.

Progressive Narrative Fail: Why Are Low Income Workers and the Unemployed Running from High Minimum Wage States to Low Minimum Wage States?

I think many folks are aware of how certain wealthy neighborhoods use zoning to keep out the lower-income people they don't want around  (e.g. minimum lot sizes, minimum home sizes, petty harassment over home and lawn maintenance, etc.)  If you think of California as one big rich neighborhood, many of their labor and housing laws have this same effect of keeping lower income people out.

From the Sacramento Bee

Every year from 2000 through 2015, more people left California than moved in from other states. This migration was not spread evenly across all income groups, a Sacramento Bee review of U.S. Census Bureau data found. The people leaving tend to be relatively poor, and many lack college degrees. Move higher up the income spectrum, and slightly more people are coming than going.

About 2.5 million people living close to the official poverty line left California for other states from 2005 through 2015, while 1.7 million people at that income level moved in from other states – for a net loss of 800,000.

...
The leading destination for those leaving California is Texas, with about 293,000 economically disadvantaged residents leaving and about 137,000 coming for a net loss of 156,000 from 2005 through 2015. Next up are states surrounding California; in order, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon.

Wow, I am totally lost.  The minimum wage currently in California is $10.50 an hour, going up to $15 over the next 5 years.  The minimum wage in Texas is the Federal minimum at $7.25.  If I understand it right from progressives, minimum wages are a windfall for workers that raise wages without any reduction in employment.  So why are the very people California claims it is trying to help leaving the state in droves?  For unenlightened Texas, of all places.

Of course the reason is that minimum wages do indeed have employment effects.If you think of California as one big rich neighborhood, minimum wages act as a zoning plan to keep the "unwashed" out.  Setting a minimum wage of $15 is equivalent to saying, "if your skills and education and experience are low enough that your labor is not yet worth $15 an hour or more, stay out."

Of course, there are a lot more problems for jobs in California than just minimum wages.  At every turn, California works to make operating a business difficult and hiring unskilled workers more expensive.  And then there is the cost side.  With its building restrictions and environmental rules, most California cities have artificially inflated housing costs, just another way to tell lower income  people to keep out.

Well-paid new arrivals in California enjoy a life that is far out of reach of much of the state’s population. Besides Hawaii and New York, California has the highest cost of living in America.

During the past three years in Sacramento, median rent for a one-bedroom apartment has risen from about $935 a month to $1,230 a month, according to real estate tracking firm Zillow.com. A single mother working 40 hours a week at $15 an hour would spend nearly half of her gross income to afford an apartment at that price. She would pay about 10 percent less for a one-bedroom rental in Houston or Dallas.

Sacramento remains relatively affordable compared to other California markets. Median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is about $2,270 a month. In San Francisco, $3,700. Without subsidies, those prices are unreachable for a single parent making $15 an hour.

The key to attacking poverty is creating more jobs, not artificially raising the rates of entry-level jobs.

Minimum Wages and Price Increases To Customers: A Real World Example Today in Arizona

Our company operates a number of public campgrounds and parks, including about 35 in Arizona.  This is a letter I sent early this morning to the agencies we work with in Arizona

It appears that the ballot initiative for a higher Arizona minimum wage is going to pass, raising minimum wages as early as January, 2017 from $8.05 to $10.00. This is an increase of 24%, and comes on very short notice.

Currently, about half of our total costs are tied to wage rates (both payroll taxes and workers compensation insurance premiums are directly tied to wages and go up automatically by the same amount wages go up). Because of this, a 24% increase in wage rates will result in our costs going up on average by 12%.

It had been my intention to keep fees to customers flat in 2017, but that is now impossible in Arizona. This 12% expense increase is about twice the amount of profit we make -- there is no way we can absorb it without a fee increase. I apologize for the late notice, but I have never, ever had a minimum wage increase imposed on such short notice.

We will have to look at our financials for each permit, but my guess is that on average, we are talking about camping fee increases of $2 and day use fee increases of $1. This range of fee increases will actually not cover our full cost increase, but we will try to make up the rest with some reductions in employee hours.

Why Germany Struggles With Integrating New Immigrants -- And Why Their Experience Isn't Comparable to the US

For years I have argued that immigration controls in this country are effectively a form of occupational licensing.  While US immigration controls are a terrible policy IMO, Germany's approach seems even worse.  They welcome people into their country but don't let them work, and then wonder why newly immigrated refugees can't find jobs.

In 2015, Germany waited the longest of any country in Europe to restrict the flow of asylum seekers from the Middle East. Yet once they arrived, the asylees who immediately sought work in Europe’s largest economy were greeted by bureaucracy. The law initially forbade asylees from seeking work for 9 months after their arrival, but was reduced to 3 months in November 2014. Then, inexplicably, at the height of the inflows, the German governmentbanned working if the asylee was forced to stay a reception center, which could be up to 6 months.

After the initial waiting period, asylees did not receive unrestricted employment authorization. Instead, they would have to find a “concrete” job offer—i.e. a firm must promise to hire them if the permit is granted—then apply for authorization. Even then, companies can only hire them during the first 15 months if the jobs are offered first to EU residents, and the federal labor department agrees that no one was willing to take. They also set asylee wages, which can price out low-skilled workers.

The hoops don’t end there. Asylees still have to get the approval of the immigration office at the municipal level. Under the law, it would take four years before they could compete equally with EU citizens.

On top of all these refugee-specific regulations, skilled workers are then tasked with proving that they can work in certain occupations. In order to obtain an occupational license, documentary proof of training—proof that’s often buried under bombed-out homes in Syria—is required. Some states in Germany allow asylees to demonstrate their skills in order to receive licensing, but others do not. “I am a dentist and could work, but what am I supposed to do? I am not allowed to work here!” one asylee told DW News.

Low-skilled immigrants haven’t avoided being targeted either. Germany introduced its first ever minimum wage in 2015—which disproportionately hits lower skilled migrants—and a study by the German government in August 2016 found that it had already cost 60,000 jobs.

 

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.

BLM: OK, You Have Our Attention -- and Many of Us Are Sympathetic -- What in the Hell Do You Want Done?

Well, it appears that Black Lives Matters has moved on to climate activism, or whatever, but has mostly fallen off message on police accountability.  Protests in the vague hope of ending racism by closing busy highways and airports and kneeling during the National Anthem are going to get nothing done -- the solution to the problems that sparked the BLM movement are to be found in legislative efforts to create better police accountability measures and to roll back a number of egregious protections from accountability that exist in many union contracts.  The solution is not to throw blanket hate on police officers, many or most of whom are doing a good job, but to recognize that when we give officers unique powers to use force, they need extra accountability to go with those powers.  Today, most police have less accountability for their use of force than you and I do.

Unfortunately, doing that is hard.  It is a tough legislative slog that has to go local city by local city, with few national-level shortcuts available.  It faces opposition from Conservatives who tend to fetishize police, and from Liberals who are reluctant to challenge a public employees union.  And it requires that BLM translate their energy from disruption and attention-grabbing (which they are very good at) to policy and legislation, which they have shown no facility for.  They need to be working on model legislation and pushing that down to the local level.  This original plan actually looked pretty good, but apparently it has been rejected and gets little or no attention.

As a result, BLM seems to be stuck in a pointless do-loop of disruption and virtue-signalling.  I just want to scream at them, "OK, you have our attention -- and many of us are sympathetic -- what in the hell do you want done?"  Unfortunately, their current lists of goals have almost nothing to do with police accountability and appear to be a laundry list of progressive talking points.  It appears to be another radical organization that has been jacked by the Democratic establishment to push mainstream Democratic talking points.

Here is a good example, for a number of reasons.  In the past, the officer likely would have been believed and the woman might have been convicted of something.  I think this happens to people across the racial spectrum, but African-Americans have had a particularly hard time -- given both racist perceptions and lack of good counsel -- in these he-said-she-said cases with police.  Not to mention that African-Americans -- for a variety of reasons including racial profiling in things like New York's stop and frisk program to the tendency of poor black municipalities to fine the crap out of their citizens to generate revenue -- come in contact with police disproportionately more often.

I offered my plan to help African-Americans a number of times in the past:

  • Legalize drugs.  This would reduce the rents that attract the poor into dealing, would keep people out of jail, and reduce a lot of violent crime associated with narcotics traffic that kills investment and business creation in black neighborhoods.  It would also reduce the main excuse for petty harassment by police that falls disproportionately on young black men.  No it's not a good thing to have people addicted to strong narcotics but it is worse to be putting them in jail and having them shooting at each other.
  • Bring real accountability to police forces.  When I see stories of folks absurdly abused by police forces, I can almost always guess the race of the victim in advance.  I used to be a law-and-order Conservative that blindly trusted police statements about every encounter.  The advent of cell-phone video has proven this to be supremely naive.  No matter how trusted, you can't give any group a pass on accountability.
  • Eliminate the minimum wage   (compromise: eliminate the minimum wage before 25).  Originally passed for racist reasons, it still (if unintentionally) keeps young blacks from entering the work force.  Dropping out of high school does not hurt employment because kids learn job skills in high school (they don't); it hurts because finishing high school is a marker of responsibility and other desirable job traits.  Kids who drop out can overcome this, but only if they get a job where they can demonstrate these traits.  No one is going to take that chance at $10 or $15 an hour
  • Voucherize education.  It's not the middle class that is primarily the victim of awful public schools, it is poor blacks.  Middle and upper class parents have the political pull to get accountability.   It is no coincidence the best public schools are generally in middle and upper class neighborhoods.  Programs such as the one in DC that used to allow urban poor to escape failing schools need to be promoted.

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.

Progressivism is Not Caring. It is Authoritarianism

The city of Seatac (a small area of land around the Seattle-Tacoma Airport) gained national attention a while back for passing a $15 minimum wage.  Many other groups, including the city of Seattle itself, as well as this year's Democratic platform committee, cited the Seatac example as an impetus for higher minimum wages everywhere.

In today's politics, there is no better way for a Leftish politician to virtue-signal than to advocate for a $15 minimum wage.  It is a classic case of a government law that helps a few easy to identify people and hurts a whole bunch of people in ways that are hard to attribute to the law, such as reduced employment for low-skill workers and higher prices for consumers.

So the City of Seatac has been taking a victory lap over the last year, patting itself on its back for how caring it is of its citizens.  Oh, and it has also been doing this:

A three-month-long civil trial revealed the shadowy subterfuge behind a secret land grab that was orchestrated by the city of SeaTac, replete with backroom deals, baldfaced deceptions, and a mayor intent on driving Somali refugees from the neighborhood.

The aim of it all: to wrestle 4.23 acres of prime real estate from entrepreneurs Gerry and Kathy Kingen, according to the judge and jury who heard the case.

The West Seattle couple sued the city and won, proving in court that SeaTac officials intentionally sabotaged their development plans, strong-armed them into giving up their property and then violated the state’s Public Records Act by withholding city emails and documents proving the deception.

The trial judge also concluded the former SeaTac mayor wanted condos built on the site, believing they would price out Somalis who had moved into “his neighborhood.”...

In March 2004, K&S Developments [the Kingen's investment vehicle] began working with SeaTac’s planning department to get approval for [a] park-and-fly, and city officials “voiced support and encouragement” for the proposal. The judge noted there “was never any public opposition” to the plan.

But unbeknown to the Kingens, SeaTac’s planning director, city manager and other staff decided in late 2005 they didn’t want K&S to build the park-and-fly because it would create competition for a park-and-fly the city wanted to build about a mile south at South 176th Street.

So in February 2006, city staff “devised a secret plan” to get the City Council to pass a moratorium designed to kill the Kingens’ park-and-fly project, the judge wrote. After learning of the permanent ban, Gerry Kingen met with members of the City Council and then-Mayor Gene Fisher, who “promised to make things right.”

 

The Corporate State, In One Chart

James Bessen has a terrific article in the Harvard Business Review on the estimated contribution to corporate profits of rent-seeking, or the acquisition of special favors, subsidies, and protections from the government that shelter a company from the normal competition of a free market.  Bessen argues that such rent-seeking is major explanatory factor for recent rises in corporate profits.

W160518_BESSEN_WHATSDRIVING-1200x805

This topic will be a familiar one to Coyoteblog readers.   Show me a regulation and I will show you the large corporation that is able to use it to throttle competition.  I remember when everyone claimed the retail minimum wage was going to hurt Wal-Mart, but in fact Wal-Mart actually supported it because it was paying a higher wage than its smaller upstart competitors and thus the minimum wage would tend to hurt Wal-Mart's competition worse than it would be hurt.  Taxi service is one of the most regulated businesses in the country (at least in relation to the complexity of the business) and we are seeing just how much these regulations have supported taxi profits as we watch the taxi companies use the regulations to try to hammer Uber and Lyft.

According to Bessen, the effect is both large and on the rise:

I find that investments in conventional capital assets like machinery and spending on R&D together account for a substantial part of the rise in valuations and profits, especially during the 1990s. However, since 2000, political activity and regulation account for a surprisingly large share of the increase....

The pattern around the 1992 Cable Act is representative: I find that firms experiencing major regulatory change see their valuations rise 12% compared to closely matched control groups. Smaller regulatory changes are also associated with a subsequent rise in firm market values and profits.

This research supports the view that political rent seeking is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in profits. Firms influence the legislative and regulatory process and they engage in a wide range of activity to profit from regulatory changes, with significant success. Without further research, we cannot say for sure whether this activity is making the economy less dynamic and more unequal, but the magnitude of this effect certainly heightens those concerns.

Two characteristics make these changes particularly worrisome. First, the link between regulation and profits is highly concentrated in a small number of politically influential industries. Among non-financial corporations, most of the effect is accounted for by just five industries: pharmaceuticals/chemicals, petroleum refining, transportation equipment/defense, utilities, and communications. These industries comprise, in effect, a “rent seeking sector.” Concentration of political influence among a narrow group of firms means that those firms may skew policy for the entire economy. For example, the pharmaceutical industry has actively stymied efforts to address problems of patent trolls that affect many other industries.

I would add two other industries to this list -- medicine and legal.  The reason it likely does not show up in his study is that the returns in these businesses show up to individuals or small private firms.  But heavy regulation, and in particular a licensing process wherein one must get permission from the incumbents in order to compete with them, has always kept prices and returns in these businesses artificially high.

Note by the way that the breakpoint year of 2000 makes this a bipartisan issue, occurring in equal measure in Republican and Democratic Congresses and Presidencies.

And I don't think I need to remind folks, but both of our Presidential candidates are absolutely steeped in and committed to this cronyist, corporatist system

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.

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.

The Customer Service Downside to the New Federal Overtime Rules

I and others have written a number of times about the many downsides to new Federal rules that will force most junior salaried managers to start punching a timeclock.

I run a service business and these rules affect us substantially.  Like many retail operations, we have hourly employees who work for a local manager who is salaried and generally earns less than the new $47,476 annual cutoff.   We are not entirely sure how we are going to comply, but in the near-term compliance will likely involve a combination of hard hour limits for managers, some devolution of manager tasks to minimum wage workers, and price increases to customers.  In the long-term, we may have to consolidate manager positions.

But there is one additional change that is almost certainly going to occur -- a reduction in customer service.  To understand why that is, you need to understand the retail and services world.

In the service world, sh*t happens.  The ice machine suddenly breaks.  An important worker just does not show up.  A customer complains that no one is cleaning the bathroom.  Because of razor thin margins, service work loads are carefully scheduled.  There simply is not a lot of slack.  So when something unusual happens, it is usually the local manager who takes up the slack.  They fix the problem, somehow, even if it means they have to clean the bathroom themselves.  Not one of my managers has bathroom cleaning as part of their duties, but every single one of them likely cleans bathrooms every month, because they are covering the performance gaps left by other employees.

When managers are subject to overtime, this changes.  We only get 40 hours a week of that person's time (at least at a reasonable rate) and so every hour must count.  Every hour must suddenly be carefully husbanded and spent only on value-added tasks, like balancing the register and merchandising the shelves.  We can't waste them on the manager covering for employee shortcomings.

So who will clean the bathroom when the employee assigned to do so fails?  Who will cover the second register when an employee just does not show up for work?  Who will expedite the ice machine replacement so customers don't have to go long without ice?  I don't know.  Maybe nobody.  Or at least nobody as long as prices charged to customers aren't raised substantially.

Postscript:  If you are not in retail or a service business, you may read this and say, "well, if you hired better workers, they would be more reliable and you wouldn't have to cover for them."  I have two responses.  First, only someone who never worked retail could say that.  People are individuals and have their own needs and lives, and those sometimes conflict with getting the job done, no matter how well we screen.

Second, let me tell a story from this last weekend when I was at the graduation ceremony for Amherst College.  Amherst could reasonably be considered among the 10 most selective schools in the nation.   It is consistently ranked as the #1 or #2 small liberal arts college in the nation.  This weekend they selected an outstanding student from this outstanding bunch to make a presentation at graduation.  In it, she told a story of never, ever being able to get to a certain class, that is held at 12:30 in the afternoon, on time.  She said she was late every single time.   This is supposedly one of the elite young people in the country who would never even consider accepting a "menial" service job with my company, but never-the-less can't get to a class on time.

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:

econ

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.

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....

I Get This Same Comment All the Time -- Here is My Blanket Advice

Don Boudreaux writes:

This note is to an angry young man who describes Bernie Sanders as his and his girlfriend’s “hero” and as “the only candidate following humane economics.”  Sigh.

Mr. Claudio Morello

Mr. Morello:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You find my arguments against a $15 per hour minimum wage to be “totally uncompelling” because “labor is not a commodity like bread and electronics.”  In your view, “labor should not be subject to the bloodless laws of economics.”

I get this sort of comment all the time about it being wrong, even inhuman, to treat labor as a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand.  I generally have two responses:

  1. For the guy who was just pushed out of a 10th story window, I am sure a more "humane" law of gravity would see him wafted gently to earth -- but all his wishing for such an alternate reality is not going to have it happen.
  2. Forgetting public policy for a moment, to the extent that you (the commenter) relies on other people hiring you to stay alive in this world, I can think of few things that would improve your well-being more than attempting to develop a basic understanding of why your labor might have more or less value to someone else.  Refusing to do so, or even refusing to acknowledge that your labor has some sort of economic value at all, would be like trying to launch rockets to mars while refusing to acknowledge the rules of celestial mechanics. .  Refusing to even think about why labor (and skills) might or might not have value in different situations seems to be a recipe for pretty low earnings over time.

Looking for Advice: Ethics of Prisoner Labor

This is sort of an odd topic to have on my mind, but I was thinking about it today in the context of a bid package I have in my hands for concession management of a park in Georgia.

The RFP kept referring to "community workers" who do 60% of the labor in the park, and part of our responsibilities included managing these workers.  In my naivete, I thought these were volunteers, and sent a note telling them that while the government could legally use volunteers, it was very problematic under labor laws for a private company to benefit in any way from volunteer labor.

I was quickly informed that I had it all wrong, that this was a euphemism for "prisoners," and that I could take advantage of their close to fee labor to do much of the heavy lifting in the park maintenance.

I must confess this is a new one for me but my initial reaction is queasiness about it.  On the one hand, we are talking about unpaid labor from men in involuntary servitude -- do I really feel good about benefiting economically from this work?  On the other hand, I do understand that work programs can be beneficial for prisoners, though I am not sure the work we need is really going to be teaching many skills.  On the gripping hand, there is "Cool Hand Luke", which is impossible to get out of my head when considering prison labor in the deep south.

One other aspect of the RFP that struck me cold was the pages and pages of requirements, including an actual oath I have to take, that I will do everything possible not to hire an illegal immigrant.  Now, that sort of thing is likely required of them by state law, and is not that unusual (Arizona has similar provisions, I believe).  But juxtaposed with the prison labor, it leaves me cold.  Essentially, they won't allow me to accept the voluntary labor of a Mexican man paid at minimum wage, but they are encouraging me to accept the involuntary labor for free from a group of prisoners.

I just encountered this about 10 minutes ago so I am still thinking on it -- the basic opportunity is attractive.  But I have walked away from opportunities before over these sorts of ethical issues -- most recently, over a refusal to drug test employees when that was a state requirement.

I welcome thoughts in the comments (I know I mentioned immigration, but in this one post I would be thrilled if we could lay off my supposed naivete on immigration and focus on the ethics of profiting from free prison labor).

Unemployment Insurance Fraud Tricks

Typically, I see a LOT of people with no intention of working or looking for work collecting unemployment insurance payments.  For example, we have summer workers who take the winter off but still collect unemployment in the winter as if they were looking for work.  Most state governments have no desire to hear about this.  In fact, in California (at least a number of years ago) if you call the unemployment fraud number the only kind of complaint they take is reports of employer fraud.  You can't actually report employee fraud, and the one time I tried to do so I was threatened by a California State employee with dire legal consequences for "harassment" and "retaliation".

The new dodge I saw the other day is when Company A goes to an employee of Company B and offers to hire them away for higher pay.  When the employee leaves B for A, A tells them that they should file for unemployment, claiming they were forced out rather than quit (essentially constructive termination).  In most states, if an employee says one thing (I was forced out!) and an employer says another (She quit!), the employee is almost always believed unless the employer can bring an absurd amount of written evidence to the table to prove otherwise.

Anyway, having convinced the state the employee was terminated rather than quit, the employee collects unemployment benefits.   Then, company A pays the employee in cash under the table an amount per hour less than minimum wage but which in combination with the state unemployment payments does indeed add up to more than they were making at B.  They end up paying less than minimum wage and pay no employment taxes (since it is cash under the table) and the state makes up the difference with an unemployment check.  Company B, by the way, sees its unemployment taxes go way up because these rates are experience-based.

My Wish for the Republican Debates: Less Talk on Taxes, More Talk on Regulation

I would be all for reductions in tax levels, but I don't think that current Federal tax rates are particularly a barrier to growth and prosperity.  A much bigger, and ever-growing barrier to growth is regulation.

5-10 years ago, in my small business, I spent my free time, and most of our organization's training time, on new business initiatives (e.g. growth into new businesses, new out-warding-facing technologies for customers, etc).  Over the last five years, all of my time and the organization's free bandwidth has been spent on regulatory compliance.  Obamacare alone has sucked up endless hours and hassles -- and continues to do so as we work through arcane reporting requirements.  But changing Federal and state OSHA requirements, changing minimum wage and other labor regulations, and numerous changes to state and local legislation have also consumed an inordinate amount of our time.  We spent over a year in trial and error just trying to work out how to comply with California meal break law, with each successive approach we took challenged in some court case, forcing us to start over.  For next year, we are working to figure out how to comply with the 2015 Obama mandate that all of our salaried managers now have to punch a time clock and get paid hourly.

Greg Mankiw points to a nice talk on this topic by Steven Davis.  For years I have been saying that one effect of all this regulation is to essentially increase the minimum viable size of any business, because of the fixed compliance costs.   A corollary to this rising minimum size hypothesis is that the rate of new business formation is likely dropping, since more and more capital is needed just to overcome the compliance costs before one reaches this rising minimum viable size.  The author has a nice chart on this point, which is actually pretty scary.  This is probably the best single chart I have seen to illustrate the rise of the corporate state:

decline of new business employment

 

Postscript:  I had thought that all the difficult years converting all of our employees from full to part time to avoid Obamacare sanctions would be the end of our compliance hassles (no company will write health insurance for us, so our only defense against the mandates and penalties is to make everyone part-time).  But the hassles have not ended.  For every employee, next year we must provide a statement that has a series of codes, by month, for that employee's health care status.  It is so complicated that knowledgeable people are still arguing about what codes we should be using.  Here is a mere taste of the rules:

  A code must be entered for each calendar month January through December, even if the employee was not a full-time employee for one or more of the calendar months. Enter the code identifying the type of health coverage actually offered by the employer (or on behalf of the employer) to the employee, if any. Do not enter a code for any other type of health coverage the employer is treated as having offered (but the employee was not actually offered coverage). For example, do not enter a code for health coverage the employer is treated as having offered (but did not actually offer) under the dependent coverage transition relief, or non-calendar year transition relief, even if the employee is included in the count of full-time employees offered minimum essential coverage for purposes of Form 1094-C, Part III, column (a). If the employee was not actually offered coverage, enter Code 1H (no offer of coverage) on line 14.  For reporting offers of coverage for 2015, an employer relying on the multiemployer arrangement interim guidance should enter code 1H on line 14 for any month for which the employer enters code 2E on line 16 (indicating that the employer was required to contribute to a multiemployer plan on behalf of the employee for that month and therefore is eligible for multiemployer interim rule relief). For a description of the multiemployer arrangement interim guidance, see Offer of health coverage in the Definitions section. For reporting for 2015, Code 1H may be entered without regard to whether the employee was eligible to enroll or enrolled in coverage under the multiemployer plan. For reporting for 2016 and future years, ALE Members relying on the multiemployer arrangement interim guidance may be required to report offers of coverage made through a multiemployer plan in a different manner.

Here are some of the codes:

  • 1A. Qualifying Offer: Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to full-time employee with employee contribution for self-only coverage equal to or less than 9.5% mainland single federal poverty line and at least minimum essential coverage offered to spouse and dependent(s).

    This code may be used to report for specific months for which a Qualifying Offer was made, even if the employee did not receive a Qualifying Offer for all 12 months of the calendar year. However, an employer may not use the Alternative Furnishing Method for an employee who did not receive a Qualifying Offer for all 12 calendar months (except in cases in which the employer is eligible for and reports using the Alternative Furnishing Method for 2015 Qualifying Offer Method Transition Relief as described in these instructions).

  • 1B. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee only.
  • 1C. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee and at least minimum essential coverage offered to dependent(s) (not spouse).
  • 1D. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee and at least minimum essential coverage offered to spouse (not dependent(s)).
  • 1E. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee and at least minimum essential coverage offered to dependent(s) and spouse.
  • 1F. Minimum essential coverage NOT providing minimum value offered to employee; employee and spouse or dependent(s); or employee, spouse and dependents.
  • 1G. Offer of coverage to employee who was not a full-time employee for any month of the calendar year (which may include one or more months in which the individual was not an employee) and who enrolled in self-insured coverage for one or more months of the calendar year.
  • 1H. No offer of coverage (employee not offered any health coverage or employee offered coverage that is not minimum essential coverage, which may include one or more months in which the individual was not an employee).
  • 1I. Qualifying Offer Transition Relief 2015: Employee (and spouse or dependents) received no offer of coverage; received an offer that is not a qualifying offer; or received a qualifying offer for less than 12 months.