Posts tagged ‘productivity’

What I Am Wondering About Inflation

Tyler Cowen asks, "Why isn’t inflation higher?"  I have wondered that for a while, but monetary policy and related topics in macro are one of the areas I admit that I simply do not understand so I don't write about it.  So rather than offering any hypotheses to Cowen's question, I will ask my own:

  1. Is it possible that inflation exists but it shows up mainly in financial assets (stocks, bonds, perhaps real estate) that don't really factor into standard inflation metrics?  Every step the Fed has taken, as well as other western central banks, appears to me to be crafted to pump money into securities markets rather than into main street.  Certainly we have seen a huge inflation in the value of financial assets and real estate over the past several years.
  2. Expansion of the economy above the rate of productivity improvement should drive inflation, unless there was a lot of excess capacity to soak up.   That may have been partly the case in the US since 2008, but surely that is gone.  Does the still greatly underutilized Chinese and Indian labor force act as excess capacity that prevents inflation from heating up here?  If so, might Trump's trade restrictions interfere with this going forward?

If Socialists Understand the Free-Rider Problem, Then Why Are They Socialists?

There was a funny sideshow to the recent Supreme Court Janus v. AFSCME decision.  That decision essentially made it impossible for local or state governments to require that all employees pay support to certain public employee unions, even if they are not a member of that union and/or don't support that union's activities and, particularly, that union's political speech.  Progressives, many of whom feel increasingly confident to admit that they are socialists, rushed to point out that this was a death knell for these unions because of the free rider problem.  If workers who benefitted from the union's collective bargaining activities were not forced to pay, then what incentive exists for any one employee to pay the union if they still will enjoy the benefits without paying.  Soon, everyone will become a free rider and the union will die.  America's most famous socialist Bernie Sanders demonstrates that he understands the free rider problem completely in this

Sanders’ bill, called the Workplace Democracy Act, would remove several of the major barriers to organized labor’s growth.

It would ban “right to work” laws, which allow employees to opt out of paying union dues even though the union must still bargain on their behalf, leading to what unions call “free-riding.”

This is all very ironic.  Socialism fails for a number of reasons, but perhaps the easiest one to explain to laymen is the free-rider problem.  Anyone who has had to do group projects in school likely understands the concept to its core.  If all output belongs to the collective, and is divided up based on need rather than productivity or innovation or even diligent work, then where is the incentive for an individual to do anything?   The collectivization of agriculture in both China and Russia was a disaster (meaning millions died of starvation) because of this free rider effect.  If socialists understand the free rider problem, as they clearly do (at least in Janus v. AFSCME), how can they be socialists?

The answer to my question may also be in this legal case.  For the free rider problems in public unions in this case (and in private unions as well in the Sander plan linked above), progressives intend to use force as a solution.  If people don't see value in the union and don't want to pay, well they are going to have to be forced to do so anyway.  Literally, we will put free riders in jail.  You can probably get away with this solution for a niche issue like union dues is a generally law-abiding country like this one.  But even Stalin and Mao were not successful in getting more agricultural or industrial production at gunpoint, though they killed a lot of folks trying.  And if force did not work on rice production, imagine how well it will work, say, trying to get innovation out of someone's mind when that person has zero incentive to do anything but just show up for work.

Uber Drivers Just Killed All the Parts of the Job They Supposedly Liked the Most

At the behest of a group of Uber drivers, the California Supreme Court has ruled that Uber drivers are Uber employees, not independent contractors, under California law:

In a ruling with potentially sweeping consequences for the so-called gig economy, the California Supreme Court on Monday made it much more difficult for companies to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The decision could eventually require companies like Uber, many of which are based in California, to follow minimum-wage and overtime laws and to pay workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance and payroll taxes, potentially upending their business models.

I believe that this will pretty much kill Uber (though it will take some time to bleed out) for reasons discussed here.  Rather than discuss consequences for the company (everyone is finally doing this, following the general media rule I have stated before that it is OK to discuss downsides of new government regulations only after the regulations have been passed and become essentially un-reversible).

People don't always seem to have a good grasp of cause and effect.  I don't know if this is a general problem programmed into how humans think or one attributable to the sorry state of education.  My favorite example is all the people who flee California due to the high taxes, housing prices, and stifling regulation and then  -- in their new state -- immediately start voting for all the same things that caused them to flee California.

One of the aspects of being an Uber driver that supposedly attracts many people to it is the flexibility.  I summarized the advantages in an earlier post:

Here are some cool things about working for Uber:

You can work any time you want, for as long as you want.  You can work from 2-4 in the morning if you like, and if there are no customers, that is your risk

You can work in any location you choose.  You can park at your house and sit in your living room and take any jobs that come up, and then ignore new jobs until you get back home (I actually have a neighbor who is retired who does just this, he has driven me about 6 times now).

The company has no productivity metrics or expectations.  As long as your driver rating is good and you follow the rules, you are fine.

This all ends with the California decision.  You drivers are all thinking you won this big victory because you are going to have the same job you loved but you will just get paid more.  This is not going to happen.  As I implied above, in the long-term this job will not exist at all, because Uber will be dead.  But in the near-term, if Uber tries to make this work **, Uber is going to excercise a LOT more control of your work.

That is because if Uber is on the hook for a minimum cost per hour for your work, then they are going to damn well make sure you are productive.  Do you enjoy sitting around near your suburban and semi-rural home at 3AM waiting to get some business?  In the future, forget it, Uber is not going to allow this sort of thing now that Uber, rather than its drivers, is carrying the risk of your being unproductive.  They are going to take a lot more control of where and when you can drive.  And if you do not get with the program, you are going to be kicked out.  It won't be three months before Uber starts tracking driver productivity and kicking out the least productive drivers.

Congratulations Uber drivers, in the quest to try to use the power of government to extract more money for yourselves from the company, you just killed your jobs as you know it.  You may have had freedom before but now you are working in Office Space like the rest of us.

This whole case just goes to support my frequent contention that the only labor model the US government will fully accept is an hourly worker working 9-5 punching a time clock.  Every new labor model that comes along eventually runs head-on into the government that tries to pound that square peg into the round hole of a time-punching factory worker.  The Obama administration even did its best to force a large number of salaried workers into punching a time clock.

 

** If I were the leader of Uber, I would announce today that we are exiting California.  This is an existential issue and the only way to fight it is right now on your home turf.  Any attempt to try to muddle through this is going to lead to Uber's death, and would thus be a disservice to its shareholders.   Whether this happens will be interesting.  Uber is owned by a bunch of California VC's who generally support exactly this sort of government authoritarian interventionism.  It will be interesting to see if a bunch of California progressives let $50 billion in equity go down the drain just to avoid offending the sensibilities of their fellow California progressives.

Addressing the Pro-Tariff Arguments

Don Boudreaux and and Mark Perry have been doing a great job making the case against Trump's trade sanctions.  But it is always a danger only to learn about opposing views from those who disagree with you, so in the spirit of Bryan Caplan's "Ideological Touring Test" I wanted to address directly some of the arguments in support of Trump's sanctions.

I followed several links to this article by Spencer Morrison.  After reading the whole thing, I fear I have made the intellectual error of choosing a poor representative of the opposing side's argument, but I am committed now, so here goes.

Consider that China steals more than half a trillion dollars in American intellectual property every single year. This is one of the reasons America’s trade deficit with China is so massive. For example, in 2010 Chinese companies stole high-speed rail designs from American firms, thereby depriving them of hundreds of billions in potential revenues. Such theft occurs in nearly every industry, whether it’s software programs or branded consumer goods. And the worst part? We let it happen.

I find the author's figure absurd, and likely untrustworthy given his example.  Following his high-speed rail design "theft" link one quickly finds that 1) Americans were not involved at all, which is not surprising since we really don't have high-speed rail manufacturing industry or expertise in this country; 2) the technology seems to have been acquired or copied legally; and 3) the real competitive issue for non-Chinese companies seems to be that the Chinese have extended and improved the technology.

This one paragraph essentially summarized the theme of the article, that technology is the key to increased well-being and that the US is poorer when they cannot monopolize the best technology.  The first is true, the second is dead wrong and flies in the face of 200 years of history.

I won't spend time on the mass of the article where describes the economy in very production-based terms which I don't totally agree with, but his basic point is one I can partially accept -- that real economic growth over time comes from  productivity growth.  I agree that technology is part of the productivity equation, but unlike the author I also see other drivers such as trade (which he calls "noise").  Trade is a critical factor in productivity improvement as specialization and comparative advantage greatly increase productivity.

But where I think he really goes off the rails is to say that because technology is wealth-creating, we need to monopolize that technology in the US.

The core issue remains: we continue to  offshore our advanced industries at an alarming pace, which will only increase the likelihood that the “next big thing” will be invented abroad. If we do not reverse this trend, we will soon be on the outside looking in.

It would be entertaining to discuss the origins of the American textile industry in the late 18th and early 19th century with the author, which were largely based on spinning jenny and powerloom designs that were literally stolen from manufacturers in the UK (countries don't own technologies, only individuals and their companies do).  The UK at the time had strict technology export restrictions of which I am sure the author would have been approving.

So did the UK suddenly become poorer as America built a lively cloth industry?  No, in fact the UK boomed along with the US.  It turns out that spreading new technology and productivity techniques around more widely made everyone richer.  This only makes sense.  Would the West really be wealthier if they had kept all technology from spreading, and thus were surrounded by countries dominated by subsistence farming and medieval crafts?  A skeptic might argue that the UK did eventually become poorer relative to the US and upstart Germany, but Andrew Carnegie could have told you why at the beginning of the 20th century.  He went back and toured manufacturers in his old home and was horrified at how little they reinvested in new technology.

Which brings me back to Chinese high speed rail, the example he started with.  Clearly the Chinese have a growing high-speed rail manufacturing industry, and they DIDN'T invent the technologies originally in China.  This is what trade is all about.  Rather than keep technologies locked up in a secret underground bunker in the Rockies, as the author seems to prefer, it spreads technologies around the world.  Production then shifts around the world based on a variety of factors such as comparative advantage in ways that are hard to predict, but seldom has a strong relationship to the country in which the technology was first invented.  One place production does NOT shift, though, is towards countries whose government has artificially raised critical raw material prices through border taxes on its consumers called tariffs.

Which reminds me, if the problem is China "stealing" things like high-speed rail technology, then why in the hell are we imposing steel and aluminum tariffs?  What the heck does this have to do with technology transfer?  In fact, if the US really had a high-speed rail industry we were worried about, or if one were exclusively concerned with the auto industry, the author is essentially telling them "we are sorry you had your technology stolen so to help you out we going to substantially raise the prices of your two largest purchases (steel and aluminum) so that you can be even less competitive internationally."  Ahh, I can feel the economic growth from that already.

If the author wants better intellectual property protections for US companies and individuals, I am generally supportive of efforts to achieve this (as long as we don't over-specify intellectual property and end up again with endless patent troll suits).  For all its flaws, though, joining the TPP seems to be a better path to this end (it actually addresses, you know, intellectual property protections rather than just raise steel prices for consumers).

To conclude, I love this quote from his article because, despite being anti-trade, he in fact is echoing the pro-trade observation by Steven Landsburg.

Yet our trade policy does exactly the opposite. After the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, U.S. corn exports surged, as did our imports of automobiles. The problem is that automobile manufacturing is much more likely to benefit from disruptive technology than is growing corn—under NAFTA, the preponderance of long-run benefits went to Mexico, not the United States. The same is true with America’s trade relationship with China: America’s advanced goods trade deficit with China now tops $120 billion. Meanwhile, our biggest export is soybeans.

Free trade is, quite literally, turning America into China’s mercantile resource colony: we buy their value-added, manufactured products, and we sell them raw materials.

This is freaking awesome!  We grow and sell soybeans and get back advanced technology products.  Brilliant!  No wonder we are the richest nation on Earth.

Postscript:  So to save the time clicking through to Steven Landsburg, here is a part of what he said (via Carpe Diem):

There are two technologies for producing automobiles in America. One is to manufacture them in Detroit, and the other is to grow them in Iowa. Everybody knows about the first technology; let me tell you about the second. First you plant seeds, which are the raw material from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships eastward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.

International trade is nothing but a form of technology. The fact that there is a place called Japan, with people and factories, is quite irrelevant to Americans’ well-being. To analyze trade policies, we might as well assume that Japan is a giant machine with mysterious inner workings that convert wheat into cars. Any policy designed to favor the first American technology over the second is a policy designed to favor American auto producers in Detroit over American auto producers in Iowa. A tax or a ban on “imported” automobiles is a tax or a ban on Iowa-grown automobiles. If you protect Detroit carmakers from competition, then you must damage Iowa farmers, because Iowa farmers are the competition.

The task of producing a given fleet of cars can be allocated between Detroit and Iowa in a variety of ways. A competitive price system selects that allocation that minimizes the total production cost. It would be unnecessarily expensive to manufacture all cars in Detroit, unnecessarily expensive to grow all cars in Iowa, and unnecessarily expensive to use the two production processes in anything other than the natural ratio that emerges as a result of competition.

That means that protection for Detroit does more than just transfer income from farmers to autoworkers. It also raises the total cost of providing Americans with a given number of automobiles. The efficiency loss comes with no offsetting gain; it impoverishes the nation as a whole.

On the List of Good News Under-Reported By the Media, This is Near The Top of the List

This is really staggeringly good news.  Malaria has, through history, been one of the deadliest infectious diseases (though of late my understanding is that it has been surpassed by HIV).  One of the problems with malaria is that for every death, many more are rendered unable to work for long periods of time, a drag on productivity in economies that already have trouble producing sufficient food and other goods.

The Good and Bad of Unions

Private employees unions (I will leave out public employee unions from this discussion, as they are a different animal) enter the public discourse a lot less frequently than they did in my youth, say in the 1970's.  At that time, union power and actions and negotiations and strikes were very frequent stories on the evening news.  However, one thing I have noticed throughout my life is that commentators seems to be either all-in for or against unions.  I actually think the issues are more subtle, and that unionization is a mixed bag.

On the pro side, unions are basically free association.  It is the right of any set of individuals to band together for negotiating leverage.

On the pro and con side is the role of government.  Early on, the government acted to stop individuals from exercising their free association rights and forcibly break up unions and bar their activities.  Today, I would probably argue the government has slid the other way by writing rules to tilt negotiating power away from employers towards unions (the obvious counter to this is if it is true, why have private unions withered over the last two decades).

On the con side, and it is a big con, is the tendency of unions to push beyond just wage and working condition negotiation into advocating for productivity destroying rules (e.g. featherbedding, strict job categories, etc).  These productivity destroying rules have helped to undermine whole industries, and, ironically, the unions themselves.  They embody an inherent contradiction in that the wages gains the union wants require productivity gains to support, productivity gains which are impossible under union-preferred work rules.

Here is a great example of the negative side of these union rules, from a NYT report on why New York subways cost so much more to build than do similar projects in the rest of the world

It is not just tunneling machines that are overstaffed, though. A dozen New York unions work on tunnel creation, station erection and system setup. Each negotiates with the construction companies over labor conditions, without the M.T.A.’s involvement. And each has secured rules that contractors say require more workers than necessary.

The unions and vendors declined to release the labor deals, but The Times obtained them. Along with interviews with contractors, the documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere.

There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. An extra person is required to be present for all concrete pumping, steam fitting, sheet metal work and other tasks.

In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on the Second Avenue subway and many similar projects around the world.

That ratio does not include people who get lost in the sea of workers and get paid even though they have no apparent responsibility, as happened on East Side Access. The construction company running that project declined to comment.

The article also touches on one of my frequent themes, about why Progressives still support huge public sector payrolls when these actually reduce the government services they are passionate about:

Public officials, mired in bureaucracy, have not acted to curb the costs. The M.T.A. has not adopted best practices nor worked to increase competition in contracting, and it almost never punishes vendors for spending too much or taking too long, according to inspector general reports.

At the heart of the issue is the obscure way that construction costs are set in New York. Worker wages and labor conditions are determined through negotiations between the unions and the companies, none of whom have any incentive to control costs. The transit authority has made no attempt to intervene to contain the spending.

“It’s sad, really,” said Lok Home, owner of the Robbins Company, which manufactured much of the tunneling equipment used for East Side Access. “Because if they controlled the costs, they could do twice as many expansion projects and still have more money for maintenance.”

Uber Is About To Become A Much Worse Place To Work

Here are some cool things about working for Uber:

  • You can work any time you want, for as long as you want.  You can work from 2-4 in the morning if you like, and if there are no customers, that is your risk
  • You can work in any location you choose.  You can park at your house and sit in your living room and take any jobs that come up, and then ignore new jobs until you get back home (I actually have a neighbor who is retired who does just this, he has driven me about 6 times now).
  • The company has no productivity metrics or expectations.  As long as your driver rating is good and you follow the rules, you are fine.

All of this is going to change.  Why?  Due to lawsuits in most countries that seek to redefine Uber drivers as employees rather than contractors.  One such suit just succeeded in England:

Is Uber a taxi firm or a technology company, and are its drivers self-employed or mistreated employees? These questions are being asked of Uber the world over, and last year an employment tribunal case in the UK concluded two drivers were, in fact, entitled to minimum wage, holiday pay and other benefits. The ride-hailing service contested this potentially precedent-setting decision, as you'd expect, but today Uber lost its appeal. In other words, the appeal tribunal upheld the original ruling that drivers should be classed as workers rather than self-employed.

The appeal tribunal agreed that when a driver is logged in and waiting for a job, that's still tantamount to "working time." Working time they aren't getting paid for, of course. Interestingly, the ruling also noted that Uber basically has a monopoly on private hire via an app. Therefore, drivers are beholden to them and can't reasonably engage in other work while also being at Uber's disposal.

GMB, the union for professional drivers that's behind the original case, is calling it "a landmark victory." Naturally, the law firm representing the GMB and Uber drivers feels much the same. No points for guessing who has a slightly different opinion.

Despite Engadget's usual economic ignorance that this must be all good for drivers, in fact this is going to destroy about everything that makes Uber attractive as compared to 9-5 office jobs.  That is, if rulings like this don't kill the company entirely, as I have previously prophesied.

This is going to add a new cost for Uber, forcing them to pay money to drivers for dead time when they are not actually driving a passenger.  Let's make the reasonable assumption that Uber's first response to this is to A) stay in business and B) attempt to keep prices to customers from rising.  The only way they can do this is to minimize dead time.

Want to park at your house in an unpromising neighborhood with little business?  Forget it, Uber can't allow that in the future.  Want to work at an unproductive hour of your choosing?  Forget it.  Uber is going to have to set quotas on certain regions and hours of the day that are less productive and find a way to ban drivers from working those times.   In addition, they are likely to institute some sort of productivity metric for drivers, ie something like revenue minutes as a percent of total, and then they are going to rank all the drivers and start cutting drivers from the bottom of the list.  If Uber survives, it is going to be a very different company to work for, and is going to feel much more like a regular office job with a boss hanging around your cubicle pestering you about TPS reports.

Reversing Cause and Effect?

I hate to quibble about a paper that supports my preconceived notions, but I am bothered by this as linked by Tyler Cowen

We quantify the amount of spatial misallocation of labor across US cities and its aggregate costs. Misallocation arises because high productivity cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have adopted stringent restrictions to new housing supply, effectively limiting the number of workers who have access to such high productivity. Using a spatial equilibrium model and data from 220 metropolitan areas we find that these constraints lowered aggregate US growth by more than 50% from 1964 to 2009.

Isn’t it possible that cause and effect are being reversed here? I accept that zoning in places like SF make it more expensive. I would have concluded that this higher cost of living allows only the most productive to live there — less productive folks can’t afford it. So the high average productivity of these cities might partially be a result of their higher costs, not because the zoning somehow increases productivity, but because the zoning creates a sorting process where only the most productive may enter, which brings up the averages.  So a reduction in zoning and living costs would cause the productivity numbers for the city to average down as lower-productivity earners can move in.

What Uber Drivers Seeking Minimum Wage Are Missing

Via Engadget:

Uber drivers have won an employment tribunal case in the UK, making them entitled to holiday pay, paid rest breaks and the National Minimum Wage. The ride-hailing company has long argued that its chauffeurs are self-employed contractors, not employees; the tribunal disagreed, however, setting a major precedent for the company and its relationship with workers. GMB, the union for professional drivers in the UK, initiated the two "test cases" in July. It's described the decision as a "monumental victory" that will impact "over 30,000 drivers" in England and Wales.

"Uber drivers and thousands of others caught in the bogus self-employment trap will now enjoy the same rights as employees," Maria Ludkin, GMB's legal director said. "This outcome will be good for passengers too. Properly rewarded drivers are the same side of the coin as drivers who are properly licensed and driving well maintained and insured vehicles."

This misses a couple of things

  1. This might well kill Uber, such that the only "victory" here is that drivers have one less employment option and choice of work style.  The latter is perhaps the most important -- why does every single job have to be punch-in-punch-out with standard benefits and holidays and work hours and work rules?  Why is there no room for a diversity of work experiences from which to choose?
  2. One of the things that many Uber drivers like about Uber is that there are no set work hours or productivity expectations.  Well, that goes out the window with these rules.  Today, if Uber pays drivers only based on what they work, they don't really care how hard they work or how many jobs they take or where they choose to cruise or even if they choose to cruise at unproductive hours, like 5AM.  Currently, if you want to drive back and forth on a country lane at 4:30AM waiting for a fare, you can go for it -- you are taking the risk.  But if the company is paying minimum wage per hour, everything changes.  Suddenly they must now demand minimum productivity expectations, which will include limits on working in unproductive locations or at unproductive hours.  The company will start to rank drivers and cut the lowest productivity / lowest activity ones.

I went into these issues in more depth here.

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.

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.

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....

It's 2016 And Microsoft STILL Can't Do Bulleted Lists in Word Correctly

I am just staggered.  I am trying to create and edit a simple 2 level  (e.g. 1-a-b-c-2-3-4-a-b-5) etc. list in Microsoft Word and the bulleting STILL does not work right after, what, at least 10 major versions of the software?  Microsoft spends like a million man-hours screwing with the user interface so I constantly have to waste time hunting around looking for options like footer editing but they can't fix bullet points.  This is just unbelievably stupid.  No wonder productivity growth has flattened in this country -- MS Office is single-handedly trying to reduce it for everyone.

If you have worked with a law firm lately, you may well have found one still using Word Perfect.  Don't remember Word Perfect?  Beyond their being the king of the cntl-right shift-j style of commands, the one thing they could do even 20 years ago was manage a hierarchical list without making a total mess.

More Evidence Against My Least Favorite Legislation of the 20th Century

I have written about the National Industrial Recovery Act many times, a love-note from FDR to Mussolini's fascist economic system that was thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court.  Its intent was to make the corporate-crony state the default economic system of the US.

Essentially, the NIRA cartelized the US economy, creating government-sponsored cartels in every industry that would set prices and wages as well as output and quality.  You can imagine exactly how well upstart competitors would have fared under this system.  I am pretty sure, for example, that the government mainframe cartel would never have let apply, or even DEC, see the light of day.

Now, a couple of academics have laid the blame for the long duration of the Great Depression at the NIRA's doorstep.

"President Roosevelt believed that excessive competition was responsible for the Depression by reducing prices and wages, and by extension reducing employment and demand for goods and services," said Cole, also a UCLA professor of economics. "So he came up with a recovery package that would be unimaginable today, allowing businesses in every industry to collude without the threat of antitrust prosecution and workers to demand salaries about 25 percent above where they ought to have been, given market forces. The economy was poised for a beautiful recovery, but that recovery was stalled by these misguided policies."

Using data collected in 1929 by the Conference Board and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cole and Ohanian were able to establish average wages and prices across a range of industries just prior to the Depression. By adjusting for annual increases in productivity, they were able to use the 1929 benchmark to figure out what prices and wages would have been during every year of the Depression had Roosevelt's policies not gone into effect. They then compared those figures with actual prices and wages as reflected in the Conference Board data.
In the three years following the implementation of Roosevelt's policies, wages in 11 key industries averaged 25 percent higher than they otherwise would have done, the economists calculate. But unemployment was also 25 percent higher than it should have been, given gains in productivity.

Meanwhile, prices across 19 industries averaged 23 percent above where they should have been, given the state of the economy. With goods and services that much harder for consumers to afford, demand stalled and the gross national product floundered at 27 percent below where it otherwise might have been.

"High wages and high prices in an economic slump run contrary to everything we know about market forces in economic downturns," Ohanian said. "As we've seen in the past several years, salaries and prices fall when unemployment is high. By artificially inflating both, the New Deal policies short-circuited the market's self-correcting forces."

The policies were contained in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which exempted industries from antitrust prosecution if they agreed to enter into collective bargaining agreements that significantly raised wages. Because protection from antitrust prosecution all but ensured higher prices for goods and services, a wide range of industries took the bait, Cole and Ohanian found. By 1934 more than 500 industries, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of private, non-agricultural employment, had entered into the collective bargaining agreements called for under NIRA.

Hmm.  Certainly wages and prices are going to be especially "sticky" if the government creates cartels to keep them that way.

Arizona Near Last in Local Food Consumption -- Good!

Our local fishwrap laments:

The local food movement in Arizona needs just that – movement.

While some shoppers enjoy spending their Saturday mornings at local farmers markets, new research indicates Arizona lacks per-capita sales in the local food industry.

The 2015 Locavore Index found that of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., Arizona has the second lowest per-capita sales for local foods.

Here is a scoop for you:  We live in the middle of the freaking Sonoran desert.   It is a terrible place to grow most foods.  In fact, it is an environmentally awful place to grow food.   Local food folks somehow have gotten locked into transportation costs as the key driver of food sustainability that they want to focus on, but transportation costs are 10% or less of most food costs.  A small savings on transportation is absolutely dwarfed, from a productivity and resource use standpoint, by the productivity of the soil and the fit of the climate with whatever is being grown.

Here is one way to think of it -- yes, locally grown food may not have to be transported very far, but every drop of water for food grown here in the Phoenix area has to be brought hundreds of miles from declining reservoirs to grow that food.

The movement seems to imply that locally grown food is more healthy.  Why?  Why is an Arizona tomato healthier than a California tomato?

Finally, the micro-trade-protectionism is pretty funny:

If local Arizonans start buying more local food, the economy may benefit as well.

When buying local grown food, “the money stays here in the local economy, as opposed to buying something in a national chain,” said R.J. Johnson, a sales representative for Blue Sky Organic Farms in Litchfield Park. “You buy something locally, 75 percent of that money stays here in town.”

This is so economically ignorant as to be beyond belief.  If more people are growing food here locally (something that is likely a fairly unproductive task given our climate), what productive tasks are they giving up.  And this is a national effort -- are they really with a straight face telling every single state that they should buy more locally so their money stays at home?  Isn't that just one big zero sum game (actually a negative sum game because you lose benefits of specialization and comparative advantage).

A Fundamental Shift in the Economy, At Least for Entrepreneurs and Small Business

When politicians argue about small business growth, they argue about stuff like taxes and access to capital and, god help me, completely irreverent (to small business) stuff like the ExIm Bank.

I would argue that there has been a fundamental shift in the economy relative to small business over the last four years, but it has nothing to do with any of that stuff.  I would summarize this shift as follows:

Ten years ago, most of my company's free capacity was used to pursue growth opportunities and refine operations.  Over the last four years or so, all of our free capacity has been spent solely on compliance.

Let me step back and define some terms.  What do I mean by "free capacity?"  In a small, privately-held company, almost all the improvement initiatives spring from the head of, or must heavily involve, the owner.  That would be me.  I have some very capable staff, but when we do something new, it generally starts with me.

So OK, our free capacity is somewhat limited by my personal capacity as owner and President.   But actually, I have a head full of ideas for improving the company.  I'd like to do some new things with training that takes advantage of streaming video.  I'd like to add some customer service screening to our application process.  But my time turns out not to be the only limit -- and this is one of those things that HBS definitely did not teach me.

In the real world, there are only so many new things I can introduce and train my line managers to do, and that they can then pass down to their folks.  An organization can only accept a limited amount of new things (while still doing the old things well).  This is what I mean by "free capacity"  -- the ability to digest new things.

Over the last four years or so we have spent all of this capacity on complying with government rules.  No capacity has been left over to do other new things.  Here are just a few of the things we have been spending time on:

  • Because no insurance company has been willing to write coverage for our employees (older people working seasonally) we were forced to try to shift scores of employees from full-time to part-time work to avoid Obamacare penalties that would have been larger than our annual profits.  This took a lot of new processes and retraining and new hiring to make work.  And we are still not done, because we have to get down another 30 or so full-time workers for next year
  • The local minimum wage movement has forced us to rethink our whole labor system to deal with rising minimum wages.  Also, since we must go through a time-consuming process to get the government agencies we work with to approve pricing and fee changes, we have had to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying price increases to cover these mandated increases in our labor costs.  This will just accelerate in the future, as the President's contractor minimum wage order is, in some places, forcing us to raise camping prices by an astounding 20%.
  • Several states have mandated we use e-Verify on all new employees, which is an incredibly time-consuming addition to our hiring process
  • In fact, the proliferation of employee hiring documentation requirements has forced us through two separate iterations of a hiring document tracking and management system
  • The California legislature can be thought of as an incredibly efficient machine for creating huge masses of compliance work.    We have to have a whole system to make sure our employees don't work over their meal breaks.  We have to have detailed processes in place for hot days.  We have to have exactly the right kinds of chairs for our employees.  We have to put together complicated shifts to meet California's much tougher overtime rules.  Just this past year, we had to put in a system for keeping track of paid sick days earned by employees.  We have two employee manuals:  one for most of the country and one just for California and all its requirements (it has something like 27 flavors of mandatory leave employers must grant).  The list goes on and on.  So much so that in addition to all the compliance work, we also spent a lot of work shutting down every operation of ours in California, narrowing down to just 3 contracts today.  There has been one time savings though -- we never look at any new business opportunities in CA because we have no desire to add exposure to that state.

Does any of this add value?  Well, I suppose if you are one who considers it more important that companies make absolutely sure they offer time off to stalking victims in California than focus on productivity, you are going to be very happy with what we have been working on.  Otherwise....

I fully understand the dangers of extrapolating from one data point**, but for folks who are scratching their head over recent plateauing of productivity gains and reduced small business origination numbers, you might look in this direction.

By the way, it strikes me that regulatory compliance issues set a minimum size for business viability.  You have to be large enough to cover those compliance issues and still make money.  What I see happening is that as new compliance issues are layered on, that minimum size rises, like a rising tide slowly drowning companies not large enough to keep their head above water.  We are keeping up, but at times it feels like the water is lapping at our chin.

 

**Unrelated Postscript:  I have found that in the current media/political world, people love to have only one data point.  Why?  Well, with two data points you are are stuck with the line those points define.  With just one, you can draw any line you want in any direction with any slope.

Further Thoughts on Immigration -- Why Invoking the Romans to Justify Immigration Restrictions is Dead Wrong

One of the reasons, I think, that we struggle so much with the immigration question is that we really only have two options to offer -- not letting people in, or giving them close to full citizenship rights.  I think we would have the same debates on whether we should let people drive if the only two speeds a car could go were zero and 90 MPH.

For most of the people who are trying to get into this country illegally, the issue is not necessarily that they want full citizenship -- they just want to be present.  They want to be able to live, and drive, and accept employment.   While they would like it, they don't necessarily need to vote or be eligible for social security disability payments.   We need new statuses that allow for presence and productivity but are short of full citizenship.

In this sense, I think many Conservatives are 180 degrees wrong when they invoke the experience of the Roman Empire.  The modern argument is that the Romans are an example of what happens when you allow yourself to be overwhelmed by "barbarians" from the outside.  But in fact, I have argued many times that the real Roman failure was that they lost their early ability to flexibly absorb people of other cultures.  Here is what I wrote in my take on five reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire:

3.   The Romans lost their ability to be innovative in including new peoples in their Empire.  The Romans had a bewildering array of citizenship and tax statuses for different peoples who joined or were conquered by the empire.  For hundreds of years, this innovation was hugely successful.   But by the 4th and 5th centuries they seemed to have lost the trick.  The evidence for this is that they could have solved multiple problems -- the barbarians at the gates and the abandonment of farm land and the need for more soldiers -- by finding a way to settle barbarians on empty farm land.  This is in fact exactly what the barbarians wanted.  That is why I do not include the barbarian invasions as one of my five, because it did not have to be barbarian invasions, it could have been barbarian immigration.  Gibson's thesis was that Christianity killed the Roman Empire by making it "soft".  I don't buy that, but it may have been that substituting the Romans' earlier incredible tolerance for other religions in their Pagan period with a more intolerant version of Christianity contributed to this loss of flexibility.

And if you really want a modern parallel with the fall of the (western) Roman Empire, try this other point I made:

4.   Hand in hand with #3, the Roman economy became sclerotic.  This was the legacy of Diocletian and Constantine, who restructured the empire to survive several centuries more but at the cost of at least an order of magnitude more state control in every aspect of society.  Diocletian's edict of maximum prices is the best known such regulation, but in fact he fixed most every family into their then-current trades and insisted the family perform the same economic functions in all future generations.  Essentially, it was Ayn Rand's directive 10-289 for the ancient world, and the only reason these laws were not more destructive is that the information and communication technologies of the time did not allow for very careful enforcement.

The Utter Economic Ignorance of Tech Web Sites

Despite my advancing years, I still like to stay on the bleeding edge of tech, at least tech gadgets (in fact I would argue that I am of an age I have a hard time taking anyone seriously who calls themselves a hard-core programmer that hasn't had to write in assembly language, as I did back in college).

So I enjoy having 20-something's regale me on new tech goodies at sites like Gizmodo and Engadget.  But a running theme through all these sites is their shocking economic ignorance.  A good example was yesterday at Engadget with Sean Buckley writing on a decision in California to declare Uber drivers as employees of Uber rather than independent contractors.  Months ago I described a similar decision as signalling the death of Uber.  Buckley writes: (my emphasis added)

If you ask Uber, none of their drivers are employees -- just independent contractors who happen to use their network to get fares. If you've been watching the news though, you know some drivers disagree: filing lawsuits both in California and the UK for the right to be recognized as employees. Those drivers just got some vindication, by way of the California unemployment office. According to the Employment Development Department, at least one former Uber driver qualifies for unemployment benefits.

According to Reuters, the EDD decided that a former Uber driver in southern California was an employee; the decision was held up twice by a administrative law judge when Uber appealed. Apparently, Uber's control over the driver was a deciding factor -- the company gets to define fares, bar drivers from picking non-Uber passengers and can even charge drivers a cancellation fee for choosing not to pick up a fare. That's "in fact an employer / employee relationship," according to the decision.

Uber says this ruling doesn't have any impact on pending litigation, but it's certainly a feather in the hat of drivers who want a more traditional relationship with the company. We'll have to wait and see how that turns out as the class-action lawsuit moves forward.

I won't repeat what I wrote here, but suffice it to say that I think Uber is a dead duck in the long run if forced to treat drivers as employees.

The amazing line to me is the highlighted one.  What gives the author confidence that most Uber drivers "want a more traditional relationship with the company."  Is that what you want, more timeclock-punching and 100-page employee manuals?  My experience is that most Uber drivers value the fact that it is not a traditional job environment, and gives them a ton of flexibility on work hours, productivity rates, etc.    And why, by the way, is it assumed that every job must offer the same kind of employment relationship?  If someone doesn't like Uber, there are plenty of companies that will happily treat them like a mindless drone if that is what they like rather than being treated as an independent actor.

By the way, beyond the economic and liberty issues involved, I also think the California decision is just plain wrong in terms of the control Uber exercises.  Sure Uber sets standards for its drivers, but everyone does that for their contractors.  They key thing it does not do is set work hours and productivity rates.  They don't care when you work and they don't care how many passengers you carry in an hour, because you just get paid when you drive a customer.  Can you imagine a company that doesn't care when its employees show up for work or how hard they work when they do show up?  Neither can I, which tells me that this is NOT an employer-employee relationship.

Remember the conversation a few weeks ago over the NY Times article that tried to make Amazon out to be some kind of employer ogre because it sets tough productivity standards for employees?  That is what companies do when they have to pay by the hour (which is essentially how all employees, especially after Obama's most recent changes, must be paid).  So if you don't like companies that set tough productivity standards for workers, then why are you trying to kill labor models that don't require those kinds of standards?

Cargo Cult Regulation -- How Much Effect Did Card and Krueger Have on New York's Fast Food Minimum Wage Ruling?

New York is proposing a $15 minimum wage for any fast-food restaurants that are part of a national chain with 30 or more stores.  How this survives any sort of equal protection test is beyond me -- if I own a restaurant and call it "coyote's place" I don't have to pay $15, but if I own a single restaurant where I pay franchise fees to McDonald's, I do.

Let's leave the inevitable court challenges on fairness aside.  Of all the possible industries, I wonder why the focus on just fast food and on just large franchises.  Some of it is obviously mindless Progressive soak the rich thinking, and some of it is a liberal distaste for any foods that are not kale.  Is it just because the fast food workers have been the most vocal?  If so, that is pretty lame the the government is merely focusing on the squeaky wheel, a real indictment of any pretensions technocratic politicians have to legislating intelligently.

But I wonder if it is something else.  Pick a progressive on the street, and in the unlikely event they can name any economic study, that study will probably be Card and Krueger's study of the effect of a minimum wage increase in New Jersey.   Sixty bazillion studies have confirmed what most of us know in our bones to be true, that raising the price of labor decreases demand for that labor.  Card and Krueger said it did not -- and that a minimum wage increase may have even increased demand for labor -- which pretty much has made it the economic bible of the Progressive Left.

What intrigues me is that Card and Krueger specifically looked at the effect of the minimum wage on large chain fast food stores.  In this study (I will explain the likely reason in a moment) they found that when the minimum wage increased for all businesses in New Jersey, the employment at large chain fast food restaurants went up.

So I wonder if the Progressives making this ruling in New York thought to themselves -- "we want to raise the minimum wage.  Well, the one place where we KNOW it will have no negative effect from Card and Krueger is on large fast food chains, so...."

By the way, there are a lot of critiques of Card & Krueger's study.  The most powerful in my mind is that when a minimum wage is raised, often the largest volume and highest productivity companies in any given business will absorb it the best.  One explanation of the Card & Krueger result is that the minimum wage slammed employment in small ma and pa restaurants, driving business to the larger volume restaurants and chains.  As a whole, in this theory, the industry saw a net loss in employment and a shift in employment from smaller to larger firms.  By measuring only the effect on larger firms, Card and Krueger completely missed what was going on.

Even Vox Can't Make A Very Strong Case For Streetcars

A reader sent me a link to this Vox article on streetcars.  What I thought was interesting is just how weak the case for streetcars is, even when made by folks are are presumably sympathetic to them.  This page is entitled "Why do cities want streeetcars."  The arguments are:

  • Tourists like them, because you can't get lost like you can on buses.  My response is, "so what."  Unless you are one of a very few unique cities, tourists are a trivial percentage of transit riders anyway.  Why build a huge system just to serve out-of-town visitors?  I would add that many of these same cities (e.g. Las Vegas) considering streetcars are the same ones banning Uber, which tourists REALLY love.
  • Developers like them.  Ahh, now we are getting somewhere.  So they are corporate welfare?  But not so fast, they are not even very good corporate welfare.  Because most of the studies they cite are total BS, of the same quality as studies that say sports stadium construction spurs all sorts of business.  In fact, most cities have linked huge tax abatement and subsidy programs to their streetcars, such that the development you get with the subsidy and the streetcar is about what you would expect from the subsidies alone.  Reminds me of the old joke that mimicked cereal commercials: "As part of a breakfast with juice, toast, and milk, Trix cereal has all the nutrition of juice, toast, and milk."
  • Good for the environment.  But even Vox asks, "as compared to what."  Since they are generally an alternative buses, as compared to buses that have little environmental advantage and often are worse (they have a lot more weight to drag around when empty).
  • The Obama Administration likes them.  LOL, that's a recommendation?  When you read the text, what they actually say is that mayors like the fact that the Obama Administration likes them, for it means the Feds will throw lots of Federal money at these projects to help mayors look good using other peoples' money
  • Jobs.  This is hilarious Keynesianism, trying to make the fact that streetcars are 10-100x more expensive than buses some sort of positive.  Because they are more inefficient, they employ more people!  One could make the exact same argument for banning mechanical harvesters and going back to scythes.   Left unquestioned, as Bastiat would tell us, is how many people that money would have employed if it had not been seized by the government for streetcar use.
  • Je ne sais quoi.  I kid you not, that is their final argument, that streetcars add that special something to a neighborhood.  In my mind, this is Vox's way of saying the same thing I did the other day -- that the streetcar's appeal is primarily based on class, in that middle and upper class folks don't want to ride on a bus with the masses.   The streetcar feels more upscale than buses.   The poor of course, for whom public transit is most vital, don't want to pay 10 times more for sexiness.  Oh, and watch this video of Washington streetcars blocking traffic and crunching parked cars and tell me what it is adding to the neighborhood.

Every argument I have ever been in on streetcars always boils down to something like "well, all the cool kids like them."  Once, after defending the US approach to rail (vs. Europe and Japan) as (correctly) focusing on productivity vs. sexiness, having gone into a lot of detail on the economics of freight vs. passengers, I got a one sentence answer from Joel Epstein of the HuffPo:  “You should get out of the country more often.”  That was it -- the cool cosmopolitan kids who vacation in Gstaad but never would be caught dead driving across Nebraska were all against me.

Obama's New Wage and Hour Laws Worse For Our Company Than Rising Minimum Wages

Rising minimum wages are bad enough, but generally we can offset them with price increases (remember that, though, next time you get ticked off about your camping fees going up).  As an aside, not every business is in a competitive position that they can do this.

But the new Obama Administration rules greatly scaling back on our ability to have our managers be exempt employees is far, far worse.  Because its not just money, but it changes the entire relationship between me and my managers.  Most of my managers don't want to be hourly employees (you should see the complaint emails I am getting since I announced that this is likely coming) and have pride they have moved beyond timeclock punching.  Also, I think a lot understand they are not going to make more from this, and they may even make less.  To the extent they are working overtime today (and they all are) they will not be allowed to work overtime in the future.  So I will have to hire someone else to do those extra tasks, and that person's salary is likely to come in part from what the managers are making now.

These next few months I am having all of my salaried managers fill out time sheets just for analytical purposes.  I need to know how bad this is going to be.  If you run a business, you shouldn't be waiting for next year to do something, you need to be thinking and analyzing right now how you are going to handle these rules.

I wrote a long article on this here.  Stephen Miller has more in the same vein (via Overlawyered great wage and hour news roundup).  Here is a taste:

In McCutchen's view, the administration fails to understand that "it's still the same pot of money that's available to compensate the employee," whether a worker is classified as exempt or nonexempt. So if overtime pay is required, a likely result will be to strictly limit overtime hours worked, despite the adverse effect on productivity, rather than—as the administration expects—to increase the employee's annual compensation.

While many non-executive employees view themselves as professionals and react negatively when shifted to hourly compensation, "the DOL wants nearly everyone to be nonexempt, and to sign in and clock out as do unionized workers," McCutchen contended. "They don't believe that some employees prefer to be salaried, with guaranteed pay and the flexibility to adjust when they do their work."

Postscript:  I guess I just don't understand the vision that is in the head of Progressives.  How does it help their stated goal of empowering the average Joe to convert him from a valued, up-and-coming junior manager to a 40 hour a week timeclock puncher?  How will people ever be able to migrate from lower end jobs to management positions if there are not junior manager positions in which they can demonstrate their energy and dedication?  I suppose they must believe that junior managers will still be doing the same things and working the same hours, but just earning lots of extra overtime with these new rules.  If that is really what they think, they are completely divorced from reality.

CA Labor Commission Has Just Killed Uber, Though It May Take Years to Bleed Out

A while back I wrote a long article about all the ways the government is making it nearly impossible to employ low-skilled labor.  I worried that because it is getting harder and harder to profitably employ low-skill labor, the country would soon sort itself into those with skills and jobs and those on government assistance, with little or no opportunity for people in the second category to move to the first.

As part of that article, I observed that much of the capital in this country is flowing to new business models that use minimal numbers of employees.  I wrote:

Is it any surprise that most entrepreneurs are pursuing business models where they leverage revenues via technology and a relatively small, high-skill workforce?  Uber and Lyft at first seem to buck this trend, with their thousands of drivers.  But in fact they prove the rule.  Uber and Lyft are very very careful to define themselves and their service in a way that all those drivers don't work for them.  I would go so far to say that if Uber were forced to actually put all of those drivers on their payroll, and deal with they myriad of labor compliance issues, their model would fall apart.

Well, we are going to find out if my last statement is true.

The California labor commission has ruled that an Uber driver qualifies as an employee, not a contractor, of the company.  As a result Uber will have to reimburse a driver for expenses accumulated in the line of duty. That includes $256 in tolls and the IRS rate of $0.56 per mile for use of a personal vehicle for business purposes.

The actual issue in this case of reimbursement of expenses is pretty narrow, and actually kind of stupid.  Uber is already paying drivers effectively by the mile by giving them a percentage of the mileage-based fee customers pay.  All this will do is cause Uber to reduce the share of revenues drivers get by something like 56 cents a mile and then hand the $0.56 to them in a separate check.  Its an extra accounting and paperwork hassle, but business people deal with mitigating such government-imposed stupidity 10 times a day.

No, the real danger of this ruling lies far beyond expense reimbursement.  A few top of head thoughts

  • This would obviously make Uber drivers subject to minimum wage.  How does one even figure that out?  Now that there are local minimum wages (e.g. LA soon to be $15 an hour) how do you compute minimum wage for a trip that begins outside of LA but ends inside the city?  Or vice versa?
  • Uber drivers currently only get paid for transporting passengers, but what about their time driving around waiting for a passenger?  Will that be classified as standby time for which the employer must pay for?  You can expect the standby time class action in California in 3..2..1..
  • This changes the whole relationship between Uber and its drivers.  Currently, Uber does not have to worry about driver productivity or work ethic, as long as they get good customer ratings when they do drive. Why?  Because Uber is not paying them except when they haul a passenger.  Now, if they have to pay them by the hour, Uber suddenly must police them for productivity and set minimum revenue generation targets for drivers.  The flexibility that drivers love will be gone.
  • And then there is Obamacare.  If drivers drive more than 29 hours a week, Uber would have to provide health care or pay really expensive penalties.  Will Uber find it necessary, as my company has and many other service businesses have, to cap driver hours at 29 hours a week max?
  • What about California break law?  Employers have an affirmative duty to make sure employees take a 30 minute unpaid meal break after X hours.  And just allowing for it (ie allowing drivers to put themselves in unavailable status) is not enough - employers have to have processes and documentation in place to make sure the employee takes their break (I kid you not).
  • What about CalOSHA?  Is Uber suddenly responsible for working conditions and safety in the vehicle?  And how does it do that if it does not own the vehicle?
  • Every employee is essentially his or her own manager.  Does that now make Uber subject to ensuring every driver has all state-mandated manager training, such as sexual harassment training?
  • Employers are typically liable for actions by their employees, even if those employees are breaking the rules and ignoring the employer's wishes.  Is Uber now liable for a driver who, say, verbally harasses a passenger?  In the past, that gets sorted out pretty fast by the rating system, but does Uber have to take a more direct hand now do avoid a deluge of lawsuits?
  • As of July 1, California employers must provide paid sick leave to employees.  They must provide unpaid leave under the family and medical leave acts.  In fact, California requires employers provide and track literally dozens of forms of mandatory paid and unpaid leave (including leave for victims of stalkers, just as one example of the scope of these requirements)
  • The taxes and required fees owed by employers for each employee are myriad.  State and Federal income tax must be withheld, Social Security and Medicare taxes paid, California state disability tax paid, unemployment tax paid, and workers compensation premiums paid.
  • Unemployment could be real nightmare.  Can drivers choose to drive for a while, then take unemployment for a while, maybe while tourist season in San Francisco is slow, then go back to driving?  You think that can't happen?  A number of my seasonal employees work in the summer, then take unemployment all winter despite having no intention of trying to find work in the winter.  I pay 7% of wages in California as unemployment taxes and would pay more except that scale is capped and I can't get in a worse category than my current F-.
  • Then there are a myriad of smaller issues that probably can be solved but consume bandwidth of a company's management that would otherwise be innovating.  As one small example, one has to post about 20 different state and Federal labor posters in CA where all employees can see them.  Where would that be for Uber drivers?

We Still Haven't Figured Out How to Measure Prosperity

The previous chart on beer availability reminds me of an issue I have been thinking about for a while -- that we do no know how to measure prosperity.

GDP growth and unemployment reduction are terrible measures.  Just to give one example, these measures looked fabulous in WWII.  But the average person living in the US had access to almost nothing -- they couldn't buy anything under rationing, they couldn't travel for leisure, etc.   GDP looked great because we were building stuff and then blowing it up, the economic equivilent of digging a hole and filling it in (but worse, because people were dying).  And unemployment looked great because we had drafted everyone and sent them off to get shot.

But median income and net worth numbers fail to measure prosperity as well.  The reason was described in this post here way back in 2007.

The home on the left was owned by Mark Hopkins, railroad millionaire and one of the most powerful men of his age in California.  Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people's access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin's business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

How do we take into account that even if a person has the same income as someone in 1952, they are effectively wealthier in many ways due to access to medical procedures, travel, entertainment, electronic devices, etc?

Somehow we need to measure consumer capability -- not just how much raw money one has but what can one do with the money?  What is the horizon of possibilities?  Deirdre McCloskey tends to eschew the term capitalism in favor of "market-tested innovation."  I think that is a pretty powerful description of our system.  But if it is, we really are only measuring the impact of productivity and cost-reduction innovations.  How do we measure the wealth impact of consumer-empowerment innovations like iPhones?  Essentially, we don't.  Which, by the way, may be one reason our current crappy metrics say we have growing income inequality.  With our current metrics, Steve Jobs' increase in wealth is noted in the metrics, but the metrics don't show the rest of us getting any wealthier by the fact that we can now have iPhones (or the myriad of competitors the iPhone spawned).  The consumer surplus from iPhones undoubtedly dwarfs the money Jobs made, but it doesn't show up in any wealth calculations.

A few years ago I told a youth group that there were still many things left to discover in the mundane world -- by this I meant the everyday world we encounter and not just at the limits of the universe or at the scale of quarks.  The example I gave at the time is that there is a lot of room for better techniques to tease out causality in complex systems -- e.g. how much did the stimulus really affect the economy or how much does CO2 really affect temperatures.  I would add this question of measuring prosperity as a second item in this category.

Worst Argument for Regulation Ever

We generally use startup activity as a proxy for positive innovation and future increases in productivity and consumer value.  But it is only a proxy - based on the theory that in a free economy new startups generally add new value or die.  Startups per se are not inherently positive, especially when all they are doing is fixing the inefficiencies and mandates imposed by government regulation

I wrote about a new study suggesting that new federal regulation doesn't inhibit the creation of new startup companies in an industry. In fact, it might actually stimulate the creation of startups. This seems counterintuitive, but a reader with some experience in the education and health care sectors—which were influenced by NCLB and Obamacare, respectively—proposes an explanation for this:

Healthcare startups have absolutely exploded post-ACA....This was pretty well anticipated by venture capital; a bunch of Sand Hill firms started putting together ad-hoc health IT teams shortly after the ACA was passed, on the basic logic that anything that changed an industry as much as the ACA did would necessarily create a lot of startup opportunities.

Drum says, well this may be good or may be bad.  Look, it HAS to be bad.  All this investment and activity is going into trying to get back to even from productivity losses imposed by the government, or is being spent addressing government mandates for new services that the market did not want or value.  This is a diversion of resources from new value-creation to fixing things, and as such is just the broken windows fallacy re-written in a new form.

The language he is using, of shaking things up, is a bit like that of chemistry.  He seems to imagine that markets can reach and get stuck in local maxima, so that government action that shakes the system out of these maxima (like annealing in a metal) is positive in that it allows the system to progress to a better state over time even if the government's action initially makes things worse.  I know of absolutely no evidence for this being true, and my strong suspicion given how many industries the government has trashed is that this is rare or non-existent.  And impossible to spot, even if it did exist.  Not to mention the fact it is a total joke to talk of health care as if it was some pristine untouched-by-government industry before Obamacare.

Scott Sumner Explains a Lot of Climate Alarmism, Without Discussing Climate

Scott Sumner is actually discussing discrimination, and how discrimination is often "proven" in social studies

The economy operates in very subtle ways, and often when I read academic studies of issues like discrimination, the techniques seem incredibly naive to me. They might put in all the attributes of male and female labor productivity they can think of, and then simply assume than any unexplained residual must be due to "discrimination." And they do this in cases where there is no obvious reason to assume discrimination. It would be like a scientist assuming that magicians created a white rabbit out of thin air, at the snap of their fingers, because they can't think of any other explanation of how it got into the black hat!

Most alarming climate forecasts are based on the period from 1978 to 1998.  During this 20 year period world temperatures rose about a half degree C.  People may say they are talking about temperature increases since 1950, but most if not all of those increases occurred from 1978-1998.  Temperatures were mostly flat or down before and since.

A key, if not the key, argument for CO2-driven catastrophic warming that is based on actual historic data (rather than on theory or models) is that temperatures rose in this 20 year period farther and faster than would be possible by any natural causes, and thus must have been driven by man-made CO2.  Essentially what scientists said was, "we have considered every possible natural cause of warming that we can think of, and these are not enough to cause this warming, so the warming must be unnatural."  I was struck just how similar this process was to what Mr. Sumner describes.  Most skeptics, by the way, agree that some of this warming may have been driven by manmade CO2 but at the same time argue that there were many potential natural effects (e.g. ocean cycles) that were not considered in this original analysis.