Posts tagged ‘unemployment’

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.

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....

Cargo Cult Economics And Why We Should Stop Fetishizing Home Ownership

I have always thought that government policy to encourage home ownership was  counter-productive, even beyond its role in creating bubbles.  My sense is that those who advocate for such programs are engaging in what I call cargo cult economics.

Once upon a time, government officials decided it would help them keep their jobs if they could claim they had expanded the middle class.  Unfortunately, none of them really understood economics or even the historical factors that led to the emergence of the middle class in the first place.  But they did know two things:  Middle class people tended to own their own homes, and they sent their kids to college.

So in true cargo cult fashion, they decided to increase the middle class by promoting these markers of being middle class [without any consideration of which direction the arrow of causation ran].  They threw the Federal government strongly behind promoting home ownership and college education.  A large part of this effort entailed offering easy debt financing for housing and education.

I tend to be a lone voice in the wilderness on this (even those who oppose government programs for libertarian reasons often tend to fetishize home ownership).  But Ike Brannon at Alt-M seems to agree:

The pro-home-building folks aver that homeownership fosters civic involvement and helps people become more tied to their community, which encourages other behavior beneficial for the economy.  And for a good proportion of homeowners the majority of their net wealth is in their home, so it can be an important source of savings.

But another way to look at it is that correlation is not causation:  The reason that homeowners are more civic-minded and involved in the community is because such people are much more likely to have the wherewithal to save enough to make a downpayment on a house.  Ed Glaeser, the renowned housing economist from Harvard, puts little stock in the notion that homeownership has significant positive societal externalities.

What's more, there's some evidence that high homeownership rates have downsides as well.  In the last four decades the predilection for moving has slowed significantly:  only half as many people moved across state or county lines in any year this decade as was the case in the 1950s, for instance.  This is problematic because it means that our economy is worse at matching up workers with where the available jobs are.  The lingering unemployment in many rust-belt states would be less if some of their unemployed could be persuaded to move to another community where there are jobs.  There has been a decades-long move of people from the midwest to the Sunbelt, of course, but the data suggest there's ample room for more.  This hasn't happened in part because people are tied down by the homes that they own and are reluctant to sell while they are underwater.  That people are unable to ignore sunk costs isn't economically rational, of course, but it nevertheless governs how many people consider whether to move.

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.

Early Progressive, Race-Based Rational for the Minimum Wage

From the same article, From Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard, that I quoted in a recent post on immigration comes this bit as well (emphasis added):

Progressive economists, like their neoclassical critics, believed that binding minimum wages would cause job losses. However, the progressive economists also believed that the job loss induced by minimum wages was a social benefit, as it 212 Journal of Economic Perspectives performed the eugenic service ridding the labor force of the “unemployable.” Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1897 [1920], p. 785) put it plainly: “With regard to certain sections of the population [the “unemployable”], this unemployment is not a mark of social disease, but actually of social health.” “[O]f all ways of dealing with these unfortunate parasites,” Sidney Webb (1912, p. 992) opined in the Journal of Political Economy, “the most ruinous to the community is to allow them to unrestrainedly compete as wage earners.” A minimum wage was seen to operate eugenically through two channels: by deterring prospective immigrants (Henderson, 1900) and also by removing from employment the “unemployable,” who, thus identified, could be, for example, segregated in rural communities or sterilized.

The notion that minimum-wage induced disemployment is a social benefit distinguishes its progressive proponents from their neoclassical critics, such as Alfred Marshall (1897), Philip Wicksteed (1913), A. C. Pigou (1913) and John Bates Clark (1913), who regarded job loss as a social cost of minimum wages, not as a putative social benefit (Leonard, 2000).

Columbia’s Henry Rogers Seager, a leading progressive economist who served as president of the AEA in 1922, provides an example. Worthy wage-earners, Seager (1913a, p. 12) argued, need protection from the “wearing competition of the casual worker and the drifter” and from the other “unemployable” who unfairly drag down the wages of more deserving workers (1913b, pp. 82–83). The minimum wage protects deserving workers from the competition of the unfit by making it illegal to work for less. Seager (1913a, p. 9) wrote: “The operation of the minimum wage requirement would merely extend the definition of defectives to embrace all individuals, who even after having received special training, remain incapable of adequate self-support.” Seager (p. 10) made clear what should happen to those who, even after remedial training, could not earn the legal minimum: “If we are to maintain a race that is to be made of up of capable, efficient and independent individuals and family groups we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization . . . .”

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?

Me Then, Hillary Now: Progressives Are Too Conservative to Accept Capitalism

Coyote, in Forbes, December 2010 (excerpts):

My contention is that what drives most progressives, at a very fundamental level, is a deep conservatism.  Of course, most “progressives” would freak if they were called conservative, but what I mean by conservative in this context is not donate-to-Jesse-Helms capital-C Conservative but fearful of change and uncomfortable with uncertainty conservative.

Because capitalism is based so completely on individual decision-making, because its operation is inherently chaotic, and because its rewards can’t possibly be divided equally and still be “rewards”, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with it.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture at being “dynamic”, it turns out that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  Which is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave..

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country’s economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our notion of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it....

I am sure, if asked, most  progressives would profess to desire iPod’s and cures for cancer.  But they want these without the incentives that drive men to invent them, and the disruption to current markets and competitors and employees that their introduction entails.  They want to end poverty without wealth creation, they want jobs without employers, they want cars without unemployment for buggy whip makers.

Hillary Clinton in July, 2015:  via Instapundit

In her first major economic policy address of the 2016 campaign, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton raised questions about the effect that companies like Uber and Airbnb are having on American workers. . . .

Later in the speech, Clinton vowed to “crack down on bosses who exploit employees by misclassifying them as contractors” — a possible reference to something like the recent California Labor Commission decision that threatens to undermine Uber’s business model.

To be sure, Clinton does not want to destroy the sharing economy. She acknowledged that “these trends are real” and “none is going away.” But she may believe that, with the right application of political muscle, the new economy can be forced to conform with the antiquated blue social model — that is, the midcentury vision of steady, regulated, unionized employment with generous benefits.

As we have argued again and again, this notion is unrealistic. Like it or not, this 1950s model of economic organization is breaking down, and has been for several decades, thanks to globalization, demographic changes, technological innovation, and other trends that simply cannot be reversed. Measures like the California decision are futile and counterproductive. We should treat the emergence of a more entrepreneurial, dynamic landscape as an opportunity to be engaged with productively, not a danger to be henpecked by regulations better suited to the last century.

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.

Krugman on the Minimum Wage

Via Don Boudreaux:

Bluecravat found something telling that I missed a few months ago, namely, Paul Krugman explaining back in August that one potential cause of the high unemployment rate in France is that country’s “high minimum wage.”  As Bluecravat exclaims after quoting from Krugman’s August post: “Excuse me?  What was that?  Minimum wage levels impact employment?”

Of course, it could be that France’s minimum wage is too high compared to the one that Krugman advocates for the U.S.  Krugman supports Pres. Obama’s call for a $10.10 hourly minimum wage.  So how does the employment-discouraging minimum wage in France compare to the allegedly prosperity-enhancing, non-employment-discouraging minimum wage that Krugman, Obama, et al., support for the U.S.?  According to Bluecravat, France’s current minimum wage, when adjusted for purchasing-power parity, is $9.30 per hour, a rate that is lower than the minimum-wage rate advocated by Krugman, Obama, et al.

The minimum wage is terrible anti-poverty policy.  The thing to remember is that A. The majority of minimum wage earners are not poor (or in the poorest 20%); and B.  The majority of the poor don't earn minimum wage.  In most cases, the poor are poor because they don't get enough hours or don't have a job at all, a situation that will only be made worse with a higher minimum wage.

Uhhh, So?

Apparently it is some kind of amazing new insight or quasi-scandal that the Fed seems to care more about inflation than unemployment, at least as measured by the language of its meeting notes.

Call me crazy, but the Fed's job is to manage the currency and money supply, not to manage employment or the broader economy.  I have always assumed that it was understood by all that keeping the value of money stable (ie fighting inflation) was the Fed's priority ahead of other economic issues.  What am I missing here?

Krugman vs. Krugman 3 Days Earlier (A New Record For Self-Contradiction)

People like to compare what Krugman writes today in his political hack era with what he wrote in his real economist era.  But this time I do not have to look that far back.

On February 5 and On February 6, Krugman essentially agrees with the OMB review of Obamacare effects on employment, saying that the health care subsidies for lower-income workers would cause millions to work less by reducing the incentive to work, which he called "a good thing."  More here.

On February 9, Krugman returns to a theme he has been hitting on for some weeks now, calling the Republicans anti-science, mean-spririted, etc. for actually believing that unemployment benefits might reduce employment by reducing the incentive to work.  And here is what he wrote on the topic on December 8:

The view of most labor economists now is that unemployment benefits have only a modest negative effect on job search — and in today’s economy have no negative effect at all on overall employment. On the contrary, unemployment benefits help create jobs, and cutting those benefits would depress the economy as a whole.

Yes I understand the shape of the subsidy patterns with income are different, but good God man you cannot reasonably argue that the labor supply curve is sensitive to means-tested government subsidies for one program but not at all for another without a heroic analysis that I cannot imagine and Krugman has not supplied.


A Milestone to Celebrate: I Have Closed All My Businesses in Ventura County, California

Normally, the closure of a business operation or division is not grounds for a celebration, but in this case I am going to make an exception.  At midnight on December 31, I not only drank a toast to the new year, but also to finally getting all my business operations out of Ventura County, California.

Never have I operated in a more difficult environment.  Ventura County combines a difficult government environment with a difficult employee base with a difficult customer base.

  • It took years in Ventura County to make even the simplest modifications to the campground we ran.  For example, it took 7 separate permits from the County (each requiring a substantial payment) just to remove a wooden deck that the County inspector had condemned.  In order to allow us to temporarily park a small concession trailer in the parking lot, we had to (among other steps) take a soil sample of the dirt under the asphalt of the parking lot.   It took 3 years to permit a simple 500 gallon fuel tank with CARB and the County equivilent.   The entire campground desperately needed a major renovation but the smallest change would have triggered millions of dollars of new facility requirements from the County that we simply could not afford.
  • In most states we pay a percent or two of wages for unemployment insurance.  In California we pay almost 7%.  Our summer seasonal employees often take the winter off, working only in the summer, but claim unemployment insurance anyway.  They are supposed to be looking for work, but they seldom are and California refuses to police the matter.  Several couples spend the whole winter in Mexico, collecting unemployment all the while.  So I have to pay a fortune to support these folks' winter vacations.
  • California is raising minimum wages over the next 2 years by $2.  Many of our prices are frozen by our landlord based on past agreements they have entered into, so we had no way to offset these extra costs.  At some point, Obamacare will stop waiving its employer mandate and we will owe $2000-$3000 extra additional for each employee.  There was simply no way to support these costs without expanding to increase our size, which is impossible (see above) due to County regulations.
  • A local attorney held regular evening meetings with my employees to brainstorm new ways the could sue our company under arcane California law.  For example, we went through three iterations of rules and procedures trying to comply with California break law and changing "safe" harbors supposedly provided by California court decisions.  We only successfully stopped the suits by implementing a fingerprint timekeeping system and making it an automatic termination offense to work through lunch.  This operation has about 25 employees vs. 400 for the rest of the company.  100% of our lawsuits from employees over our entire 10-year history came from this one site.  At first we thought it was a manager issue, so we kept sending in our best managers from around the country to run the place, but the suits just continued.
  • Ask anyone in the recreation business where their most difficult customers are, and they likely will name the Los Angeles area.  It is impossible to generalize of course, because there are great customers from any location, but LA seems to have more than its fair share of difficult, unruly, entitled customers.   LA residents are, for example, by far the worst litterers in the country, at least from our experience.  Draw a map of California with concentric circles around LA and the further out one gets, the lower the litter clean-up costs we have.  But what really killed it for me in Ventura County was the crazy irresponsible drinking and behavior.  Ventura County is the only location out of nearly 200 in the country where we had to hire full-time law enforcement help to provide security.  At most locations, we would get 1 arrest every month or two (at most).  In Ventura we could get 5-10 arrests a day.  In the end, I found myself running a location where I would never take my own family.

And so I got out.  Hallelujah.

PS-  People frequently talk about taxes in California being what makes the state "anti-business."  That may be, but I guess I never made enough money to have the taxes really bite.  But taxes are only a small part of the equation.

Update:  Wow, reading this again, I left out so much!  An employee once sued us at this location for harassment and intimidation by her manager -- when the manager was her sister!  It cost me over $20,000 in legal expenses to get the case dismissed.  I had an older couple file a state complaint for age discrimination when they were terminated -- despite the fact that our entire business model is to hire retired people and the vast majority of our employees are 70 and older.  And how could I have forgotten the process of getting a liquor license?  I suppose I left it out because while tedious (my wife and I had to fly to California to get fingerprinted, for example), it is not really worse than in other places -- liquor license processes are universally bad, a feature and not a bug for the established businesses one is trying to compete with.   We gave the license up pretty quickly, when we saw how crazy and irresponsible much of the customer base was.  Trying to make the place safer and more family friendly, we banned alcohol from the lake area, and faced a series of lawsuit threats over that.


Other Countries Have Higher Minimum Wages. They Also Have Higher Something Else...

Kevin Drum argues our minimum wage in the US is really low



A few quick thoughts:

  • I have a constant frustration that we never see these comparisons just on a straight purchasing power parity absolute dollar number.  Numbers related to income distribution are always indexed to a number that is really high in the US, thus making our ratio low.  I seriously doubt Turkey has a higher minimum wage in the US, it just has a much lower median wage.  Does that really make things better there?  I have this problem all the time with poverty numbers.  The one thing I would like to see is, on a PPP basis, a comparison of post-government-transfer income of the US bottom decile or quintile vs. other countries.  Sure, we are more unequal.  But are our poor better or worse off?  The fact that no one on the Left ever shows this number makes me suspect that the US doesn't look bad on it.    This chart, from a Leftish group, implies our income distribution is due to the rich being richer, not the poor being poorer.

  • Drum or whoever is his source for the chart conveniently leaves off countries like Germany, where the minimum wage is zero.  Sort of seems like data cherry-picking to me (though to be fair Germany deals with the issue through a sort of forced unionization law that kind of achieves the same end, but never-the-less their minimum wage is zero).
  • All these European countries may have a higher minimum wage, but they also have something else that is higher:  teen unemployment (and I would guess low-skill unemployment).

click to enlarge

Admittedly this only has a subset of countries, but I borrowed it as-is from Zero Hedge.  By the way, by some bizarre coincidence, the one country -- Germany -- we previously mentioned has no minimum wage is the by far the lowest line on this chart.

The Two Lame Answers Obama Supporters Are Giving Those of Us Who Have Had Our Health Insurance Cancelled

1.  The first Obama Administration response to people (like myself) who have had their health insurance cancelled because of Obamacare and who are facing much higher future premiums is that many of can expect a subsidy.  Do you realize how awful this is?  Basically they are acknowledging that millions of people who paid for their own health care in the past will now be getting taxpayer money.  Essentially, a huge and unnecessary increase in government dependency.

2.  The other equally awful Obama Administration answer is that our new health coverage will be more expensive because it will be "better".  First, there is no evidence of this -- early returns are that people are paying more for less.  Second, though, this is horribly arrogant.  A $200,000 Maserati sedan is likely "better" than my car I am driving, but given its price I would consider myself worse off if forced to buy a Maserati.  In the same sense, forcing me to by expensive insurance options I don't want is not "better", even if I am making choices Obama's advisers would not make for themselves.  I spent a lot of time shopping for health insurance and running numbers on various cases and picking the best plan for me, and am insulted that Obama does not respect my decision.

By the way, I will remind you of what I said way back in 2007 about government health care proposals

Americans are unbelievably charitable people, to the extent that they will put up with a lot of taxation and even losses of freedoms through government coercion to help people out.

However, in nearly every other case of government-coerced charity, the main effect is "just" an increase in taxes.  Lyndon Johnson wants to embark on a futile attempt to try to provide public housing to the poor?  Our taxes go up, a lot of really bad housing is built, but at least my housing did not get any worse.  Ditto food programs -- the poor might get some moldy cheese from a warehouse, but my food did not get worse.  Ditto welfare.  Ditto social security, unemployment insurance,and work programs.

But health care is different.... what is different about many of the health care proposals on the table is that everyone, not just the poor will get this same crappy level of treatment.  It would be like a public housing program where everyone's house is torn down and every single person must move into public housing.  That is universal state-run health care.  Ten percent of America gets pulled up, 90% of America gets pulled down, possibly way down.

We Are In the Best of Hands: Janet Yellen Edition

The Arizona Republic today reviews a speech given by Yellen in January, 2007 in Phoenix:

It was January 2007 when Yellen, then head of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, spoke here about financial literacy before transitioning into comments about the economy — comments that now look remarkably unperceptive.

Back then, months before the real-estate and banking crisis took down the economy, Yellen expressed concern that inflation was uncomfortably high while job gains were coming too swiftly.

“If labor markets are as tight as the unemployment rate suggests, then there may be reason for concern about building inflationary pressures,” she said according to my Jan. 18, 2007, article.

Subsequent events showed that inflation was the last thing we had to worry about, while the lack of jobs has emerged as a central drag on the economy. Back then, U.S. unemployment was around 4.5 percent. But after the recession took hold, it more than doubled, peaking at 10 percent in late 2009. At 7.3 percent currently, it remains well above where it should be this far into an economic recovery.

In contrast, core consumer inflation (which excludes food and energy costs) of 1.8 percent today has hardly budged from the 2.2 percent rate that had Yellen all worked up back then.

In another comment during her Phoenix talk that now looks wildly off-base, Yellen, who later was named vice chair of the Fed’s board of governors, said recession risks had receded despite lingering weakness in housing. She cited the Valley as a place where home-price appreciation had come down from unsustainably high rates of increase.

The Great Recession, as we all now know in hindsight, began later that year, triggered by a home-price slide of epic proportions.

I don't want to beat her up too bad for missing the bubble burst, since most everyone did.  They also all missed the last bubble burst, and the one before that, etc.

This is what makes me crazy:  not that these folks were wrong, even consistently brutally wrong, but that they display absolutely no modesty in their actions given that they were so wrong.  They propose policy steps, such as seemingly eternal QE, that are astoundingly risky unless one assumes that they have a very, very good grasp on exactly where the economy is going.  Which they clearly never have had in the past.  If they acted like they had been wrong most of the time, then I would have little to criticize.  But to be consistently wrong and then make huge risky bets as if you have reliable predictive powers is hubris of the worst sort.

Officious Insanity in Alabama

I got a crazy inquiry from the state of Alabama today.  I can't reproduce it without redacting a lot of confidential numbers and such, but essentially they said that we had originally filed to pay unemployment taxes in Alabama in March of 2009, but our first payroll report was not until April of 2009.  I said, sure, once we knew we were going to start business in Alabama, I applied for all my Alabama registrations at one time to make sure they were in place for the start of operations (this includes corporate registration with the secretary of state, request for a taxpayer ID number,  eGov account, state sales tax, state lodging tax, state boat rental tax, County sales tax, county boat rental tax, unemployment tax, and employee tax withholding).  I am sure I am forgetting a few, and to make things more fun, every state is different.  Tennessee, for example, has an entirely different set of tax types for businesses that I still do not fully understand.

Anyway, apparently most of these registrations must be obtained in advance, before starting business.  BUT, at least in Alabama, I was told today it is ILLEGAL (yes, they used that word) to register for the unemployment tax system before your first payroll in the state.  Apparently, one must register in arrears.  Because of this, I was told my account has to be shut down and I have to be issued a new account number  (which of course means more paperwork for me making the switch at my payroll company).   All of this over 4 years later because I did not have any payroll in one month and had the naive notion that it was better to have all my government wastepaper in place before I started operations.  I got the strong impression that this was the results of bureaucrats searching hard for something to keep themselves busy.


Blast from the Past

I have not reread this little classic article from 9 years ago, until a customer in California found it and complained that it was outrageous that the state would actually allow such a person as its author to operate anything in a state park.  So I suppose it is worth relinking, if just for that reason.  Most of it holds up pretty well, though I regret the jab implying that progressives supported suicide bombers.  Here is an example:

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek, only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services....

Take prescription drugs in the US - isn't it pretty clear that the progressive position is that they would be willing to pretty much gut incentives for any future drug innovations in trade for having a system in place that guaranteed everyone minimum access to what exists today?  Or take the welfare state in Continental Europe -- isn't it clear that a generation of workers/voters chose certainty over growth and improvement?  That workers 30 years ago voted themselves jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the succeeding generations?

Obamacare-Driven Stagnation

From the file of things that are absolutely obvious to business owners, and a total shocker to the pundit and policy class:

In its latest monthly report on economic conditions across the country, the Federal Reserve points to Obamacare as one reason the unemployment rate has remained near or above 8 percent under the current administration.

That’s what Sally Pipes, president of the Pacific Research Institute, writes in an op-ed piece for Forbes magazine.

The Fed’s so-called “beige book” noted that employers across the country have “cited the unknown effects of the Affordable Care Act as reasons for planned layoffs and reluctance to hire more staff,” Pipes says, adding that as more businesses learn about Obamacare, “the more they’re coming to realize that affordable care” is the last thing it will provide.

Here is my attempt to illustrate the same thing in one chart (net monthly job creation, which Kevin Drum helpfully posts each month):

click to enlarge

I will revise this chart later - this is actually public and private totals.  When you look at private only, the April 2010 peak goes away (that was temporary census hiring) and the chart has an even more stark inflection right there in March 2010 when Obamacare was passed.


War and Stimulus

I had an argument about the (economic) stimulative effect of war the other night.  As usual, I was not entirely happy with how I argued my point in real time (which is why I blog).  Here is an attempt at an improved, brief answer:

One of the reasons that people often believe that war "improves" the economy is that they are looking at the wrong metrics.  They look at unemployment and observe that it falls.  They look at capacity utilization and observe that it rises.  They look at GDP and see that it rises.

But these are the wrong metrics.  What we care about is if people are better off: Can they buy the things they want?  Are they wealthier?

These outcomes are hard to measure, so we use unemployment and GDP and capacity utilization as proxies for people's economic well-being.  And in most times, these metrics are reasonably correlated with well-being.  That is because in a free economy individuals and their choices guide the flow of resources, which are dedicated to improving what people consider to be their own well-being.  More resources, more well-being.

But in war time, all this gets changed.  Government intervenes with a very heavy hand to shift a vast amount of the resources from satisfying people's well-being to blowing other people up.  Now, I need to take an aside on well-being in this context.  Certainly it is possible that I am better off poor in a world with no Nazis than rich in one dominated by Nazis.  But I am going to leave war aims out of the concept of well-being.  This is appropriate, because when people argue that war stimulates the economy, they are talking purely about economic activity and benefits, and so will I.

What we find is that in war time, unemployment is down, but in part because young people have been drafted (a form of servitude) to fight and die.  Are they better off so employed?  Those who are left find themselves with jobs in factories with admittedly high capacity utilization, but building things that make no one better off (and many people worse off).  GDP skyrockets as government goes deeply in debt to pay for bombs and rockets and tanks.  This debt builds nothing for the future -- future generations are left with debt and no wealth to show for it, like taking out a mortgage to buy a house and then having the house burn down uninsured.  This is no more economically useful than borrowing money and then burning it.  In fact, burning it would have been better, economically, as each dollar we borrowed in WWII had a "multiplier" effect in that it destroyed another dollar of European or Asian civilian infrastructure.

Sure, during WWII, everyone in the US had a job, but with war-time restrictions and rationing, these employed people couldn't buy anything.  Forget the metrics - in their daily lives Americans lived poorer, giving up driving and even basic staples.  This was the same condition Soviet citizens found themselves facing in the 1970s -- they all had jobs, but they could not find anything to buy.  Do we consider them to have been well off?

There is one way to prosper from war, but it is a terrible zero-sum game -- making money from other people's wars.  The US prospered in 1915 and later 1941 as Britain and France sunk into bankruptcy and despair, sending us the last of their wealth in exchange for material that might help them hang on to their existence.  Ditto in 1946, when having bombed Japanese and German infrastructure into the stone age. we provided many of the goods to help rebuild them.  But is this really the way we want to prosper?  And is this sort of vulture-like prosperity even possible with our inter-woven global supply chains?  For example, I can't see a China-Japan war being particularly stimulative for anybody nowadays.

I Would Go Where the Jobs Are

Bloomberg does a ranking of where one should go if he is unemployed.  Before we go to their ranking criteria, lets think about what criteria I would recommend to someone:

  1. Go where the jobs are.  Duh.  Pay particular attention to where there are jobs that match your skills, but in general a rising tide will lift all boats (e.g. you don't just have to be an oil field worker to find opportunity in North Dakota, they are paying a fortune for waitresses and retail clerks to handle the new demand).
  2. Look at pay for your skills vs. cost of living.  Manhattan may pay the most for waitresses but living costs there are insane.  You can get good work in Vail, Colorado over the winter but good luck finding a low cost place to live anywhere nearby.
  3. Think about tax rates.  You may be exempt now, but hopefully as things get better you will care about income tax rates, and if you are unemployed you certainly are going to care about sales tax rates

OK, so let's look at Bloomberg's ranking criteria.  They also have three:

  1. Unemployment rate.  So far so good.  Go where the jobs are.
  2. State unemployment payment rates.  Seriously, their criteria is not cost of living or average payments for new workers, but how much one can extract from the government for NOT working?  But OK, this still makes some sense  (though there are a lot of barriers to crossing state lines for a better unemployment deal).
  3. Income inequality.  WTF?  What in heavens name does this have to do with unemployed people and how easily they can improve themselves.  Is this psychological -- ie you will feel worse about being unemployed if there are a lot of rich people around?  The average unemployed American is a service worker (if you are a skilled manufacturing worker, say a machine operator, and can't find work, you are in a minority).  Rich people drive demand for service workers.

Soft Head, Soft Heart Argument

Bryan Caplan asks:

So I propose a simple challenge to pave the way to my refutation: Tell me how to sell the abolition of the minimum wage to the typical Feeling American.

Please don't give me any "hard heads, soft hearts" answers.  Give me "soft heads, soft hearts" answers.  You're trying to persuade Oprah Winfrey, not Data from Star Trek after he gets his emotion chip.

I am not sure what makes for a soft head argument, but lots of talk about oppressors and racism combined with argument by anecdote rather than facts felt right, so this was my shot at it:

Bobby is a black teen in Chicago. Since he has just 9 years old, the only way he could support his family and survive in his neighborhood was to join a gang and deal drugs.

After his recent arrest, Bobby wants to go straight, to escape the cycle of crime and violence into which he has become trapped. But no one will hire him without experience. He needs a history showing he can do simple things, like show up reliably to work on time, cooperate with other employees, and interact well with customers.

Bobby would be willing to work for free to gain this experience, to get a toe-hold on the simple skills many of us take for granted. Be he can't. he is barred by law. He cannot legally be offered a job for less than $8.25 an hour, a wage he could one day earn but right now lacks the basic skills to justify.

The minimum wage raises the first rung on the ladder of success higher than Bobby can possibly reach. This is not an accident. Early proponents of the minimum wage in the early 20th century supported it precisely because it protected white workers from competition from blacks attempting to enter the work force. The minimum wage began as, and still is, a tool of oppression,preventing young men like Bobby from gaining access to good employment.

Today, the unemployment among black teens has risen to nearly 40%. This is because the government has been working for years to help older white workers with political clout keep men like Bobby out of the workforce, and the minimum wage is their most powerful tool for doing so.

Ha! Not in California

Eugene Volokh is writing about a case against an attorney who defrauded his firm.  The details are not important, what caught my eye is what is highlighted below:

Once again, this case does not turn on the bare fact that Attorney Siderits wrote-down his time; this case is about Attorney Siderits abusing his write-down discretion and lying to his law partners in order to collect almost $47,000 in bonuses to which he was not entitled. Attorney Siderits cannot seriously contend that firms must have a written policy forbidding stealing and lying before a misconduct charge for one of these actions can be sustained.

That certainly makes sense, but it does not apply at the California EDD, which administers (among other things) the state unemployment insurance program.  We terminated an employee for accepting money from a customer to provide a service, then pocketing the money and not providing the service.  I call this "theft", and had assumed all would understand that stealing from customers is a firing offense.   When California sent out its unemployment paperwork, we said this employee had been fired "for cause", which in many states means that they are ineligeable for full unemployment payments.

However, after some back and forth, I was eventually informed by the EDD that since I did not have an explicit policy in the employee manual that said "employees may not steal money from customers", then they could not recognize that she was fired for cause.  Even if I had put that in the manual, it probably would not have counted because the next thing EDD asked for is something in writing proving, with the employee's signature, that she had read that passage.   And from past experience with the EDD, my guess is that they likely would not have accepted firing on the first offense, but would have insisted we needed to have her steal from multiple customers, with written warnings each time, before we terminated her.

Basically, what this all means is that while the law technically says people can't be paid unemployment if fired for cause, California has made the standards of proof so absurd that this requirement is meaningless.  Everyone is going to get unemployment.

As it turns out, there is a silver lining from this lack of diligence by the state.  My business is seasonal and I can only offer summer work.   Most of my employees are happy with this, as they like to take the winter off (many are retired).  One is not supposed to collect unemployment if he or she is not actively seeking work, but my employees have discovered that California does zero dilligence to check this.  So some of them lie and say they are looking for work over the winter when they are not, and collect unemployment.  I know of two couples who spend their winter in Mexico but still collect their California unemployment like clockwork.   Not only is California not dilligent about it, but when I tried to report someone I knew who was collecting unemployment but not even in the country, I was threatened by the EDD official that I was risking substantial personal liability by submitting such a claim and opening my self up to civil suits and even prosecution for harassing the worker.  So of course I dropped it.

So what is the silver lining?  California is so eager to hand money in the off-season to support my employees' seasonal vacations that my unemployment insurance premium rate is already the worst possible.  My rates can't go any higher.  So if they insist on giving state money to a thief, it's not coming out of my pocket.

A Quick Reminder to Swedish Workers

Apparently Swedish unions are demanding a looser monetary policy

Forget Chuck Schumer's cat-out-of-the-bag 'get back to work' comments to Bernanke, now it is union-leaders who are advising the world's central bankers. "There is a not a single reason not to lower rates" exclaims Sweden's trade union confederation to the central bank as he begins negotiations with employers on wage deals for next year. His demands (for lower rates) are "far from excessive" and he adds "should not cause inflation" as Swedish organized labor have "never called for levels that ... could not be supported economically."

Inflation and monetary debasement have always been Progressive favorites -- until, of course, they were not.  Consider the plight of the worker in Weimar Germany

By mid-1923 workers were being paid as often as three times a day. Their wives would meet them, take the money and rush to the shops to exchange it for goods. However, by this time, more and more often, shops were empty. Storekeepers could not obtain goods or could not do business fast enough to protect their cash receipts. Farmers refused to bring produce into the city in return for worthless paper. Food riots broke out. Parties of workers marched into the countryside to dig up vegetables and to loot the farms. Businesses started to close down and unemployment suddenly soared. The economy was collapsing.

It was total hell.  If a worker's family member could not find something to buy in the morning with the worker's morning pay packet, the money was worthless by dinner time.  Not to mention the incredible lost productivity of all those man-hours spent running around trying to find goods on shelves (of which we got a small taste post-Sandy, as people spent hundreds of dollars of their own time waiting in queues because the government would not let gas station owners charge them an extra $20 for scarce gasoline).

Worse Than I Thought

I always suspected government jobs programs and job training programs were a waste of time.  I never imagined they were total vaporware:

"There are no jobs!" That is what people told me outside a government "jobs center" in New York City.

To check this out, I sent four researchers around the area. They quickly found 40job openings. Twenty-four were entry-level positions. One restaurant owner told me he would hire 12 people if workers would just apply.

It made me wonder what my government does in buildings called "job centers." So I asked a college intern, Zoelle Mallenbaum, to find out. Here's what she found:

"First I went to the Manhattan Jobs Center and asked, "Can I get help finding a job?" They told me they don't do that. 'We sign people up for food stamps.' I tried another jobs center. They told me to enroll for unemployment benefits."

So the "jobs" centers help people get handouts. Neither center suggested people try the 40 job openings in the neighborhood.

From John Stossel, who has a lot more at the source link.