Category Archives: Economics

An Economist’s Love Letter to Books

“No university will ever have at one time four economists of the quality of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Irving Fisher, and Alfred Marshall, to say nothing of a dozen of their best colleagues—but they can all reside in one’s library. Their subtle minds are ever ready to instruct and tease and baffle.”
George Stigler (U. Chicago, 1982 Nobel laureate), Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist, p. 219.

The Level of Political Discourse Has Never Been Very High

From pages 140-41 of Nobel laueate George Stigler’s 1988 autobigoraphy, Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist:

I have recently reread it [F.A. Hayek’s 1944 book Road to Serfdom], and I simply cannot understand why it became popular. I mean this as a compliment to Hayek… Hayek has always been both a gentleman and a scholar.

The DNC Platform and Inequality

As the Democratic National Committee convention wraps up in Philadelphia, I took some time to look over theparty platform’s planks on inequality. Iain Murray and I counsel a “People, Not Ratios” philosophy on inequality in our recent study; the Democratic platform mostly takes the opposite approach.

Iain and I argue that from an ethical standpoint, the mathematical difference between rich and poor is irrelevant. What matters is making sure that all people, especially at the economic bottom, have enough to live comfortably and securely. The DNC platform instead is about ratios, ratios, ratios: “most new income and wealth goes to the top one percent (p. 3),” “the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans now own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined (p. 10),” and so on. Some of the policies it proposes to reduce inequality ratios include:

  • Tax hikes on the wealthy. This would have the unintended effect of leaving less capital for small businesses and startups. The wealthy tend not to hoard their wealth like Scrooge McDuck or Smaug the dragon from The Hobbit. They invest most of their wealth, and as it circulates throughout the economy, and small-scale entrepreneurs, innovators, and other value creators benefit—as do their consumers.
  • Tax breaks for favored corporations. Intentional or not, this would be very good for lobbyists, and hardly anyone else.
  • Tax hikes for disfavored corporations. Ditto, as unpopular industries descend on Washington to try to avoid punishment. If the federal government is going to have a corporate tax, it should be as simple and uniform as possible. Of course, the ideal corporate tax rate is zero—companies pass on their costs to consumers, so it’s really you and me who pay corporate taxes, not GE or Microsoft.
  • A $15 hourly minimum wage. Iain and I discuss this in our other recent paper, “The Rising Tide.” Higher minimum wages would help some workers, but with severe tradeoffs. Some workers will find themselves working fewer hours, or even fired. Other workers, especially younger workers, will never be hired in the first place, denying them the chance to gain skills and experience that can lift them up the economic ladder as they get older. This could potentially increase inequality ratios over the long run. Workers would also see fewer on-the-job perks, such as free parking and meals, flexible vacation policies, and so on. The minimum wage is not a free lunch.
  • Expanded collective bargaining. Again, some workers will get a raise, but at others’ expense. Fewer jobs, higher consumer prices, and more are all among the tradeoffs. And again, increased unionization could increase inequality by giving privileges to union members at non-members’ expense.

Progressives and classical liberals share the same goal when it comes to poverty—ending it. Achieving that goal requires people across the political spectrum to focus more on people, and less on ratios. In that respect, the DNC platform has a long way to go. The most effective policies involve eliminating barriers to entrepreneurship. These include reforming occupational licensing requirements that now affect a third of American workers, as President Obama has suggested. We also recommend clearing vast swathes of the 175,000-page Code of Federal Regulations. Other helpful policies include affordable energy, easy access to capital, and a commitment to an honest price system. For more policy ideas, see Iain’s and my recent papers.

Collective Bargaining Increases Inequality

I recently pointed out that minimum wage regulations increase inequality. That’s not what the “Fight-for-15” activists intend, but it is the result they would achieve. Collective bargaining is another unintentional inequality-increaser. The reasons why are pretty similar, as Iain Murray and I point out on pp. 10-14 of our recent paper, “The Rising Tide.” This week there were two opposing developments in Washington related to the issue: the National Labor Relations Board issued a decision that strengthens the hand of unions seeking to organize workers for representation via collective bargaining, but the House Appropriations Committee voted to defundrelated regulations from being implemented by both the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board.

Just as minimum wages benefit some workers, so does collective bargaining. Union members tend to earn higher wages than their non-union peers working similar jobs. And just as with minimum wages, these benefits come with tradeoffs. Fewer jobs for non-members, higher consumer prices, and more are all part of the collective bargain. Some people make more, because other people make less and pay more.

According to a recent report from the Council of Economic Advisors about declining labor force participation, the U.S. is in the 90th percentile among OECD countries when it comes to union-friendly labor policies. But is only in the 62nd percentile for entrepreneurship-friendly policies (p. 30). Those percentiles are a useful priority guide for policymakers.

Another CEI study by Ohio University economist Lowell Gallaway and researcher Jonathan Robe finds that in union-heavy states such as Michigan, per capita income is as much as $11,000 lower than what it could be without powerful unions and their exclusionary policies. That’s nearly $28,000 per year for an average-size household—money that could be spent on better schools, housing, food, clothing, and much else. Instead, that money is never made at all.

There is also evidence that many union members don’t even want to be members. When Wisconsin gave many government employees a choice on whether or not to join a union, many of them decided against unions. In a painful bit of symbolism, the very first AFSCME local, founded in Madison in 1932, saw its membership decline more than 85 percent within just a few years after the law passed.

Many politicians and activists want to reduce economic inequality, and collective bargaining is one of the most popular policies for doing so. But not only does it actually increase inequality—union benefits come at consumers’ and other workers’ direct expense—the proper goal is to make the poor better off. Iain Murray and I aim at that goal in our recent papers, “People, Not Ratios” and “The Rising Tide.” We encourage others to join us.

Minimum Wage Increases Inequality, Decreases Labor Force Participation

The minimum wage actually increases inequality. It helps some workers, but only at others’ expense. The reasoning is simple: people can’t make money if you put them out of work. When the minimum wage goes up, some people get a raise, but only because other people get their hours cut, are fired, or never hired in the first place. Some people get more, just as many other people get less. The minimum wage’s results are exactly the opposite of its intentions.

That’s why a recent Council of Economic Advisors report, “The Long-Term Decline in Prime-Age Male Labor Force Participation,” misses the mark. On page 42, the report says: “To fight the long-run trend of increasing inequality, the President has proposed raising the minimum wage, giving greater support to collective bargaining, and helping ensure that workers have a strong voice in the labor market.”

There are two problems with this approach. The big one is the implicit assumption that inequality is automatically a bad thing. This is precisely the approach Iain Murray and I warn against in our recent paper, “People, Not Ratios.” The mathematical difference between rich and poor is ethically irrelevant, as Princeton University philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt also argues.

What is ethically relevant is how people at the economic bottom are doing. Do they have enough to live with comfort, dignity, and security? Are they becoming better off over time? What policies will help the poor become better off over time? These are the questions anti-poverty activists should be asking.

That’s a pretty big problem. The second problem is with a study quoted on the same page by David H. Autor, Alan Manning, and Christopher L. Smith, “The Contribution of the Minimum Wage to US Wage Inequality over Three Decades: A Reassessment.”

Economists are famously divided on many issues, leading to President Harry Truman’s wish for a one-armed economist, who would be unable to say “on one hand… on the other hand…” The minimum wage is not a two-handed issue. A survey of professional economists finds overwhelming support for the statement “A minimum wage increases unemployment among young and unskilled workers.”

So not only did the CEA report have to cherry-pick a study that supported its ideological priors, that study’s support is tepid at best. This may be why the CEA report does not bother to quote it directly, which I do here:

We find that the minimum wage reduces inequality in the lower tail of the wage distribution, though by substantially less than previous estimates… These wage effects extend to percentiles where the minimum is nominally nonbinding, implying spillovers.

For more on how the minimum wage affects inequality, see Iain Murray’s and my recent paper, “The Rising Tide.” A future post will make similar arguments about the CEA report’s arguments on collective bargaining.

Why Shouldn’t the Energy Department Run the Entire Economy?

New Energy Department standards for dehumidifiers promise massive benefits. Depending on which set of numbers you prefer (the link goes to the Energy Department’s own numbers), they will cost somewhere between $110 million and $190 million annually. Estimated annual benefits range from $2.0 billion to $3.6 billion. If these numbers are accurate, this regulation will cause a net benefit to consumers between 18- and 19-fold.

Not 18 or 19 percent, mind you, but 18- or 19-fold. That’s 1,800 or 1,900 percent. The stocks that comprise the Dow Jones Industrial Average yield returns of around 8 percent, or 1/225th as much. The U.S Department of Energy, according to the U.S Department of Energy, can create some very impressive returns.

Which brings up an obvious question: Why not just have the Energy Department run the entire economy?

The reason is that entrepreneurs in every sector of the private economy constantly have their ideas put to a profit-and-loss test. The Energy Department only obeys political winds, which blow differently from year to year. Private entrepreneurs must create value for other people; political entrepreneurs need only create value for the right people.

Despite the massive improvement in living standards that entrepreneurs’ market-tested betterment has brought to most of the world for two centuries and counting, they have only brought a 2 or 3 percent rate of growth over that long time, on average. The Energy Department promises 1,800 percent. That is at least 600 times as much as market-tested entrepreneurs, and 225 times as much as the mercenary Dow Jones.

Again: if Energy Department officials are smarter than entrepreneurs, to the point of being able to earn a 225-fold greater return—why not have the Energy Department run the entire economy? Why don’t Energy Department officials enter the private sector, where their ideas could make enormous profits, and do enormous social good?

As Deirdre McCloskey asked many years ago, “If You’re So Smart, Why Ain’t You Rich?” These are serious questions which deserve serious answers. Energy Department officials could learn much from her intellectual humility.

On the Radio: Income Inequality

Regular readers know that Iain Murray and I recently released a pair of papers on economic inequality, People, Not Ratios and The Rising Tide. I had the opportunity to sit down with RealClear Radio Hour‘s Bill Frezza to discuss them while in DC recently to attend CEI’s annual dinner.

My segment was sandwiched between Clemson University economist Bruce Yandle, of Baptist and Bootleggers fame, and Steve Forbes. I deserve no place on such a billing, and can only consider it an honor.

The show, as aired, is here. Yandle and Forbes, as always, are essential listening.

An extended version of my segment is here.