Category Archives: Inequality

Kimberly Clausing – Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital

Kimberly Clausing – Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital

This is a book that needed to be written. Progressives have long had a complicated relationship with trade and immigration. On one side, there is a free-trade tradition including progressive heroes such as Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State; President John F. Kennedy, who passed the 1962 Trade Expansion Act and after whom a major round of liberalizing GATT negotiations was named; and Bill Clinton, who signed NAFTA in to law.

On the other side, the progressive movement’s labor and environmental wings often have at best a transactional relationship with free trade, and at worst an outright hostility to it. Many younger people with social democratic leanings, as well as the older generation of presidential candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have views on trade that are almost identical to President Trump’s. This is a problem Clausing seeks to address.

She mostly makes the usual economists’ arguments in favor of free trade and immigration. This is fine; trade scholars are not her intended audience, progressives are. Clausing’s progressive credentials help to open the ears of an audience that is often closed to similar messages from different messengers. One particular reason that should resonate more than it does is that free trade and liberal immigration are extremely effective anti-poverty policies. And here, Clausing does a good job of explaining why. But she encounters two problems in her book, one of which is not her doing.

Part of the problem in getting more progressives to support pro-poor trade and immigration policies ties into a political realignment that is currently happening, as the historian Stephen Davies and my colleague Iain Murray have been arguing. For most of the post-war period, the dominant political debate was capitalism vs. socialism. Most people and political parties placed themselves somewhere on that spectrum, and thought of themselves in those terms. That dynamic is largely gone now. Just as conservatives under Trump are no longer a free-market-lite party, progressives are no longer a socialism-lite party, younger social democrats’ pretensions to the contrary. Their fight is on different grounds now.

People are beginning to realign themselves on a different axis—nationalism vs. globalism. Conservatives are rapidly taking over the nationalist side. But progressives haven’t quite chosen their path yet—this complicate’s Clausing’s job. Part of the problem is personality. Trump provides a strongly nationalist figure for conservatives to rally around. As of this writing the progressive side lacks such a figure, whether also a nationalist or more cosmopolitan. There is not likely room for two nationalist parties, but Democrats still haven’t made their choice. If Clausing pushes them in the cosmopolitan direction, she will have done a major service.

These political realignments happen every few generations. The current realignment is neither the first nor last time something like this will happen. But it does explain an awful lot of strange political bedfellows in recent years. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump essentially have the same immigration beliefs, and for similar reasons. Fox News host Tucker Carlson was surprised to find himself very much agreeing with Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s economic patriotism plan.

Large parts of Open also have little to with trade and immigration. I am unsure of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Her digressions on taxes, regulations, and inequality are standard-issue, and progressives will find little to object to. On the plus side, this can make her market-liberal trade and immigration stances more palatable, especially to progressives still unsure about their place on the nationalism-cosmopolitanism divide. On the other hand, her proposed regulatory policies would reduce the benefits of open trade and immigration. And her views on inequality focus on ratios, rather than people, precisely opposite the liberal approach that would help the poor. For more on this, see Iain Murray’s and my papers on the subject, “People, Not Ratios” and “The Rising Tide.”

Flaws and all, Clausing has written an important book that has the potential to do a lot of good. Ideally, she will not only nudge progressives in a more free-market direction on trade and immigration policy, she will encourage them to take a more cosmopolitan stance in order to provide an effective opposition to an increasingly nationalist conservative movement.

Wisdom on Inequality

From p. 145 of Arvind Panagariya’s 2019 book Free Trade and Prosperity: How Openness Helps the Developing Countries Grow Richer and Combat Poverty:

“[In] the developing countries, wisdom lies in attacking inequality through poverty alleviation rather than by focusing on inequality, which comes in many forms. Excessive preoccupation with inequality risks the adoption of policies that undermine wealth creation and hence poverty alleviation.”

Moreover, the arguments holds in all countries, not just developing ones. The poor are best served by tending to people, not ratios.

Inequality in History

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, had a personal allowance of one thirteenth of national income, per p. 292 of Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

By way of context, this would be equivalent to about $2.7 trillion per year in the modern United States. This annual income is more than the combined lifetime fortunes of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest entrepreneurs. While that mathematical ratio isn’t particularly interesting, from an ethical standpoint it is crucial that Catherine did not earn this income by creating value for others. She took it away from them in a zero-sum game.

Today’s entrepreneurs gain wealth by creating value for others in exchange–about 50-fold more than their own earnings, by William Nordhaus’ estimate. Rent-seeking remains a significant problem, but fortunately is less severe than in Catherine the Great’s time.

Today’s economy has much room for improvement, but reformers on all sides would benefit from taking stock of how much things have improved over the last few centuries, and why.

Addressing the Gender Pay Gap: Culture, Not Legislation

A recent Washington Times article quotes me on Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris’s plan to address the gender pay gap. I could have given better quotes, frankly, but it’s difficult to treat a complicated issue with nuance in a couple of short sentences. Conservatives and progressives both make some good points, but ultimately fall short of addressing the issue constructively:

  1. Conservatives often downplay gender discrimination or deny that it is a problem. This is wrong.
  2. Progressives are right that discrimination is a problem, but with the pay gap, they are prioritizing the wrong facet of the problem.
  3. There is a culture gap, far more than a pay gap. Most politicians put the pay gap at 77 or 79 cents on the dollar. One ideologically motivated study puts it at 49 cents. These figures do not account for the fact that women are more likely than men to work part time or not at all for extended periods to provide child care or other family needs. Men who do the same thing are subject to a similar wage lag. In another comparison, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show a wage gap of six cents for women who have never married—which says more about cultural gender norms than about different pay for equal work. Men and women also often cluster in different occupations, which have different pay. Occupations such as kindergarten teachers and construction have heavy gender disparities, as well as different pay—often in men’s favor. Again, the causes for this are often cultural, not due to different pay for equal work. The pay gap is almost certainly not a myth, but it is almost certainly a smaller problem than many people believe.
  4. Focusing so intently on the pay gap has an opportunity cost: More important gender discrimination issues are being crowded out from popular attention. In the workplace, these issues are as serious as rape and sexual harassment. They also include cultural pressures against women making their own life choices. Different people have different preferences on working vs. staying home. Many people on both sides of the culture wars still don’t respect that. Gender discrimination also includes everyday rudeness, such as men being more likely to interrupt women in conversation, taking their ideas less seriously, or judging them on appearance and demeanor rather than merit. The list is long, and the combined effects are large.
  5. One reason for the undue attention to the pay gap is that wages are easy to measure, while “soft” discrimination is often difficult or impossible to measure. It’s an example of what economist Jerry Z. Muller calls The Tyranny of Metrics. People tend to focus on what they can measure, and ignore what they can’t.
  6. Not only is attention being focused on the wrong issue, but many progressives are only offering one tool, poorly chosen: legislation.
  7. Pay gap legislation is prone to unintended consequences, such as businesses hiring fewer women. This is not what anyone intends. But it would be the easiest way for a company to avoid compliance headaches, potential lawsuits, or as in Sen. Harris’s proposal, a tax increase. This easily predictable effect works against everyone’s shared goal.
  8. Addressing gender discrimination requires cultural change from the bottom up, not top-down legislation. Politicians’ limited vocabulary is hurting progress on a real problem.
  9. Convincing millions of  individuals over time to be more thoughtful to others is a slow, uneven process. It will also likely never end; civilization is not humankind’s natural state.
  10. The cultural change argument is aesthetically unsatisfying. It can’t be planned, controlled, or quantified, even when possible improvements are clear as day, as with gender discrimination. It is a long-term process, not a short-term result. Advocating for cultural progress just looks flat compared to more immediate offerings such as taxes, fines, or quotas.
  11. Emotionally, it is much more fulfilling to hear a fast, simple, and concrete solution at a candidate’s press conference. It gives people something tangible with a face and a name they can rally around. This is in tune with how the human brain works. It gives us an in-group to affirm and an out-group to vilify. A story with a hero and a villain makes for a more interesting story than personal reflection.
  12. In addition to the endorphin rush it provides, signaling support of a bill is far less work than a lifelong effort to treat people well.
  13. The measurement problem, the cultural change argument’s lack of charisma compared to magic bullet legislation, the abstract nature of culture, the difficulty for ongoing individual effort, our own brain chemistry, and the long-term nature of change all contribute to why people’s everyday cultural values aren’t discussed as much as they could be.
  14. Astute readers might notice that economic historian Deirdre McCloskey says similar things about cultural change and the origins of modern mass prosperity, which extends beyond one’s bank account to include the arts, life expectancy, political inclusion, technology, travel, family life, and more. Caring about gender discrimination and fighting against it is another important aspect of the larger classical liberal project.
  15. Gender discrimination is a complex problem with a complex solution. But then, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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.

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.

Inequality: Policies That Work, and Policies That Don’t

CEI recently released a pair of papers by Iain Murray and me about economic inequality. The first encourages activists to ask the right questions: think about flesh-and-blood people, not ratios. The second paper seeks to answer the right questions. Our main focus is on effective poverty reduction policies. But it is also important to know which policies don’t reduce poverty, so policy makers can avoid them. We mention two in our paper: minimum wage hikes and increased collective bargaining.

The arguments against both are similar: they have tradeoffs. Some workers benefit from a higher minimum wage, and many union members benefit from higher union wages. But their benefits come at a cost.

Workers pay for minimum wage increases in the form of reduced hours, firings, some workers never being hired in the first place, higher youth unemployment, and reduced on-the-job perks ranging from paid vacation to free parking and meals. These costs to people must be weighed against the benefits other people receive. Whether they are worth it or not is a decision every individual must make for himself, and is open for debate. That these tradeoffs exist is not debatable.

Collective bargaining’s costs include higher consumer prices, along with lower wages and reduced purchasing power for other workers. Public sector unions impose massive costs on taxpayers through their pension obligations. They are major contributors to potential government bankruptcies in coming years from California to New Jersey. Again, some workers do benefit from collective bargaining. And it is every individual’s own decision if the tradeoffs worth it or not. But the tradeoffs exist.

There are many policies that instead can make the poor better off, from affordable energy to occupational licensing reform, to easy access to capital, to regulatory reform, a CEI specialty. But some policies do not help the poor—or if they do help some of the poor, the tradeoffs eliminate net gains in human well-being. Minimum wages and collective bargaining are two such policies. Well-meaning activists should approach them with caution.

For more, see Iain’s my new paper, The Rising Tide: Answering the Right Questions in the Inequality Debate, as well its companion paper, People, Not Ratios: Why the Debate over Income Inequality Asks the Wrong Questions.

Inequality Coverage

Iain Murray’s and my new papers on inequality, People, Not Ratios and The Rising Tide, have gotten some good coverage.

Kudos to CEI’s communications team for all their hard work. More to come.