My last post, “The Politics of Distrust” presents the view that the main reason for the divisiveness of today’s politics is “the stubborn torpor of the American economy.” If this is true then the solution is obvious: speed up economic growth! A couple of weeks ago the economist Alan Blinder, a Hillary Clinton advisor, had an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal, “A Fairness Agenda for Winning Over Angry Voters” with which I largely agree. Here are the highlights of Mr. Blinder’s fairness agenda:
A labor market tight enough to leave employers scouring the land for workers, the best tonic for workers the world has ever known. Mr. Blinder does say that looser purse strings by Congress would help create more demand but it is simply too risky to keep running up our already enormous national debt. Eventually interest rates will return to normal and interest payments on the debt will skyrocket.
Raising the federal minimum wage would be an enormous help for wage earners at the bottom. Many states and cities are doing this on their own which is a better way to go because of huge regional differences.
Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, especially for childless workers. A very good way to incentivize work.
More Vocational Training and Apprenticeships. Strengthening community colleges and career education in high schools would go a long way to accomplish this.
Provide quality pre-K education for families who can’t afford it. Early childhood education for children from low-income families is another very good idea.
The tax code is a national disgrace.The corporate tax may be even more complex, inefficient and unfair than the personal tax. The mantra of tax reformers has always been: broaden the base, lower the rates. Amen!
What Mr. Blinder is calling a fairness agenda turns out to be a growth agenda in disguise. I would add a few more items like deregulation to encourage entrepreneurship and business expansion but basically Mr. Blinder has suggested an attractive program for economic growth which should appeal to a broad collection of political interests.
A recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times, “Minimum Wage Muddle,” is a good summary of the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage for the whole country. Mr. Brooks refers to a recent Congressional Budget Office report that a hike in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour might lift 900,000 out of poverty but would also likely mean a loss of 500,000 jobs. As suggested in a recent post, one of the things we could do to get beyond our political dysfunction at the national level is to:
Put a greater emphasis on state-centered federalism both to encourage experimentation and innovation in the American system and to remove issues from the national agenda which contribute to division, stalemate and endless controversy. Considering that income inequality varies so greatly from one part of the country to another, (see above), it makes a lot of sense to federalize the minimum wage issue. In other words, let cities and states set their own minimum wage levels based on their own local circumstances.
For example, the state of Nebraska, with very little inequality and where I live, has just raised its minimum wage to $8/hour ($9/hour beginning January 2016). Nebraska’s lowest in the country unemployment rate of 2.6% means that hardly anyone will lose their job.
As Mr. Brooks says, “Raising the minimum wage will produce winners among job holders from all backgrounds, but it will disproportionately punish those with the lowest skills, who are least likely to be able to justify higher employment costs.” Conclusion: raising the national minimum wage is not the best way to address the inequality and fairness issue. A better way is to create more jobs by boosting the economy overall. Then help low wage workers take home more money with a (perhaps expanded) Earned Income Tax Credit. Cities and states can establish their own individual minimum wages however they wish.
In my opinion the two most serious problems facing the U.S. at the present time are 1) stagnant growth and 2) massive debt. As discussed by William Galston in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the U.S. presidential campaign is now beginning to address the first of these issues. For example:
Bernie Sanders rejects “growth for the sake of growth” and says that “our economic goals have to be redistributing a significant amount back from the top 1%.”
Hillary Clinton says that we have to build a “growth and fairness” economy. “We can’t create enough jobs and new businesses without more growth, and we can’t build strong families and support our consumer economy without more fairness.”
Jeb Bush argues that there is nothing wrong with household incomes that 4% growth wouldn’t solve.
The readers of this blog will have little difficulty figuring out where I stand on this continuum of economic values. My view is illustrated by the chart just below from the World Bank which shows that countries with the fastest growing economies also have the least amount of inequality. Let’s be more specific. Mrs. Clinton would achieve more fairness by:
Raising the minimum wage.
Guaranteeing child care and other family friendly policies.
Encouraging profit sharing.
Encouraging more innovation by increasing public investment in infrastructure, broadband, energy and scientific research.
These are attractive goals but how do we achieve them? The best way to raise wages is to get the economy growing so much faster that it creates a labor shortage. Then businesses will be competing for labor and wages will go up. This is exactly what is happening in Omaha NE where I live and the unemployment rate is down to 2.9% (2.6% in Nebraska as a whole).
Furthermore, in a tight labor market, businesses will automatically try harder to keep good employees by providing extra benefits such as childcare and profit sharing.
Public investment in infrastructure, etc. will be more easily affordable with the higher tax revenue generated by a faster growing economy. Conclusion: faster growth is the best way to create a more fair and equal society!
Income inequality in the U.S. is getting worse and one reason is that the middle class is being “hollowed out” by a lack of sufficient job opportunities. The result is more people at the bottom end of the income scale. Not surprisingly, it turns out that many of these low-wage workers are receiving public assistance, as documented by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, and the New York Times. The authors point out that if these workers received higher wages, they would not require as much public support which, in turn, would save money for the taxpayers. This is a true but not a practical means for helping the poor. Employees are paid what they’re worth based on the law of supply and demand. Companies will pay as much as they have to in order to find and retain well qualified workers. Furthermore, a minimum wage which is too high will simply lead to a higher rate of unemployment.
There is really only one good way to raise the overall wage level, especially at the bottom end of the scale. It is to speed up economic growth, thereby lowering the unemployment rate and creating more demand for workers.
This is exactly what has happened in Omaha NE where I live. The official unemployment rate is 3.2% and there is a labor shortage. A new minimum wage ($8/hour now, $9/hour next January) was approved by the voters last November. But low-skill entry level jobs are paying $10/hour or more because of the scarcity of workers.
There are plenty of opportunities to succeed in Omaha. Support yourself with a low-wage job and go to Metropolitan Community College to learn a high-skill, high-wage trade. Most people are capable of following this route to a better life!
Several days ago I had a post entitled “A Rational Approach to a National Minimum Wage,” in which I expressed support for a national minimum wage level of somewhere between $8.00 and $9.00/hour combined with an expansion of the Earner Income Tax Credit program to single, childless workers, paid for by tightening up on the EITC payment methods. There is an interesting alternative to this combined minimum wage/EITC approach. It is the so-called wage subsidy program described in the book, “Rewarding Work: how to restore participation and self-support to free enterprise” by the economist Edmund Phelps. Click here for a short summary.
The idea is that low wage work would be directly subsidized by the government to the employer. A firm employing low-wage workers, let’s say from $7.25 up to $10.00/hour, just to be specific, is paid a subsidy for each such employee on a sliding scale. The higher the wage is, the lower is the subsidy, until it has tapered off to zero. The subsidy is paid to the firm once a year as a nonrefundable credit against taxes. Competitive forces would ensure that most of the subsidy would be paid out to the low-income workers as higher wages. Mr. Phelps gives a persuasive argument that his program is a much more efficient way to increase low-income employment than either a minimum wage or the EITC.
It is unrealistic to expect a rollback of our current minimum wage of $7.25/hour. However, a wage subsidy could take the place of an increase in the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage, even to $9.00/hour, is predicted by the CBO to lead to a loss of 100,000 jobs.
Likewise, as Mr. Phelps says, the EITC “program is not really a tool to reward and stimulate the unemployment of low-wage workers so much as a program of credits for those who, for whatever reason, have low wage incomes.”
Conclusion: a wage subsidy creates low-income jobs and boosts their pay by making it profitable for businesses to hire low wage workers and pay them well. Such a program, a la Phelps, would need to be carefully melded with our current EITC program to achieve maximum cost efficiency.
Americans are a generous and kind-hearted people. We are more than willing to go to bat for the less fortunate among us. The question is how to do it effectively. A post six months ago, “A balanced and Sensible Anti-Poverty Program,” laid out four principles for an effective anti-poverty program from Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute. They are:
work requirements for welfare recipients
work incentives such as the Earned Income Tax Credit
fostering married, two-parent families
business growth and investment to create more jobs
There is currently much interest in , and public support for, raising the minimum wage at both the state and national levels. This is viewed by the general public as an effective way of addressing poverty. However a new report from Mr. Doar makes clear that simply holding a real job, even with low pay, is what makes the biggest difference as to whether or not someone is able to rise above poverty. Even though the overall poverty rate in the U.S. is about 14%, the poverty rate for fulltime workers is only 3% and even for part-time workers it is just 7% (see the above chart). Furthermore, as detailed in the second above chart, the total income (including selected benefits) of a low-income earner, at $8/hour, with two dependent children, and working fulltime, is $30,204, well above the poverty line.
Conclusion: yes, poor people need public assistance but it is equally important to work with them to find and hold a job, regardless of hourly wage. Not only will this meet their basic material needs, it will also put them on track to become self-supporting, productive citizens.
In my last post I endorsed raising Nebraska’s minimum wage from $7.25/hour to $9.00/hour because Nebraska’s unemployment rate is only 3.6% and so a minimum wage boost is unlikely to put very many people out of work. I also stated opposition to President Obama’s proposal for a raise in the national minimum wage to $10.10/hour because it would likely put at least 500,000 people out of work. A recent article in National Affairs by Charles Lane, “A Grand Bargain on the Minimum Wage,”suggests an approach to end a perennial controversy over how to set a minimum wage at the national level. It is based on the following observations:
Increasing the minimum wage has broad public support. A recent Gallop poll found that 76% of Americans support an increase to $9.00/hour.
However, just 4% of minimum-wage workers are single parents. Only 11.3% of workers who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage come from poor households. The majority of minimum-wage workers do not live in poverty.
A more efficient, better targeted support program for the working poor is the Earned Income Tax Credit which provides a refundable tax credit as high as $6,143 for an adult worker with three children.
Since 1959 the average income for a full time worker earning the minimum wage has equaled two-thirds of the poverty line for a family of four. The current poverty line for such a family is $23,850. This equates to a minimum wage set at $8.00/hour.
Another option would be to set the minimum wage at 45% of today’s average private sector wage of $20/hour. This would make it $9.00/hour. The CBO has estimated that a $9.00/hour minimum wage would put “only” 100,000 people out of work.
Once a new minimum wage level is determined, it should be automatically adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index.
The EITC is not cheap; it currently gives $63 billion in benefits to 27 million workers. However the EITC’s improper-payments rate regularly exceeds 20% per year.
An expansion of the EITC to single, childless workers could be paid for by tightening up EITC’s payment methods.
All of these considerations suggest a way forward to end a long-standing political controversy in a productive manner. The national minimum wage should be raised to somewhere between $8.00 and $9.00/hour and then indexed to the CPI. At the same time the EITC should be tightened up and expanded to single, childless adults. Such a program combines fairness with a strong work incentive and should have broad appeal.
In his State of the Union address last January, President Obama proposed raising the national minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from its current level of $7.25 per hour. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this would raise the wages of 16.5 million workers but also put at least 500,000 out of work. At a time of high unemployment, with an estimated 24 million people either unemployed or underemployed, this would be a bad tradeoff. The Wall Street Journal reports, “Some Republicans Back State Minimum-Wage Increases,” that five states, including Nebraska where I live, have minimum-wage proposals on the ballot this year. In Nebraska the minimum-wage would increase in two steps to $9.00/hour from $7.25. Nebraska’s unemployment rate is currently 3.6%, and it is estimated that there are only 27,000 people in the state being paid the minimum wage. In other words, Nebraska actually has a labor shortage and it is unlikely that a mild increase in the minimum wage will put very many people out of work. A minimum wage contributes to fairness but not to growth. Both are important but growth is the more important of the two. A minimum-wage increase in Nebraska will increase fairness without hurting economic growth and so I support this.
At the national level, an increase in the minimum wage would increase fairness but also hurt economic growth (by causing substantial unemployment) and so I oppose it.
Work requirements as a condition of public assistance. The work first approach has been shown to have better outcomes with regard to attachment to the labor force than even approaches which focus on training and education.
Robust work supports for those who are working at low wages. The Earned Income Tax Credit accomplishes this and should be extended to childless adults.
Business growth and investment. Policies that raise the cost of doing business and deter growth do little to create what the poor need most: jobs.
Foster married, two-parent families. We need to mitigate marriage penalties in public assistance programs and we need to be honest about the consequences for children of single parenthood.
Mr. Doar points out that 10.2 million American’s are unemployed at the present time, 3.6 million have been jobless for more than 27 weeks, 7.3 million are involuntarily working part-time and 837,000 workers are so discouraged that they have stopped looking for work. Labor force participation has dropped from over 66% in 2007 to 63% today while the poverty rate has risen from 12.5% to 15%. Raising the minimum wage will not help the job prospects of most poor Americans. Only 11.3% of individuals who would benefit from raising the minimum wage are living below the poverty line. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would lead to 500,000 people losing their jobs. CBO also estimates that the Affordable Care Act will reduce full-time employment by 2.3 million by 2021. Given the strong anti-correlation (see the above chart) between labor participation and poverty, this means that the poverty rate may go higher yet.
The conclusion to draw from this excellent poverty synopsis (with lots of references) is that there are intelligent and effective ways to fight poverty and also much poorer ways to try to do it. Good intentions are not enough!
Two of my favorite columnists are the Brooking Institution’s William Galston, a social economist who has a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal and the economics journalist Robert Samuelson who writes for the Washington Post. Most people agree that income inequality in the U.S. is steadily getting worse. Mr. Galston make a good case (see my last post) that it is primarily caused by the large gap between the rising productivity of American workers and the stagnant level of their pay which has developed since 1973. He thinks that we need a fundamentally new social contract which links worker compensation to productivity. This, of course, is a tall order and it is not at all clear how such a new order would be achieved. Mr. Samuelson has a different perspective: “Myth-making about Economic Inequality”. For example:
The poor are not poor because the rich are rich
Most of the poor will not benefit from an increase in the minimum wage because only 6% of the 46 million poor people have full time jobs
All income groups have gained in the past three decades, even though the top 1% has gained the most (see the above chart from the CBO, December 2013)
Widening economic inequality did not cause the Great Recession
These two perspectives on inequality are quite different but not contradictory. Basically what Mr. Samuelson is saying is that we have to be careful in how we address this problem or we’ll just make it worse. Raising taxes on the rich is unlikely to help and might hurt if it slows down the economy. Raising the minimum wage will only raise a fairly small number of people out of poverty and may cause a lot of unemployment along the way.
My solution: focus on boosting the economy to create more jobs in the short run (tax reform, immigration reform, trade expansion) and improved educational outcomes for the long run (early childhood education, increasing high school graduation rates, better career education).
But I agree with Mr. Galston that it is imperative to lessen income inequality, one way or another. Otherwise as a society we’ll have big trouble on our hands.