Posts tagged ‘unemployment’

The Cost of our New Corporate State

As Obama pushes the US into a corporate state model like those in Europe, here is one cost we will face: increases in long-term unemployment.  Already we see higher structural barriers being created to employment (preference for preferred unions, higher minimum wage, reduced internships) combined with increasing incentives to remain unemployed (extension of unemployment benefits, subsidized medical services).

Most countries who move to this model experience very high long-term structural unemployment.   The costs to add an employee in Europe are really, really high, meaning that it is only done reluctantly and the preference is for highly skilled workers  (who is going to give a job for life to an untested, unskilled young worker?)  Further, these states are run by a troika of large corporations, unions, and government insiders who protect each other from competition.  Young unskilled workers are a competitive threat to established unions.  Since these unions workers get above-market wages, they are protected from younger workers who are willing to offer their admittedly less skilled labor much cheaper.

I was playing around with data released from the World Bank, and compared the US to a number of other industrialized countries on this metric.  Even in past recessions, long-term unemployment has remained low in the US (click to enlarge).  The metric is percent of total unemployed that are unemployed for longer than 1 year.

Labor Law Reduces Employees' Freedoms Too

I get tired of the perception that labor law is universally beneficial to people selling their labor, and that these laws are solely intended to reduce the ability of rapacious employers to exploit powerless workers.  It confuses people to no end when I say that minimum wage laws prevent workers from selling their labor for less than the minimum wage, and is therefore a restriction on every worker's freedom.  Supporters of the law say, that's can't be right, it simply must be helping all workers.

But I think anyone who has gone through the experience lately of trying to help their teen get a summer job knows this is not the case.  My son would gladly work for free or below minimum wage at any number of jobs to get experience.  Unfortunately, he must be paid the same minimum wage as someone with years of experience, and many large corporate chains have simply banned hiring of kids under 18 to avoid liability and labor law hassles associated with hiring teens.  The result is an astronomical unemployment rate for teens.

So here is another example, with the Feds cracking down on unpaid internships.  This is simply crazy.  The government has got to realize that there are useful and valuable things one can trade his labor for (e.g. experience, training) that can't be measured in money.

Of course, you know who is the greatest violator of these internship rules?  The organization that requires the longest hours for the least pay (well under minimum wage) for a huge portion of its staff?  Why, its the US Congress, but of course they exempt themselves from these laws.

UpdateFrom a commenter on Stossel's blog:

Maggie Hanson:

I have an unemployed friend trying to land work in a new field where she has no experience. She's up against experienced applicants. I suggested she offer her services for free as an intern for 3 months in exchange for learning on the job and a letter of recommendation. She told me she didn't think that was legal. I'm appalled to learn she is right! Yet how else is she going to get experience? She can't afford school. Internships are a free education.

Why Is the Media So Much Smarter About Legislation After it is Passed

I have decided there is something that is very predictable about the media:  they usually are very sympathetic to legislation expanding government powers or spending when the legislation is being discussed in Congress.  Then, after the legislation is passed, and there is nothing that can be done to get rid of it, the media gets really insightful all of a sudden, running thoughtful pieces about the hidden problems and unintended consequences of the legislation.  I remember that they did this with the ethanol mandates, when I summarized:

All this stuff was known long before Congress voted for the most recent ethanol mandates.  Why is it that the media, who cheerled such mandates for years, is able to apply any institutional skepticism only after the mandates have become law?

And now we are seeing it with the stimulus bill:

A federal spending surge of more than $20 billion for roads and bridges in President Barack Obama's first stimulus has had no effect on local unemployment rates, raising questions about his argument for billions more to address an "urgent need to accelerate job growth."An Associated Press analysis of stimulus spending found that it didn't matter if a lot of money was spent on highways or none at all: Local unemployment rates rose and fell regardless. And the stimulus spending only barely helped the beleaguered construction industry, the analysis showed.

With the nation's unemployment rate at 10 percent and expected to rise, Obama wants a second stimulus bill from Congress including billions of additional dollars for roads and bridges "” projects the president says are "at the heart of our effort to accelerate job growth."...

Even within the construction industry, which stood to benefit most from transportation money, the AP's analysis found there was nearly no connection between stimulus money and the number of construction workers hired or fired since Congress passed the recovery program. The effect was so small, one economist compared it to trying to move the Empire State Building by pushing against it.

Well, better late than never.  And actually moderately timely in this case because we are considering a second stimulus bill.  It even includes this insight which is almost NEVER raised in stimulus-related discussions:

"As a policy tool for creating jobs, this doesn't seem to have much bite," said Emory University economist Thomas Smith, who supported the stimulus and reviewed AP's analysis. "In terms of creating jobs, it doesn't seem like it's created very many. It may well be employing lots of people but those two things are very different."

Exactly.  Stealing $10 million from Peter so Paul can hire three more people doesn't net increase jobs until you understand what Peter would have done with the money.  One has to argue that the market did a poor job in allocating capital to Peter and that the government will employ this capital more productively (hah!)

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended the administration's recovery program Monday, writing on his blog that "DOT-administered stimulus spending is the only thing propping up the transportation construction industry."

Well, as the article goes on to say, this turns out not to be the case.  But even if it were true, what industries were gutted by having their capital taken away so that one government-favored industry could be stimulated.

By the way, never underestimate the power of politicians to use every tool up to and including malfeasance to get more money and power for themselves (because that is exactly what the stimulus bills are -- a substitution of the markets with Congress in the capital allocation process).

It is also becoming more difficult to obtain an accurate count of stimulus jobs. Those who receive stimulus money can now credit jobs to the program even if they were never in jeopardy of being lost, according to new rules outlined by the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

The new rules, reported Monday by the Internet site ProPublica, allow any job paid for with stimulus money to count as a position saved or created.

Health Care Incentives

There are very few problems that can't be traced to information and incentives.  I thought of this when Tyler Cowen discusses an attempt to improve health care costs with better information:

The health care reform bill before the U.S. Senate would require hospitals to publicize their standard charges for services, but New Hampshire and Maine have gone much further in trying to make health care costs more transparent to consumers.

New Hampshire and Maine are the only states with Web sites that let consumers compare costs based on insurance claims paid there.

In New Hampshire, the price variation across providers hasn't lessened since the Web site went live in 2007.

The problem is that this is all useless if individuals have not particular incentive to shop.  If I were on Unemployment, would I bother to check a web site to see which unemployment offices had the lowest operating costs and go there to get my check?  No way, what incentive would I have to do so?  I am going to the closest one, or the one with the fewest lines.  Ditto with most people and health care:

third party payer

Of course, the new health care bill will only make this worse.   Those of us who actually have an incentive to shop, either with high deductible policies and/or HSA's will see our policies banned.   The new health care bill has done nothing but attempt to drive this line all the way to zero.

Update: IBD publishes on the exact same topic (I beat them by 12 hours).

Patients have little direct connection in paying for their care. Their role has fallen significantly. Meanwhile, the government's involvement has grown, as has that of the insurance industry.Because so many Americans rely on an insurance policy or a government program to pay their health care bills, the internal governors that temper the rest of their purchases are turned off. When a visit to the doctor's office or a diagnostic test costs them a mere $10 or $20 co-payment out of pocket "” or there is no charge at all "” cost has little impact on their decision to see a doctor.

"By not knowing the full costs associated with health care, consumers demand more and 'overuse' it," Kenneth E. Thorpe explained a few years back in Health Affairs.

Americans would be more judicious in seeking health care "” they would self-ration "” if the right incentives were in place. An effective way to cut overuse and bring down costs would be to encourage through public policy the use of health savings accounts. If consumers used HSAs to pay the full amount for medical care at the point of service rather than letting employer-funded insurance or a government program pay the bills, the demand would fall.

The Democrats' health care legislation, however, puts more distance between Americans and the payment process and promotes dependence on government. That will only drive down consumers' out-of-pocket expenses even further and force overall health care spending upward. Under such a regime, the system will be worse off than it is now.

Was I Wrong, Or Did Something Change?

On any number of occasions from October through February, I predicted that this recession would top out at perhaps 9% unemployment at the most, and would probably not be as bad as the recession of the early 1980's.  My logic was that we had a mortgage-driven banking crisis, but that the crisis was perhaps not as bad as that of the late 1980's and that many fundamentals (e.g. interest rates) were looking way better in this recession than in the early 1980's.  I honestly thought that Bush and Obama Treasury and Fed officials were declaring the sky was falling more from the danger to their beloved former employers on Wall Street than due to any economic fundamentals.

Well, obviously I was wrong.  Unemployment has topped 10% and could be headed higher.

So the question is, do I accept that others saw something I did not, or do I crack open the self-serving excuses.  Well, at the danger that this will fall into the latter category (I will leave that to readers to decide) I do think some things have changed since late last year that have contributed to worsening the economy.

Businesses are reluctant to invest when the returns on their investment are wildly unpredictable, particularly when future income changes are more driven by changing acts of Congress rather than fluctuations in the market.   Over the last year the Congress and Administration have:

  • Printed trillions of dollars of new money, raising the risk of future inflation
  • Borrowed trillions of dollars, sucking capital out of private lending markets
  • Run up deficits that pretty much guarantee future tax increases
  • Toyed with health care bills that will substantially increase the cost of labor
  • Toyed with climate bills that will substantially increase the cost of fuel and electricity
  • Demagogued industries with average to below-average profitability for making obscene profits that must be reduced (e.g. health insurance companies who make 3-4% of sales)
  • Taken over whole industries (autos, banks) and run them to the benefit of favored political constituencies, even when it violates the law (e.g. trashing for secured creditors of auto companies in favor of the UAW).
  • Demonstrated a disdain for money-making by imposing populist compensation limits on executives of out-of-favor companies and industries.
  • Spent money in the stimulus mainly to add government jobs, every one of which is generally focused on making my life running a business harder.  If you do not understand or believe this, you have not run a business that employs people.
  • Shown a general philosophic hostility towards markets and capitalism

I am sure this is just a subset (Louis Woodhill has more in this vein here), but these all have negative effects on investment.  My company for one has backed out of several planned expansions this winter for four reasons:

  1. Half of my costs are labor, and I don't know how much Congress is going to increase my labor costs.  Current health care bills will increase it at least 8% -- given that my typical margin in 5-8% of sales, a government action that increases half my costs by 8% is worrisome.  Worse, my smaller competitors will not bear this expense under certain versions of the legislation.
  2. My second highest expense is fuel and electricity.  I have no idea right now how much Congress may raise these expenses.
  3. Capital for small businesses is gone.  I can get secured equipment financing, but that is it.
  4. Assuming I make any money from these investments, I have no idea how much I will be able to keep.  I would not be surprised at all if Obama pushes my marginal rates over 50% -- and investments in my business are just too much work and risk to keep less than half if I make any money.

I used to work as for several years in St. Louis as VP of Planning for Emerson Electric.  I worked for a guy named Chuck Knight, who could be a real pain in the *ss to work for, but was a) brilliant and b) always willing to speak his mind without the typical filters a lot of other executives apply.  It appears that his successor Dave Farr, who I also knew at Emerson, is following in this tradition:

Emerson Electric Co. Chief Executive Officer David Farr said the U.S. government is hurting manufacturers with regulation and taxes and his company will continue to focus on growth overseas."Washington is doing everything in their manpower, capability, to destroy U.S. manufacturing," Farr said today in Chicago at a Baird Industrial Outlook conference. "Cap and trade, medical reform, labor rules."...

Companies will create jobs in India and China, "places where people want the products and where the governments welcome you to actually do something," Farr said.

The unemployment rate in the U.S. jumped to 10.2 percent in October, the highest level since 1983. Emerson, which Farr said employs about 125,000 people worldwide, has eliminated more than 20,000 jobs since the end of 2008 to lower expenses.

"What do you think I am going to do?" Farr asked. "I'm not going to hire anybody in the United States. I'm moving. They are doing everything possible to destroy jobs."

Politicians in both parties are generally clueless about this kind of thing, because very few of them have ever run a business or even even been in a real business position other than as lawyer or lobbyist.  Just look at how George McGovern feels now that he has run a business.

But the Obama administration is almost scary clueless.  In defending their promotion of a good business environment, they cite the most hostile item on their agenda:

"This administration has made a significant commitment to U.S. manufacturing, including reforming the country's health insurance system to bring down costs and make American companies more competitive globally," Griffis said.

Not. One. Single. Clue.

Actually, I think the Obama administration may believe this, which just accentuates their preference for a corporate state wherein "business friendly" means support for the top 20-30 corporations in the country.   In the context of a few old-line corporations with politically powerful unions, health care reform is helpful in that it dumps a bunch of the corporation's commitments to present and past workers onto the taxpayers.  But these are not the companies that grow the economy -- they are just the ones with out-sized power in political elections.

The Disincentive to Work

One of the successes of US law vs. European is that we have generally maintained the inventive to work -- in other words, we have been able to relieve economic hardship while still making unemployment uncomfortable enough to provide incentives to find work.

Based on this Mises Institute post, this may no longer be true.  If a family is comfortable with $45,000 a year, or doesn't think it has the prospect of earning more than that, there appears to be little incentive to work.



See the original post for explanation of the methodology and the exact programs driving these lines.

Mix Shift?

The graph is large, so you will have to click through to it, but basically it shows employment losses and wage changes by industry in the US from 2008 to 2009.  What confuses me is that all these industries show fairly large hourly wage gains, with gains the largest in certain sectors with the largest employment losses.

I come up with one of two explanations:

  • Labor laws, union contracts, and other structural barriers in the economy make it difficult to cut wages in a recession, which in turn probably makes unemployment worse
  • The average wage gains are due to mix shift - companies preferentially lay off newer and less skilled employees who make lower wages, shifting the average wage mix upwards.

Not sure which it is.  Probably a bit of both.

Life of the Libertarian

From John Hasnas via Matt Welch:

Libertarians spend their lives accurately predicting the future effects of government policy. Their predictions are accurate because they are derived from Hayek's insights into the limitations of human knowledge, from the recognition that the people who comprise the government respond to incentives just like anyone else and are not magically transformed to selfless agents of the good merely by accepting government employment, from the awareness that for government to provide a benefit to some, it must first take it from others, and from the knowledge that politicians cannot repeal the laws of economics. For the same reason, their predictions are usually negative and utterly inconsistent with the utopian wishful-thinking that lies at the heart of virtually all contemporary political advocacy. And because no one likes to hear that he cannot have his cake and eat it too or be told that his good intentions cannot be translated into reality either by waving a magic wand or by passing legislation, these predictions are greeted not merely with disbelief, but with derision. [...]

If you'd like a taste of what it feels like to be a libertarian, try telling people that the incoming Obama Administration is advocating precisely those aspects of FDR's New Deal that prolonged the great depression for a decade; that propping up failed and failing ventures with government money in order to save jobs in the present merely shifts resources from relatively more to relatively less productive uses, impedes the corrective process, undermines the economic growth necessary for recovery, and increases unemployment in the long term; and that any "economic" stimulus package will inexorably be made to serve political rather than economic ends, and see what kind of reaction you get. And trust me, it won't feel any better five or ten years from now when everything you have just said has been proven true and Obama, like FDR, is nonetheless revered as the savior of the country.

Michigan's Job Creation Plan

Michigan has  a huge problem with jobs and capital leaving the state for more favorable climates.  Which makes it incredible that the ruling Democrats in the state have this plan to improve things:

  • Hiking the minimum wage to $10 an hour for all workers.
  • Imposing a blanket moratorium on home foreclosures for 12 months.
  • Cutting utility rates 20% across the board.
  • Requiring all employers to provide health care to their employees.
  • Hiking, by $100 a week, and extending, for six months, unemployment benefits.

Wow, that should really bring companies running to the state to invest their capital.  This is always a powerfully attractive package:

  • Raise the price of unskilled labor and entry-level employees
  • Reduce protections for lenders investing capital in the state
  • Set the state up for power shortages
  • Increase the price of labor by $12,000 or more per year
  • Increase employment-related taxes  ( a sure outcome of raising unemplyment benefits)

My Favorite Quote of the Day

From a Chicago Tribune editorial on the city aldermen blocking Wal-Mart construction in the city, via Carpe Diem:

Organized labor doesn't like Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart doesn't have union jobs. It just has jobs (with an average hourly wage of $12.05 in Chicago). The aldermen, of course, already have jobs. They get paid $110,556 a year and they figure that as long as they keep the labor unions off their backs, they'll keep making $110,556 a year.

Who says the City Council doesn't generate jobs? If you're one of the 50 aldermen, your unemployment rate is 0 percent. But the unemployment rate for the rest of Chicago is above 10 percent. One in 10 Chicagoans is out of work.

Another Example of "Reduced Rationing on the Basis of Price and Ability to Pay"

Previously, I used 1970s gas price lines as an example of a situation where the government, as Uwe Reinhardt puts it, "reduce[d] rationing on the basis of price and ability to pay."

Here is another example:  The Pruitt Igoe housing project in St. Louis, which was abused so badly by its occupants it had to be torn down less than 20 years after it was built.


I will remind you of my earlier comparison of universal health care to public housing:

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.  The author above is probably correct that some crappy level of terribly run state health care will probably be an improvement for some of the poor.  But 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.

Job Losses

Job losses to date compared to other recessions, from Calculated Risk, via the Big Picture, with a bit of my annotation.


Not a great predictor yet, because we don't know where the bottom is.  But I do find it interesting how symmetric past recessions are - in other words, the time and slope back out of the trough seems surprisingly similar to the time to reach bottom.

Talking Us Into A Depression

At what point do politicians bear some public accountability for their public statements and the effect those statements have on the economy?  I almost want to ask Obama and Pelosi -- what is the minimum size of pork-spending bill you will accept so we can just go ahead and pay the money and get you and your cohorts to shut the hell up on trying to convince everyone we are in the Great Depression.  Because, to some extent, such statements can be a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Seriously, the biggest stimulative effect of passing this stimulus bill will be, almost without doubt, that it will end the felt need for Washington weenies to create an atmosphere of panic.

Now, I suspect that I would have a different observation if I lived in Detroit, but I ask every business owner or manager I meet for the personal evidence they have of economic cataclysm.  Is their business down?  And in a surprising number of cases, I get the answer that their business is doing OK, but they are cutting back because surely the worst is soon to come, based on everything they see in the media.  And do you know what?  I have done exactly the same thing.  I had one bad month, but since then things have been pretty steady, but I am cutting like crazy anyway, because I can't ignore the only other information source I have on the economy, which are pronouncements in the media.

I strongly believe that public pronouncements of doom, starting last October with Henry Paulson and continuing now to almost daily excess by Obama (today's statement:  the economy is in a "virtual free fall") have measurably contributed to job losses in this country.  Many people who are on the street without a job today can probably trace their unemployment to "just in case" cuts made more in response to government assurances of doom as on actual declines in output.

I can't prove this, of course, but I will present one pretty good pointer that I might not be totally full of it.  With the January jobs report, the recent recession has become one of the five worst since WWII in terms of jobs losses as a percentage of the work force (I know you may, from reading the paper and listening to Obama, think it is the worst, but it is still only the fourth or fifth worst).  Let me compare the job losses and the output declines at this point in the recession for these 5 recessions:


As you can see, we have had far more job losses relative to output losses than any major post-war recession.  This does not mean that more output losses are not coming, but it means that, perhaps unique to this recession, job losses are preceding rather than following output losses -- in other words, job losses are occurring more than in any other recession based on the expectation of output losses, rather than in reaction to them.  I wonder who it is that is setting these expectations?

Wow, using panic to achieve political aims and in the process accelerating job losses.  And they say we libertarians are heartless!

Data updated by the Minn. Fed here.  They actually have job losses through 13 months, but I jused 12 months because there are only quarters for the output numbers.

Update: Via the Washington Times:

Just Friday, Mr. Obama said a report that 600,000 jobs were lost in January meant "it's getting worse, not getting better. ... Although we had a terrible year with respect to jobs last year, the problem is accelerating, not decelerating." Last week he said, "A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe."

But he isn't the only Democrat ramping up the rhetoric while talking down the economy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said last month that our economy "is dark, darker, darkest." Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin said, "This economy is in mortal danger of absolute collapse." And Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said of the economic-stimulus bill, "If we don't pass this thing, it's Armageddon."

Depression Doubt

MaxedOutMamma (an economist somewhere but she seems to only drop tantalizing clues as to where she plies her trade) is concerned:

I was troubled by how many people seemed to feel the economy wasn't in deep trouble.   Profound skepticism and the belief that this is all media/political highjinks seem almost to be the consensus.

I guess you may have to put me in the majority.  I certainly don't doubt that we are headed for a recession.  And it would not surprise me if this is the worst recession that most 20-something Obama voters have experienced, though that is not saying much.  But I am not sure we are even facing the Seventies in this one and we certainly are not facing the 1930s.

Here is the problem that we more casual consumers of economic news must struggle with -- the media has fairly accurately predicted 20 of the last 3 economic downturns.  Everywhere you turn, you see analogies to the Great Depression, a period of time where unemployment topped 25%.  Given the media's track record and the nearly breathless panic about the looming economic disaster, any sane person has to put a divide-by-X filter on economic news.  It is certainly possible that I and other are using too large of an X as a correction factor, but is that my fault, or the fault of the purveyors of information who can't tell any story straight.

By the way, for us Polyannas, here are several interesting posts from Mark Perry

Re-Evaluating Home Ownership

Mark Perry has had a series of posts of late presenting the hypothesis that high rates of home ownership in the US may be detrimental as it reduces labor mobility.  The argument goes that homeowners have a harder time moving for new jobs than renters do.

impedes the economy's readjustment by tying people down. From a social
point of view, it's beneficial that homeownership encourages commitment
to a given town or city. But, from an economic point of view, it's good
for people to be able to leave places where there's less work and move
to places where there's more. Homeowners are much less likely to move
than renters, especially during a downturn, when they aren't willing
(or can't afford) to sell at market prices. As a result, they often
stay in towns even after the jobs leave. And reluctance to move not
only keeps unemployment high in struggling areas but makes it hard for
businesses elsewhere to attract the workers they need to grow.

The argument makes sense on its surface, but I am having a bit of trouble buying into it (though I will admit that as an American, I am steeped in decades of home-ownership-boosterism, so I may not be approaching the problem without bias).

On the plus side, the selling a home and buying a new one certainly has more costs than switching apartments, particularly if you add in a moving premium for home owners who can accumulate a lot more stuff than apartment dwellers and the switching costs due to emotional attachment to the current house.  Also, on its face, the argument is similar to criticisms of the economy of the antebellum south, where too much capital was invested in land and assets tied to the land.

However, I see a couple of problems with it.  First, its hard to find an increase in structural unemployment rates in the past decades to correlate to the increase in home ownership.  Second, the costs to change homes has been falling of late as the government-protected Realtor monopoly is finally being broken by technology and commission rates are falling.  Third, my sense is (though I can't dig up the data) that the average time in a home is dropping, meaning homes flip owners more frequently, again indicating a decreasing barrier to moving.

I would, however, be willing to accept that in a high home ownership regime, falling home prices and lengthening for-sale times could exacerbate an economic downturn by slowing mobility and thereby slowing the correction.  I would have argued in the past that this was offset by home equity as a savings tool and a source of cash in difficult times, but that could be different this time around as mortgage policies have tightened, drying up the ability to convert equity to emergency cash.

New Unemployment Numbers

US unemployment in August "jumped unexpectedly" to 6.1%, by the oddest of coincidences in the first full month just after new, 12% higher US minimum wages took effect

The unemployment rate is higher than it has been in the United States in the last 5 years, but substantially lower than the rate most Western European countries like France and Germany experience even during peak economic times. 

In response, the Obama campaign is urging further increases to the minimum wage and emulation of labor policy and legislation in France and Germany.

Open For 19th Century Business

From the grasping at straws file, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm has been talking for a while about remaking Michigan as an alternative energy powerhouse.  Henry Payne reports on her breakfast talk yesterday morning at the DNC Convention:

At a breakfast talk, Michigan's deeply unpopular governor
Jennifer Granholm explained that she was chosen to moderate Tuesday
night's energy panel from the convention stage because of the Wolverine
State's efforts in renewable power. The idea that windmills will rescue
one of America's great manufacturing states is absurd on its face, but
she persisted in spinning a fairy tale that Michigan is perfectly
positioned to take advantage of alternative energy manufacturing
because of the "Five Ws" (I'm not making this up) in abundance in the
state: "Wind, water, waste, workforce and wood."

That's terrific - they have all the key inputs needed for setting up an early 19th century business.  What is left unsaid is that Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the country, driven by fussy and high cost unions and a crushing taxation and regulatory burden.  The only message I take from the governor's talk is that if one is not in an alternative energy business, it's time to get out of Michigan, as the majority of businesses are about to face higher power costs and more taxes to support the governor's preferred industrial investment.  Which, come to think of it, is a message most businesses have already internalized about Michigan, seeing as the population of its largest city has dropped by more than 50% over the last several decades.

It is highly entertaining to see people who have never even worked in, much less have run, a real business (including Obama, Clinton, and about everyone else on the DNC rostrum) express the hubris that only they know what the right industrial investment plan for the US is and that only they know how to build a major new industry.  In particular, we saw last night the repetition of Obama's ridiculous made-up 5 million jobs number that I critiqued in depth several days ago.

Disclosure:  I actually run a few campgrounds in the UP of Michigan, but since sleeping in tents seems to fit the governor's industrial policy, I'll probably be OK.

Turning America into Europe

The Europeans have crafted a regulatory environment in their labor market that grants all kinds of protections and gauranteed benefits at the expense of new or unskilled workers trying to join the workforce.  We are doing the same thing:

This year, it's harder than ever for teens to find a summer job. Researchers at Northeastern University
described summer 2007 as "the worst in post-World War II history" for
teen summer employment, and those same researchers say that 2008 is
poised to be "even worse."

According to their data, only about
one-third of Americans 16 to 19 years old will have a job this summer,
and vulnerable low-income and minority teens are going to fare even

The percentage of teens classified as "unemployed""”those
who are actively seeking a job but can't get one"”is more than three
times higher than the national unemployment rate, according to the most
recent Department of Labor statistics.

One of the prime reasons
for this drastic employment drought is the mandated wage hikes that
policymakers have forced down the throats of local businesses. Economic
research has shown time and again that increasing the minimum wage
destroys jobs for low-skilled workers while doing little to address

According to economist David Neumark of the University of California at Irvine,
for every 10 percent increase in the minimum wage, employment for high
school dropouts and young black adults and teenagers falls by 8.5
percent. In the past 11 months alone, the United States' minimum wage has increased by more than twice that amount.

When Work Ethic Disapears

A while back, Megan McArdle observed that Sweden's semi-socialist state performed well for a number of years, riding on residual work ethic in the system, a sort of cultural bank that eventually will be overdrawn.   According to Michael Moynihan, it appears this point has been reached:

Sweden does have the highest rate of workers on sick leave in
Europe, despite being consistently ranked by the OECD as Europe's
healthiest country. As my former colleague Johan Norberg has observed,
sick leave payments"”which, at the time of the last election, were as
high as 80 percent of a worker's salary"”accounted for a staggering 16
percent of the government budget.

Wow!  That is really staggering.  And not at all surprising.  Even in this country, I can't tell you how many people there are who consider a permanent disability to be roughly equivalent to hitting the lottery.  Income for life, without working!  I even had one woman who sued my company for actually (as the law requires) reporting her salary to the tax authorities rather than paying her under the table as she had hoped.  By creating evidence she could work, I endangered her disability application that was in the works (she kept a set of crutches in her car which she only used when on business related to this application).

The government figure of 7 percent unemployment was repeatedly mocked
by both former Prime Minister Göran Persson's detractors and allies. A
study by McKinsey Global estimated the true figure"”which included those
on sick leave, in early retirement, in jobs programs"”to be between 15
and 17 percent. Jan Edling, a researcher with the Social Democratic
trade union LO, estimated the total figure of unemployed to be 19.7
percent. (Edling's report was suppressed and he was himself offered
"early retirement.") The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise said the
figure was 16.5 percent. Other studies ranged from 12 percent to 18

The author also makes a point I have tried to make a number of times -- that the ability of the US economy to integrate and give opportunity to poor immigrants is a huge positive, in terms of assessing relative merits of different economic systems on the poor, that is never considered when evaluating European welfare states:
And the problem of unemployment in Sweden loops back around to the
difficulty Sweden has had in integrating its immigrants into the job

As Swedish economist Esra Karakaya wrote in Aftonbladet in 2006,
the unemployment rate among immigrants in Sweden is 29 percent"”another
staggering figure, in marked contrast to the joblessness rate among
immigrants in this country. This, Karakaya convincingly argues, is
"because the labor market is governed by rigid job security laws" that
are incompatible with a globalized economy. Indeed, a recent study
tracking the fortunes of Somali immigrants in Sweden and in Minneapolis
(reported here in Swedish, summarized here in English)
found that its sample group in the U.S. started approximately 800
companies. In Sweden, they managed only 38. In a recent editorial in
the newspaper Expressen, Nima Sanandaji, a Kurdish immigrant, argued that
it was "important to study how the Swedish system of benefits, taxes
and [regulated] job market leads the same group of people to be
successful on one side of the Atlantic and to social poverty and
dependence in Sweden."

By the way, when you do the analysis right, the poorest quintile in Sweden does about the same as in the US.  The difference is that in 10 years, the poorest quintile in Sweden will still be the same folks, while the poorest quintile in the US will have moved up, to be replaced with new immigrants.

Well, I lost My Appeal

The California labor board has ruled, in its infinite wisdom, that my company is responsible* for the unemployment insurance payments to an employee who got hurt when he wrecked his motorcycle on his own time and was physically unable to work.  So an employee gets hurt in his off time and leaves us in the lurch when he can't work during our busiest season, and we owe him money for staying home?  Other issues I have with California unemployment here.  The original post about the ruling I was trying to appeal is here.

* Being responsible means that these payments go into the calculation for our unemployment insurance premiums.  Effectively the premiums we pay this year are calculated to match the payouts to our employees (or ex-employees) last year.

Next Step for Author of AZ Employer Sanctions: Target the Babies

Russell Pearce is the Arizona legislator who authored the AZ employer sanctions law.  Remember, that's the law that requires, among other things, employers to check the immigration status of current employees using an INS system that has federal rules in place that make it illegal to use this system to... check the immigration status of current employees.  His plan is to reduce a major source of labor in the Arizona economy which, by the way, has a 3.5%-4.1% unemployment rate over the last year, the lowest level in 30 years. 

Anyway, now Mr. Pearce has decided to target babies:

The newest front in the battle over illegal immigration is dragging health-care workers into the fray.

The Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association is trying to kill a
proposal by Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, that would require its members
to check the citizenship of patients who deliver babies at Arizona

If neither of the parents can prove citizenship, the hospital would be barred from issuing a regular birth certificate.

Babies of parents who are here legally but not citizens also would be denied regular birth certificates.

Beyond the obvious concerns about driving moms away from medical care for their deliveries, Mr. Pearce has a teeny-tiny Constitutional issue he must deal with in the 14th Amendment:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to
the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the
State wherein they reside.

Mr. Pearce is hoping that "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" can be stretched to say that such persons do not include immigrants.  In fact, the Supreme Court does not seem to have ruled on this specific issue (corrections welcome in comments) but historically they have been extremely loath to place limits on this.  And no one except Mr. Pearce and perhaps a few of his immediate family members believes that barring citizenship to children of legal immigrants will pass Constitutional muster.  And I am pretty sure that no matter how these questions come out, disallowing birth certificates would never survive a court challenge.  I don't think the immigrants' home country would issue a birth certificate in such a case so we would be creating people without a country.

Who Elected Me This Guy's Parent?

My company, as I have written before, gets hosed on unemployment insurance in states like California where the government does nothing to police cheating.  Many of my seasonal employees take vacations during the winter, but draw unemployment from California because the state has absolutely no interest in really checking to see if they are looking for work (which is a legal requirement of drawing unemployment).

This week I received the  most amazing ruling from California on unemployment.  If you don't understand how it works, the state taxes me a percentage of my payroll in the state as unemployment insurance premiums.  The rate is set so that the premiums I pay are about equal to the payments my ex-employees receive.  This means that the rate can adjust up and down, and also means that any incremental payouts are eventually paid by my company.  The rules are that the employee must have been terminated, not voluntary quit, and can't have been terminated for cause (i.e. theft) though in the latter case states like California give employees a huge benefit of the doubt (so huge, that I have never been able to prove "cause" to their satisfaction, and end up paying the unemployment for people who stole from me).

So I got this notice this week:

The claimant quit your employment on his/her doctor's advice.   A leave of absence was not available or would not have resolved the problem.  Available information shows that the claimant had good cause for leaving work [the claimant admits in a second document to having had a motorcycle accident on his own time]

Great.  The state has agreed to exactly the facts as we submitted them.  Victory at last!  Or not:

Your reserve account will be subject to charges.

An employee of mine has a motorcycle accident on his own time, and my company has to pay his wages while he is hurt?  Why?  Because we were the nearest people at hand to grab the money from?  Who elected me this guy's parent?

We Just Don't Have Enough Taxes

I propose a survey.  We will ask 500 CEO's of large company's and 500 small business owners just one question

1.  Do you agree/disagree with the following statement:  In order to make my business more competitive in international markets, the federal government needs to raise taxes and expand its scope

How many out of the 1000 would answer "Agree?"  Well, at least the number won't be zero, as long as you ask the NY Times:

"¦the taxes collected last year by federal, state and local governments in the
United States amounted to 28.2 percent of gross domestic product. That
rate was one of the lowest among wealthy countries - about five
percentage points of GDP lower than Canada's, and more than eight
points lower than New Zealand's. "¦the meager tax take leaves the United
States ill prepared to compete. From universal health insurance to
decent unemployment insurance, other rich nations provide their
citizens benefits that the U.S. government simply cannot afford.
"¦revenue will prove too low to face the challenges ahead.

I love the part about unemployment insurance particularly -- other countries are more competitive than we are because they pay their citizens more not to work.  Huh?  Daniel Mitchel responds:

The editorial conveniently forgets to explain, though, how America is
less competitive because of supposedly inadequate taxation. Is it that
our per capita GDP is lower than our higher-taxed neighbors in Europe?
No, America's per capita GDP is considerably higher. Is it that our disposable income is lower? It turns out that Americans enjoy a huge advantage in this measure. Is our economy not keeping pace? Interesting thought, but America's been out-performing Europe for a long time. Could higher rates of unemployment be a sign of American weakness? Nice theory, but the data show better job numbers in the United States.

I also would point out the general direction of net immigration, which has always been towards the US from nearly every country in the world rather than the other direction.

The favorite argument du jour for more taxes is that the US has more income inequality than other countries.  Well, that is sort of true.  Our rich are richer than theirs.  But are our poor poorer?  In fact, as I posted here, the data (from a liberal think tank) shows that they are not.   The poor in European countries have a higher percentage of a lower median wage.  When you normalize European income distribution numbers to percentages of the US median wage, you can see our poor do at least as well as those in Europe, while our middle class and rich do better.


The US poor still trail countries like Switzerland, but that is because of very different immigration realities.  The US numbers for the bottom quartile are weighed down by tens of millions of recent immigrants (both legal and not) whereas those of Switzerland and Norway are not.  If you left out recent immigrants, my guess is that the US poor would be the richest in the world.

I am Tired of Paying For People's Winter Vacations

I hire retired couples for the summer to run campgrounds and other recreation facilities.  Since these campgrounds are closed in the winter (most are under 8 feet of snow) I lay most of these folks off in October. 

The vast majority of my employees do not work the winter.  They have other retirement savings that they supplement working for me in the summer and then they take the winter off.   And that would be all of the story, except in  California.  For some reason in California, but not in most other states, all these folks run straight to the unemployment office and file for unemployment over the winter.  For those of you who don't know how unemployment insurance premiums work, the premium I pay as a percentage of wages is based on past claims experience.  In California, I am an "F", the worst category, and have to pay over 6%(!) of wages to unemployment insurance. 

Now in most states, what these employees are doing is illegal.   It is typical of unemployment offices that you have to call in each week and certify that you are looking for work.  If you are not actively looking for work, then you are not eligible, and most states outside CA seem fairly diligent about enforcing the rules.  Last year, not one but two of the people who were claiming unemployment in CA over the winter were in Mexico on the beach the whole time!  I know, because they called me from there to see if they were going to be rehired in the spring.

It was then that I found out why this happens more in CA than in other states.  I called the California state unemployment office and asked them how I could have cases of unemployment fraud (ie claiming unemployment when one is not actually looking for work) investigated.  The person from the state office got very hostile with me.  She said that I was making a very serious charge, and that if I made such a charge, and fraud was not proven, then I could be liable for civil and even criminal penalties for asking for the investigation.  I said forget it, raised prices to customers to cover the extra winter vacation wages I was forced to pay, and moved on.   

I Too Want A Big Picture Job

TJIC has a great link to an article about a guy who doesn't want to grub around in the details, but wants a job to help a company see the big picture and move forward.  LOL.  I can't tell you how many times I get a request for that job.  People are always saying they want a job doing "business development**" or "coordination" or "performance reviews."  The common denominator when I ask people to explain to me what these jobs actually would do is that they involve driving around a lot to different recreation sites I run or might run and "checking things out."

I tell people there is no such job.  I tell them I don't have that job, and I own the company.   It's a TV-inspired view of business, like Dynasty or Dallas, where the protagonists run around and do all kinds of stuff that doesn't look like real work.

Yeah, I get to enjoy some perks now and do some cool stuff running my company.  But how did I get here?   Well, the whole story is too boring to tell, but here is one vignette:  In March of 2003 I spent about 6 straight 90-hour weeks trying to get my new company registered on the fly in 12 states and about 30 counties for tax withholding, sales tax, occupancy licenses, unemployment taxes, workers compensation, and even egg licenses just so I could use the assets I just purchased.  This was at the same time I was programming some add-ons to Quickbooks so the finances could be tracked and setting up some of our first web sites.  All while I tried to keep an unfamiliar company running.  And, oh yeah, while I was thinking all that big picture stuff.  Yes, I think about the big picture - and in fact, I have radically reshaped the positioning of this company over the past five years.  But that is what you do in the shower or on the stationary bike.

I don't explain all of this, of course, I just tell people that I don't have a big picture job to offer them.   TJIC, as usual, is a bit more direct:

Or, phrased another way: you're a useless drama queen who - instead of
compromising your principals and taking a job that doesn't match the
job title you want, and then growing the job position around your
abilities - you'd rather stay home and live off your wife's salary.

** The world's one great moment for such jobs was in the late 90's Internet craze, when every startup employed hordes of business development guys who ran around making grand press-release inducing deals that generated absolutely no money.  "Let's trade our proprietary online merchant services framework no one wants to buy for your proprietary online price management algorithm no one wants to buy.  OK, cool."  When I came into the waning stages of several such companies, the first thing I did was blow all these guys away, followed by a quick inventory of our soft and hard assets to see if we actually had anything anyone wanted to, you know, pay money for.  I still think the whole IT world is tainted by the memory of these glory days for produce-nothings.  Everyone wants to be Steve Jobs without having to actually first produce a salable new technology with their own hands in their garage.