Last week, Alex of Christian Economics wrote a piece arguing, on the basis of both catholic social teaching and modern monetary theory, for the government to act as an employer of last resort. In this post, I’d like to respond to several aspects of his argument. This kind of exchange is always challenging as on the one hand I want to give the fullest possible justice to Alex’s argument, but on the other in an internet debate it seems impossible to respond to every point without both sides getting totally bogged down in novel-length posts. As such, this post will be comprised of several titled sections dealing with different aspects of Alex’s post which I thought most interesting to present counter-arguments to.
The Purpose of Unemployment: Why Looking For Work Is Work
Just a couple months into my first full time job, I was laid off. It was 2000 and the tech bubble was in the middle of bursting, and I was a college senior trying to work full time while finishing off my last few classes. The web hosting company that I was working for had built itself on an unsustainable business model so one day my whole office showed up to work and found out that every single one of us was laid off. Even though I was young enough and my expenses were low enough that I could weather joblessness fairly easily (despite not qualifying for unemployment since I hadn’t been working the job long enough) if was definitely one of the uncomfortable experiences of my working life. Looking at the job listings was infuriating — it seemed like there were dozens of jobs that I could do (and, of course many, many more which required experience or qualifications I didn’t have) but they remained steadfastly silent as I sent out applications and resumes. It only took me a few weeks to find a part-time job at similar wages, and only a month longer to find a full time job that actually paid slightly more than the job I’d been laid off from, but it seemed like a very long time.
I bring up the personal angle because it seems to me that job searching serves very different purposes for the individual job hunter and for society as a whole. Continue reading
Alex of Christian Economics is a thoughtful guy who adheres to some economic theories (specifically the Modern Money Theory of economics) that I don’t hold with. Thus marking out one of my rare areas of agreement with Paul Krugman.
Alex and I were looking for topics to have a sort of slow-motion blog debate over, and there seems no better place to start than one of the bigger policy proposals which many MMT adherents support: having the government become an Employer of Last Resort. Alex has a substantive post up to day making the case for an employer of last resort program from a Catholic and economic point of view. I’ll be writing and posting reply-post in the next couple days.
I take off my hat to you Klavan on the Culture for making the effort, but it will take more than that to get through to people who believe that infinite wealth can be produced by government fiat. Exhibit A is a plan to solve the national debt, read all about it here, which is quite popular among the people who call themselves “the reality-based community”. Pixies, unicorn dust, Obama is a great President and the government is a cornucopia of infinite largesse: many leftists in this country would sooner see us do a replay of the Great Depression than give up such delusions.
Paul Krugman recently did a Five Books interview with The Browser, talking about his five favorite books. The books are: Asimov’s Foundation series, Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, two books by Lord Keynes, and a book of essays by economist James Tobin, one of Krugman’s old teachers. Of Foundation he says:
This is a very unusual set of novels from Isaac Asimov, but a classic. It’s not about gadgets. Although it’s supposed to be about a galactic civilisation, the technology is virtually invisible and it’s not about space battles or anything like that. The story is about these people, psychohistorians, who are mathematical social scientists and have a theory about how society works. The theory tells them that the galactic empire is failing, and they then use that knowledge to save civilisation. It’s a great image. I was probably 16 when I read it and I thought, “I want to be one of those guys!” Unfortunately we don’t have anything like that and economics is the closest I could get.
Every week I make a point of finding the time to listen to the EconTalk podcast — a one hour interview on some economics related topic conducted by Prof. Russ Roberts of George Mason university. Roberts himself has economic and political views I’m often (though not always) in sympathy with, but he’s a very fair and thoughtful interviewer and has a wide range of guests. This week’s interview was with a semi-regular on the show, Prof Mike Munger of Duke University, and the topic was the concept of euvoluntary exchange which Munger has been attempting to create.
Munger’s project aims to identify why it is that some seemingly voluntary transactions are seen as morally repugnant by most people, and are either socially disapproved of or outright outlawed. So for example, say that Frank is very poor and desperately wants to provide for his family. Tom is very rich and is loosing eyesight in both his eyes. His doctor believes they can pull off a revolutionary new surgery and transplant a healthy eye into him, but they need the eye of a live, healthy person who matches Tom’s blood type and DNA well. Frank is a match and is willing to give up an eye in return for a million dollars.
Now, there are a few people who lean heavily in the rationalistic direction who would say this sounds like a great idea because it makes most people better off, but most people would react to this with revulsion, and it is in fact illegal to do this kind of thing in the US.
The interesting thing is that voluntarily donating an organ (so long as giving it up isn’t considered too big a detriment to you) is considered morally admirable, and is legal. So, for instance, there was a case a year or two ago in our parish where one young woman in the parish donated a kidney to another parishioner who needed a transplant.
Munger’s argument is that in the Frank and Tom example, the transaction may seem voluntary but it’s not really voluntary because of the disparity in means between Tom and Frank. Continue reading
One of the mildly worrying economic trends of the last thirty years has been the increasing gap between rich and poor in the US. Many policy analysts conclude that this is the clear result of not following whatever policies they advocate, and thus demand quick action. However, as a recent OECD study shows, most countries have seen increases in inequality since 1980:
Given that countries as varied as Israel, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and Finland have all seen increases in inequality of similar or greater scale (though not to the same absolute level, since they started lower) to that of the US over the last 30 years, it seems hard to imagine that it is simply a matter of US tax or social safety net policy which is the cause of the trend. Continue reading
Russ Roberts and friends have come out with another Keynes vs. Hayek rap video:
The production values on this are great, and I like the noir look they’ve got with, but I have to admit I slightly prefer their original: Continue reading
Having linked last week to some discussion on whether the US is really becoming “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”, I was struck by this chart, which I saw a link to this morning, over at Carpe Diem, showing top marginal income tax rates versus percentage of income tax paid by the top 1% of earners since 1980.
However, I thought it would be a lot more interesting if the chart showed the percentage of total income earned by the top 1%, and also showed the total federal tax liability (including Social Security and Medicare) rather than the just the income tax. Luckily, all this information is available easily on line. (Percent of taxes paid. Percent of total income. Historical tax tables.)
Here’s the chart I produced with that data:
There’s a Vanity Fair piece on income inequality by Nobel Price-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”, which has been cited again and again in the commentariat lately, and it’s a frustrating piece because of the extent to which is makes logical leaps or simply distorts reality. Scott Winship of The Empiricist Strikes Back does a good job of going through the piece and addressing it point by point, including taking on a few of the talking points which are increasingly becoming things “everybody knows” in the wonk community but which don’t actually mean what they seem to.
One of the problems with our modern society’s fixation on “data” is that people, even very educated people who should know better, often fixate on a given metric (for example, the claim that “While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone.“) without taking the time to dig into what we can discover of the realities that underlie that measure. Sometimes those realities do not fit with the ideological picture which makes the original metric so appealing. (Winship’s responses to the just quoted claim, both in the main article linked above and in this older one, are fascinating.)
Definitely worth a read.
Ever since people finished identifying “the American Dream” — the idea that in the US in particular and the New World in general somehow allowed people to escape the hidebound social structures of the Old World and better themselves via their own efforts — people have been worried that it is on the point of dying. Americans continue to show an an unusual degree of belief in the ability those who work hard to better themselves by their own efforts. For instance, in the 1999 International Social Survey, 61% of Americans agreed that “people get rewarded for their effort”, whereas only 41% of Japanese agreed, 33% of British and 23% of French. This belief has actually increased in recent decades. In 2005 the New York Times reported that while in 1983 only about 60% Americans agreed that “It is possible to start out poor, work hard and become rich” by 2005 nearly 80% of Americans agreed with that statement.
And yet, those who study inter-generational income mobility have been increasingly worried in recent decades that despite American’s belief that people can work hard and get ahead, that it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to actually achieve this in the US. In a lengthy report by the liberal think thank Center for American Progress, Tom Hertz of American university brings together a number of the recent studies on intergenerational income mobility in the US as compared to other countries, showing how people who are born into the lower income quartiles in the United States are less likely to reach the top levels of income than in other countries such as Germany, Sweden or Denmark. Continue reading
For decades, progressives tended to accuse conservatives of wanting to bring back the ’50s, but in recent years the shoe is on the other foot, with some prominent progressives saying they yearn for the good old days when unions were strong, manufacturing was the core of the economy, and the top marginal tax rate was over 90%. I wanted to see what the real tax situation was for people in a number of different income situations, so I decided to pull the historical tax tables and do the math.
Luckily, the Tax Foundation publishes the income tax tables for every year from 2010 back to 1913. I decided to compare 2010 and 1955. Here are the 2010 tax tables:
I then got the 1955 tax tables and adjusted the income brackets to 2010 dollars using this inflation calculator. (For those interested, the inflation factor from 1955 to 2010 is 713%) The result is as follows:
Cars that get over 40 miles per gallon in fuel efficiency are, reportedly, becoming all the rage, with more models from American and foreign car makers being introduced at the latest Detroit Auto Show.
So I got curious, having just started a 18-mile-each-way commute, what exactly are the savings one can achieve by buying a more fuel efficient car? I assumed a situation faily like mine: My car is paid for and costs me only minimal maintenance to keep up (a 14-year-old Toyota Camry) and a 20 mile each way commute.
Say you’re considering buying a new car which gets 40mpg for $20,000. That seems moderately standard for these cars. Assume a 40 mile daily round trip commute, and an additional 40 miles of weekend or additional driving. Assuming a current care actual efficiency of 20mpg. Assume the price of gas goes up to $4/gal. How long would it take for you to make up the cost of that new car in fuel savings?
For some reason, I found myself reading through Paul Krugman’s recent NY Times material. Perhaps it was a desire for a little mental vaunting, what with the direction the elections seem to be taking, and if so I should have come away quite satisfied as Mr. Krugman is in full Chicken Little mode. A GOP takeover of congress will be a disaster, and we should all be very afraid. Stupid people are allowing their emotions to run away with them and will destroy the world economy through getting all moralistic about debt. And of course, the reason why the entire world doesn’t see things Krugman’s way is because macroeconomics is too hard for them to understand.
Well, I’m certainly prepared to admit that Krugman’s expertise in macroeconomics is greater than my own — and I’ll even stretch and say that my understanding probably goes farther than that of the average bear. Continue reading
One of the difficulties that comes in discussing the many “isms” that populate the landscape of political discussion is that very often people use the same words without mean the same things, or indeed without having any clearly defined idea of what they do mean. While this is the case with nearly any ism (socialism, liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, etc.) I’d like to address in this case the way in which opponents (particularly Christian opponents) of “capitalism” tend to address the object of their condemnation. This is in some ways a beautifully typical example of a Christian opponent of capitalism attempting to describe what it is he is condemning:
We must remember the capitalistic system we live in also is a materialistic ideology which runs contrary to the Christian faith, and it is a system which is used to create rival, and equally erroneous, forms of liberation theology. It is as atheistic as Marxism. It is founded upon a sin, greed. It promises utopia, telling us that if we allow capitalist systems to exist without regulation, everyone, including the poor, will end up being saved. The whole “if we allow the rich to be rich, they will give jobs to the poor” is just as much a failed ideology as Marxist collectivism.
Admittedly, this is a somewhat muddled set of statements, but I think we can draw out of it the following statements which the author, and many other self described critics of capitalism (in particular from a religious perspective) believe to be true:
-Capitalism is a system or ideology much as Communism is.
-Capitalism is based on greed or takes greed to be a virtue.
-Capitalism is a materialistic or atheistic philosophy/system.
-Capitalism could be summed up as the idea that “if we allow the rich to be rich, they will give jobs to the poor”
-Capitalism promises utopia if “capitalist systems” are allowed to exist without regulation.
While one approach to this is simply to throw out the term “capitalism” entirely, what I’d like to do is accept that claim that we live in a “capitalist” system and that this system is roughly what libertarians/conservatives advocate, and proceed to address the claims made about “capitalism” in that context.
With a certain frequency, commentators see fit to worry as to the extinction of the US middle class. One among these, it seems, is one Edward Luce, who composed a piece on “The crisis of middle-class America” for the Financial Times. The piece profiles two families making about $70k/yr each, and worries as to the future of them and families like them. Both are, by coincidence, families of loyal Democrats, and the piece sports the requisite concerns about the potential dangers of tea party barbarians howling at the gates of the US order.
I feel myself in an odd position in regards to such stories. The particular definition of “middle class” picked for the story is a family income threshold which five years ago was frustratingly above our families income, and which now is embarrassingly below it. In this regard, I recognize myself to be uncharacteristically fortunate. However, having recently made a good deal less than this (and coming from a family which never exceeded such a total, even adjusting for inflation) I feel that I have some familiarity with the sort of middle class world being discussed — while I can’t escape the feeling that this seems a very squalid and foreign world to the Financial Times writer.
Added to this sense of class conflict is that Luce seeks to build up his story with juxtapositions of facts which sound like they mean more than they do. Continue reading
If you believe what you read on blogs or hear from certain politicians and pundits, a new kind of haves-vs.-have-nots class war is brewing across the land. Not between the rich and the poor, but between private and public sector workers, as related here.
Scandalous stories of public officials enjoying lavish or disproportionate pay and benefits at taxpayer expense, such as in Bell, Calif., and elsewhere , frequently make headlines and prompt calls for reductions in such compensation.
As with many other economic and taxation issues, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post usually depends on which side of the political spectrum you are on. Conservatives tend to answer “yes,” while liberals tend to answer “no” .
But which side is correct?
Before I delve into that question, I will first make some disclosures. I am a full-time employee of the state of Illinois, making $35,000 per year. I do not belong to a union, and due to the nature of my job and agency, probably never will. I have only received one raise the entire time I have been so employed (nearly 4 years) due to a promotion to a slightly higher job level. I do not expect to receive any raises for the foreseeable future; in fact a pay cut is a distinct possibility. Prior to that I worked 20 years in private sector employment in the newspaper field. In some instances the pay and benefits were comparable to, and even better than, my current job. In other instances they were not as good.
Now to the question: are public employees overpaid? That depends on who you ask and how one defines “overpaid”. The average pay of state and federal employees in general is higher than that of private sector workers in general. When broken down by education, profession, etc. the picture is not as cut and dried. For lower-skilled jobs requiring only a high school or vocational education — e.g. custodians, receptionists, guards — the public sector pays better, whereas for professional jobs requiring a college degree or higher (attorneys, doctors, CPAs, etc.), the private sector pays more — often a lot more. These articles from Kiplinger and from Governing.com explain the differences in greater detail.
Two of the biggest reasons for these disparities are that 1) public employment tends to have a greater percentage of jobs requiring a college education or beyond and 2) public sector jobs are more likely to be unionized.
Public employee unions are a favorite bete noire of fiscal conservative politicians and candidates at the moment, and much of the public seems to agree with them. The fact that public employees continue in many (though not all) states and localities to enjoy benefits most private employees no longer have, such as regular salary increases, defined benefit pension plans, and caps on health insurance premiums and co-pays, arouses resentment among ordinary citizens who are forced to pay for such benefits via taxation.
Although many officeholders and candidates talk a good game when it comes to reining in public employee benefits, in practice the most frequent targets of budget cutting measures such as layoffs, furlough days and pay cuts, are lower or mid-level non-union employees. They often end up being punished for the sins (real or perceived) of their higher placed or unionized colleagues, simply because they are the easiest targets — not protected by either union contracts or political/personal connections.
The biggest problems on a state and local level are pension deficits — the growing gaps between the amount of money in public pension funds and the amount of benefits those funds are expected to pay in the future. According to this report by the Pew Center on the States, pension shortfalls are fiscal time bombs that threaten to devour entire state and city budgets if nothing is done to defuse them before it is too late.
How did the situation get that bad? In most cases it was due to a variety of factors — yes, generous union contracts played a part, but so did repeated failure on the part of lawmakers to invest properly in public pension funds, demographic changes (aging of the Baby Boomers, people living longer), and investments tanking due to the recession. No one factor can be singled out, and the entire blame for the pension crisis cannot be laid at the feet of one person or group of people. But regardless of who is or was to blame, the problem has to be dealt with, not swept under the rug.
Private sector employees are quick to point out that while they have to support public employee benefits with their taxes, public employees are not forced to do the same for private employees — they can choose whether or not to do business with a private company.
I agree, and this is in my opinion an argument that should be taken most seriously. For that reason, public employees are by necessity accountable to the public and will always be subject to various restrictions and considerations that do not apply to private employees (e.g., their salaries being public information). This is not “unfair” or unequal, but simply part of the deal one signs up for when working for a government body.
Another claim often made by private employees is that government workers, by virtue of the pay, job security and benefits they enjoy, are artificially insulated from the realities their privately employed neighbors face — the constant threat of being fired or laid off, lack of retirement security, worry about medical bills, etc.
That might, perhaps, be true of top officials/administrators with strong political connections who make six-figure salaries, whose spouses have equally high-paying positions, and whose children or other family members are completely healthy. Otherwise, I am not so sure.
Many public employees, particularly non-union ones, are regularly threatened with layoffs or missed paychecks (most often at the end of a fiscal year). Given the poor financial standing of many public employee pension funds, combined with the fact that some public employees don’t get Social Security, I’d say many of them (including myself) who are 10 years or more away from retirement are just as worried about their retirement as you are.
Also, most public employees do not live in a bubble or a vacuum. Most used to work in the private sector at some time in their lives, and many are married to spouses who work in the “real world” or are currently unemployed or disabled. Their grown children, their parents, their siblings, and their friends and neighbors include private employees or unemployed persons looking for work. The only exceptions I can think of might be political “dynasty” families like the Kennedys or Daleys. Plus, public employees pay all the same taxes everyone else does — federal, state, sales, property, the whole works. If taxes go up, it cuts into their budgets too.
Just because someone has a government job doesn’t mean they have, or should have, no interest in whether private business succeeds. If factories close and move overseas, if private companies go bankrupt and abolish or raid pension funds, if high taxes drive up the cost of living, if college education becomes unaffordable without taking on ruinous levels of debt — it affects them and their families too. It is in everyone’s interest, no matter what kind of job they have, to have a fiscally sound and honest government, competent public employees, and a sustainable tax structure.
Also, do not forget that for every instance in which a public official received undeserved pay, pensions or perks at taxpayer expense one could probably cite an equally egregious case of a private business executive enjoying lavish pay and benefits at the expense of fired workers, closed factories/offices, or raided pension funds. Greed is greed no matter where it occurs, and no sector of the economy is exempt from the effects of original sin.
Finally, since this is a Catholic blog, we should approach this issue from a religious perspective as well. Christ Himself chose a public employee, Matthew the tax collector, to be one of His Apostles. He also told His followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” So, apparently, He did not believe that working for the government was inherently evil, unproductive or exploitive.
Some more pointed advice was given by Christ’s precursor, John the Baptist, to the public servants of his day who came to see him (Luke 3:12-14):
“Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
John was referring to practices for which the public employees of the day were notorious — tax collectors often overcharged citizens and pocketed the “profit” they made, while Roman soldiers were known for shaking down citizens of the provinces they occupied for money, food, or other goods. Here John is telling them simply to do their duty, not demand any more of the public than the law requires, and be content with what they are paid. If today’s public officials and employees did the same, there would be a lot fewer problems.
As with most problems in a fallen world, there is no perfectly just way to balance the need for a professional, competent government workforce with that of a private sector free of unnecessary taxes and regulation. This does not mean, however, that we should not attempt to find as just a resolution as possible. However this will require people who are not to blame for the situation to help clean it up, and at considerable personal cost.
For public employees, this means more work for less pay, more out of pocket expenses, and for some, no job at all. For the rest of us it could mean higher taxes, reduced services or some combination of the two. All these things will impact thousands, even millions, of good, hardworking people who are simply doing the best they can and had no part in creating the situation. It may not be perfectly fair, but life ain’t fair.