Tag Archives: business

Some Brief Thoughts on the Minimum Wage

Here are some brief thoughts on the push for a $15 minimum wage, and particularly Robert Reich’s video in favor of that. After devoting diligent consideration to Reich’s seven points, I have come to the conclusion that he is full of it:

1. Yes, there has been inflation since the 1960s, which erodes the value of the minimum wage. Which side of this debate generally supports inflationary monetary policy?… Also, the productivity in the whole economy has increased, but not in the accommodations and food services sectors. In those sectors, the cost of labor has been outpacing productivity. See graph.

Unit Labor Cost

2. Low-wage jobs are not designed to support families; they are designed to give young, low-skill workers experience. And while a majority of minimum-wage earners are not teenagers, a large plurality of them are. Over half are younger than age 25. http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2013/ted_20130325.htm

3. I’ve heard this a lot lately, and it is completely backwards. When we subsidize the poor through those programs, we make not working a better alternative use of their time than before. This pushes wages HIGHER, since employers now have to compete with that better alternative. This doesn’t mean that we should balloon the welfare state, but if you are intent on helping the poor through government, programs like the EITC are a better less economically damaging way to do that.

4. This claim depends on the inelasticity of demand for labor and is automatically suspect, but even if it were true, there would be no real net benefit since the goods and services that the minimum-wage earners purchase would also increase in price. http://www.cato.org/blog/reich-wrong-minimum-wage

5. Before-tax profits for the fast food industry are around three percent. Companies cannot absorb such a drastic increase in labor costs. They will have to raise prices, which will hurt low-wage workers disproportionately. And while it’s true that employers compete for customers, a minimum wage applies to all employers, so each can rest assured that their competitors will face the exact same pressures. http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/09/higher-fast-food-wages-higher-fast-food-prices

6. So, because Republicans will push for a lower-than-$10.10 minimum wage, Democrats should go for the higher $15.00 to compensate… which will ultimately give us 10.10? I though Reich supported a higher minimum wage than that. Shouldn’t he advocate for $19.90 so he can get what he really wants after the GOP forces a compromise?

7. If raising the minimum wage to $15.00 is right, wouldn’t raising it to $30.00 be even more right? If Reich thinks that’s a good idea, he more obviously reveals himself as an economic dunce. If, however, he responds that doing so would be economically infeasible, which it is, then he is saying that economics trumps morality. But if economics trumps morality, why is he even bringing this up as one of his seven points?

Net Neutrality Politics: Moving Us Away from a Free, Open Internet

Net neutrality is an issue of rather esoteric beginnings—not many but a few technocrats and policy experts knew even remotely anything about it. With the help of corporate sponsors, however, it has now garnered time in the national spotlight. Unfortunately, as with most ideological fads, net neutrality’s popularity has expanded far more rapidly than peoples’ understanding of it, and a few critical myths persist which require elucidation.

But first, a brief background on what net neutrality means:

The term “net neutrality” refers to a principle under which all different types of content on the internet are sent and delivered at equal speeds. This means an e-mail from your grandmother will download to your computer at the same rate as a Netflix video. A non-neutral internet, by contrast, could entail that some content gets transferred at elevated speeds, necessarily slowing the rest. Content producers and end-users tend to be in favor of net neutrality because they benefit from a vast diversity of contents, and no one wants to run the risk of having their preferred content throttled. On the other hand, opponents tend to consist of internet service providers, such as DSL, cable, and satellite companies, who believe that tailoring their networks to fast-track certain types of content may lead to better end-user experiences and cost savings.

Today, net neutrality has become more than a mere principle, having manifested in several legislative acts and proposed administrative regulations over the past eight years. Each of these would, to varying degrees, restrict by force of law the business practices of internet service providers.

Like the proponents of most government regulations, net neutrality supporters will often wrap their advocacy in the public interest, the protection of some disadvantaged group, and/or the promotion of economic efficiency. Touchy-feely catchphrases such as “keep the internet free and open” and “all bits are created equal” abound, along with the assertion that net neutrality will bolster marketplace competition by relieving the burden of startup costs on bandwidth-intensive tech companies, and by preventing ISPs from arbitrarily censoring (competitors’) content on their networks.

While the proponents of this proposed government regulation seem to concede the benefit of competition in a marketplace—a refreshing sign—they nonetheless fail to see the contradiction created by invoking it. Free-market adherents correctly recognize net neutrality as a hindrance to marketplace competition, rather than a facilitator. Innovation is a key part of competition in any marketplace, yet the net neutrality regulations imposed by the Federal Communications Commission, recently struck down in January, would have stifled innovation among internet service providers. As Larry Downes noted in November:

In all, the FCC’s Open Internet order itself cataloged a dozen major non-neutral technologies, protocols, and business arrangements that have long been necessary parts of the Internet. Sensibly and of necessity, the agency granted exceptions from the rules for each and every one of them, recognizing that the “open” Internet, at least from an engineering standpoint, was anything but. For the Internet to continue functioning at all, the rhetoric had to give way to reality.

But there was no way for the rules to preemptively grant similar permission to any future network optimization technologies, other than to caveat all of the rules with exemptions for “reasonable network management.” That term couldn’t be defined, however, meaning that any future innovations will require FCC approval before large-scale implementation.[i]

In a world of rapidly growing internet traffic,[ii] a moratorium on innovation and experimentation on network management practices could spell higher costs and a far lesser quality of service for end-users and content providers alike.

This seems like a terrible tradeoff, since even an absence of government net neutrality regulations would not preclude the possibility of internet service providers adopting net-neutral business practices; and if consumers demanded such practices, they could simply switch from one ISP to another. The same is true for content providers—not only the giant companies like Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon; smaller companies and (yet to exist) startups may also switch between ISPs if they believe that their content is being discriminated against. This would be a system of true market competition.

In response to this fact, net neutrality advocates are quick to point out the abject lack of competition in the broadband internet market, which is a valid concern. The FCC has reported that of the 132 million households in the United States, only 47 million (roughly 35 percent) have access to four or more video programming distributors (i.e., cable, satellite, and telephone companies); cable companies alone have a market share of 56 percent among these distributors, and of the roughly 1,100 cable companies in the United States, the top five of them (in market share) account for nearly 82 percent of all video programming subscribers.[iii] Given that all of these companies also provide broadband internet services to many of their customers, the competitive outlook for the broadband internet market looks incredibly weak.

Acknowledging the interminably uncompetitive nature of the internet service market would seem to undermine the free-market competition argument against net neutrality. Since Comcast and similar companies so effectively control their respective markets, there is virtually no recourse for a dissatisfied customer. This cornering of the markets removes the normal incentives which spur companies to improve services and cut costs.

For most people, unfortunately, this is where the debate ends. While many will concede the benefits of market competition for internet service, they now dismiss those benefits as immaterial, since an effective monopoly exists in the largest internet markets. Now the only available option they see for ensuring fair or neutral business practices is through government-imposed net neutrality regulations. But this requires the erroneous assumption that the monopolistic structure of internet markets is a natural, otherwise unending state which only government power can mitigate. Because this completely disregards the question of how the internet market reached its current structure, it precludes the possibility of treating the underlying disease, rather than a mere symptom.

What we should instead do is ask, “Why is there an effective monopoly in internet service markets?”

Basic economic theory informs us that monopolies can only endure as long as no smaller, competing companies enter the market to provide the same (or better) service at a true market-equilibrium price. So why have so few companies entered the markets and upended the entrenched giants?

There are a number of up-front costs associated with starting a cable company and/or entering a cable market. Investment in building the initial cable infrastructure is one of these costs, but another significant, yet often unmentioned cost is that of acquiring cable franchises. In most states, cable companies must obtain a cable franchise from each and every municipality in which they want to do business. Large companies can easily expand into new markets because they have copious amounts of cash with which to pay the licensing fees, but for smaller/startup companies, the licensing requirements present an insurmountable barrier to market entry. Encouragingly, 21 states have passed cable franchise reform bills, meaning that cable companies need obtain only one license to operate within the entire state. In the 29 remaining states, however, cable companies must still work through the old, inefficient system. As usual, we see a monopoly that only persists with the help of government supports.

Evidence indicates that the entry of competitors into previously uncompetitive cable markets does reduce cable prices and provoke efforts from the incumbent cable companies to improve services. In response to entry by AT&T, who offers video services over internet protocols through telephone lines (and thus is not subject to cable franchise requirements), Comcast of Santa Rosa, CA, rushed to deliver “new features [video-on-demand, more channels] in Santa Rosa because rival AT&T has started offering its own digital TV service.”In Houston, similarly, Comcast pledged to offer more “linear and high-definition channels, video-on-demand titles and digital phone features” over the following two months, again in response to AT&T’s encroachment. [iv] A Bank of America study also observed basic cable price reductions of between 28 and 42 percent in areas of Virginia, Texas, and Florida where Verizon rolled out its FiOS video service.[v]

The solution is clear: If we can reintroduce competition into the internet service industry, we can entirely abrogate the need for government neutrality regulations while simultaneously improving consumer choice and quality of services, and lowering prices. Instead of wasting time on net neutrality, which will only stifle competition and innovation, governments at all levels should work to reform (with the goal of eventual repeal), the onerous cable franchise requirements which bar entry from new competitors. That will be a crucial step toward having a truly free and open internet.

 

[i] Downes, L. (2002). What Verizon’s Net Neutrality Challenge Is Really About. Forbes. Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrydownes/2013/09/11/what-verizons-net-neutrality-challenge-is-really-about/

[ii] Cisco. (2014). Cisco Visual Networking Index Predicts Annual Internet Traffic to Grow More Than 20 Percent (reaching 1.6 Zettabytes) by 2018. Retrieved from: http://newsroom.cisco.com/release/1426270

[iii] Federal Communications Comission. (2013). Fifteenth Report. Retrieved from: https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-13-99A1.pdf

[iv] Singer, H.J. (2007). The Consumer Benefits of Telco Entry in Video Markets. Retrieved from: http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/workshops/telecom2007/submissions/228100.htm

[v] Bank of America Equity Research. (2006). Battle for the Bundle: Consumer Wireline Services Pricing.

Another Reason to Like Rich People

They don’t just create jobs…

One of the most common complaints of a free market system comes from consumers who, while desiring a nascent product, are too in-affluent to buy it. I frequently see this sentiment emerge while reading the various technology and automotive blogs across the internet, where new products are introduced several times each day. Experienced bloggers and commentators are adept at shrugging off their disappointment in these situations; they know that consumers need only wait, and the product will eventually become affordable. Many people, however, don’t seem to understand how this occurs, and their bewilderment too often turns to impatience. To alleviate this problem, let me attempt an explanation of how a good or service becomes affordable.

First, an entrepreneur/producer has an idea for a product, either to create a new one or to improve upon an existing one. Because the product is relatively new and strange, the cost of building it is high. It requires lots of investment, research, time, and labor to create. The high cost of production necessarily translates into a high sale price.

Because the initial sale price of the new product is so high, relatively few people will be able to buy it outright—this small group of people consists of the most affluent among us. However, if the rich buy enough of the product, potential producers will interpret this as evidence of growing demand, and they will enter the market to capitalize on it. The subsequent combination of increased product supply from numerous competing firms, and streamlined production lines, causes prices to fall until profit margins can no longer support a growing number of producers. At this point, the market has reached the equilibrium of supply and demand, and the product is now affordable for the greatest number people.

Rich people are incessantly demonized by the envious and the despotic, but consider how our economy would be different if they were suddenly absent. Without rich people, new and expensive products would never be purchased. This would send a signal to potential entrepreneurs and producers that there is little likelihood for a return on their investments, which would seriously hamper the research and development of new products. It is difficult to imagine a world in which the shelves of our stores aren’t constantly being stocked with new products—a world where a better life is just out of reach—but such a world is possible when affluence is erased.

New products are risky. There’s a substantial chance that a new product will fail upon reaching the market. It is thanks to entrepreneurs and producers, who risk their time and resources on ideas, that we have an abundance of ever-improving tools and technology. However, we also owe thanks to the most affluent consumers who help determine if a product is viable. Because they’re willing to take a risk in buying a new product, the rest of us are eventually able to afford a higher standard of living.

Understanding ’80s Economics

With the resurgence of American conservatism and the advent of the Tea Parties, politics in the United States has become increasingly polarized. Often cited as evidence of superior fiscal/economic policies is the economic record of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan has become a quasi-religious icon of the American conservative movement and on some practical levels he appeals to politicians of all ideologies. Even Barack Obama, considering himself to be like Reagan in manner and appeal, has invoked Reagan in order to garner support for his leftist policies. Nevertheless, Reagan’s popularity makes him a common target for criticism by the left. Unfortunately, too much of that criticism seems to go unanswered, and pundits on the right seem to take the soundness of Reagan’s policies for granted. I hope to give some support to conservative economic policies by providing some simple answers to questions and comments I’ve heard about our 40th president.

Question: Ronald Reagan is often lauded as a staunch fiscal conservative, but is he not responsible for an increase in U.S. debt by two trillion dollars?

It is true that the debt rose by $1.86 trillion under the Reagan administration, and it is also true that the debt ceiling was raised more often under the Reagan administration than under any administration in U.S. history.[1][2]

How was all this debt accrued? Wouldn’t a lack of budgetary restraint of this magnitude suggest fiscal liberalism, not conservatism?

It might suggest that, if we only look at total spending; but not all spending is created equal, and it is necessary to examine the components of federal spending as well. Federal outlays increased by $466 billion during the Reagan years—from $678 billion in 1981 to $1.1 trillion in 1989.[3] “Human Resources” spending (which includes spending for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs) accounted for 44 percent of the increase; defense spending accounted for another 31 percent; and every other form of spending (infrastructure, government payroll, general operations, etc.) took up the remaining 21 percent.[4] As we can see, entitlement spending was the primary driver of all federal outlays (a trend consistent with previous presidencies). Spending on the largest entitlement programs is not discretionary, meaning such spending is not affected by the government’s annual budgets, and fundamentally reforming these programs is extremely difficult without a unified government, something America did not have during any years of the Reagan presidency.[5][6] Ultimately, Reagan’s credentials as a conservative will be determined by your view on the effectiveness and necessity of the military buildup which he advanced. We should not lose our sense of perspective, however: Even if defense spending had remained at 1980 levels throughout Reagan’s presidency, the country would still have been running a $6.6 billion deficit in 1989 due to the increase in entitlement spending, something over which Reagan had minuscule control.[7]

Question: Setting aside the country’s fiscal status, what were the economic outcomes of the 1980s?

Under the Reagan administration, the United States began the longest sustained peacetime economic expansion in its history, and the second-longest during either peace or war. Real GDP grew by 33 percent from 1981 to 1989, averaging 4.13 percent annual growth.[8] Real per capita income grew by 22 percent over the same period.[9] There was a net gain of 16.2 million jobs, slashing the unemployment rate from 7.5 percent in January of 1981, to 5.4 percent in January of 1989.[10] The rate of inflation was cut from 11.82 percent in 1981 to 4.67 percent in 1989.[11] Private sector savings increased by $85 billion, and domestic private investment surged by a magnitude of $369 billion.[12] In short, Americans were working more, producing more, earning more, and benefiting from monetary appreciation, all at a faster rate than any other peaceful time in U.S. history.

How was all of this brought about?

From 1981 to 1989, Ronald Reagan signed a series of bills that lowered taxes overall and simplified the tax code. These bills, known collectively as the “Reagan Tax Cuts”, lowered the marginal rate on all income tax brackets—including a drop in the top marginal rate from 70 percent to 28 percent—reduced the capital gains tax from 28 percent to 20 percent, and indexed for inflation marginal tax rates at every income level.[14] They also reduced the Alternative Minimum Tax rate from 25 percent to 21 percent, and they repealed the Add-On Minimum Income Tax altogether.[15] Lastly, they cut the number of income tax brackets from fifteen to four, expanded personal exemptions, and limited deductions to make the tax code flatter and more fair.[16][17] In addition to the significant changes in the tax code, Ronald Reagan also heavily curbed the regulatory reach of the federal bureaucracy. Since its creation in 1936, the Federal Register—which annually chronicles the publication of all new federal regulations—has grown by thousands of pages. These executive edicts, which carry the force of law, saddle Uncle Sam with tens of billions of dollars per year in administrative costs alone, and they produce manifestly detrimental effects for the economy.[18] Up until 1980 this growth was exponential, but under Ronald Reagan the Federal Registry actually shrank from almost 90,000 pages to about 50,000 pages.[19] Although the steep upward trend resumed after Reagan left office, the vast combination of tax cuts and regulatory relief produced an economic climate of unprecedented strength throughout the decade.

Question: It seems that tax cuts of this magnitude would bankrupt the U.S. Treasury. Are these the policies that contributed to the huge amount of added U.S. debt accrued during the Reagan years?

No, in fact, the opposite is true: total federal tax receipts grew drastically, from $599 billion in 1981 to $991 billion in 1989.[20] If the economic growth of the 1980s hadn’t occurred as rapidly or persistently as it did, it’s safe to say that the debt would have been much greater than it was.

Question: How do we know that the economic growth is not attributable to well-timed monetary policy along the Keynesian vein of economics, rather than broad-based tax cuts?

Some have argued that Paul Volcker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1979-1987, is chiefly responsible for the economic boom of the 1980s because of his monetary policies: Specifically, they claim that Volcker’s raising of the Federal Funds rate in the late 1970s reduced inflation, and although this policy caused a recession in 1981 and 1982, the eventual lowering of interest rates in 1982 allowed the economy to take off in 1983. While it is true that Volcker’s actions, which were actually endorsed by Reagan in 1979, greatly helped to curb inflation and the cycle of stagflation characteristic of the 1970s, it is incredible to say that these monetary policies caused the post-1982 boom. Interest rates actually fell twice between the summer of 1979 and the implementation of any of Reagan’s fiscal policies, but contrary to what Keynesian monetary theory would suggest, employment and gross private investment never rebounded to above-1979 levels until 1983 when the Economic Recovery Tax Act had almost been fully implemented (inflation never rebounded to 1979 levels during Reagan’s presidency, which also contradicts Keynesian economic theory because the increased demand should have caused inflation).[21][22][23][24] While it’s safe to say that Volcker’s monetary policies facilitated the economic growth of the 1980s, it’s erroneous to conclude that those policies spurred the growth.

Question: One of the most significant of the Reagan Tax Cuts was the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which decreased the marginal income tax rate for the highest income bracket and increased the rate for the lowest income bracket. Did the subsequent tax relief and economic growth only benefit the rich?

No. If anything, the poor benefited more than the rich. Between 1981 and 1989, the second-lowest and lowest income quintiles saw a drop in effective tax rates by 39.6 percent and 420 percent respectively.[25] This is only possible due to a doubling of personal exemptions and a tripling of the earned-income tax credit, which would have been impossible without the vast new revenue generated by economic growth. These changes effectively abrogated the tax liability of over 4 million low-income taxpayers. Conversely, the middle, second-highest, and top income quintiles saw more modest drops in their effective tax rates of 27.7 percent, 25.2 percent, and 6.3 percent respectively.[26]

We see similar trends when we look at the distribution of the federal income tax burden over the period. In 1981, the bottom 50 percent of income earners paid 7.45 percent of all federal income taxes, but in 1989, they paid only 5.83 percent.[27] By contrast, the top 1 percent of income earners paid 17.58 percent of federal income taxes in 1981, but by 1989 they paid 25.24 percent.[28] Clearly, the poor benefited demonstrably more than the rich in terms of tax liability.

Question: The change in the distribution of the federal income tax burden seems to outright contradict the change in nominal and effective income tax rates. How is this possible?

There are only two ways such a change in tax liabilities could occur after the aforementioned tax acts of 1981 and 1986: one way is if there were more people within the highest group of income earners in 1989 than 1981; the other is if the people in that group were making more money in 1989 than in 1981. The fact is that both occurred: from 1979 to 1986, the real average family income of the bottom income quintile rose 77 percent, 37 percent for the second-lowest quintile, 20 percent for the middle, 10 percent for the second-highest, and 5 percent for the highest.[29] In addition to the benefits of rising real incomes, individuals also benefited from huge amounts of economic mobility: according to a 1992 U.S. Treasury study, 86 percent of individual income tax filers in the lowest income quintile in 1979 had moved to a higher quintile by 1988, and 15 percent of them had moved to the top quintile. For the second-lowest quintile in 1979, 61 percent moved up, and 11 percent moved to the top. For the middle quintile, 47 percent moved up, and a little less than one-third of them moved to the top. For the second-highest quintile, 35 percent moved to the top, and in the top quintile, 65 percent of earners remained there after the 10-year stretch.[30]

Conclusion

The data would seem to confirm what we’d theoretically expect: Reducing the growth of government, cutting taxes, reducing regulation, and limiting inflation with sound monetary policy does in fact lead to economic growth. In a time today when the country is torn about how to get the economy moving again, we may want to look on the 1980s and the accomplishments of Ronald Reagan with a favorable light.

References
1. U.S. Department of the Treasury. Bureau of the Public Debt. Historical Debt Outstanding – Annual 1950 – 1999. Treasury Direct. Accessed 3 Aug. 2011. http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/histdebt/histdebt_histo4.htm

2. U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Statutory Limits on Federal Debt: 1940-Current. Table 7.3. Accessed 2 Aug. 2011. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2012/assets/hist07z3.xls

3. U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Fiscal Year 2014 Historical Tables: Budget of the U.S. Government. Table 1.1, p. 23, Apr. 2013. Accessed 7 Feb. 2014. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2014/assets/hist.pdf

4. Ibid. Table 3.1, p. 55-56

5. U.S. House of Representatives. Office of the Clerk. House History. Accessed 12 Aug. 2011. http://artandhistory.house.gov/house_history/

6. U.S. Senate. Senate Historical Office. Party Division in the Senate, 1789-Present. Accessed 12 Aug. 2011. http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/history/one_item_and_teasers/partydiv.htm 

7. OMB. Historical Tables. op cit. Table 1.1, p 23. Table 3.1, p. 55-56. 

8. U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of Economic Analysis. National Income and Product Account Tables. Table 1.1.6, 29 Jul. 2011. Accessed 13 Aug. 2011. http://www.bea.gov/iTable/iTable.cfm?ReqID=9&step=1

9. U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of the Census. Current Population Survey: Income: Total CPS Population and Per Capita Income. Table P-1. Accessed 13 Aug. 2011. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/people/

10. U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Accessed 14 Aug. 2011. http://www.bls.gov/data/

11. U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consumer Price Index. Accessed 14 Aug. 2011. http://www.bls.gov/cpi/

12. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Account Tables. op cit. Table 1.1.6.

13. Freddie Mac. Monthly Average Commitment Rate and Points on 30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgages Since 1971. Accessed 15 Aug. 2011. http://www.freddiemac.com/pmms/pmms30.htm

14. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Selected Interest Rates (Daily) – H.15: Historical Data. Accessed 15 Aug 2011. http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/h15/data.htm

15. The Library of Congress, Thomas. Bill Summaries and Status. 97th Congress (1981-1982). H.R. 4242. Accessed 4 Aug. 2011. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d097:HR04242:|TOM:/bss/d097query.html

16. The Library of Congress, Thomas. Bill Summaries and Status. 97th Congress (1981-1982). H.R. 4961. Accessed 4 Aug. 2011. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d097:H.R.4961:

17. The Library of Congress, Thomas. Bill Summaries and Status. 99th Congress (1985-1986) H.R. 3838. Accessed 20 Aug. 2011. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d099:H.R.3838:

18. Tax Foundation. Federal Individual Income Tax Rates History: Income Years 1913-2009. Accessed 4 Aug. 2011. http://taxfoundation.org/sites/taxfoundation.org/files/docs/fed_individual_rate_history_nominal%26adjusted-20110909.pdf

19. Dudley, Susan, and Melinda Warren. 2006. “Moderating Regulatory Growth: An Analysis of the U.S. Budget for Fiscal Years 2006 and 2007.” Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy 28. Figure 1, p. 7. Accessed 16 Aug. 2011. http://wc.wustl.edu/files/wc/2007RegReport.pdf

20. Ibid. Figure 3, p. 9.

21. OMB. Historical Tables.  op. cit. Table 1.1, p. 22.

22.  Board of Governors. op cit.

23. U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Accessed 14 Aug. 2001. http://www.bls.gov/data/

24. U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of Economic Analysis. op cit.

25. U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consumer Price Index. Accessed 14 Aug. 2011. http://www.bls.gov/cpi/

26. U.S. Congress. Congressional Budget Office. Historical Effective Tax Rates, 1979 to 2005: Supplement with Additional Data on Sources of Income and High-Income Households. Table 1, p. 7. Accessed 24 Aug. 2011.

27. Ibid.

28. Heritage Foundation. 2011 Budget Chart Book. Percentage of Federal Income Taxes (2008). Accessed 3 Aug. 2011. http://www.heritage.org/BudgetChartBook/top10-percent-income-earners

29. Ibid.

30. Hubbard, R.G., J. Nunns, and W. Randolph. Household Income Changes over Time: Some Basic Questions and Facts. 1992. U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Tax Analysis. Table 6. Accessed 10 Jul. 2010. http://www0.gsb.columbia.edu/faculty/ghubbard/Articles%20for%20Web%20Site/Household%20Income%20Changes%20Over%20Time_Some%20Basic%20Questions%20and%20Facts.pdf

31. Ibid. Table 1.

Taxation: The Unsung Civil Rights Issue

I recently had a discussion with one of my “moderate” friends about the nature of the federal income tax system. He expressed the commonly held sentiment that those who make more money should pay a higher percentage of their income to the government simply because they can afford to, and that they somehow have a moral obligation to do so. Setting aside the fact that such a policy creates a society of freeloaders who feed off the productive, I pointed out to him that a progressive income tax relies on income discrimination, and arbitrarily grouping people into income classes.

It is odd that almost sixty years after the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, after a plethora of court cases and statutes outlawing discrimination based on attributes like race, color, ethnicity, religion, and gender, we still have widespread discrimination in this country, practiced by the federal government itself, with regard to a policy that affects all working men and women. If those other forms of discrimination are so lamentable, and I believe they are, why should we continue to allow equally insidious discrimination in our tax policy? My friend pointed out that those other attributes are not matters of choice because, for example, one cannot change their race or ethnicity, while level of income is a matter of choice. I think he’s one-hundred percent correct, but it creates a couple of problems for his overarching argument.

If it is the case that there is significant income mobility in the economy (i.e., income is a matter of choice), then people have the power to either increase or decrease their income at will. But one of the main points in favor of a progressive income tax is that there is a lack of income mobility in the economy to the extent that income must be redistributed in order to compensate for what people are unable to earn by working. Therefore, if level of income is a choice, then there is no need for a progressive income tax in the first place. However, if it is not a choice–a concept I reject–then according to my moderate friend, that is even more reason why it should not be subject to discrimination. Either way, a progressive income tax is unjustifiable.

The concept of income as a choice also leads to a more traditional argument against the progressive income tax. If you arbitrarily tax the “rich” at a higher rate than the “poor,” then the rich will choose to work less than they normally would because their work would no longer be worth the amount of money they got to keep after taxes. As a result, they will not aspire to high-earning jobs, and their new work will be less meaningful and useful. In effect, you will see a decrease in productivity within the economy. And when that happens, where does that leave the poor who benefit from the progressive income tax’ redistribution of income?

No matter who you are or how you look at it–whether you work or don’t work, or whether you consider yourself rich or poor–taxation is a civil rights issue. It’s time we as a country started to treat it like one. Now is the time to end discrimination in our income tax policy, oust the progressive income tax, and replace it with a system that treats all earners and producers equally.

December 2010: Unemployment Statistics Explained

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported a decrease in the unemployment rate by four points during the month of December of 2010–from 9.8 percent to 9.4 percent. This would seem like good news, since the unemployment rate has been hovering at around 9.8 percent for many months. But when we look at the raw data, we see that the situation isn’t as optimistic as first indicated, and that the reasons for the drop in unemployment are far more insidious than we’d like.

For the month of December, the BLS reported a growth in the number of employed by 297,000 people. However, the number of unemployed decreased by 556,000 people. If you find these numbers a bit puzzling, you’re not alone. Where did those remaining 259,000 unemployed people go? It turns out that the civilian labor force, the total number of people currently either working or looking for work, decreased. The BLS refers to those people who left the labor force as either “marginally attached workers,” people who had looked for a job within the last 12 months but had stopped within the last four weeks, or “discouraged workers,” who have been without work for so long that they no longer believe there to be any jobs in the market. These people are not counted in the labor force, and their exodus from the labor force allows for the four point drop in the unemployment rate with only a surprisingly slight increase in the number of employed.

At the same time, the Civilian Non-institutional Population (anyone 16 or older and not in an institution such as a prison) increased by 174,000, offsetting the growth in employment so that the employment-population ratio only increased by a tenth of a percentage point. We can assume that none of these newcomers to the population actually joined the labor force, because the labor force decreased by 434,000–almost an exact sum of those who left, and those making up the population increase.

All this goes to show that we shouldn’t take all statistics at face value. The news media out there generally only report on the unemployment rate. Even though that rate went down, which is good, we shouldn’t lose sight of the story behind it. The rate would drop to zero if everyone simply left the labor force, but that wouldn’t solve the problem of unemployment. All this means is that we have a lot more work to do in terms of consistent job creation in this country.

A Leftist Misconception: Income Inequality

One of the most important issues to Americans is the economy. The state of the economy is something all Americans have a stake in, and there are a number of indicators we use to know how it’s fairing. GDP, unemployment rates, income, interest rates, and stock market returns are probably the most well-known indicators used by economists today. But there’s one lesser known indicator that leftists prefer to use for measuring the health of the economy: income inequality. While the previously mentioned indicators all measure efficiency in the economy, income inequality measures its equity. In other words, it’s a measure of one person or group’s economic welfare in relation to another. Leftists believe that the income divide between the rich and the poor in America has been widening. This is the misconception.

The main reason for the propagation of this misconception is a misreading of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Current Population Survey, the Bureau’s monthly survey of demographic information on roughly 50,000 people, has facilitated the collection of labor statistics for over 50 years. In the year 2000, the Census Bureau published a report summarizing the survey’s findings on income statistics over that time period, with special attention given to the disparity between the concentrations of household income within certain arbitrary statistical ranges. In order to quantify disparity, the report used the Gini Coefficient: a point on a 0 to 1 scale, where at 0 income is equally shared among all people, and at 1 all income resides with one person. According to the report, the Gini coefficient has been increasing steadily from 1968 to 1998, meaning that America has been becoming more unequal. Leftists like to take these data at face value because it justifies their egalitarian tendencies.

Unfortunately, there are some problems with measuring inequality this way. The first is the use of household incomes instead of individual incomes. The average household size for all Americans, according to Current Population Survey, has been steadily decreasing since before 1968, and that downward trajectory continues to this day. As we would expect, this has allowed the concentration of income in each quintile of households to change despite contradictory changes in median individual income over the same time period. Unfortunately, individual incomes cannot be effectively used to calculate the Gini Coefficient because of factors like unearned income, the earned income tax credit, government in-kind transfers, and countless other variables which can only be measured individually.

The main problem with the Gini Coefficient, however, is that it relies on measuring the concentration of incomes within statistical ranges. When you do this, income stops being a characteristic of a person, and starts being a characteristic of a given statistical range. Statistical ranges such as quintiles only outline boundaries, however, which are superimposed onto an income scale to capture multiple units of data. Looking only at these boundaries instead of looking at the people within them is going to give us a distorted view of the economy. The simple reason for this is that the statistical ranges of income on which the Gini Coefficient relies do not change: the bottom income quintile will always be the bottom income quintile, no matter how much income the people within that quintile individually earn over time.

This fact approaches the heart of the problem. What if a person within one income quintile begins to make so much money that he/she moves to a higher quintile? Likewise, what if a person takes such a sharp pay cut that he/she moves to a lower one?

The Gini Coefficient cannot measure these occurrences. In other words, the Gini Coefficient cannot measure income mobility.  We should all be concerned with the phenomenon of income mobility (the ease with which one can change their own income) because it is the free-market remedy for inequality, and it is one of our most important traditional values as Americans. It can be contrasted with redistribution, which is the leftist remedy for inequality.

We’ve now established that the Gini coefficient is inadequate for ascertaining the state of income mobility, so we need another measurement to use in its stead. What happens when we abandon the Gini Coefficient’s reliance on measuring household income concentrations within quintiles, and focus instead on the changes in individual incomes over time? Do we still see the growing disparity between the rich and poor in this country like the Census would suggest is occurring? No! In fact, the opposite has been occurring! In 2007, the U.S. Department of the Treasury published a report of trends in income mobility in the decade of 1996 to 2005. Using data from a sample of tax returns for over one-hundred and sixty thousand primary and secondary taxpayers, the Treasury finds that

There is considerable income mobility of individuals in the U.S. economy over the 1996 through 2005 period. More than half of taxpayers (56 percent by one measure and 55 percent by another measure) moved to a different income quintile between 1996 and 2005. About half (58 percent by one measure and 45 percent by another measure) of those in the bottom income quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income group by 2005.

In addition to reporting on income mobility, the report offers some insight on the overall strength of the economy. Also, the poor benefited more from income mobility than did the rich:

Median incomes of taxpayers in the sample increased by 24 percent after adjusting for inflation. The real incomes of two-thirds of all taxpayers increased over this period. Further, the median incomes of those initially in the lowest income groups increased more in percentage terms than the median incomes of those in the higher income groups. The median inflation-adjusted incomes of the taxpayers who were in the very highest income groups in 1996 declined by 2005.

The composition of the very top income groups changes dramatically over time. Less than half (40 percent or 43 percent depending on the measure) of those in the top 1 percent in 1996 were still in the top 1 percent in 2005. Only about 25 percent of the individuals in the top 1/100th percent in 1996 remained in the top 1/100th percent in 2005.

The report also comments that

The degree of relative income mobility among income groups over the 1996 to 2005 period is very similar to that over the prior decade (1987 to 1996). To the extent that increasing income inequality widened income gaps, this was offset by increased absolute income mobility so that relative income mobility has neither increased nor decreased over the past 20 years.

Referenced in the study is a litany of prior research on income mobility dating back to the 1960s, all of which indicates that there was a large amount of mobility within past decades as well, especially in the decade of 1979-1988, where by one measurement, “86 percent of taxpayers in the lowest income quintile in 1979 had moved to a higher quintile by 1988 and 15 percent of them had moved all the way to the top quintile.”

Leftists and others looking at the Current Population Survey might suggest that more government regulation and more progressive tax policies are needed to improve equity in the economy, but if we’ve learned anything here, it’s that liberty and opportunity are the greatest equalizers. If we wish to promote equality of opportunity, we should ensure a free market economy, of which economic freedom and mobility is a central component. We should accordingly dismiss the policies that, in an effort to achieve equality of outcomes, must necessarily destroy that freedom and mobility.