Thursday, May 19, 2016

Judge the Federal Dept of Labor by Intentions, not Results

According to the Department of Labor, it is now adding 4.2 million workers and their employers to those required to obey detailed federal regulations on weekly pay and work hours. The stated intention is to help women and other relatively low-income employees.

Most of those 4.2 million workers are earning significantly above the straight-time minimum wage rate. For them, economic theory and evidence (e.g., Prof. Stephen Trejo, now of the University of Texas, wrote his dissertation on this at the University of Chicago) suggest that their straight-time wage rate will be lower than it would have been if the DOL had not changed the rules. This will make their income more cyclical -- making them poorer when their incomes are low and richer when their incomes are high -- with little effect on their average pay or hours.

Trejo's results suggest that there will be also some adjustment of employment and work schedules. Because the new regulations apply only to workers earning below about $48K per year, they create incentives to reallocate work from low-income workers to higher income workers. Another way of increasing income inequality!

This is a new cost for employers that disproportionately hire low-income workers, and ultimately for the customers that buy their products. This will cause some of those industries to shrink, perhaps leaving low-income people with less employment as well as less income while they are employed. It is possible that high-income workers benefit, as their industries are not harmed as much by the new rules. i.e., yet another way of increasing income inequality!

The new rules are about cash wages, and not fringe benefits, so another effect is fewer fringe benefits to help pay for the extra cash wages. The consolation for those of the affected workers that lose their health insurance: Obamacare! (No consolation for taxpayers, who will have to help pay for that problem).

You may have noticed that GDP per capita is hardly growing -- at a mere 1.3 percent per year over the past 3 years. An important reason for this is all of the new federal interference in how business is done. Obamacare already heavily distorts the workweek, especially for workers with incomes below $48K, and now these new regulations are adding to it. More and more, work schedules are being chosen to satisfy federal rules and less for creating value in the marketplace.

My promise: If you like your weak economy, you can keep it! Especially if you are a low-income worker.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Did Trump Trap the Times?

  1. The New York Times published a story Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private, which
    • mentions "Trump" over 100 times
    • cites a number of examples over five decades (including high school) where Donald Trump or his father appears to be "crossing the line"
    • reports that the Trump Organization was a construction-industry leader when it came to promoting women into the upper ranks of management, and that Donald Trump was taking such actions over the objections of his father.
  2. Within one day, the woman whose anecdotes lead the New York Times piece comes out to "rebut the NY Times story on history with women."
  3. This single event appears to have accomplished multiple goals for the Trump campaign
    • free advertising for Trump
    • discredit the New York Times, at least when it comes to accusations against Trump, and perhaps even making it look like the daily screed for the Democratic Party
    • put future accusers (if any) on the defensive
    • give the campaign an authority to (selectively) cite on how Mr. Trump had taken personal risks in order to be a pioneer at promoting women in business.
Has the Trump campaign gotten lucky yet again? Or was this planned? Can we at least assume that the New York Times is not planning together with the Trump campaign? Either way, there is a real concern that the New York Times will prove incapable of serving as any kind of watchdog during a Trump Administration.

Update: Professor Paglia says "Can there be any finer demonstration of the insularity and mediocrity of today’s Manhattan prestige media? ...Blame for this fiasco falls squarely upon the New York Times editors...."

She is probably correct, but might entertain the idea that Mr. Trump is far more clever than the press.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Employer Penalty Amount Finalized

Next week the Dept of HHS will publish the final rule for, among other things, the per-full-time-employee amount that large employers will be penalized for not offering federally approved health insurance coverage.

2017 $2,265

These are set according to the HHS Secretary's "Premium Adjustment Percentage."

As explained in my book, the employer penalty has a special business tax treatment that makes it more expensive than employee salaries. The salary equivalent of the employer penalties are:

2014 $3,046
2015 $3,174
2016 $3,299
2017 $3,449

After increasing 4 percent in each of the first two years, the lasted annual increase is 5 percent.

Another interesting way to look at it is the number of hours that a $7.25/hour worker has to work to create enough value for his employer to pay the penalty on his behalf (let alone pay the employee's wages):

2014 8.1 hours per week, 52 weeks per year
2015 8.4 hours per week, 52 weeks per year
2016 8.8 hours per week, 52 weeks per year
2017 9.1 hours per week, 52 weeks per year

In other words, only after the ninth hour of work in 2017 will the penalty be paid and there will be value creation that can go toward employee wages, employer profits, or other taxes.

Fortunately, taxing employment relationships to the tune of 9 hours per week, every week of the year, has essentially no adverse effect on those relationships.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Mulligan vs Fed Forecasts

In 2014, my book was predicting that Real GDP per capita would grow 0.2-1.5% per year through 2016-17.

At the same time, the Federal Reserve Board was predicting 1.2-2.3% per year.

There is still time to go, but as of 2015-Q4, the actual result has been 1.35% per year over 8 quarters.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Labor Tax Hidden in Republican Health Plans

Reproduced from

Several Republican candidates’ health care plans contain a large hidden employment tax that would slow down the nation’s economy.

Our federal systems of taxes and subsidies are known to discourage work by levying more taxes on (and paying fewer benefits to) workers than non-workers.

The only important exception comes with the tax treatment of health insurance obtained on the job, which workers can exclude from the income that is subject to payroll and income taxation. The exclusion generates an annual average of $4,000 in tax savings for each of the 75 million workers that take advantage of this employment perk.

Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, to name a few, agree that workers should lose this perk that gives them a $4,000 reason to work rather than not.

They are not against work, of course, but are against uneven taxation. By making job-related health insurance a unique tax shelter, the exclusion leads to excessive health spending – “Cadillac” health plans – and distorts the composition of economic activity toward businesses that have advantages in providing the shelter.

Rubio, for example, proposes tax credits for purchases of individual health insurance and putting “the tax preference for employer-sponsored insurance on a glide path to ensure that it will equal the level of the credits.” The credits are intentionally limited so that they do not favor expensive plans any more than economical ones.

Introducing a credit for purchases in the individual market, as the Republican candidates propose, is an especially new opportunity for people who do not work and thereby further pushes the federal thumb on the scale favoring not working over working.

Take a 62-year-old worker who is considering retirement. A number of federal policies encourage him to retire sooner rather than later by replacing – at the expense of all taxpayers – part of the wage income lost upon retirement. A retiree pays less income tax, pays no payroll tax, and gets a monthly check from Social Security, whereas the 62-year-old who continues work would not get these privileges. Republican plans would change this by giving him a new tax credit if he retires early.

The special treatment of the health insurance obtained at work is the only major pro-work incentive that the federal government currently has for this 62-year-old. The Republicans are achieving their even-tax objective by reducing the incentive to work.

By my estimates, the economic damage done by further reducing incentives to work is not worth the enhancements to health care delivery that would come with taxing things more evenly. I am not aware of any study even attempting to show otherwise, because the studies of health insurance delivery largely ignore the labor-market burdens created by policies that promise to make health care better.

Just this week, Congress delayed until 2020 Obamacare’s “Cadillac” excise tax on health plans that are provided by employers, which is Democrats’ answer to the uneven taxation problem. But the Cadillac tax does a lot less to discourage work than the Republican approaches do (I cannot say the same about the rest of Obamacare), because the Cadillac tax still lets workers keep much of their perk.

To their credit, Republican candidates have other plans to encourage work, especially by bringing down personal income tax rates. But, in order to get the economics right, they should not be double-counting the benefits of reducing rates. By eliminating or partly offsetting the health insurance exclusion, tax rate reductions are needed just to get the labor market back to where it would have been if the exclusion had continued.

To put it another way, more growth would come from cutting rates and keeping the exclusion in place than would come from cutting both the rates and the value of the exclusion together, which is what many Republicans are proposing.

Bipartisan neglect of the work disincentives that come with health reform is a major reason why we continue to have a Pinto economy. We’re left hoping that tax plans might create jobs faster than health plans kill them.

Casey B. Mulligan is a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and author of Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health-Care Reform published by the University of Chicago Press and featured at

UK-US study cited in the Wall Street Journal

Yesterday's WSJ discussed work incentives in the U.S. and the U.K.

The study is here.

A summary is here.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Candidates' Health Care Plans

This is not to endorse "planning" but for convenience I have made a list of links to Presidential candidate's health care plans.

Read about America's current plan here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Robert Reich: Changing the Facts to Fight the Good Fight

Yesterday Robert Reich claimed that

"Most people who lose their jobs don't even qualify for unemployment insurance."

As you can see from my cut and paste of his quote (italics added), he cited a newsmax article.  But that article lists several reasons why the unemployed choose not to apply for benefits.  On this issue of eligibility, the article says that most UNEMPLOYED do not qualify.  The reason is typically that the non-qualifying unemployed DID NOT LOSE THEIR JOBS.  As the article says,

"Unemployment benefits are only available to those who lost a job through no fault of their own. ... Many of the unemployed are recent college or high school graduates who are now looking for work. Others may have quit their jobs, or they left work years ago to take care of children and are now job-hunting again. People in those categories make up 52 percent of the unemployed."

You would think that Mr. Reich knows the facts because he was IN CHARGE OF THE FEDERAL DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, which is intimately involved with unemployment insurance benefits.  But he also knows a good narrative, which is that job loss is typically endured with no government help.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Timothy Jost poses an economics question

In reading the [CBO's analysis of ACA marginal tax rates and the labor market], questions that occurred to me, admittedly a non-economist, included why there is no accounting for the increased employment of health care workers which surely must accompany the coverage expansions?

The answer is:
  • when we redistribute income for the purposes of paying for some people's health care, that likely creates additional jobs in the process of supplying health care to the ACA beneficiaries.
  • But we cannot forget about the other end of the redistribution. Somebody is paying for this, either by paying taxes or loaning money to the government, and that's funds that the payers cannot spend on other things. So there's a reduction in the employment of people who would be supplying the payers (whatever it was that they would have spent money on: anything from food to forming new businesses).
  • The bottom line for labor demand hinges on a comparison of the labor-intensity of healthcare supply and the intensity of supplying those other things.

In effect, CBO and many others assume that they are equally labor intensive, so that there is no net aggregate-labor-demand effect. Only the composition of labor demand is changed.  (If I had to say how the "true" comparison works, I would say that just about anything for low-income people is less labor-intensive than the things bought by high-income people, but this gap is small in comparison to the marginal tax rate effects).

I also addressed a similar question in my earlier Redistribution Recession.

Mr. Jost has been so busy digesting and summarizing ACA regulations (that you for that, sir!) that he probably hasn't had time to look at my books on the economics of Obama-era social programs.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Fiscal Policies and the Prices of Labor: A Comparison of the U.S. and the U.K.

Many countries of the world experienced an unusually deep and long recession after 2007.  Over the same time frame, several facets of fiscal policy were changed, especially policies related to taxation and safety net programs.  The purpose of this paper is to compare changes in fiscal policy parameters as they affected the incentives of middle-class Americans and British to be employed.  The U.K. had a “stimulus programme” followed by an “austerity programme.”  The U.S. federal government also passed what it called a “stimulus package,” followed by a major health reform.
Policy labels acquired during legislative processes are not necessarily indicative of economic fundamentals.  This paper comparably quantifies fiscal policy in terms of one of the fundamentals: the wedge between the supply price of labor and the demand price of labor.  It finds that the two countries have been different in terms of the evolution of employment taxation, on average and across demographic groups.  The American stimulus reduced average incentives to be employed by increasing cash and health benefits for the unemployed and for families with low incomes, whereas the British stimulus did the opposite by temporarily reducing its value-added tax rate and permanently reducing its basic income tax rate.  The British austerity program pushed incentives in the opposite direction as its stimulus by permanently increasing its payroll and value-added tax rates.
            The evolution of employment has also been different in the two countries.  Figure 1 displays an index of each country’s employment rates for prime-aged people.[i]  Employment fell sharply in both countries during the crisis, although less so in the U.K.  The U.K. employment recovery began earlier, and by the end of 2014 the U.K. employment rate had exceeded pre-crisis levels.  Because taxes are one (among many) of the determinants of labor market performance, comparable tax measures are necessary for carefully investigating and comparing labor market outcomes.  This paper provides tax measures, and shows how changes in tax rates are linked to specific legislation.

Taxes potentially affect work decisions in a variety of dimensions, for example: the number of weeks worked per year, the number of hours worked per week, whether to work at all during a year, and the amount of effort to put into work.  Due to the prominence of the business cycle during this period and the sheer size of gross monthly employment flows, this paper focuses on the weeks-per-year margin holding constant weekly hours and the probability of not working at all during a calendar year.  In the 21st-century U.K., for example, the single largest quarterly employment decline for the non-elderly population has so far been 0.3 million, as compared to at least 2.6 million non-elderly people who join or separate from an employer during the average quarter.[ii]  Adding just one week out of work before joining, or after separating, would therefore create a remarkable net reduction in the number employed at a point in time.  Also, the large majority of unemployment spells last less than 12 months, and some of those lasting 12 months do not blanket an entire tax year.[iii]
I follow the usual steps of public finance analysis and first look at the tax wedge – the gap between supply and demand prices created by a tax or subsidy.  The next step, left for future research, is to draw conclusions about the wedge’s behavioral effects and ultimate incidence.  Thus, with one exception noted below, the estimates in this paper do not require any assumption about the relative incidence of labor taxes on employers and employees.
Section I discusses the United Kingdom, demonstrating how many of the tax changes were ultimately offsetting in terms of the employment incentives they created.  The primary exception relates to the subpopulation receiving child tax credits, because the phaseout (sometimes referred to as “taper”) rate of those credits increased with little change in the range of incomes over which the phaseout applies.  Section II shows results for the United States, where employment disincentives have increased over time, especially (but not exclusively) among unmarried workers.  Section III shows the evolution of the employer cost and employee benefit from work – the gap between the two is the employment tax wedge – by country for workers in the middle of the wage distribution.  Section IV concludes.

[i] Both series are from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (hereafter, OECD), via the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s FRED database.  In 2007-Q4, the U.K. and U.S. employment rates were 81.5 and 79.8, respectively.
[ii] Average quarterly gross flows are from Gomes (2012, Figure 1), for 1996 through 2010.  Quarterly net employment changes are from the OECD, via the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s FRED database, and, for comparability with Gomes, for the age 16-64 age group. 
[iii] The St. Louis Federal Reserve FRED data series UEMPMED shows that the U.S. median duration of unemployment peaked at 25 weeks in June 2010.  Also note that, for example, an 18-month nonemployment spell lasting from March 2009 to September 2010 nonetheless involves positive weeks worked in both calendar years (tax years in the U.S. coincide with calendar years).