Category: Public Policy

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
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Broken bank 02In yesterday’s edition of The Transom, which I highly recommend, Ben Domenech included a discussion that places the debates over raising the minimum wage within the broader context of the effects of inflation more generally.

Here’s a section:

There shouldn’t be any debate about the reality of the problem that the costs of basic staples, health care, and higher education are chewing up ever-increasing portions of the median family budget which is, in inflation-adjusted terms, smaller than it’s been since 1995. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the past five years, the average prices for all goods are 7.7% higher; the average price of bread is 10.4% higher; and the average price of meat/poultry/fish/eggs is 16.2% higher. In the past decade, the average worker has paid 89 percent more toward their health care benefits, while their wages grew 31 percent. The rising costs of the government-fueled higher education bubble makes American parents concerned they can no longer afford to send their kids to college. On top of it all, Americans no longer feel confident about their ability to find a new job which can pay them enough to make up for the costs of these goods and services.

The problem is not that the cost of unskilled labor is too low. The problem is the costs of what workers can buy with the fruits of that labor are too high. And the reason for that is largely due to government and systems which socialize risk and insulate producers from reality, not the realities of a competitive marketplace. http://vlt.tc/16×9 Those who favor a free market response to these inequality-related concerns ought to view the minimum wage push as an opportunity to put forward an agenda that speaks to these real concerns with a gas & groceries agenda. This is not going to be solved by more government requirements which raise the cost of labor and will absolutely lead to more low-skilled unemployment: it is with an agenda that would smash the insulated systems which have led to these higher costs.

Ben goes on to outline in some detail what an agenda might look like, which includes “ending the government’s management Soviet-style programs of dairy and raisins.” Horror of horrors, the Daily Beast and dairy producers would have us believe that the result would be $8/gallon milk. I can’t be the only one who wonders what the market price of commodities from milk to oil and sugar might be without various protectionist measures and subsidy schemes.

Ben ends the section with a key question: “Some Republicans have taken up more populist anti-corporatist and anti-cronyist arguments in recent months, because they can read the same polls we do. But will they stand up to cronyism, or are they just interested in demagoguery on the issue until they hold the reins of power again?”
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kenyan familyIn the nation of Kenya, large families (4-5 children) are the norm. While it is difficult to make blanket statements about a nation as diverse as Kenya, children are typically valued in Kenyan families. One woman, Isabela Samora, recounts her experience of awaiting her first child:

I can’t wait to see my baby. To be able to hold those tiny hands and see those feet that give me some serious kicks to the ribs. I can’t wait to look at those eyes and see myself in them. The best bit I think about being a mom is seeing yourself in your child.

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minimum_wage_custom-8614e5bd8d516fbadd22d4a09fff441a70ba1596-s6-c301. Both sides of the debate believe they are arguing in defense of the poor. Most people who support or oppose minimum wage laws and/or increases share a common objective — helping the working poor. Because both sides have noble intentions, the merits of the debate over minimum wage laws and minimum wage increases should be based on empirical evidence that it will actually help, rather than harm, the poor.

2. Economists disagree about the effects of small increases in minimum wages. It’s true that economists disagree about the effects of the minimum wage on employment and the living standards of minimum wage earners. But almost all of the disagreement is about relatively small increases (less than 20%). Almost all economist agree that significant increases to the minimum wage or attempts to bring it in line with a “living wage” (e.g., $12-15 an hour) would lead to significant increases in unemployment. (President Obama’s proposal would only increase the federal minimum wage by $1.75 an hour.)

3. The primary argument for minimum wage increase is that is increases the value of the worker’s labor. — The efficiency wage theory of labor holds that higher real wages improve labor productivity by reducing worker turnover and the associated costs of hiring and training new workers, by reducing the incentive for workers to unionize, and by increasing the opportunity cost of being fired—thereby giving the worker incentive to be more productive. Under this view, small increases to the minimum wage will have no deleterious employment effects.

4. The primary argument against minimum wage increases is that it discriminates against those who have low-skills. Milton Friedman once described the minimum wage as a requirement that “employers must discriminate against people who have low skills.” As Anthony Davies explains, “the minimum wage prevents some of the least skilled, least educated, and least experienced workers from participating in the labor market because it discourages employers from taking a chance by hiring them. In other words, workers compete for jobs on the basis of education, skill, experience, and price. Of these factors, the only one on which the lesser-educated, lesser-skilled, and lesser-experienced worker can compete is price.”

5. The minimum wage redistributes wealth from the low-skilled poor to the more skilled working poor and middle class. Many supporters of minimum wage increases mistakenly believe that increases in wage rates are transfers of wealth from employers and investors to the workers. But as Anthony Davis explains, the money to pay for the increased wage must come from at least one of four places: higher prices for consumers, lower returns to investors, lower prices to suppliers, or a reduced work-force. Empirical research has shown that the primary effect of minimum wage increases is reduced employment, which essentially transfers the wealth (in unearned wages) from the less skilled to the more skilled working poor and middle-class teenagers.
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Here’s a key section from a speech given by Nelson Mandela in 1998 at the World Council of Churches:

At the end of a century that has taught that peace is the greatest weapon in development, we cannot afford to spare any effort to bring about a peaceful resolution of such conflicts.

Nor can we allow anything to detract from the urgent need to cooperate in order to ensure that our continent avoids the negative consequences of globalization and that it is able to exploit the opportunities of this important global advancement.

That means working together to ensure that the legacy of underdevelopment does not leave Africa on the margins of the world economy.

That means finding ways to deal with the world’s highest incidence of AIDS, to advance and entrench democracy, to root out corruption and greed, and to ensure respect for human rights.

It means together finding ways to increase the inward flow of investment, to widen market access, and to remove the burden of external debt which affects Africa more than any other region.

It means cooperating to reorient the institutions that regulate the international trade and investment system, so that world economic growth translates into the benefits of development.

It means finding ways of ensuring that the efforts of countries to put their economies on a sound basis in order to uplift their people are not set back by huge flows of finance as they move across the globe in search of quick profits.

The challenge facing today’s leaders is to find the ways in which the prodigious capacity of the contemporary world economy is used to decisively address the poverty that continues to afflict much of humanity.

As I outline in Ecumenical Babel, this kind of a platform for ecumenical engagement of the issues surrounding globalization would have been much more positive, constructive, and promising than the course that was pursued by the mainline ecumenical organizations. Mandela’s words here provide a much more balanced and nuanced assessment of globalization than is often found in ecumenical pronouncements, including the deliberations that ended up leading to the Accra Confession of 2006.

Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness

Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness

Arguing for the continuing importance of Christian ecumenism, Jordan J. Ballor seeks to correct the errors created by the imposition of economic ideology onto the social witness of ecumenical Christianity .

caremergencyYesterday I began a series of posts which attempts to explain why the working poor tend to make terrible financial decisions and how they think about money differently than other economic classes. In my initial post I wrote,

Imagine that instead of having to deal with consumption smoothing decisions, at most, several times a year, you had to deal with them several times a month, or even several times a week. Now also imagine there is no workable solution that will actually smooth the short-term consumption problem and the best that you can hoped for is a temporary fix that delays having to deal with the issue.
That is what it’s like to be the working poor.

Several people have asked me to explain more what I meant, so before moving on I wanted to provide a more in depth example.

Let’s again begin by looking at the decision-making process of the middle-class. Imagine that you want to buy a home. Your household income is $51,404 a year (the median household income in the U.S.) and the house you’re interested in is on the market for $152,000 (the avg. home price in the U.S.). At what point do you buy the house?

There are several ways the average American may answer, but the one response you will almost never hear is, “You should buy the house only after you’ve saved the $152,000 needed to pay for it.”

While most people would agree that it would be prudent to apply a down payment, the idea that you’d pay the entire amount at once – even if you had $152,000 in cash – would strike most people as peculiar if not absurd. Instead, we borrow money for a mortgage that will allow us to pay a set amount each month for 15 to 30 years. Because we are willing to spread our payments out into the future we will pay a lot more than the $152,000 (at 5% for 30 years, the total would be $293,748.79). But we consider that a reasonable accommodation for getting what we want right now.

That is an example of how most of us take the concept of consumption smoothing for granted.
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DetroitInstituteoftheArts2010AEarlier this year I argued for a plan that would privatize the DIA, allowing for the City of Detroit to cash in on a measure of the collection’s worth to satisfy creditors and simultaneously protect the DIA’s artwork from being parceled out in bankruptcy proceedings. At the time, I had doubts about the practicability of the idea. I figured that even if such a path were to be pursued that the DIA would likely end up torn apart like a chew toy. Once the city’s creditors realize that they might be able to extract something of value from the DIA, they have all the incentive in the world to demand an exorbitant price for privatizing the DIA. Likewise the city officials would have a massive bargaining chip they could use to extract as much as possible from potential donors.

I still have doubts about the privatization plan’s practicability, but the prospects do seem a bit brighter now that Judge Gerald Rosen has determined that the City of Detroit is eligible to file for bankruptcy. This is because Judge Rosen is one of the leading advocates for a privatization plan. Rumors like this have been simmering in the media for weeks, but according to the Detroit Free Press, now “some of the city’s most powerful leaders are working furiously to fashion a grand bargain in which nonprofit foundations would put up $500 million to spin off the Detroit Institute of Arts from the city, and that money would be used to reduce pension cuts and help rebuild city services.” Apparently Judge Rosen is using his influence to encourage “some of the country’s largest charitable foundations and their smaller local cousins to pony up the money.”
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workingpoorAfter reading a comment thread in which her online friends were complaining about poor people’s self-defeating behavior, Linda Walther Tirado wrote an articled titled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts,” which chronicled her struggles with near abject poverty.

I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why. We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but it’s rare to have a poor person actually explain it on their own behalf. So this is me doing that, sort of.

Tirado’s article went viral. A literary agent contacted her, and after a few readers emailed offers to contribute to a book project, Tirado started a GoFundMe page. Her initial goal was $10,500; she raised more than $60,000.

But there was a problem with her story: it wasn’t true.

As Angelica Leicht of the Houston Press discovered, Tirado doesn’t fit the mold of the working poor: She went to a fancy boarding school, speaks both German and Dutch, works as a political consultant, and is married to a Marine. Tirado eventually clarified that her piece was “taken out of context, that I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now, or that I was still quite so abject. I am not.”

While the article seemed to confirm what many people already believed, for those who are actually poor – or at least once were — the article likely didn’t resonate. It doesn’t even live up to the title’s claim of an explanation for why those in poverty “make terrible decisions.”

The fact is that the working poor do tend to make terrible financial decisions — and not just because they lack resources. The working poor think about money differently than other economic classes. I’d like to take a crack at explaining why that’s the case.
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Today at First Things’ On the Square feature, I question the tone and timing of Patriarch Batholomew’s recent message on climate change. While I do not object to him making a statement about the subject in conjunction with the opening of the Warsaw Climate Change Conference, his initial reference, then silence, with regards to Typhoon Haiyan while other religious leaders offered their prayer, sympathy, and support to those affected, is disappointing. I write,

While other religious leaders offered prayer and tangible support, all that has come from the Phanar is an environmental statement. Hurting people need practical and pastoral help, not politics.

An additionally troubling aspect of the problem comes from his clear implication that the typhoon was caused, or at least intensified, by anthropogenic climate change, using this tragedy to advocate for a political cause through a disposition of fear: (more…)

Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war;
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week;
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day:
Who is’t that can inform me?

–Marcellus, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Human beings, with our diversity of gifts, talents, and dispositions, were created to, as Adam Smith put it, “truck, barter, and exchange.” In other words, we were made to trade.

But we were not created to be constantly trucking, bartering, and exchanging. That’s the central truth about humanity that the commandment concerning Sabbath rest communicates:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Over at The Gospel Coalition today, I expand on the news of Amazon’s new delivery service on Sundays to discuss “Sabbath Rest and the Moral Limits of Consumption.”

Just as we sleep each night to give our bodies rest from daily labors, our souls (as well as our bodies) need rest from mundane and worldly activities. This is the kind of rest that the Sabbath is designed to provide. The Sabbath principle calls us to rest from the gratification of our earthly desires, whether they be morally permissible or not, and whether we consider them to be work or leisure.
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paying-taxesYesterday I was reading an article about Obamacare in the Washington Post. . .

Whether they know about that financial help is a different question, as many have had trouble using HealthCare.gov to figure out how much insurance would cost under the Affordable Care Act. And the study does not include information on whether those subsides would lead to lower premiums for shoppers buying in the health law’s new exchanges.

“There’s no question that when people get better coverage it is likely to mean that they are going to pay somewhat higher premiums,” Families USA executive director Ron Pollack said. “You don’t get anything for nothing. But if you’re eligible for subsides that are going to significantly reduce your premiums, that could more than make up for an increase in premium costs.”

. . . and then I repeatedly banged my head against the wall until I lost consciousness. Before I came to, I had this weird dream:

Uncle Sam: “Give me a hundred dollars.”

I.M. Citizen: “Why”

Uncle Sam: “I’m going to spend it on some things you need—and some stuff you don’t.”

I.M. Citizen: “I don’t really have a choice do I?”

Uncle Sam: “Not really, no.”

I.M. Citizen (reaches for wallet): “Well, okay, here is a hundred dollars . . . ”

Uncle Sam: “Wait, did you have to pay higher insurance premiums because of Obamacare?” (more…)