Posts tagged with: Macroeconomics

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 6, 2014

The following is a letter written in response to a post from my friend Brad Littlejohn on the topic of the minimum wage

Dear Brad,

Thank you for your thoughtful and substantive engagement on the question of the minimum wage. I don’t think the conversation we had on Twitter earlier did justice to your work here, so I’m offering this response in hopes of furthering the conversation. I hope you find it fruitful. I certainly have. I should also note that I have been assuming the context of policy proposals to increase the minimum wage at the federal level in the United States. There are certainly aspects of what we’re discussing that apply to a greater or lesser extent in other contexts and at other levels of government, but at the level of individual states, for instance, the stakes are somewhat reduced and ameliorated by the realities of federalism.

You write that you “want to reflect a bit more fully on what’s wrong with one of the common conservative arguments against the minimum wage: that the laborer is only worth his productivity.” I have significant concerns with equating someone’s worth with the economic value of their labor in the marketplace. I do not argue that the laborer is only worth his or her productive work. I argue that a worker’s work is only valuable in a market setting insofar as someone is willing to pay for it. I agree that there is a subjective element to work that is in some ways intimately identified with and inseparable from the person doing the working. But I do maintain that the worker and the work can, and indeed must, be distinguished. Perhaps what we disagree about is that you think the wage someone is offered is primarily a signal about how much that person is valued. I think that the wage someone is offered is primarily a signal about how much that person’s work is useful to others.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 11, 2013

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.×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?”

grouchomarxThe Obama Administration seems to think that moving money from one place to another constitutes economic stimulus. A Washington Times editorial points this out. First, the administration is pushing food stamps, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), as a way to get the economy moving.

“I should point out,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on MSNBC two years ago, “when you talk about the SNAP program or the food-stamp program, you have to recognize that it’s also an economic stimulus … . If people are able to buy a little more in the grocery store, someone has to stock it, package it, shelve it, process it, ship it. All of those are jobs. It’s the most direct stimulus you can get in the economy during these tough times.”


Blog author: jcarter
posted by on Tuesday, November 12, 2013

In every stage of my formal schooling – from high school to college to graduate school – I’ve taken courses in economics. Yet with all that education I still struggle to understand a seemingly simple question: How does the economy actually work?

Sure, I can still draw supply and demand curves or give the equation for GDP (Y = C + I + G + (X − M)). But when it comes to picturing a reasonably functional model of how it all fits together, I’m at a loss. Fortunately, Ray Dalio has come to my rescue.

Dalio is the founder of the “world’s richest and strangest hedge fund” and #31 on Forbes list of richest people in America. But more importantly (at least for our purposes), Dalio is also the creator and narrator of the 30-minute video, “How the Economic Machine Works.”

Dalio’s video is one of the best explanations of economics I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched it twice already and highly recommend setting aside half an hour to watch this entire video.


Remember the “fiscal cliff”? It wasn’t a cliff.

Over at Neighborhood Effects, James Broughel asks the question, “Has the Sequester Hurt the Economy?”

So have the sequester cuts hurt the economy? One possible answer comes from a new paper by Scott Sumner of Bentley University. Sumner argues that cuts to government spending don’t have serious deleterious macroeconomic effects when the Federal Reserve is targeting inflation. This is because the Fed ensures that prices stay stable under an inflation targeting regime, which keeps demand stable even in the face of government spending cuts. Similarly, when the Fed stabilizes the price level it also offsets any beneficial effects that fiscal stimulus might have, which helps explain the lackluster results from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the “stimulus”).

Implicit in Sumner’s theory is that expansionary austerity, or the idea that the economy can grow even in the face of large government spending cuts, is indeed possible. Some of my colleagues at the Mercatus Center have described other ways in which expansionary austerity is possible.

First of all, I would like to be clear that I do not disagree that “expansionary austerity” may be possible. Nor do I disagree that the sequester cuts have not significantly hurt the economy. However, while the sequester included spending cuts and, therefore, technically qualifies as “austerity,” it was not what everyone was making it out to be. (more…)

noun_project_8671For this week’s Acton Commentary, ahead of Labor Day weekend, I write about “working harder and smarter,” lessons we can learn from Ashton Kutcher and Mike Rowe.

One of the implications of connecting hard work with smart work is that the difficulty of work on its own does not determine its value in the marketplace. It isn’t a question of how hard you are working, but how hard you are working in productive service. This is why Lester DeKoster writes,

The paycheck follows upon work. Often the harder we work, the larger the paycheck—though, as many workers know, this unfortunately is not an invariable law. That is because, as we shall see, work and wage are not related as cause and effect.

He refers to money as the “bait,” which induces us to work and which tends to direct our work in service to others. But the bait can become a “trap” if we conflate the meaning of work with the wage: “Work endows life with meaning because of what work is, not because of what it earns. Paychecks buy goods and services provided to us through the gift of selves by others, but money buys no meaning. Life’s meanings are not for sale!”

Wizard of Id - Minimum WageThe protests organized by labor organizations to advocate for an increase in the minimum wage have garnered attention, most recently from the NYT, which editorialized in favor of such moves. Over at Think Christian, I weigh in with an attempt to provide some more of the complex context behind the moral evaluation of such mandates.

In the piece, I’m really less interested in the plight of current-minimum wage workers relative to those who might become minimum-wage workers with an increase, those who are currently priced-out of labor markets because of minimum-wage legislation, and those who will be priced out with an increase.

Earlier this week, Joseph Sunde discussed the issue with an eye towards the price of labor: “Prices are not play things.” I largely agree with Joseph about the significance of the price associated with various kinds of labor. The signal that minimum-wage workers should be receiving is that their work is not that specialized or valuable in the marketplace. You can rage against the values of the marketplace all you like, but that’s what the prices signal.

economic growthValues & Capitalism, a project of the American Enterprise Institute, has published a primer of sorts entitled, Economic Growth: Unleashing the Potential of Human Flourishing. The text is just over 100 pages, and gives the reader a thoughtful, concise and essential source on free market economics and its correlation to human flourishing and economic growth.

Authors Edd S. Noell, Stephen L. S. Smith and Bruce G. Webb say this about their work:

[T]he core proposition of this book is that growth is a moral issue because of its impact on the flourishing – or shriveling – of human society. The neglect of growth has moral consequences just as surely as the encouragement of growth has. At its best, sustained growth raises the poor out of poverty, improves the lives of the rich, and helps nations avoid intergenerational conflicts and the deprivations of fiscal crises. Even more basically, growth provides nations with the means and interest to protect the environment and to cultivate a vibrant and humane civilization.

Let’s examine just one of these topics: poverty. The authors note that the growth of a nation’s per capita income positively correlates to the income of its citizens, even the poorest. When a country’s economy grows, a series of events is set in motion, if you will. The example is given of the growth of India’s call-center industry, which required literate English-speakers, presumably fairly well-educated. The call-centers did not directly help less-educated citizens, but the growth of that industry caused the growth of areas requiring lesser-skilled workers: construction, food-service and the like. Of course, the authors are quick to point out that economic growth in any nation requires strong democratic governance, civil rights, rule of law and perhaps most importantly, a citizenship that values a culture of dignity, responsibility, trust and other virtues.

Economic Growth: Unleashing the Potential of Human Flourishing is a terrific addition to the casual economist’s library, and offers a solid grounding in why economic growth and morality are necessarily intertwined.

Pin not actual size.

I commented last week on the “textbook bubble” (here) and have commented in the past on the “higher-ed bubble” and the character of American education more generally (see here, here, and here). To briefly summarize, over the last few decades the quality of higher education has diminished while the cost and the number of people receiving college degrees has increased. The cost is being paid for, in large part, through government subsidized loans. But with the drop in quality and increase in quantity, a college degree is not as impressive as it used to be; in many cases it no longer signals to employers what it used to. When a critical mass of those loans goes into default, we will have another housing-bubble-esque crisis on our hands. At the same time, government loans, which are largely indiscriminate with regard to the risk of the applicant and guaranteed on the backs of taxpayers, have incentivized colleges and universities to raise the costs to students for the sake of increased expenditures, inflating the bubble even more. Now, Alex Williams of The New Times reports last Friday,

The idea that a college diploma is an all-but-mandatory ticket to a successful career is showing fissures. Feeling squeezed by a sagging job market and mounting student debt, a groundswell of university-age heretics are pledging allegiance to new groups like UnCollege, dedicated to “hacking” higher education. Inspired by billionaire role models, and empowered by online college courses, they consider themselves a D.I.Y. vanguard, committed to changing the perception of dropping out from a personal failure to a sensible option, at least for a certain breed of risk-embracing maverick.

An increasing number of students are realizing that they, to quote Good Will Hunting, do not want to be $150,000 in debt for an education that they could have gotten “for a $1.50 in late charges at the public library.” (more…)

Jordan Ballor looks at the bipartisan lack of discipline in Washington on debt and spending, and the effect on future generations. “Christians, whose citizenship is ultimately not of this world and whose identity and perspective must likewise be eternal and transcendent, should not let our viewpoints be determined by the tyranny of the short-term,” he writes. “If we continue the current course of American politics, the fiscal cliff will end up being nothing more than a bump in the road toward the cultural, economic and political bankrupting of America.” The full text of his essay follows. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.