Archives: 02/2013

Obama’s Minimum Wage Plan

Economic research has only a tenuous relationship to economic policymaking in Washington. President Obama’s new proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 is a case in point. It would bad for workers and the economy, but the administration seems to be ignoring the large body of theory and evidence on the issue.

Labor economist Mark Wilson discusses the economics of the minimum wage in an essay on Downsizing Government. Here are a few highlights:

There is no free lunch when the government mandates a minimum wage. If the government requires that certain workers be paid higher wages, then businesses make adjustments to pay for the added costs, such as reducing hiring, cutting employee work hours, reducing benefits, and charging higher prices.

The main finding of economic theory and empirical research over the past 70 years is that minimum wage increases tend to reduce employment. The higher the minimum wage relative to competitive-market wage levels, the greater the employment loss that occurs. While minimum wages ostensibly aim to improve the economic well-being of the working poor, the disemployment effects of a minimum wages have been found to fall disproportionately on the least skilled and on the most disadvantaged individuals, including the disabled, youth, lower-skilled workers, immigrants, and ethnic minorities.

Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman observed: ‘The real tragedy of minimum wage laws is that they are supported by well-meaning groups who want to reduce poverty. But the people who are hurt most by higher minimums are the most poverty stricken.’

In the American economy, low wages are usually paid to entry-level workers, but those workers usually do not earn these wages for extended periods of time. Indeed, research indicates that nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers move above that wage within one year.

While they are often low-paid, entry-level jobs are vitally important for young and low-skill workers because they allow people to establish a track record, to learn skills, and to advance over time to a better-paying job. Thus, in trying to fix a perceived problem with minimum wage laws, policymakers cause collateral damage by reducing the number of entry-level jobs.

As Milton Friedman noted, ‘The minimum wage law is most properly described as a law saying employers must discriminate against people who have low skills.’

For more, see here.

Cato Responds to the State of the Union 2013

Cato Institute scholars Michael Tanner, Julian Sanchez, Alex NowrastehSimon Lester, John Samples, Pat Michaels, Jagadeesh Gokhale, Michael F. Cannon, Jim Harper, Malou Innocent, Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Ilya Shapiro, Trevor Burrus and Neal McCluskey respond to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address.

Video produced by Caleb O. Brown, Austin Bragg and Lester Romero.

Soviet Cybersecurity, Part II

A year ago, almost to the day, I blogged about a legislative package on cybersecurity being proposed in the Senate. “Soviet-Style Cybersecurity,” I called it, because of the “centralizing and deadening effect” it would have on the many and varied efforts to respond to the many problems lumped together as “cybersecurity.” President Obama’s new executive order, titled “Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity,” has similar, if slightly more sinister, qualities.

To understand my thinking in this area, you must first understand the concepts in a superlative law review article I first read when I was doing oversight of the regulatory process as a congressional staffer. “Administrative Arm-Twisting in the Shadows of Congressional Delegations of Authority” is by University of Flordia law professor Lars Noah. In it, he described the administrative practice of imposing sanctions or withholding benefits in order to elicit “voluntary compliance” from regulated entities. The upshot? There is no “voluntary” when businesses are repeat players or under ongoing supervision of an agency.

The cybersecurity executive order has arm-twisting all over it.

It is Soviet in its attempt to bring the endlessly varied and changing problems associated with securing computers, data, and communications under a top-down federal plan. Look at how it strains to replicate the nimble action that would be produced in an environment where cybersecurity lapses simply cost businesses money:

The Cybersecurity Framework shall include a set of standards, methodologies, procedures, and processes that align policy, business, and technological approaches to address cyber risk…. The Cybersecurity Framework shall provide a prioritized, flexible, repeatable, performance-based, and cost-effective approach….

Translation: “Put spontaneous ordering in the plan.” And, shockingly, this system is supposed to be designed in just 240 days.

Then there is the provision that calls for “voluntary” participation among providers of critical infrastructure and “other interested entities.” Remember, there is no “voluntary” when an agency with supervisory authority wants action.

Finally, we come to the sinister: Section 9(c) of the order requires the Secretary of Homeland Security, along with “Sector-Specific Agencies,” to “confidentially notify owners and operators of critical infrastructure” that the government has designated them as such.

That confidentiality is a secrecy trump-card, played in advance, to chill any company that might think of challenging its designation as “critical infrastructure,” subject to all that planning, planning, planning. A business that publicly challenges its designation has already committed an offense, in our terror-stricken and cyber-gullible land, for revealing a government confidence.

Embedded firmly in their cybersecurity role, government overseers will have one job and that is to prevent a “cyberattack”—most, far more imagined than real. They will invest the resources of the businesses they direct without regard to cost-effectiveness, performance, flexibility, or any of the other market-oriented values that the executive order touts.

Even the sections of the order that promote sharing of threat information from government to the private sector have an authoritarian approach. Rather than having the government propagate information about vulnerabilities far and wide to make all computing more secure, the order creates a closed system of insiders who would be ladled out access to information they could use in their security efforts.

This is inconsistent with industry-standard security reporting practice, which is (generally) to notify the producer of a vulnerability first and all who are susceptible to it in short order. A closed system will preserve vulnerabilities in some sectors, nominally to protect government “sources and methods,” but really to preserve government power.

In my Soviet-Style Cybersecurity post from a year ago, I marveled at how “this bill strains to release cybersecurity regulators—and their regulated entities—from the bonds of law.” Reading President Obama’s cybersecurity executive order for the first time, I wrote in the margin, “Can this be brought under law?” I don’t know that it can, as the president is calling on the executive branch to twist the arms of our nation’s businesses under the cover of secrecy.

America Does Not Have a ‘Genius Glut’

On Friday, Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled “America’s Genius Glut,” in which he argued that highly-skilled immigrants make highly skilled Americans poorer. 

A common way for highly-skilled immigrants to enter the United States is on the H-1B temporary worker visa. 58 percent of workers who received their H-1B in 2011 had either a masters, professional, or doctorate degree. The unemployment rate for all workers in America with a college degree or greater in January 2013 is 3.7 percent, lower than the 4 percent average unemployment rate for that educational cohort in 2012. That unemployment rate is also the lowest of all the educational cohorts recorded. 

Just over half of all H-1B workers are employed in the computer industry. There is a 3.9 percent unemployment rate for computer and mathematical occupations in January 2013, and an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent for all professional and related occupations. For selected computer-related occupations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages,” real wage growth from 2001 to 2011 has been fairly steady:   

 

 11 percent of H-1B visas go to engineers and architects but wage growth in those occupations has been fairly steady too:

 

Mr. Eisenbrey concludes that those rising incomes would rise faster if there were fewer highly-skilled immigrants. 

The unemployment rates for engineers and computer professionals are low but not as low as they used to be. There are a whole host of factors explaining that, but highly-skilled immigration is not likely to be one.  

Preschool’s Anvil Chorus

Act 2, scene 1 of Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore is marked by a lot Gypsy blacksmiths wailing away on their anvils. Sensibly enough, this has come to be called the “Anvil Chorus.” There is an equally clamorous chorus calling for universal federally-funded preschooling—one that president Obama may join this evening in his State of the Union address. It should be called the Anvil Chorus, too, because if it is successful it will tie an anvil ‘round the neck of early education and American taxpayers.

The trouble with federal-government-funded preschooling is that we have 47 years of experience with it … and it doesn’t work. The federal Head Start pre-K program was created in 1965, and despite decades of concerted efforts to refine and improve it it has virtually no measurable effects that last to the end of the third grade—or even the first. And of the very few and modest effects that have been found at the end of the third grade, some are actually negative. That is what federal government pre-K has accomplished with $200 billion and half a century of effort. Is that a sensible basis for expanding federal government pre-K?

Those large-scale randomized studies of Head Start are not the only indication that federal government spending on pre-K (and K-12) programs is ineffective. We can also look at the performance gap, at the end of high school, between the children of high school dropouts and those of college graduates. This is the key gap—between children in advantaged and disadvantaged families—that federal compensatory education programs set out to close in 1965. Below is a chart I prepared just a few years ago, documenting that gap using the reading section of the best national data set available (the “Long Term Trends” series of the National Assessment of Educational Progress). The results are equally disappointing in math and science (see Figure 20.5, here).

Nor should we be surprised by the failure of federal pre-K-through-12 programs to narrow this gap—they have failed just as badly in their other aim of improving overall student achievement, as the following chart of federal spending and student achievement at the end of high-school reveals.

Overcome by the sound of their own chorus, universal federal pre-K advocates are deaf to this evidence. For the sake of the children they seek, ineffectually, to help, let’s hope they are unable to fasten their anchor around the necks of current and future generations of taxpayers.

Thanks, but I’d Rather Keep My Money under This Mattress

If his election rhetoric, or stories about tonight’s State of the Union, are any indication, this evening President Obama will talk a lot about “investing” in education. And that sounds nice, doesn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t want to wisely and profitably put money into the American people? The problem is, such federal spending has never been wise or profitable, unless the profit you seek is political points.

To demonstrate the dangerous folly of federal education spending, I offer the following chart on higher education. And shortly, Andrew Coulson will be delivering a damning graphic on k-12.

What does this chart show? That inflation-adjusted student aid—the vast majority of which came through the federal government—has exploded over the last thirty years, but probably hasn’t made college more affordable. No, it has fueled a more than doubling of inflation-adjusted college prices, all while median household income has been basically flat. Schools have simply raised their prices to capture the aid.

That’s some investment: students and taxpayers are out bigger and bigger sums of money while colleges—and approval-seeking politicians who want to show how much they “care”—reap the big profits. Probably not the payoff most people had in mind.

The Best Government Action on Climate Change Is No Government Action on Climate Change

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Many eyes will be on President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight watching to see how he follows his inauguration promise to “respond to the threat of climate change.” Rumors are flying that he will use his executive power to bypass Congress and further EPA efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. But his best response would be to get the federal government out of the energy market and allow it to flourish as it may. The inconvenient truth is that the U.S. influence on global climate is rapidly diminishing as greenhouse gas emissions from the rest of the world rapidly expand. As a consequence, whether or not the United States reduces its emissions at all is immaterial to the path of future climate change and its impacts.

Several reports last week have shown that carbon dioxide emissions from the United States declined in 2012 and now stand at a level on par with what they were back in 1994. U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have dropped about 13 percent from their high in 2007.

All the while, global carbon dioxide emissions have been on the rise—primarily fueled by rapid emissions growth in developing countries, namely China (which is responsible for about two-thirds of the global increase during the past decade).

Figure 1. Emissions of carbon dioxide from the U.S., China, and the rest of the world, 1990-2010 (data from U.S. Energy Informat

Since carbon dioxide is well-mixed in the atmosphere, who actually emits it is of little consequence when it comes to its potential to lead to global warming.  This means that the global percentage of a country’s annual carbon dioxide emissions is equivalent to its annual percentage contribution to the increased warming pressure (we use the term “warming pressure” to indicate that things other than the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases also act to influence that global average temperature from one year to the next). Since total global carbon dioxide emissions are quickly distancing themselves from U.S. emissions, as time passes, the relative influence of U.S. emissions on the future state of the global climate is rapidly declining.