Tag: employment

UK To Make It Easier To Hire, Fire Workers

In Britain, the coalition government of David Cameron hopes to stimulate much-needed hiring by reducing state interference with private employers’ right to choose their own workforces. Per the Telegraph, Cameron “hopes that relaxed employment laws will help to boost the private sector and encourage firms to take on thousands of new workers.”

For all the high hopes, the changes are in fact quite modest. Newly hired workers will wait two years, rather than one, before obtaining the power to challenge later firings before official tribunals. To discourage doomed or trivial claims, disgruntled workers will be charged a fee for resorting to a tribunal. The smallest employers will be exempted from some portions of the law, and so forth.

Judged by the “employment at will” principle that best exemplifies liberty of individual contract, Britain’s job market will remain far too highly regulated. But the direction of change is interesting. Despite the frequent impression that “Eurosclerosis” (and its equivalents elsewhere) puts the patient on a one-way course of decline, nations around the globe have repeatedly sought to shake off economic malaise by pulling back from labor regulation toward liberty of contract. Often these steps have stimulated exactly the economic expansions hoped for, as with Margaret Thatcher’s reforms in Britain in the 1980s and with New Zealand’s less famous yet more radical 1991 reforms. Alas, in both Britain and New Zealand, later Labour governments reimposed some (not all) of the previous types of regulation in deference to their union and Left constituencies.

What of the United States? For the most part, we’ve resisted the worst Euro labor-market practices — which has required us to ignore prevailing opinion among labor and employment specialists in our law schools, most of whom (as I’ve argued at book length in the past, and mention again in my forthcoming book on the influence of law schools) tend to support a great many bad proposals to restrict private employers’ liberty to hire and fire. Yet in our own distinctive way — which owes more to lawsuits and less to administrative tribunals — we keep edging toward European-style notions of workplace tenure. Newly released numbers show that federal complaints of employment bias surged to record levels last year, up 7 percent, led by a 17 percent spike in disability-discrimination claims, which now represent one-quarter of the nearly 100,000 total.

The newly activist posture of the Obama Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may have contributed to the trend a bit, and so may the state of the economy: laid-off workers may be more willing to pursue lawsuits when job prospects are bleak. But the main responsibility goes to the ADA Amendments Act passed by Congress in 2008 and signed by none other than Republican President George W. Bush, in this respect continuing his father’s tradition of uncritically endorsing almost any measure labeled as a matter of disabled rights. Among its other provisions, the 2008 ADA Amendments Act reversed a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that had tended to limit the scope of coverage of the ADA to persons with more severe disabilities. It also bestowed new rights to sue on persons “regarded as” disabled whether or not their actual medical condition so qualifies. The overall effect of the changes is to make it hard if not impossible to argue that a disability is too minor to deserve accommodation: “Challenging the employee’s ‘disability’ status is a waste of time with the new expanded definition of ‘disability’,” per one employer advisor. Karen Harned and Katelynn McBride have much more on the amendments in a new article in the Federalist Society publication “Engage.”

Once again, both major political parties pave the way to excessive regulation. And that makes it harder politically for an equivalent of Cameron’s reforms to come along here.

President: “We Need More Teachers.” Reality: “Yoohoo! I’m Right Over Here! Hellooo!”

This week, President Obama called for the hiring of 10,000 new teachers to beef up math and science achievement. Meanwhile, in America, Earth, Sol-System, public school employment has grown 10 times faster than enrollment for 40 years (see chart), while achievement at the end of high school has stagnated in math and declined in science (see other chart).

Either the president is badly misinformed about our education system or he thinks that promising to hire another 10,000 teachers union members is politically advantageous–in which case he would seem to be badly misinformed about the present political climate. Or he lives in an alternate universe in which Kirk and Spock have facial hair and government monopolies are efficient. It’s hard to say.

“We’re Talking Bridges…”

On Labor Day, President Obama announced his plan for an additional $50 billion in spending, mostly on transportation.  An area Obama specifically mentioned was more spending for bridges, playing on the widely held perception that America’s bridging are falling apart.  While clearly there are bridges that are greatly in need of repair and represent a threat to passenger safety, what has been the overall trend in bridge quality?  In one word:  improving.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics only about 1 in ten bridges today can be characterized as “structurally deficient”, this is, in need of serious repair.  This may sound high, but it is down from 1 in four back in 1990.  As one can tell from the accompanying chart, the percent of deficient bridges has been on a steady decline over the last two decades.

It is also worth noting that over 80 percent of the deficient bridges in the U.S. are in rural areas, and  subject to much less passenger traffic.  Many of these bridges likely see little, if any, traffic. 

Perhaps more important from the perspective of “economic stimulus” is that additional bridge construction and repair would take years to have any real impact on employment.  Rather than coming up with policies designed with solely political appeal in mind, the President and Congress should focus on broad policies that allow the private sector to determine what investment needs should be addressed.

Grigori Rasputin Bailout

Sending billions of federal taxpayer dollars to teachers and other public school employees is the bailout that just won’t die. It’s been sliced, shot up in a firefight between Democrats, and even had a battle with food stamps, but it just can’t be killed!

Now, let’s be clear: This is not some wonderful crusade all about helping “the children.” It is pure political evil, a naked ploy to appease teachers’ unions and other public school employees that Democrats need motivated for the mid-term elections. It has to be, because the data are crystal clear: We’ve been adding staff by the truckload for decades without improving achievement one bit. Since 1970 (see the charts below) public school employment has increased 10 times faster than enrollment, while test scores have stagnated.

But suppose there were some rational reason to believe that we need to keep staffing levels sky-high despite getting no value for it. Lots of teachers’ jobs could be saved without a bailout if unions would just accept pay concessions like millions of the Americans who fund their salaries. But all too often, they won’t.

Sadly, this is all just part of the one education race that Washington is always running, and it absolutely isn’t to the top. It is the incessant race to buy votes. And guess what? Despite its reputation even among some conservatives, the Obama administration, just like Congress, is running this race at record speeds.

Pearlstein Wants Tough Trade Measures Against China…and the U.S.

Steven Pearlstein’s ready for the nuclear option.  With the conviction of a man who knows he won’t be held accountable for the consequences of his prescriptions, Pearlstein says the time has come for action against China.  Hopefully, those whose fingers are actually near the button will recognize Pearlstein’s suggestion for what it is: an outburst of frustration over what he considers China’s insubordination.

In his Washington Post business column yesterday, Pearlstein criticizes U.S. policymakers for blindly adhering to the view that China will inevitably transition to democratic capitalism, while they’ve excused market-distorting protectionism, mercantilism, and state dominance over the economy in China.  Pearlstein writes:

Up to now, a succession of administrations has argued against directly challenging China over its mercantilist policies, figuring it would be more effective in the long run to let the economic relationship grow deeper and give the Chinese the time and respect their culture demands to make the inevitable transition to democratic capitalism.

What we have discovered, however, is that the Chinese don’t view the transition as inevitable and that, in any case, they really aren’t much interested in relationships. If anything, they’ve proven to be relentlessly transactional. And their view of business and economics remains so thoroughly mercantilist that they not only can’t imagine any other way, but assume that everyone else thinks the way they do. To try to convince them otherwise is folly.

Pearlstein’s suggestion that the Chinese “aren’t much interested in relationships” strikes me as frustration over the fact that China is no longer a U.S. supplicant.  Perhaps the truth is that China isn’t much interested in a one-way relationship, where it is expected to meet all U.S. demands, while seeing its own wishes ignored.  Calling them “relentlessly transactional” is accusing them of naivety for missing the bigger picture, which, for Pearlstein, is that the U.S. is still top dog and China ignores that at its peril. 

Pearlstein is not the first columnist to criticize the Chinese government for putting its interests ahead of America’s (or, more accurately, putting what it believes to be its best interests ahead of what U.S. policymakers believe to be in their own interests).  In a recent Cato policy paper titled Manufacturing Discord: Growing Tensions Threaten the U.S.-China Economic Relationship, I was addressing opinion leaders who have staked out positions similar to Pearlstein’s when I wrote:

Lately, the media have spilled lots of ink over the proposition that China has thrived at U.S. expense for too long, and that China’s growing assertiveness signals an urgent need for aggressive U.S. policy changes….

One explanation for the change in tenor is that media pundits, policymakers, and other analysts are viewing the relationship through a prism that has been altered by the fact of a rapidly rising China.  That China emerged from the financial meltdown and subsequent global recession wealthier and on a virtually unchanged high-growth trajectory, while the United States faces slow growth, high unemployment, and a large debt (much of it owned by the Chinese), is breeding anxiety and changing perceptions of the relationship in both countries….

Of course, the U. S. is the larger economy and the chief designer of the still-prevailing global economic architecture.  But the implication that that distinction immunizes the U. S. from costly repercussions if U.S. sanctions were imposed against China is foolish.  But that’s exactly where Pearlstein’s going when he writes:

Getting this economic relationship back into balance is the single biggest challenge to the global economy, not just because of its direct effects on China and the United States, but the indirect effects it has on the rest of the world. The alternative is a return to living beyond our means, a further erosion of our industrial and technological base and a continued loss of ownership of business and financial assets.

By balancing the economic relationship, presumably Pearlstein is speaking about the need to reduce the bilateral trade deficit, which spurs a net outflow of dollars to China, some of which the Chinese lend back to Americans, who in turn can then buy more imports from China, and the cycle continues.  But to tip the scales in favor of the blunt force action he recommends later, Pearlstein characterizes Chinese investment in the United States as living beyond our means, losing ownership of “our” assets, and eroding our industrial and technological base.  That is a paternalistic and inaccurate characterization of the dynamics of capital inflows from China.

First, let’s remember that the Chinese aren’t holding a gun to the heads of the chairs of our congressional appropriations committees demanding that politicians borrow and spend more on senseless programs.  It’s absolutely priceless when spendthrift members of Congress, oblivious to the irony, blame the Chinese for having caused the U.S. financial crisis for providing cheap credit to fuel asset bubbles when it was their own profligacy that brought the Chinese to U.S. debt markets in the first place.  Stop deficit spending and the need to borrow from China (or anywhere else) goes away. 

Likewise, it is a sad commentary on the state of individual responsibility in the U.S. when a prominent business writer thinks the only way to keep consumers from living beyond their means is to deprive their would-be-creditors of capital.  It sounds a bit like the same tactics deployed in the U.S. War on Drugs.  Blame the suppliers.  The fact that U.S. savings rates have been rising for two years suggests that responsible Americans are interested in rebuilding their assets without need of such measures.

There are other destinations for capital inflows from China, which (despite Pearlstein’s disparaging allusions) should be entirely unobjectionable.  Chinese investment in U.S. corporate debt, equities markets, real estate markets, and direct investment in U.S. manufacturing and services industries does not erode our industrial and technological base.  It enhances it.  It does not constitute a loss of ownership of business and financial assets, but rather a mutual exchange of assets at an agreed price.  When Chinese investors compete as buyers in U.S. markets, the value of the assets in those markets rises, which benefits the owners of those assets when there is an exchange.  Chinese purchases of anything American, with the exception of debt, do not constitute claims on the future.  Accordingly, the economic relationship can achieve the much vaunted need for rebalancing without need of attempting to forcefully reduce the trade deficit by restraining imports.

Pearlstein continues:

So if the urgent need is to rebalance the global economy by rebalancing the U.S.-China economic relationship, we are probably going to have to begin this process on our own. And that means establishing some sort of tariff regime that will increase the cost of imports not just from China, but other countries that keep their currencies artificially low, restrict the flow of capital or maintain significant barriers to imports of goods and services. The proceeds of those tariffs should be used to encourage exports in some fashion…

This relationship, however, is one that must be actively managed by the two governments. It should be obvious by now that their government is rather effective at managing their end of things. It should be equally obvious that we cannot continue to rely on free markets to manage our end.

So Pearlstein comes full circle.  He wants the U. S. to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, subsidize U.S. exports, and institute top-down industrial policy.  In other words, he wants the U.S. to be more like China. 

Of course, I would argue, we already have something that encourages exports.  They’re called imports.  Over half of the value of U.S. imports are intermediate goods—capital equipment, components, raw materials—that are used by American-based producers to make goods for their customers in the U. S. and abroad.  Furthermore, foreigners need to be able to sell to Americans if they are going to have the dollars to buy products from Americans.  And finally, if the U.S. implements trade restrictions on China to compel currency revaluation or anything else, retaliation against U.S. exports is a given.

In short, imports are a determinant of exports.  If you impede imports, you impede exports.  So Pearlstein’s idea that we can somehow subsidize exports by taxing and reducing imports is not particularly well-considered.  And though it may be tempting to look at China’s economic success as an endorsement or vindication of industrial policy, it is difficult to discern how much of China’s growth can be attributed to central planning, and how much has happened despite it.  But in the U.S., where one of our unique and core strengths has been the relative dynamism that has produced more inventions, more patents, more actionable industrial ideas, more freeedom, and more wealth than at any other time in any other nation-state in the world, it would be imprudent bordering on reckless to suppress those synergies in the name of industrial policy.

In the end, I rather doubt that Pearlstein is truly on board with the course of action he suggests.  In response to a question presented to him on the Washington Post live web chat yesterday about how the Chinese would react if his proposal were implemented, Pearlstein wrote:

They’d make a huge stink. They’d cancel some contracts. They’d slap on some tariffs of their own. They’d launch an appeal with the World Trade Organization. It would not be costless to us – getting into fights never is. But after a year, once they saw we were serious, they would find a way to begin accomodating [sic] us in significant ways, and if we respond with a positive tit for tat, things could finally improve. They’ve been testing us for years and what they discovered was that we were easy to push around. So guess what – they pushed us around.

I’m willing to chalk up Pearlstein’s diatribe to pent-up frustration.  But let me end with this admonition from that May Cato paper:

 [I]ndignation among media and politicians over China’s aversion to saying “How high?” when the U.S. government says “Jump!” is not a persuasive argument for a more provocative posture.  China is a sovereign nation.  Its government, like the U.S. government, pursues policies that it believes to be in its own interests (although those policies—with respect to both governments—are not always in the best interests of their people).  Realists understand that objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous.  Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft.  These tactics must continue to underpin a U.S. policy of engagement with China.

The Obama Labor Market

In a recent speech on the economy at Carnegie Mellon, President Obama took great pains to remind us that he inherited an economy that was “shrinking at an alarming rate.”  Of course his implication was that everything wrong with the economy today is George Bush’s fault.  While Bush does deserve considerable blame for current recess, a new working paper by economists at the University of Michigan and the New York and San Francisco Federal Reserve Banks paints a picture of a recession that was on par with previous deep recessions until well into 2009, when the labor market started to deviate, for the worst, from past trends.

For instance the authors find that during the first part of the current recession, labor force participation remained high, despite increasing unemployment, yet starting in May 2009 the labor force participation rate fell at its steepest rate since the 1950s.

The authors also focus on what economists call “Okun’s Law” - which shows a relationship between GDP growth and employment.  Historically Okun’s Law has shown that for every 2% GDP falls below trend, unemployment increases about 1 percent.  Under the Bush half of this recession, that historical relationship continued to hold.  Yet under Obama it broke down, and not in a good way.

The paper also examines the relationship between unemployment and posted job vacancies, called the “Beveridge curve” by economists.  They also find that the Obama economy has been far outside of this historical relationship, so there has been growth in vacancies but little improvement in the unemployment numbers.

The paper offers a description of recent labor market trends, without being able to completely explain why current trends have been so different (and worse) than previous recessions.  The authors do calculate that the extensions in unemployment insurance have likely increased unemployment by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points.

The real story, however, which this working paper misses, is that in the Obama economy, massive uncertainty coming from Washington and the increasingly intrusive nature of government is keeping employers from hiring, even when they are expanding output.  President Obama needs to get past the blame game and start moving us back toward a country that rewards private enterprise and values free markets.

Food Stamps on Campus

Food stamp usage is on an upsurge as a result of the economic downturn and liberalized eligibility. Thanks to some good journalistic work from Aleksandra Kulczuga of the Daily Caller, we’re getting a better picture of how government dependency is spreading to a new generation.

Kulczuga reports that college students are increasingly going on the dole thanks to encouragement from college officials and poverty organizations dedicated to fomenting government dependency.

From the article:

Adam Sylvain, a sophomore at Virginia’s George Mason University, recounted a recent conversation with friends in his dorm room. “My roommate told me he applied for food stamps, and they told him he qualified for $200 a month in benefits,” Sylvain said. “He’s here on scholarship and he saves over $5,000 each summer in cash.”

“A few of our other friends who were in the room also said if there were able to, they would get food stamps … They think that if they’re eligible it’s the government’s fault, so they might as well,” Sylvain said.

Students at GMU can buy a meal plan for $1,275 that provides 10 meals a week for the semester — that’s $71 a week.

When I was in college, my friends and I worked during the school year and through the summer to fund our expenses. My father worked multiple jobs to pay his way through college while supporting a young wife. He grew up in a family headed by a single mother that relied on extended family and charities to help them through tough times. He may have been eligible for food stamps in college, but he would have never taken a government handout.

Today’s generation seems to be different. This Salon article tells of unemployed college grads using food stamps to purchase organic food at high-end grocers like Whole Foods.

From the article:

At Magida’s brick row house in Baltimore, she and Mak minced garlic while observing that one of the upsides of unemployment was having plenty of time to cook elaborate meals, and that among their friends, they had let go of any bad feelings about how their food was procured.

“It’s not a thing people feel ashamed of, at least not around here,” said Mak. “It feels like a necessity right now.”

Savory aromas wafted through the kitchen as a table was set with a heaping plate of Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.

Remember that many of these students probably had their college educations subsidized by the government as well.