Topic: Trade and Immigration

Middle Class Squeeze?

New Census Bureau numbers released today on income, poverty and health coverage in 2005 are bound to fuel charges that the poor are getting poorer while the middle class continues to be squeezed. See what 25 years of tax cuts for the rich, globalization, and declining union membership have caused? But a look at the numbers inside the report tells a different story.

If we define the middle class as households earning between $35,000 and $75,000 a year, the middle class in America remains a huge demographic group. According to the Census report, Table A-1, the middle class made up 33.3 percent of U.S. households in 2005. That share is indeed somewhat smaller than in 1980, when 38.2 percent of households earned between $35,000 and $75,000 a year in real (inflation-adjusted) 2005 dollars.

Aha, so the middle class really is shrinking if not exactly disappearing, the alarmists might respond. But the Census numbers also show that over the past 25 years, the share of U.S. households earning less than $35,000 a year has also shrunk, from 44.5 percent in 1980 to 38.4 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, the share of households earning more than $75,000 a year has jumped from 17.4 percent to 28.3 percent.

In other words, if the middle class in America has shrunk, it is only because so many formerly middle-class households have moved to the upper-income brackets, while a significant number of households previously in the lower brackets have moved up to the middle class and beyond.

The solid economic growth of the past two decades has indeed lifted all kinds of household boats. By the most basic measure of real household income, a broad swathe of Americans are better off than they were 25 years ago—thanks to growth fueled in good measure by lower marginal tax rates, expanding trade, and a more flexible domestic economy.

New Uninsured Estimate, Same Old Story

Today, the Census Bureau reported that in 2005 the number of Americans without health insurance inched up yet again.  This annual ritual, repeated every August, gets old after a while. 

The Official Uninsured Estimate – now 46.6 million residents – comes from a survey that is not designed to measure insurance coverage.  The Official Uninsured Estimate includes people who are covered by Medicaid, who lack coverage today but will regain it tomorrow, and who make over $50,000 per year.  The Congressional Budget Office reports [.pdf] that the number of chronically uninsured (who lack coverage for a year or more) is more like 20-30 million – and still many of them are covered by Medicaid.

Part of this ritual is that Medicaid wins plaudits for “picking up the slack” when employment-based coverage falls.  Yet Medicaid encourages employers not to offer coverage, encourages workers to avoid private coverage, and makes private coverage more expensive for both employers and workers.  Medicaid doesn’t just catch people who fall off the economic ladder – it shakes the ladder.

Just about the only useful aspect of The Official Uninsured Estimate is the trend it displays over time.  When compared to the trend in the poverty rate (also released today), a stark contrast emerges.

  • Ten years ago, Congress reformed the welfare system.  It stopped the practice of just throwing more money at the problem of poverty.  What happened?  Poverty fell and remained lower in 2005 than at any point in the 17 years leading up to welfare reform. 
  • But Congress kept throwing more money at health care by expanding government programs (e.g., SCHIP).  The result?  Unlike the poverty rate, The Official Uninsured Estimate continues its steady climb.

Maybe we should stop throwing money at the problem?

Returns to Labor Belabored

In case you were born yesterday, just fell off the back of a turnip truck, and have lived in blissful ignorance of the possible abuses of economic data, let me direct your attention to yesterday’s New York Times front-pager by Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt, titled “Real Wages Fail to Match a Rise in Productivity,” and the blog aftermath. George Mason economics professor Russ Roberts is none too pleased.

I shouldn’t be upset when the New York Times news division writes a intellectually dishonest story that plays to the biases of its readership base. But today’s front-page above the fold story on wages depresses and surprises me anyway. Maybe it’s because one of the authors, David Leonhardt, is a good reporter with good economic intuition. (I can’t speak for the other author, Steven Greenhouse.) But I suspect the source of my dismay is simply the knowledge that this article, despite its inadequacies will be met with nods of agreement around the breakfast tables of America.

Even around the breakfast tables of famous economists! Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong–a vociferous, self-appointed arbiter of the quality of economics journalism–gives Greenhouse and Leonhardt a total pass, excerpting their article, and simply calling them “thoughtful and reliable.”

Here’s Roberts again:

Let me repeat the key sentence [from the article]:

The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation.

That’s a very strange sentence for many reasons:

1. Why would you use a measure of compensation that ignores benefits, an increasingly important form of compensation?

2. Why would you use 2003 as your starting point when the recession ended in November of 2001?

3. There are no government series that I know of on median earnings. Where did those data come from?

There’s a chart accompanying the article. It tells the reader that the median hourly pay data are from the Economic Policy Institute. The Economic Policy Institute has a policy agenda. Their main issue is the alleged stagnant or falling standard of living of American workers. They support a higher minimum wage and the strengthening of labor unions.

… for every year since the recession of 2001, real hourly compensation has actually increased. It’s up since 2003 as well. And this year it’s up quite dramatically…

As I have mentioned here before–the standard claims you hear about labor’s share declining come from using wages without other forms of compensation. When you include benefits, labor’s share is virtually a constant at 70% of national income and has been steady since the end of World War II …

Greenhouse and Leonhardt thoughfully and reliably rely on the Economic Policy Institute! But they could have thoughtfully asked other people, too. For instance, they could have asked David Altig, vice president and associate director of research at the Cleveland Fed Bank. Altig signs on to Roberts’ criticism, and adds his own, noting that a decrease in labor’s share of growth does not necessarily imply an increase in capital’s share, and that a lot turns on which Bureau of Labor Statistics data series you look at.

Harvard’s Greg Mankiw reinforces Roberts’ and Altig’s diagnosis of the main error: failing to recognize that total compensation–cash wages plus benefits–is the relevant measure of real wage growth. Mankiw also relates the importance of using the correct price index, and of not comparing average productivity to median wages.

I wonder if DeLong truly thinks Greenhouse and Leonhardt were adequately thoughful and reliable in this piece. If so, I wonder what, if anything, he thinks is wrong with Roberts’, Altig’s, and Mankiw’s analyses.

Cato Unbound - Migrating Toward National ID?

The current Cato Unbound, Mexicans in America, is the usual provocative and wide-ranging fare.  There’s no lack of issues - or passion - in the debate about immigration.

One item in the current discussion that piques my interest - indeed, concerns me - is the formative consensus that “internal enforcement” of the immigration laws is a good idea. 

University of Texas at Austin economics professor Stephen Trejo writes:

Given that most illegal immigrants come to the United States to work, why don’t we get serious about workplace enforcement? Retail stores are able to verify in a matter of seconds consumer credit cards used to make purchases. Why couldn’t a similar system be put in place to verify the Social Security numbers of employees before they are hired? …  I suspect that we could do much more to control illegal immigration by directing technology and other enforcement resources toward the workplace rather than toward our porous southern border.

Doug Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at the Office of Population Research, Princeton University, has interesting information and ideas for reform to which he would adjoin ”a simple employment verification program required of all employers to confirm the right to work.”

It does sound simple - until you step back and realize that the simple idea they’re talking about is giving the federal government the power to approve or reject every Americans’ job application.  Does anyone think that this power, once adopted - and the technology put in place to administer it - will be limited to immigration law enforcement?

To do this, all people - not just immigrants, all people - would have to be able to prove their identity to federal standards, likely using some kind of bullet-proof identity document (even more secure than current law requires).  That will soon be in place thanks to the REAL ID Act.  Once we’re all carrying a bullet-proof identity document, do you think that its use will be limited to proof of identity for new employees?

It’s easy to see how facile acceptance of internal immigration law enforcement adds weight to arguments for expanded government control and tracking of all citizens.  There are plenty of reasons to be concerned with internal enforcement, and the national ID almost certainly required to make that possible.  Many of them are discussed in my book, Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.

How Well Does the Swedish Welfare State Serve Its Poor?

The American Left romanticizes the benefits of Scandinavian welfare states – to the point that one is sometimes reminded of Minnie the Moocher’s dream about the King of Sweden (“he gave her things that she was needin’…”).

Tim Worstall dispels that dream in today’s TCS Daily, pointing out that:

In the USA the poor get 39% of the US median income and in Finland (and Sweden) the poor get 38% of the US median income…. Which is really a rather revealing number don’t you think? All those punitive tax rates, all that redistribution, that blessed egalitarianism, the flatter distribution of income, leads to a change in the living standards of the poor of precisely … nothing.

Not Your Father’s Auto Industry

If you’re tempted to believe the proliferating rhetoric about America’s withering automobile industry, please listen to Dan Griswold’s Cato podcast today or read the paper he and I wrote on the subject before deciding to drink the Kool-Aid.

The declining fortunes of American icons Ford and GM have inspired numerous commentaries about the demise of the U.S. automobile industry. But the top 10 selling cars and top 10 selling light trucks in the United States are all made in America. U.S. output of motor vehicles and parts was also 68 percent higher in 2005 than in 1993, which compares favorably with overall manufacturing output growth of 56 percent over the same period.

How can that be, you might ask, when Ford and GM lost a combined $16.7 billion in 2005 and together plan to eliminate more than 60,000 jobs in the next few years?

Well, this isn’t your father’s automobile industry.

The days when the “Big Three” and the U.S. auto industry were synonymous, and when seeing a foreign car on the street prompted rubbernecking are long gone. Today Honda, Toyota, and Nissan (and other Japanese, German, and Korean companies) are all important and growing players in the U.S. auto industry.

Since the early 1980s, Japanese—followed by German and Korean—automakers have been building production facilities in America. These companies, which employ American workers, pay local and federal taxes, and buy most of their parts and materials from other U.S. suppliers, are every bit as much a part of the domestic auto industry as the Big Three (or “Big Two and a Half,” now that Chrysler is just a division of Daimler-Chrysler). While the Big 2.5 still dominate U.S. production, the foreign-owned share continues to rise, approaching one-third of total domestic production today.

That’s great news for U.S. consumers, whose choices are no longer constrained by the high-priced, low-quality offerings of what was once a domestic oligopoly. Since 1993, the general price level in the United States has risen 38.2 percent, but the price level of a new vehicle has increased by only 4.1 percent.

Certainly, the shifting industry landscape has produced winners and losers within the United States. Most of the foreign nameplate plants have been built in the American South, or otherwise outside of the rust belt states (with a few notable exceptions). But none of these plants, save one (a joint venture involving GM), employ unionized workers, and their market shares have been increasing. Of course, there’s much more to this changing picture than the fact that one group is unionized and the other isn’t, but it is an interesting fact, no?

The state of Michigan has by far been the biggest loser in this transformation. The state has seen a large decline in jobs (and tax revenues), and the auto industry promises to be the marquis issue in this fall’s governor’s race. The Republican nominee, Dick DeVos, recently lambasted the Bush administration for not doing more to arrest the decline of Michigan’s auto producers. Unfortunately, that’s par for the course for Republicans of late, who increasingly seem to have never met a bailout they didn’t like.

The government has no business interfering in the marketplace—particularly one that is working so well for the vast majority of Americans. But if there is any action the Bush administration can and should take—which would incidentally help U.S. auto producers—it would be to revoke some or all of the 160 antidumping measures in place against 21 different types of steel products from 32 different countries. U.S. government intervention on behalf of the domestic steel industry has created a dangerously concentrated market, and without adequate steel imports, steel producers can and have run roughshod over their customers, including the auto producers.

Ultimately, the decisions that brought successful foreign nameplate auto producers to invest in U.S. facilities, as opposed to exporting from production platforms abroad, are based on a variety of factors that are subject to change. Market considerations like transportation costs, labor and materials costs, access to transportation, and access to materials all ultimately contribute to such investment decisions. When access to raw materials is hampered, and thus more costly (as it is with steel in the United States), the benefits of the other considerations are mitigated.

Today, U.S. prices for corrosion-resistant steel (the primary component used in auto bodies) are $100 per ton higher in the United States than in Europe, and $200 per ton higher than in China. At some point, the price differentials will render production of autos abroad for export to the United States more cost-efficient than investment in the United States. If Honda, Toyota, Nissan (and for that matter, Ford and GM) reach that conclusion, then we’ll be witnessing a genuine crisis in the U.S. automobile industry.

Rants vs. Reason

I have received hundreds of incoming emails in response to my articles suggesting that federal civilian workers are overcompensated (see here and here).

Many emails have been rants claiming that I’m an idiot or don’t know what I’m talking about. Very few of those opposed to my arguments expressed any interest or curiosity in the actual underlying government data.

Some emails have been supportive. Here are two that suggest reasons why federal pay has been growing much more quickly than private pay.

This one came from a federal worker in Maryland:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your 13 August opinion piece in the Washington Post–thanks!! As a senior military officer in a command that employs a large number of civilians, I have become increasingly frustrated at the excesses of the civil service system. Not only have the salaries gone up through the cost of living increases, we’re also paying more because of little control on promotions which has resulted in significant “grade creep.” Until your article, however, I continued to hear the confusing mantra that our civil servants were underpaid. I am grateful because you have provided me with some ammunition for my next command personnel discussion.

Here’s another from a retired federal worker in Virginia:

I would like to offer what I think are contributing explanations for the problem of excessive pay and benefits among the members of the Federal workforce.

First, the most salient explanation for overgrading in the Federal civil service is the conflict of interest posed by having the personnel function embedded within each Federal agency. Directors of personnel of Federal agencies report directly to their respective agency heads, all of whom have a vested interest in having as high a graded workforce as possible. Reporting to the directors of personnel are specialists called position classifiers. To be cynical about it, the responsibility of the classifiers is to write job descriptions that justify whatever grade levels that their respective managements want the jobs under them to have. In short, classifiers are wordsmiths who rationalize with contrived language raising position grades, almost never lowering grades. The result is that, over time, Federal job grades (and often titles) bear little relation to the real duties and responsibilities of the jobs to which they are applied. (Classifiers are a kind of inside joke among Federal employees.)

The remedy, it is obvious, is to take the personnel function out of the agencies and place it solely in an independent agency responsible to the White House, at least indirectly. Once that is accomplished, all the jobs in the Federal workforce should be reclassified and given realistic and appropriate grade/pay levels.

Read more public comments on my arguments here, here, and here.