Topic: Trade and Immigration

Boudreaux’s Time Machine

Over at Cafe Hayek, George Mason economics chair and Cato adjunct scholar Don Boudreaux has come up with a wonderful thought experiment to illustrate just how absurdly inaccurate the government’s methods for calculating real wages are. Don looks at the Census Bureau report (from the depths of which the New York Times editorial page draws forth the blackest despair) and finds that real median family income has increased an unimpressive 31 percent in the 37 years from 1967 to 2004. In 1967 it was $35,379 (in 2004 dollars), and in 2004 it was $46,326.

Are we really only 31 percent–less the 1 percent a year–better off? Don’s thought experiment asks us to imagine that the incomes and years are swapped, and then see how we feel. Would you rather live in 1967 on $46,000 a year (the 2004 median), or in 2004 on $35,000 (the 1967 median).

Let’s take it up a notch. So, it’s 2004 and you make $35,000 (let’s pretend it’s individual, instead of family income). A gangly professor with crazy hair drives up in a time-traveling Delorean and offers you the 1967 equivalent of $46,000 (that’s a 31 percent raise!) if you’ll let him drop you off in 1967, where you’ll live for one year. You say, “Right on!” and take a lift to yesterday.

So now you’re in 1967 with about $8,500 in your pocket, and you’re ready to roll. Have you become wealthier?

Well, as Don notes, housing is smaller and more expensive. Central air conditioning, I should add, is a luxury. Your expensive and ridiculously large (but not the screen) TV gets three channels with fuzzy reception. No Deadwood (or the Wire, or Weeds, or Sports Center, or Project Runway, or Good Eats, etc.) for you! It’s a darn fine year for rock & roll, but you’d like to be able to listen to Dylan on your iPod (you used to download anything you wanted to listen to on demand) or in your car. Your car! It costs almost exactly the same as a 2004 car, but is less comfortable, has no auto anything, gets horrifying gas mileage, and is a death trap without a shoulder belt, airbags, or anti-lock brakes. It handles like a whale. You start to think your Jetta back in 2004 has rather more than an $11,000 edge on this bucket. That makes you a little depressed. Which is a problem, because your Prozac prescription ran out and there’s no recourse but a Freudian therapist who tells you your malaise has something to do with your mother. Trying to look on the bright side, you attempt to be grateful that you don’t need Cialis, or chemotheraphy. The food is terrible. You can’t get a cup of coffee that doesn’t taste like cardboard. The book stores seem to have nothing. A simple calculator costs about the same as your Blackberry. You lose a contact lens, and end up with Coke bottle “birth control” glasses. You want to go home.

The professor materializes again and tells you that he lied. Ha! You’re not staying for a year. You’re staying for the rest of your life. But he guarantees your salary each year will be that year’s inflation-adjusted equivalent of the salary that you have in the “stayed-in-2004” timeline. (In 1973, you’ll get your 2010 wages, etc.) You start to cry (no Prozac!). The professor exclaims, “What’s the problem, kid? You’ll always be wealthier than you would have been. And besides, it’s a simpler time. People bowl together!”
You get the idea. Don has a bunch of great examples of things you can’t get in 1967, only some of which I stole.

How much would you have to be paid each year to agree to live the rest of your life from 1967 on? Maybe I’m weird, since my entire life would be different–and almost certainly worse–if it wasn’t for the Internet. (I almost certainly wouldn’t have most of my friends, my very cool job, and more.) There are so many things I rely upon that you couldn’t buy at any price in 1967 that it’s pretty hard to think of a number that’s high enough to compensate for the loss. Personally, I don’t care that much about improvements in TV picture quality, or even how comfortable, safe, and gadget-laden cars are now. It’s the things that just didn’t exist in 1967 that do it for me.

Here’s another thought experiment: Suppose you get a medical procedure with new technology that saves your life. It didn’t exist last year, but now it does. If you had been sick like this last year, you’d be gone. So, in a year, you went from a condition in which no amount of money would have been able to save you from death, to one in which a mere $10,000 buys you the ability to see your daughter’s wedding. How much wealthier did you become in the space of that year? Is it more than 31 percent?

When Generous People Stop Kidding Themselves

Over at Tapped, Ezra Klein is wrestling with my interpretation of the new estimates of poverty and health insurance coverage released yesterday by the Census Bureau. I observed that after the 1996 welfare reforms made federal cash assistance less “generous,” poverty went down. In contrast, federal health care spending grew ever more “generous,” and the number of uninsured went up. I humbly submitted that perhaps Congress should stop being so “generous” with health care.

Klein thinks that’s “crazy,” but he misfires on poverty rates:

  1. He suggests that economic growth of the late 1990s and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit were responsible for the post-1996 reductions in poverty. (The EITC does not directly affect the poverty rate, but it does affect the decision to earn other income that does.) Certainly each played a part. But prior economic booms did not have as dramatic an effect on the poverty rate even when the EITC was present, and scholars like June O’Neill have estimated that welfare reform had larger effects than did the economy. Moreover, although the EITC encourages some people to work more, it reduces work overall by encouraging others – those in the phase-out range – to work less. That might lift some out of poverty, but it traps them and others on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
  2. He notes that poverty has increased every year from 2000 to 2004. True, but he is being selective in order to avoid the larger point that poverty remains lower now than at any point in the 17 years leading up to welfare reform. (Also, FWIW, poverty dropped slightly in 2005.)
  3. He confuses the poverty rate for families (9.9 in 2005) with the overall poverty rate (12.6 percent in 2005).
  4. Finally, he notes that the family poverty rate was lower in 2005 than in 1996. Yet he somehow believes this to be evidence that federal cash assistance does not contribute to poverty.

The political Left has had a really hard time dealing with welfare reform. When Congress pared back cash assistance, the Left assumed that bad things would happen (increased poverty, starvation, etc.). Instead, good things happened. But that evidence doesn’t fit in the Left’s model. They just don’t know where to put it.

Klein is as confused about the health care side of the comparison.

  1. Klein writes: “I don’t know any health care wonks who think medical cost inflation is a product of government spending…” He should get out more. He should start by hanging out with Maryland’s Mark Duggan and Yale’s Fiona Scott Morton, who estimate that prescription drugs are 13 percent more expensive in the private sector thanks to Medicaid. He should read up on crowd-out of private health insurance, which isn’t likely to make private insurance markets any more robust. Many people think that cost-shifting from Medicaid increases the cost of private coverage. Personally, I’d call that crowd-out of another sort, but the effect is the same. Klein should read about how MIT’s Amy Finkelstein speculates that Medicare led to increased medical expenditures in the private sector as well. All of which affects insurance premiums.
  2. Klein dismisses the idea of reforming Medicaid as Congress reformed welfare – by cutting back assistance. But that’s exactly what Congress did when it cut off Medicaid for non-citizen immigrants in 1996. Do I need to tell you what the Left predicted? Do I need to tell you what actually happened? Klein should add to his reading list Harvard’s George Borjas, who found that coverage levels for non-citizen immigrants increased after they were cut from the Medicaid rolls – a result that, Borjas argues, cannot be explained by the robust economy.
  3. Finally, Klein writes that yours truly “[doesn’t] want Big Government to start pummeling the medical-industrial complex.” But as I argue elsewhere, so long as the government controls the money, the medical-industrial complex will never get the beating it deserves because producers will always have a disproportionate influence over political decisions that effect their incomes. We will not discipline the medical-industrial complex until we have patients on the side of restraining spending, and that will not happen until patients own the money that’s being spent. Libertarians would love to pummel the medical-industrial complex. It would be (marginally) easier to do so were Klein to get out of the way.

Klein’s post reminds me of the passage Charles Murray used to close his seminal work Losing Ground:

Most of us want to help. It makes us feel bad to think of neglected children and rat-infested slums, and we are happy to pay for the thought that people who are good at taking care of such things are out there. If the numbers of neglected children and the numbers of rats seem to be going up instead of down, it is understandable that we choose to focus on how much we put into the effort instead of what comes out. The tax checks we write buy us, for relatively little money and no effort at all, a quieted conscience. The more we pay, the more certain we can be that we have done our part, and it is essential that we feel that way regardless of what we accomplish…

To this extent, the barrier to radical reform of social policy is not the pain it would cause the intended beneficiaries of the present system, but the pain it would cause the donors. The real contest about the direction of social policy is not between people who want to cut budgets and people who want to help. When reforms finally do occur, they will happen not because stingy people have won, but because generous people have stopped kidding themselves.

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.