We Shouldn’t Follow Germany on Minimum Wage

President Obama included a much discussed proposal to increase the national minimum wage to $10.10, from its current level of $7.25.  To date, the proposal has gone nowhere in Congress. In the meantime, some cities and states have introduced or approved increases in their minimum wage rates. Ten states and the District of Columbia have enacted increases in the 2014 session so far. In June, the Seattle City Council unanimously voted to increase their minimum wage to $15. In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee followed suit and has introduced a ballot measure to increase their minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Germany is currently grappling with the ramifications of imposing a national minimum wage, and the lessons we can learn from their experience should deter calls for raising the minimum wage here.

Earlier this month, the German parliament’s lower house adopted a new national minimum wage of €8.50 ($11.61) an hour, beginning in 2015. Before this, there had been no national minimum wage in the country, with trade unions and employers negotiating wages by sector. Just as the Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising the minimum wage here could reduce employment by 500,000 workers by 2016, one of Germany’s most respected economic institutes warned that Germany could lose the equivalent of 340,000 full-time jobs. While there are some factors, such as a high proportion of apprenticeships, which could dilute the harmful effects of such a minimum wage in Germany, this adoption is a step backwards for the country that is often an economic leader in the EU.

Young workers are disproportionately affected by the minimum wage as they are more likely to have jobs that pay below the new statutory minimum.

Currently, Germany’s youth unemployment rate is roughly a third of the euro area average, and Germany outperforms every other country in the EU on this metric. In fact, since 2007, Germany is the only country in the euro area to see a decrease in youth unemployment.

Source: European Commission, “Euro area unemployment rate at 11.8%,” Eurostat, May 2, 2014.

There is thus some concern that their new minimum wage could increase unemployment and limit opportunities for young people. As Cato’s Steve H. Hanke has pointed out, in “the twenty-one E.U. countries where there are minimum wage laws, 27.7% of the youth … was unemployed in 2012. This is considerably higher than the youth unemployment rate in the seven E.U. countries without minimum wage laws — 19.5% in 2012.”

This week the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released its latest report on the German economy, in which the authors raised numerous concerns about the imposition of a new national minimum wage (strange that they did not give voice to  these concerns when advocating that the US raise its minimum wage in an earlier report this year).

As previous work by the Cato Institute has shown, the benefits of a minimum wage increase are poorly targeted to households in poverty. The IMF report notes that the “effects of the minimum wage on income redistribution toward the working poor may be limited, as the population of minimum wage earners and that of the working poor overlap only partially.”

The IMF authors also seem to recognize that the imposition of the minimum wage could have outsized adverse effects in some regions of Germany because a higher proportion of affected low wage workers live in East Germany (27 percent in the East compared to 15 percent in the West). While the variation between U.S. states is not as clear cut as the difference between East and West Germany, the employment outcome would be the same were a higher national minimum wage implemented here: in poorer states, where many workers would be affected by the increase, there would likely be significant job loss.

Local minimum wage increases, like the one in Seattle, are not as affected by this last mechanism, but they face the added danger of losing jobs to nearby jurisdictions that have not raised the minimum wage, as it is easier to outsource jobs to a neighboring city than it is to another state or country in many cases.

The new minimum wage in Germany will prove ineffective in improving the lot of low-income workers, and will likely lead to some job loss for the very people it is trying to help. Both countries would be better served exploring other means to improve outcomes for low-income workers. There are other, potentially more effective policy options to explore such as expanding apprenticeships (as Germany has already done) or  introducing a lower provisional minimum wage for teens and the long-term employed.  One thing is certain: in Germany, and the United States, a blunt policy instrument like the minimum wage is not the answer.

Another DC Handgun Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

The DC government ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Heller case, so we had to take them back to court.  We won again.  The idea that they can simply ban the exercise of a fundamental and enumerated constitutional right is absurd. If the constitutional approach of the DC government were applied to the First Amendment, they would interpret the power to regulate the time, place, and manner of its exercise to include banning all churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues in the District.  That cannot be right and the court has set them straight on that matter.

Alan Gura, our lawyer, is a hero for his work on behalf of the rule of law.  I and the other plaintiffs are grateful to him and to the Second Amendment Foundation for this resounding victory.

Read the decision here.

Podcast: The Second Amendment Wins in D.C.

Saturday afternoon, a federal judge in the District of Columbia ruled that D.C.’s “complete ban on the carrying of handguns in public is unconstitutional.” Alan Gura is the attorney on the case, entitled Palmer v. D.C. We talked yesterday about the ruling and how D.C. might comply.

Gura, along with Clark Neily of the Institute for Justice and Cato Institute chairman Robert A. Levy, served as co-counsel to Dick Heller in the landmark case of District of Columbia v. Heller. The lead plaintiff in this case is Cato Institute senior fellow Tom G. Palmer.

On his blog, here’s how Gura characterized the win:

With this decision in Palmer, the nation’s last explicit ban of the right to bear arms has bitten the dust. Obviously, the carrying of handguns for self-defense can be regulated. Exactly how is a topic of severe and serious debate, and courts should enforce constitutional limitations on such regulation should the government opt to regulate. But totally banning a right literally spelled out in the Bill of Rights isn’t going to fly.

Krugman’s ‘Gotcha’ Moment Leaves Something to Be Desired

I’ve had some fun over the years by pointing out that Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as FranceEstoniaGermany, and the United Kingdom.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that he wants to catch me making an error. But I’m not sure his “gotcha” moment is very persuasive. Here’s some of what he wrote for today’s New York Times.

Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through a modestly liberal agenda of higher taxes, spending increases and a rise in the minimum wage. California also moved enthusiastically to implement Obamacare. …Needless to say, conservatives predicted doom. …Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute declared that by voting for Proposition 30, which authorized those tax increases, “the looters and moochers of the Golden State” (yes, they really do think they’re living in an Ayn Rand novel) were committing “economic suicide.”

Kudos to Krugman for having read Atlas Shrugged, or for at least knowing that Rand sometimes referred to “looters and moochers.” Though I have to subtract points because he thinks I’m a conservative rather than a libertarian.

But what about his characterization of my position? Well, he’s right, though I’m predicting slow-motion suicide. Voting for a tax hike isn’t akin to jumping off the Golden Gate bridge. Instead, by further penalizing success and expanding the burden of government, California is engaging in the economic equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes every day instead of three and one-half packs.

ALEC Report on State Tax Expenditures

State policymakers often look for ways to attract investment, companies, talent, and residents to their states. Sometimes they do it with sensible and broad-based reforms, such as reducing business regulations, increasing school quality, or lowering and simplifying making taxes. Unfortunately, another way they try to do it is to provide narrow tax benefits and subsidies to particular businesses and industries.

Every state does it. Illinois provides a tax credit for the film industry. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has frequently provided tax credits to resident companies that agree not to relocate to other states. Florida Governor Rick Scott has provided benefits to companies that agree to move to Florida. Many other states have similar policies.

These types of tax provisions are called “tax expenditures” or “tax incentives.” They include narrow breaks to income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and other taxes. Federally, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) defines a tax expenditure as “any reduction in income tax liabilities that results from special tax provisions or regulations that provide tax benefits to particularly taxpayers.” The JCT estimates that the federal government provided approximately $1.3 trillion in tax expenditures in 2013.

Tallying  state tax expenditures is much more difficult because state tax systems are different and there is no official national scorekeeper. A new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) sought to accomplish that  task.  In the report, the authors totaled the  tax expenditures within every state based on state-published reports. According to their research, state tax expenditures total about $228 billion for personal and business taxes and $260 billion for sales taxes. 

ALEC’s report is an excellent first stab at calculating state tax expenditures. However, five states—Alabama, Alaska, Nevada, South Dakota, and Wyoming—do not report on the value of their tax expenditures. Other states, such as Arkansas and Missouri, publish “infrequent or incomplete” data. There are also varying levels of reporting data: California only publishes information on tax expenditures valued at greater than $5 million, while Arizona only includes ones valued at greater than $703.

The ALEC authors note that not all of these tax expenditures represent cronyism on the part of state policymakers. For one thing, there is disagreement over what tax items are distortionary or unjustified. Some provisions on official tax expenditure lists move a state’s tax system closer to a low, broad, and neutral tax base and are justified, such as allowing capital expensing. Lower rates on capital gains help offset the  double taxation of capital under the income tax system. Also, exempting business-to-business transactions prevents tax pyramiding.

A large portion of the provisions tallied by ALEC are narrow and distort the economy, such as Hollywood film tax credits. To make matters worse, some tax expenditures are “refundable,” meaning that recipients receive money from the government if they do not have a tax liability. Policymakers use this trick to hide part of the cost of spending on the tax side of the budget.

The large-scale provision of tax credits, deductions, and exclusions to specific industries or companies is an  acknowledgement by state policymakers that taxes matter in business decision-making. But a much better way to grow state economies is to simplify tax codes and cut marginal tax rates.

Does Sweden’s Voucher Program Need Stricter Regulation?

Slate recently published a badly misinformed piece about Sweden’s voucher program, which I addressed here. One of the other responses to the Slate piece was written by Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji for NRO. Sanandaji did an excellent job of showing that the voucher program cannot plausibly explain Sweden’s test score decline and usefully explored some of the more likely causes.

Though I agree with much of what Sanandaji wrote, his piece occasionally endorses heavier regulation of the program for reasons that are either not apparent or inconsistent with the evidence. For instance, he rightly observes that the Swedish government requires universities to accept high school grades as a key admissions criterion but does not permit them to take into account differential grading practices across high schools. This, he notes, puts significant external pressure on high schools to inflate grades. But despite acknowledging this, he later refers to “other problems caused by the [voucher/school choice] reform … such as grade inflation,” implying that this “corruption” is “caused by the lack of [state] control.”

And yet the evidence he presents points to the opposite conclusion: that grade inflation is particularly problematic in Sweden because of imprudent government intrusion into university admissions policy. Consider as a contrast the case of the United States, where universities are free to take high schools’ grading practices into account during admissions. We still have differential grade inflation across high schools, but it is less of a concern because universities can adjust for it. As the head of admissions at Brandeis University has observed, “It’s really not that hard [for colleges] to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.” In the absence of government meddling, high schools cannot secure admission to good colleges for their students simply by giving them all A’s.

Still more puzzling is Sanandaji’s criticism that “some private schools broke the rules to cherry-pick students.” This is curious because Sanandaji defends free markets on a number of other occasions, and a hallmark of free markets is that they rely on mutually voluntary exchange. So, naturally, schools in a relatively free marketplace want to enroll students they think they can successfully serve, just as families seek schools they believe can successfully serve them.

This does not mean that all private schools in a relatively free market will seek to serve only high-scoring or well-behaved students. In the United States, where the vast majority of private schools are free to admit students based on any criteria they like, many exist specifically to serve difficult-to-educate students that the typical public school is not well-equipped to teach. A study conducted in the mid-1990s found that public school districts were sending hundreds of thousands of students to the private sector for just that reason. Do some other private schools focus on serving high-performing students? Of course. But the largest share seem to place little or no emphasis on students’ prior academic performance, based on survey data from Arizona that I analyzed several years ago.

Expanding Educational Opportunity in the Bay State

One of the central promises of educational choice is expanding equality of opportunity.  When students are assigned to schools based on where they live, access to higher-performing schools depends on a family’s ability to afford a home in a more expensive community. This disparity between higher- and lower-income families persists even in academically high-performing states like Massachusetts.

Though the Bay State consistently ranks among the very top performers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and is internationally competitive in math and science, these aggregate scores obscure the reality that performance varies considerably across districts, particularly along socio-economic lines.

In wealthier towns and cities like Dover and Weston, where the median household income is $184,646 and $180,815 respectively, students perform well. On the 2013 state assessment (the MCAS), 99 percent of Dover-Sherborn Regional High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math, and 100 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. Likewise, 97 percent of Weston High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math and 99 percent scored proficient or advanced in English. 

By contrast, students from lower-income communities like Chelsea and New Bedford, where the median household income is $43,155 and $37,493 respectively, often do not perform nearly as well. On the most recent MCAS, only 61 percent of Chelsea High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math and 77 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. So too, only 49 percent of New Bedford High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math, and 76 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. 

This pattern is repeated across the commonwealth – in the 10 poorest cities and towns in Massachusetts, only 40.6 percent of students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ on the MCAS score compared to a statewide average of 65.1 percent. In 2013 the percentage of low-income students who scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English or math in all grades was approximately 33 points below the percentage for higher-income students.

One might assume that the differences in performance across income groups reflect disparate funding levels, yet there is scant evidence that increased school resources lead to increased student performance. Indeed, after adjusting for inflation, K-12 spending in the United States has tripled since 1970, but NAEP scores have remained essentially flat.