Ladder vs. Safety net

Ladder vs. Safety net

When designing economic policies there is often a trade-off between our desire to provide immediate financial assistance to those who have our sympathy and our desire to maximize the opportunities for their long run success. If you give financial assistance to someone in need but tell them you will take it away once they no longer need it, you water down the incentive they have to make the effort to improve their own condition. This diminished incentive has an effect on labor supply.

In other words, there’s a trade-off between the ladder and the safety net. The higher we make the safety net the less economic sense it makes for someone in that safety net to grab the bottom rungs of the ladder and begin to climb. Rather than becoming a net that protects us from hitting the hard ground, we get caught in it and cannot escape, not because we don’t want to, but because government policies financially discourage us from doing so.

Politicians, especially on the left, love to express/feign outrage when this point is made, and suggest that (a) it’s not true and (b) the person suggesting it is accusing people of being lazy. But while the magnitude of the incentive effect is often subject to debate, the existence and direction of those effects is most often not. CBO’s latest analysis of the labor supply effects of ObamaCare reinforces this point: if you make work less financially rewarding you’ll usually get less of it.

Poorly designed policies don’t change the motivations of people with modest income, they change the calculations people make about whether they should make short-term economic sacrifices for longer-term economic gain. Why pay $500 for a night course (and give up your evenings) to get a $1,000 annual raise if the government will “grab back” a significant portion of that extra $1,000 by reducing your benefits? You may be driven to advance yourself professionally but make the rational decision that it’s not worth the sacrifice because of the amount of government subsidies you receive and the way they’re designed to phase out as your income climbs. CBO’s labor supply conclusions assume people who cut back on paid work because of their big new health insurance subsidies are rational, not that they are lazy.

Let’s look at three examples.

1. Extended unemployment insurance: The academic evidence is pretty clear that extending unemployment insurance benefits increases the amount of unemployment. In some cases that’s driven by individuals, some of whom ramp up their job search only as their UI checks are running out. In other cases it’s driven by employers who temporarily lay off workers (like an auto manufacturer closing an assembly line) and keep the line closed until right before benefits run out. I’ve seen estimates that the current extended UI benefits add anywhere from 0.1 percentage points (CBO) up to 0.5 percentage points to the unemployment rate.

Does that mean UI benefits should not be extended? No, it simply means that there is a cost to do doing so that should be weighed against the benefits. Policymakers must balance the compassion benefits of helping those who don’t have jobs and are trying to find them, with the costs of providing taxpayer assistance to those who could find jobs but just aren’t looking, and the broader macroeconomic costs of slowing the pace of economic recovery. Reasonable people can disagree on where and how to draw this line based on how they value those conflicting goals. But it’s silly to suggest, as President Obama has done, that there isn’t a trade-off, or that it’s somehow offensive to suggest that extending UI benefits could hurt workers and economic growth. There is a trade-off, an unavoidable one, between helping those now unemployed pay their bills and getting the most people back to work as quickly as possible.

2. Minimum wage: If you’re now making $7.25 an hour and the minimum wage were increased to $9 an hour you would fall into one of three categories. If you still have your job after the minimum wage increase, then you’re better off. If your employer replaced you with a friendly robot that was cheaper than paying you $9/hour, then you’re worse off. If your employer cut back your hours, you may be better or worse off, depending on how much your hours were cut back and what else you can do with that time.

This then provokes a value-neutral analytic question and a values question. We ask the economists, “For any given proposed minimum wage, how many people will fall in each category?” Then we must ask if the benefits to those in category one are worth the costs paid by those in categories two and three.

Reasonable people can disagree on the values question, and depending on where policymakers fall, they tend to pick and choose the economic analyses for the analytic question that support their value choice. But if you listen to President Obama you’d conclude that raising the minimum wage has only benefits and that anyone who opposes a minimum wage increase is driven only by selfishness and malevolence toward low wage workers. That’s absurd. Increasing the minimum wage will reduce constrain the available labor supply and hurt some low-skilled workers. We can debate how much and whether it’s worth it, but there are unquestionably winners and losers.

3. ObamaCare: Providing low and moderate-income individuals and families with subsidies to buy health insurance outside of employment helps the bottom lines of those families. Phasing those subsidies out as income climbs allows taxpayer resources to be targeted based on economic need. But it also changes the incentives people have to work, to go to school, to get additional job training, and to try for a promotion. The bigger the subsidies and the sharper the slope of the phaseout, the bigger the disincentive created for people to try to make more money so they can get off these government subsidies and provide for themselves. This disincentive matters: CBO says ObamaCare will reduce hours worked by 1.5 to 2 percent, and that “the largest declines in labor supply will probably occur among lower-wage workers.” Fewer people will work, and others will work fewer hours. Total wages will decline by about one percent.

I am not arguing for no social safety net or for no unemployment insurance. I am instead arguing what should be obvious and shouldn’t need saying, but does: every time we raise the safety net, we provide immediate beneficial aid to many, and we make it less profitable for them to “climb onto the ladder of opportunity” and push themselves to earn more, and this calculation has an effect on people’s behavior. Ongoing UI checks help pay the bills but also relieve the pressure to find a job immediately. A higher minimum wage increases the wages of those low-skilled workers who still have jobs, but it also reduces the opportunities for an unskilled teenager to learn how to hold down a first job and learn basic professional skills. Subsidized health insurance helps the people who receive it.¬†When those subsidies phase out as income increases, they also reduce both the number of hours worked and the number of people working. The reduced labor supply hurts the economy as a whole and is generally bad for those people receiving subsidies as well, because they are being pushed by government policies to forego economic opportunities that could help them even more in the long run than do the immediate benefits they are getting.

And these government programs and subsidized benefits stack. The cost-benefit calculation of short-term compassionate aid and long-term compassion to create opportunity depends on your starting point. Most everyone would say that some unemployment insurance is good, but it’s not surprising that there is disagreement about the costs and benefits of providing more than three years of UI benefits. Similarly, there are few who would say we shouldn’t subsidize health care for the poor, but when CBO says that a new law will reduce labor supply by 1.5 to 2 percent, that’s a really big cost. And it’s bigger because ObamaCare’s subsidies are layered on top of other programs that also have income phaseouts.

The costs of all three of these policies include higher structural unemployment and fewer people building additional skills to move up the income scale over time. When the U.S. economy eventually recovers fully, our unemployment rate should be in the low 5s. Because they keep layering on “protections” and “assistance,” France’s comparable rate is around 10 percent. Imagine if the U.S. steady-state unemployment rate were 10 percent. We’re not there yet, but all of President Obama’s policies push us toward a European-style model.

I think movement in that direction is a huge mistake, but my point today is a more basic one. These trade-offs must be considered and debated openly, and the Obama Administration is doing a disservice by suggesting that no trade-offs exist, and that those who oppose these programs do so because they are mean. Extending unemployment insurance benefits, raising the minimum wage, and ObamaCare have long-term labor supply costs that must be weighed against their more immediate benefits. There is no free lunch here. Do you want a stronger ladder or a higher safety net?

(photo credit: Jonathan Khoo)

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