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“Liberals And Wages”: Public Policy Can Do A Lot To Help Workers Without Bringing Down The Wrath Of The Invisible Hand

Hillary Clinton gave her first big economic speech on Monday, and progressives were by and large gratified. For Mrs. Clinton’s core message was that the federal government can and should use its influence to push for higher wages.

Conservatives, however — at least those who could stop chanting “Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!” long enough to pay attention — seemed bemused. They believe that Ronald Reagan proved that government is the problem, not the solution. So wasn’t Mrs. Clinton just reviving defunct “paleoliberalism”? And don’t we know that government intervention in markets produces terrible side effects?

No, she wasn’t, and no, we don’t. In fact, Mrs. Clinton’s speech reflected major changes, deeply grounded in evidence, in our understanding of what determines wages. And a key implication of that new understanding is that public policy can do a lot to help workers without bringing down the wrath of the invisible hand.

Many economists used to think of the labor market as being pretty much like the market for anything else, with the prices of different kinds of labor — that is, wage rates — fully determined by supply and demand. So if wages for many workers have stagnated or declined, it must be because demand for their services is falling.

In particular, the conventional wisdom attributed rising inequality to technological change, which was raising the demand for highly educated workers while devaluing blue-collar work. And there was nothing much policy could do to change the trend, other than aiding low-wage workers via subsidies like the earned-income tax credit.

You still see commentators who haven’t kept up invoking this story as if it were obviously true. But the case for “skill-biased technological change” as the main driver of wage stagnation has largely fallen apart. Most notably, high levels of education have offered no guarantee of rising incomes — for example, wages of recent college graduates, adjusted for inflation, have been flat for 15 years.

Meanwhile, our understanding of wage determination has been transformed by an intellectual revolution — that’s not too strong a word — brought on by a series of remarkable studies of what happens when governments change the minimum wage.

More than two decades ago the economists David Card and Alan Krueger realized that when an individual state raises its minimum wage rate, it in effect performs an experiment on the labor market. Better still, it’s an experiment that offers a natural control group: neighboring states that don’t raise their minimum wages. Mr. Card and Mr. Krueger applied their insight by looking at what happened to the fast-food sector — which is where the effects of the minimum wage should be most pronounced — after New Jersey hiked its minimum wage but Pennsylvania did not.

Until the Card-Krueger study, most economists, myself included, assumed that raising the minimum wage would have a clear negative effect on employment. But they found, if anything, a positive effect. Their result has since been confirmed using data from many episodes. There’s just no evidence that raising the minimum wage costs jobs, at least when the starting point is as low as it is in modern America.

How can this be? There are several answers, but the most important is probably that the market for labor isn’t like the market for, say, wheat, because workers are people. And because they’re people, there are important benefits, even to the employer, from paying them more: better morale, lower turnover, increased productivity. These benefits largely offset the direct effect of higher labor costs, so that raising the minimum wage needn’t cost jobs after all.

The direct takeaway from this intellectual revolution is, of course, that we should raise minimum wages. But there are broader implications, too: Once you take what we’ve learned from minimum-wage studies seriously, you realize that they’re not relevant just to the lowest-paid workers.

For employers always face a trade-off between low-wage and higher-wage strategies — between, say, the traditional Walmart model of paying as little as possible and accepting high turnover and low morale, and the Costco model of higher pay and benefits leading to a more stable work force. And there’s every reason to believe that public policy can, in a variety of ways — including making it easier for workers to organize — encourage more firms to choose the good-wage strategy.

So there was a lot more behind Hillary’s speech than I suspect most commentators realized. And for those trying to play gotcha by pointing out that some of what she said differed from ideas that prevailed when her husband was president, well, many liberals have changed their views in response to new evidence. It’s an interesting experience; conservatives should try it some time.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, July 17, 2015

July 19, 2015 Posted by | Economic Policy, Hillary Clinton, Minimum Wage | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Power And Paychecks”: There’s No Excuse For Wage Fatalism; We Can Give American Workers A Raise If We Want To

On Wednesday, McDonald’s — which has been facing demonstrations denouncing its low wages — announced that it would give workers a raise. The pay increase won’t, in itself, be a very big deal: the new wage floor is just $1 above the local minimum wage, and even that policy only applies to outlets McDonald’s owns directly, not the many outlets owned by people who bought franchises. But it’s at least possible that this latest announcement, like Walmart’s much bigger pay-raise announcement a couple of months ago, is a harbinger of an important change in U.S. labor relations.

Maybe it’s not that hard to give American workers a raise, after all.

Most people would surely agree that stagnant wages, and more broadly the shrinking number of jobs that can support middle-class status, are big problems for this country. But the general attitude to the decline in good jobs is fatalistic. Isn’t it just supply and demand? Haven’t labor-saving technology and global competition made it impossible to pay decent wages to workers unless they have a lot of education?

Strange to say, however, the more you know about labor economics the less likely you are to share this fatalism. For one thing, global competition is overrated as a factor in labor markets; yes, manufacturing faces a lot more competition than it did in the past, but the great majority of American workers are employed in service industries that aren’t exposed to international trade. And the evidence that technology is pushing down wages is a lot less clear than all the harrumphing about a “skills gap” might suggest.

Even more important is the fact that the market for labor isn’t like the markets for soybeans or pork bellies. Workers are people; relations between employers and employees are more complicated than simple supply and demand. And this complexity means that there’s a lot more wiggle room in wage determination than conventional wisdom would have you believe. We can, in fact, raise wages significantly if we want to.

How do we know that labor markets are different? Start with the effects of minimum wages. There’s a lot of evidence on those effects: Every time a state raises its minimum wage while neighboring states don’t, it, in effect, performs a controlled experiment. And the overwhelming conclusion from all that evidence is that the effect you might expect to see — higher minimum wages leading to fewer jobs — is weak to nonexistent. Raising the minimum wage makes jobs better; it doesn’t seem to make them scarcer.

How is that possible? At least part of the answer is that workers are not, in fact, commodities. A bushel of soybeans doesn’t care how much you paid for it; but decently paid workers tend to do a better job, not to mention being less likely to quit and require replacement, than workers paid the absolute minimum an employer can get away with. As a result, raising the minimum wage, while it makes labor more expensive, has offsetting benefits that tend to lower costs, limiting any adverse effect on jobs.

Similar factors explain another puzzle about labor markets: the way different firms in what looks like the same business can pay very different wages. The classic comparison is between Walmart (with its low wages, low morale, and very high turnover) and Costco (which offers higher wages and better benefits, and makes up the difference with better productivity and worker loyalty). True, the two retailers serve different markets; Costco’s merchandise is higher-end and its customers more affluent. But the comparison nonetheless suggests that paying higher wages costs employers a lot less than you might think.

And this, in turn, suggests that it shouldn’t be all that hard to raise wages across the board. Suppose that we were to give workers some bargaining power by raising minimum wages, making it easier for them to organize, and, crucially, aiming for full employment rather than finding reasons to choke off recovery despite low inflation. Given what we now know about labor markets, the results might be surprisingly big — because a moderate push might be all it takes to persuade much of American business to turn away from the low-wage strategy that has dominated our society for so many years.

There’s historical precedent for this kind of wage push. The middle-class society now dwindling in our rearview mirrors didn’t emerge spontaneously; it was largely created by the “great compression” of wages that took place during World War II, with effects that lasted for more than a generation.

So can we repeat this achievement? The pay raises at Walmart and McDonald’s — brought on by a tightening job market plus activist pressure — offer a small taste of what could happen on a vastly larger scale. There’s no excuse for wage fatalism. We can give American workers a raise if we want to.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 3, 2015

April 5, 2015 Posted by | Businesses, Labor, Wages | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Wal-Mart Returning To Full-Time Workers”: Obamacare Not Such A Job Killer After All

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, announced Monday that 35,000 part-time employees will soon be moved to full-time status, entitling them to the full healthcare benefits that were scheduled to be denied them as a result of Wal-Mart’s efforts to avoid the requirements of Obamacare.

While some analysts believe that the move comes as Wal-Mart is attempting to deal with the negative view many Americans have of its worker benefits program, a closer look reveals the real reason for the shift—

Wal-Mart’s business is going south due to the company’s penchant for putting politics and the squeeze on Wal-Mart employees ahead of the kind of customer satisfaction that produces prosperity over the long-term.

In fact, Wal-Mart’s unwillingness to pay most of their workers a livable wage, while avoiding enough full-time employees to properly run a retail outlet, has led to the company placing dead last among department and discount stores in the most recent  American Customer Satisfaction Index—a position that should now be all to familiar to the nation’s largest retailer given that Wal-Mart has either held or shared the bottom spot on the index for six years running.

For anyone who has not been following the Wal-Mart saga, sales have been sinking dramatically at the retailer as the company has turned to hiring mostly temporary workers (those who must reapply for a job every 180 days) to staff their stores while cutting full-time employees’ hours down to part-time status in order to avoid providing workers with healthcare benefits.

The result?

Empty shelves, ridiculously long check-out lines, helpless customers wandering through the electronics section and general disorganization at Wal-Mart store locations.

This is hardly a recipe for success.

A recent description of a Wal-Mart store in Newark, New Jersey published by Bloomberg, says it all—

“Three days earlier, about 10 people waited in a customer service line at a Wal-Mart in Secaucus, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York, the nation’s largest city. Twelve of 30 registers were open and the lines were about five deep. There were empty spaces on shelves large enough for a grown man to lie down, and a woman wandered around vainly seeking a frying pan.”

The description pretty much sums up what you will find at the typical Wal-Mart store in the United States these days.

While the company’s trend toward temporary employees has allowed the retailer to avoid its responsibilities under the Affordable Care Act—a law that Wal-Mart publicly supported only to turn around after passage and work to avoid providing health care benefits to employees—they’ve managed to tank their store sales in the process.

Who would have guessed that a well-staffed store filled with competent and reasonably paid employees might actually have an impact on the success of a company?

Home Depot—that’s who.

According to Zeynep Ton, a retail researcher and associate professor of operations management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in the early 2000s, Home Depot’s CEO, Robert Nardelli, moved to cut full-time staffing levels while increasing part-time employees in an effort to boost profits by trimming the expense that comes with employing full-time workers. It worked for a short while. However, as Ton notes, eventually customer service declined—and with it, customer satisfaction—leading to a severe decline of same-store sales.

Wal-Mart’s penny wise-pound foolish approach to its business was further well documented in the Bloomberg article referenced earlier where they told the story of Margaret Hancock, a retired accountant from Newark, Delaware, who has always viewed Wal-Mart as her “one stop shopping destination”.

While Ms. Hancock had, for years, been able to get everything she needed at her local Wal-Mart store, recent visits resulted in her failing to locate numerous items as the products were simply not out on the shelves and available for purchase.

As Hancock explained it, “If it’s not on the shelf, I can’t buy it. You hate to see a company self-destruct, but there are other places to go.”

And ‘go’ is exactly what Ms. Hancock did—no doubt to Wal-Mart’s competitor, Costco, a company that experienced a 19 percent increase in profits in Q2 2013 while paying its employees 40 percent more on average (the average Costco wage is $21.96 per hour) than what a Wal-Mart worker can earn. In that same quarter, Wal-Mart numbers revealed the company is going nowhere fast given its current state of operations.

So, where is all that product that once filled Wal-Mart shelves?

Oh, the goods are in the store—either in the back room or in the unopened boxes lining the aisles as they await the availability of a store clerk to get to the rather critical job of moving the merchandise from the box to the shelf where a customer can actually purchase it. But when there are insufficient numbers of store clerks available—due to Wal-Mart’s commitment to using temporary workers or busting its full-time employees down to part-time so as to avoid worker benefit—the products Wal-Mart sells stay off the shelves and unavailable for customers to purchase.

Of course, Wal-Mart’s efforts to keep its workers from earning a decent living while achieving health care benefits has created some full-time work for some.

The company now hires people to work with its employees to help them sign up for Medicaid, the government program that makes healthcare available to Americans who neither get coverage at work or are able to afford it without public assistance.

What that means is that you and I are subsidizing Wal-Mart’s poor treatment of its employees as we pay for their workers health care coverage with our tax dollars and all so Wal-Mart can feather and mask its sinking profits by allowing you and I to pay for their responsibilities, whether we shop at Wal-Mart or not.

The moral to the story?

Wal-Mart is finally learning what all American businesses who seek to avoid their health care responsibilities to employees will soon learn.

It may be a clever enough dodge to cut employees below the 30 hours per week in order to avoid the expectations of Obamacare, but the move comes at a substantial price to be paid in lost revenue and profits. Given that the entire point of business is to show a profit, it is only a matter of time before employers learn what Home Depot learned some years ago and what Wal-Mart is slowly beginning to figure out—you get what you pay for.

Cut back on employees and you will, eventually, cut back on your profits as the savings a business creates by cutting worker hours leads to greatly decreased sales as customer satisfaction disappears.

While there are no shortage of Americans who enjoy deriding the Affordable Care Act as a ‘job killer’, what will soon emerge—and sooner than you may think—is an understanding that the losses experienced by businesses that cut worker hours will far exceed whatever is gained by avoiding giving employees the healthcare benefits their families so badly require.

Don’t believe it?

Just ask Wal-Mart.

 

By: Rick Ungar, Op-Ed Contributor, Forbes, September 25, 2013

September 26, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way”: Walmart Plans To Deny Health Care Benefits To New Employees

Why the ACA can’t kick in soon enough, part the infinite: the Huffington Post is reporting that, according to a new policy that will take effect in January, Walmart will begin denying health insurance to new employees who work less than 30 hours a week. It will also reserve the right to cut health benefits for certain groups of current employees who work less than 30 hours. Walmart workers, like many retail employees, often have shifts and hours that vary from week to week, according to seasonal business cycles, so even workers who are currently working 30 hours or more could be affected.

Let’s not forget that Walmart is the nation’s largest private employer, so this change is hugely important. And it’s important not only in itself, but in the spillover effect it could have on the employment policies of comparable retailers.

The Huffington Post observes that the point of the new policy is to opportunistically take advantage of certain aspects of Obamacare:

Among the key features of Obamacare is an expansion of Medicaid, the taxpayer-financed health insurance program for poor people. Many of the Walmart workers who might be dropped from the company’s health care plans earn so little that they would qualify for the expanded Medicaid program, these experts said.

“Walmart is effectively shifting the costs of paying for its employees onto the federal government with this new plan, which is one of the problems with the way the law is structured,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

This is yet one more example of why last week’s historic worker protests against Walmart were so important. I’ll add this reminder: it doesn’t have to be this way. Some highly profitable players in the retail game which are comparable to Walmart, such as Costco, manage to treat their workers decently. The reason Walmart runs its business in such a reprehensible manner is because it actively chooses to do so.

 

By: Kathleen Grier, Washington Monthly Political Animal, December 2, 2012

December 3, 2012 Posted by | Health Care | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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