Guaranteed jobs or UBI are poorly targeted and do not match the needs of new workers and may even hold them back by offering the sort of guarantees that perpetuate wage stagnation. Instead, the new safety net should offer various programs to smooth out dips in income and offer benefits that are not tied to a single employer, including:
Wage insurance—benefits that account for a drop in income, not just a loss of employment
Income averaging—tax rates based on income over three or five years, not just a single year, which will make income more stable for workers in variable work arrangements
Providing contingent workers the opportunity to receive benefits, such as health care and sick leave, that are not tied to traditional employment
To protect themselves against income risk, Americans have resorted to stagnation. We can provide downside protection in alternate ways—so that Americans can feel more free to switch jobs, try alternative forms of work, or start new companies. The above-mentioned programs are a more cost-effective and efficient way to address the needs of the new labor force than the guarantee-oriented policies that receive more attention. These programs provide options that would provide more robust insurance that can help spur a more dynamic economy. The options are merely a starting point to think more creatively about how to support a changing economy and break the cycle of stagnation.
Economists are often reminded by well-meaning friends and strangers that economics is flawed for assuming people are rational when they’re not. It’s not always clear what these skeptics mean by rational — often it’s a propensity for making bad decisions. And there’s truth in that. People struggle to make sense of probabilities, especially in the midst of uncertainty. Just look at the difficulty most people have had understanding the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines.
We humans also tend to exaggerate remote risks and ignore more likely events. Even when we accurately assess risk, sometimes we procrastinate doing what’s in our best interest or make snap decisions we regret later.
But generally, the idea we could nudge people to make better choices by exploiting their behavioral biases was always oversold. It’s hard to persuade people to do something they don’t want to do, especially when you don’t fully understand their unique motives. And if data isn’t presented clearly and honestly, attempts to nudge people can be self-defeating when they don’t trust you.
While the economic case for reducing inequality isn’t clear, a moral case can be made. One could argue that it’s wrong for the few to have so much while the many have so little. But it’s not the Fed’s job to make moral decisions about the ideal distributions of wealth. This is an inherently political calculation—one that should be addressed through institutions directly accountable to voters. Moreover, the tools at Congress’s disposal—tax rates and control over benefits, for example—are better suited for taking on inequality. And these policies involve costs, too, in terms of growth. Voters should be the ones to decide whether they want to pay them.
The Fed’s role is to balance short- and long-term interests, making the hard choices that may harm the economy now in exchange for long-term stability and expansion. Once politics are involved, however, it becomes difficult if not impossible to make this trade-off. The Fed can do what it does because it has a narrow mandate: reasonable inflation and maximum employment. It needs to stay in its lane.
The pandemic and the work-from-home environment it spawned also led many economists to speculate that workers would become better adapted to technology, more efficient and strike a healthier balance between work and life. This, in turn, would leave them more mobile. A Microsoft Corp. workplace trends survey found that 40% of Americans are considering leaving their jobs this year. And many are doing just that, with 2.5% of the employed quitting their jobs in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Opening and Labor Turnover Survey. Although that’s down from the record 2.8% in April, it’s still higher than any other point since at least before 2001. Plus, consider that the quit rate was only 2.3% in 2019 when unemployment was just 3.6%, compared with 5.8% this May.
So the goal of tax policy should be taking as much revenue as you can while trying to minimize distortions. Some kinds of taxes are more distortionary than others. In order of least to most harmful, it goes
1. Consumption taxes
2. Income taxes
3. Wealth taxes
Cut to our current tax debate, where these concerns get no attention. The goal seems less about minimizing distortions/maximizing revenue and more about punishment, i.e., rich people for making too much in a zero-sum world and corporations for being greedy. Now, I think our tax system should be more progressive, too. But there are good and bad ways to achieve that goal.
Since last winter, 1.8 million women have left the labor force entirely—neither working nor looking for work. At first, closed schools and the high cost of child-care options seemed responsible. But economists who have crunched the numbers argue that closed schools can’t explain higher female unemployment. Women with young children make up only 12 percent of the labor force and were only slightly more likely to leave the labor force than were women without young children. The exception? Women with young children who don’t hold college degrees—they constitute only 6 percent of the labor force but saw the biggest drop in employment. Their employment rate has fallen by almost eight percentage points since the pandemic started.
This suggests that women aren’t working for various reasons. For most families, several factors—child-care options, how much a given job will pay, and their partner’s employment prospects—determine whether they will decide to return to work. Rarely in economics does a single cause explain a phenomenon; policies often affect behavior on the margins. If you’re struggling to find good, affordable child care and you are being paid more to stay at home, that extra factor can tip the scales.
Indeed, several current policies seem to be discouraging women from returning to work.
Historically, bond yields have not been very good at predicting inflation.
In the last 70 years, bond yields rarely rose ahead of inflation, going up only after inflation takes hold. One study indicated that past inflation trends were a better predictor of bond rates than what future inflation turned out to be.
Does this mean bond traders are wrong? Not necessarily. It may just reflect that inflation is unpredictable and bond traders don’t know any more about the future than the rest of us. All they have is the past data and current prices to make their predictions, too. So when inflation suddenly spikes — as it has in the past — bond traders are as surprised as everyone else.
My colleague at Bloomberg writes we’ll have to pay teachers more to get them to return to work. Their pay has been stagnant for a decade. But their compensation has not been. A very large part of teachers’ compensation comes in the form of a massive risk-free asset—a defined benefit pension. The value of this pension increased as real interest rates fell. It not only took more resources for the states and municipalities to finance (assuming the pension funds were well funded—a big if) the pension when rates were low. The pension became more valuable.
So teachers really got large raises in the form of their more valuable pension. The problem is they don’t fully internalize how much more their pension is worth. Also, pensions are less valuable for young teachers who may change jobs one day. If we do want to increase teachers’ pay, we really need to reform the pensions. Reform would free up more money for salaries, and there’s evidence young teachers prefer more flexible compensation.
That probably won’t happen since the teachers’ union is very attached to its defined benefit plan. But you can’t have it all, even in this labor market.
Is it just me or are people obsessed with tax compliance lately? I suppose it is part of this fantasy that high earners and corporations have enough money to pay for all our new spending – we just have to force them to pay up.
You know what might be simpler than jacking up taxes and doubling the size of a government agency? A broader base and simplified tax system that doesn’t leave so much room for getting out of paying taxes. Take the idea of a global minimum corporate tax. Sounds sensible enough; after all, you can’t increase the corporate tax rate too much because it is so easy to send profits overseas where taxes are lower.
But anyone who studied public finance can tell you there’s the tax rate and there’s the tax base. Generally, it is better to have a broader base and a lower rate. You get more revenue that way, and it causes fewer distortions and enhances transparency. Maybe we can convince OECD countries to set a higher corporate rate, but that creates a new race to the bottom to degrade the base. Countries will compete to offer more loopholes and deductions. And that seems worse to me.
And applying the higher capital gains rate to top earners, who tend to be wealthy, creates bigger distortions because these taxpayers have many tools to avoid the tax. For example, when you inherit assets subject to estate taxes, the capital gains tax that you pay is based on when the asset was transferred to you, instead of when it was bought. This is known as a step-up in basis. Doubling the tax rate makes this provision much more attractive, and word is that the Biden plan nixes it. High earners can find other ways to get around this tax with the right advice. Certain asset classes, such as investment real estate, offer a chance to lower liability. We may also see more high-net-worth investors move further into the murky world of private equity, where values are easier to distort.
There are better ways to collect investment-income revenue. Getting rid of step-up in basis is a start; the administration could also take on the myriad loopholes that favor different asset classes. But these approaches don’t offer the stick-it-to-the rich satisfaction of doubling the rate on investment income—even if we all wind up paying for it.
We can see evidence of the market distortions that government subsidies cause in the market capitalization of electric-car maker Tesla—currently about $650 billion, or more than five times that of General Electric. Tesla benefits from many subsidies already, and the Biden infrastructure plan aims to divert even more to the electric-car industry. And by increasing the corporate tax rate to pay for part of these subsidies, the Biden plan will further distort the market by making the unsubsidized private sector even less attractive to investors.
The pandemic forced many businesses to adopt new technologies that could boostproductivity for decades. Productivity gains don’t always come so fast. It took more than 100 years for the steam engine, a transformative technology, to show up in productivity estimates, for example. The pandemic’s acceleration of this process of technological adoption means that we could be poised for a big burst of follow-on growth and innovation. But government interventions on the scale of the Covid stimulus and infrastructure bill threaten to divert these energies into less productive investments.
True, the added government spending will provide short-term benefits to workers in the form of new jobs building roads, bridges, and airports or retrofitting buildings with green technology. But using industrial policy to create jobs can also generate long-term risks for those workers, by steering them away from gaining the skills and experience the market may need in the future. Research has shown that workers for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration were less likely to take higher-paying private-sector jobs when they became available because they preferred the security of a government guarantee. In the long term, that can lead to wage stagnation and a population less competitive in the global market.
It is a miracle anyone ever listens to us. Honestly, sometimes they shouldn’t. Other than the theory of comparative advantage, I can’t think of any correct economic insights that defy common sense. Economists, or experts in any field, are meant to offer a framework to weigh costs and benefits, help us see risks, and understand how the economy and people respond to shocks and policy. This helps people make choices that are right for them. If someone is pushing something totally counterintuitive, whether in economics or public health, we should be skeptical.
The same goes for debt. I heard someone say MMT has become an accepted theory – that is simply not true. And there is nothing new here. If you look at the history of debt cycles and financial crisis, they often featured some convoluted justification for why taking on tons of leverage isn’t so risky after all because this time was different – we are so much more clever now. Guess what, you might use some big words that tell you otherwise, but debt is always risky. Sure, some of the time it works out and juices higher growth, but when it doesn’t, things get really nasty.