Free Markets, Free People
For a number of reasons actually. Some numbers tell the story:
Two years into the recovery, hiring is still painfully slow. The economy is producing as much as it was before the downturn, but with seven million fewer jobs. Since the recovery began, businesses’ spending on employees has grown 2 percent as equipment and software spending has swelled 26 percent, according to the Commerce Department. A capital rebound that sharp and a labor rebound that slow have been recorded only once before — after the 1982 recession.
Demand has increased enough that business is producing at least as much as it was before the recession, according to the NYT, but businesses aren’t hiring. Why?
Well, in lean times, headcount is the first casualty. Layoffs are the rule. That’s the fastest way to reduce the bottom line and either cut the losses being suffered to a manageable level or eek out a profit.
But, you say, once the recession is over, shouldn’t they rehire? Well, like all markets, not if the cost of the commodity is too high (labor) and an acceptable alternative is available (equipment). In this case that appears to be software in many cases.
So – business cuts back during bad times, finds it can either get along without the extra headcount or finds a technological alternative (equipment) and when a level of prosperity returns, doesn’t hire (although I’m not sure I’d agree a proper level of prosperity has returned at this point, but I think it is clear that much more employment was expected by now, which is why we see the word “unexpected” appended to every down employment report).
Why is this happening? Well in addition to the above, there’s an added problem that is often ignored or not mentioned. Government tax policies. In the case of equipment buying, the government has incentivized such purchases to the detriment of another – namely employment (labor).
With equipment prices dropping, and tax incentives to subsidize capital investments, these trends seem likely to continue.
“Firms are just responding to incentives,” said Dean Maki, chief United States economist at Barclays Capital. “And capital has gotten much cheaper relative to labor.”
Indeed, equipment and software prices have dipped 2.4 percent since the recovery began, thanks largely to foreign manufacturing. Labor costs, on the other hand, have risen 6.7 percent, according to the Labor Department. The rising compensation costs are driven in large part by costlier health care benefits, so those lucky workers who do have jobs do not exactly feel richer.
There’s your choice as a business – lower prices and tax incentives to purchase software and equipment or higher labor costs for workers. If the machine can do the job, the business doesn’t have to pay healthcare, payroll, payroll taxes, etc. In fact, the machine gives them a bottom line write off on their tax bill. It’s a no-brainer.
Did you know there’s a home in Mississippi that has flooded 34 times in 32 years? And each time it has flooded, the federal government, through FEMA’s Federal Flood Insurance Program, has paid the owner’s claim. The house, worth $69,900, has cost the government $663,000 in flood damage claims. That’s almost ten times the home’s worth and averages over $20,000 a year.
If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, that aptly describes this federal program. It essentially incentivizes home owners to remain in flood prone areas by bailing them out each time they are flooded. And, as you might imagine, that’s finally caught up with the program, as USA Today reports:
FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program is the nation’s main flood insurer, created by law in 1968 as private companies stopped covering flood damage. The program insures 5.6 million properties nationwide and aims to be self-sustaining by paying claims from premiums it collects.
Instead it’s running deeply in the red. A major reason, a USA TODAY review finds, is that the program has paid people to rebuild over and over in the nation’s worst flood zones while also discounting insurance rates by up to $1 billion a year for flood-prone properties.
Along with the huge losses from Hurricane Katrina, the generous benefits have forced the program to seek an unprecedented $19 billion taxpayer bailout.
As one critic succinctly points out, “if this were a private insurer, it would be bankrupt”. In fact, it with those business practices, it would have been bankrupt years, if not decades ago. And now, hat in hand, it goes to the taxpayer for a bailout. $19 billion dollars worth of bailout.
As a government program, federal flood insurance covers anyone. It’s similar to state-run programs that insure homeowners and drivers who cannot get private coverage. Policies cannot be canceled, and individual premiums cannot be raised based on claims payments.
"It is not run as a business," [FEMA Administrator Craig ]Fugate said.
Congress’ Government Accountability Office said in April that the program is "by design, not actuarially sound" because it has no cash reserves to pay for catastrophes such as Katrina and sets rates that "do not reflect actual flood risk."
Raising insurance rates or limiting coverage is hard. "The board of directors of this program is Congress," Fugate said. "They are very responsive to individuals who are being adversely affected."
Or said another way, Congress has been “captured” by influential constituents who see no problem using their influence to burden taxpayers to subsidize the way of life they prefer – no risk building in areas prone to natural disasters. It isn’t “regulatory capture” per se, but it could certainly be called “constituent capture”. It is certainly rent seeking. Whatever the name preferred, it is an abuse of the taxpayer’s money.
It appears the plan is to continue doing business as usual – providing cheap insurance to builders and homeowners who continue to build or rebuild in flood prone areas. No fault risk taking subsidized by the federal government via taxes. So when you see stories like this, you know who to blame:
In Fairhope, Ala., the owner of a $153,000 house has received $2.3 million in claims. A $116,000 Houston home has received $1.6 million. The payments are for damage to homes and what’s inside.
After all, the view’s beautiful, coverage cheap and can’t be canceled and the risk minimal in terms of dollar loss, so what incentive is there to relocate to an area less prone to flooding as long as the taxpayer is on the hook to subsidize that lifestyle and they keep paying?
Yup, as Tim Geithner would say – “welcome to the recovery”. And, given the trends, I would guess this isn’t the last of the “unexpectedly” high unemployment report we’ll see. Again, ad nauseam, there’s been no incentive provided by government, but plenty of disincentives that are keeping businesses on the sidelines and consumers from spending:
Initial jobless claims climbed by 19,000 to 479,000 in the week ended July 31, the most since April and exceeding the highest estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The number of people receiving unemployment benefits dropped, while those getting extended payments rose.
A cooling economy means employers will resist taking on more staff in coming months, raising the risk consumer spending will weaken further. The jobless rate rose last month as payroll increases weren’t large enough to keep up with gains in the labor force, economists forecast a government report tomorrow will show.
As if anyone has to be told, this is not good. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see the U6 unemployment rate tick up over 10% again in the next few months:
“There really is no upside momentum in the labor market, and that’s a critical long-term determinant of where the economy is going,” said Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities USA Inc. in New York. “People just aren’t getting jobs.”
That’s because jobs aren’t being created and offered. Name the incentive, at this point, to do so? Tax increases are in the offing, health care laws, 1099 requirements, Democrats still pushing for cap-and-trade, new financial regulations that impact the market and economic policies which give the impression the administration is at war with business.
Why would any sane business owner invest in his business in times as unsettled as these?
Answer: he or she wouldn’t. And that’s the biggest reason unemployment continues to “unexpectedly” rise. Headcount is the easiest thing to add when times are good. It’s also the easiest thing to reduce when times are bad. And if they stay bad – as we’re seeing now – few if any are going to be adding jobs.
Economics 101 – provide incentives to get the behavior you want. Provide disincentives to discourage the behavior you don’t want. The administration’s economic policies have, to this point, provided business with all manner of disincentives to hiring. And then the “experts” are surprised when jobless rates are “unexpectedly” higher than estimated.