Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Public-Private Partnerships, for Better or for Worse

The following blog combines two previous topics discussed here at NN–Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) and State subsidies to private corporations. While both technically represent a “pubic-private partnerships” (both public and private money going towards the same goal), that is where the similarities end.

Public-private partnerships, as they are intended, leverage public (tax-payer) money to raise private sector money for a cause. These partnerships often raise money for innovative purposes, in order to help cultivate new industries which indirectly lead to future jobs and tax-revenue. Universities, as centers of R & D and learning / training, also have a role to play in PPPs teaching people the skills needed to take part in this innovation. An example of a PPP that functions this way are President Obama’s recently announced manufacturing institutes.

With less than two weeks till his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, Mr. Obama hastened to make good on a pledge from last year’s speech, announcing the creation of a high-tech manufacturing institute aimed at creating well-paying jobs.

Speaking to 2,000 students at North Carolina State University, which is leading a group of universities and companies that established the institute, Mr. Obama said it was the kind of innovation that would reinvigorate the nation’s manufacturing economy.

This is the first of three such institutes the White House plans to announce in the coming weeks. It will be financed by a five-year, $70 million grant from the Department of Energy, which will be matched by funding from the consortium members, including the equipment maker John Deere and Delphi, an auto-parts maker.

The institute will use advanced semiconductor technology to develop a new generation of energy-efficient devices for automobiles, consumer electronics and industrial motors. Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Obama toured a Finnish company, Vacon, that makes drives used to control the speed of electric motors, to increase their energy efficiency.

Confessing that there was “a lot of physics” in the company’s presentation, the president seemed most interested in which of the components were made in the United States.

The announcement Wednesday of the new manufacturing institute showcased the White House’s determination to press ahead with jobs programs, with or without Congress. Mr. Obama said he was determined to make 2014 “a year of action.”

But it also laid bare the limits of Mr. Obama’s authority, since Congress has stymied his more ambitious proposals that require legislation. In last year’s State of the Union address, the president announced a $1 billion plan, modeled on one in Germany, to create a network of 15 institutes that would develop new industries.

But setting up 15 institutes would require congressional authorization. So last year, Mr. Obama narrowed his focus to establishing three institutes using existing funds and executive authority. At the same time, he increased his long-term goal to 45 institutes over 10 years, while acknowledging this would require congressional action.

To be clear, PPPs are not a call for charity–they represent mutually beneficial and sustainable economic arrangements. Businesses need future employees and customers, governments need non-dependent tax payers, a Universities future success is linked to it’s graduate employment rate, and people need jobs. If these projects prove successful, it will be difficult for congress to block the programs expansion.

Subsidizing individual corporate initiatives, on the other hand, does not lead to many of the positive externalities associated with PPPs. Unlike traditional PPPs, it does not give the government any ownership of a project–a company is free to leave for greener pastures if it receives a better offer after the terms of an agreement end, leaving a municipality with nothing but a large bill. Furthermore, this practice represent one aspect of a “race-to-the bottom” that pits the private sector against workers and society as a whole:

Boeing is a company that pits state governments against one another to compete for larger subsidies and forces communities into a race to the bottom to see who can fight unions and lower wages the fastest. It is a prime example of 21st century business in the United States. As a result of these tactics, American workers, both unionized and independent, have little choice but to accept the lowered living standards their employers offer as conditions for their doing business.

This practice has become common. In the last year alone, 13 states granted corporate subsidy packages of over $100 million to companies like Toyota, Yokohama Rubber, Boeing and MetLife. Many of these subsidies are not for job creation but for job relocation — to lure business over to one state at the expense of its friends and neighbors.

The story of Boeing is an example of how ruthlessly U.S. businesses use the needs of some workers to justify lowering the standards of others, to the ultimate detriment of both.

Boeing’s strategy is a profitable one. It saves the company money, reduces wages and benefits for workers and ultimately absolves the company of any financial responsibility to take care of its retirees. As a result, production workers, regardless of their state, are left with a smaller slice of a bigger pie. This is, of course, the point: “Now that we have internal competition (among production sites), we’re going to get much better deals,” Boeing CEO Jim McNerney explained in May.  The deals aren’t only on the price of labor, but on the size of subsidies, which states and municipalities must fit into their budgets by either raising taxes or cutting services.

Unless American workers miraculously rediscover collective bargaining or begin to lay claims on the government to promise what organized labor once provided, then their lives will continue to be shaped by companies like Boeing. Their wages will be taken out of their pockets, their tax money out of their schools and roads…

These initiatives, unlike PPPs which are aimed at innovation and job creation, only benefit a single corporation. Furthermore, these projects often amount to job relocation, as opposed to job creation. There are many good reasons for subsidies to exist; for example, subsidies can help promote “infant industries” and to reward positive externalities. However, giving tax-payer money to already profitable companies in order to lure jobs from one municipality to another is not one of them. Private sector job creation is not charity, it is a cost of doing business that companies would face regardless of a subsidy.

The problem is this country has empowered corporations at the expense of workers and societies as a whole. Don’t believe me? There is ample evidence of the different “recoveries” experienced by the “haves” and the “have nots” in America (spoiler: the wealthiest have done great post-recession, while masses have seen declining wages and standards of living). There are no easy fixes to this reality; only by championing workers rights, increasing minimum wages, and ending the municipal “race-to-the-bottom” (perhaps by creating a federal oversight board with the exclusive power to negotiate private-sector subsidies, based on needs-based C-B analyses) can we hope to take America back for the average working man / woman. PPPs can play a positive role in this transition, if they are used to spur new investment and industry. On the other hand, taking money out of public programs and giving it to private corporations will only exacerbate the divergence between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

It is true that we face a depressed labor market; in such an environment, people are afraid to speak up in fear of losing whatever job they do have. On a larger scale, politicians are unwilling to take any stand that may be met with retaliation by corporate interests. This fear is being used against the American public by corporations to further push down their costs even as they realize record profits. If we can overcome this fear, and challenge the bellicose rhetoric of private sector interests, we can begin to realize a redistribution of wealth which would benefit not only individuals but our economy as a whole.

It is up to Americans to decide what role we want the private sector to play in our economy, and elect leaders who will fight for those goals. Will we support corporations that share in the costs of sustainable human development, or will we continue to reward corporations that value short-term profits above all else?


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Economic Outlook: When Gauging Support for Raising the Minimum Wage, Poll its Biggest Opponents

Trend: Minimum Wage -- Real and Nominal Value, 1938-2013

There has been a strong push this holiday season (really dating much farther back) by a variety of labor groups seeking higher minimum wages. Specifically, Walmart employees, Fast-Food Workers, and most recently low-level financial sector employees have taken to the streets to make their demands for “livable wages” heard.

As one who believes in the positive externalities of a more egalitarian society, as well as a proponent of collective action, I am happy to see people using the tools at their disposal to overcome power-asymmetries that have persisted for decades. It would appear that I am not alone in this sentiment–according to Gallup polling, 76% of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $9/hr (69% support raising the minimum wage to $9/hr and indexing the minimum wage to cost of living increases).

Furthermore, the main fear associated with raising minimum wages–that it will lead to higher unemployment–has been debunked:

The idea of fairness has been at the heart of wage standards since their inception. This is evident in the very name of the legislation that established the minimum wage in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act. When Roosevelt sent the bill to Congress, he sent along a message declaring that America should be able to provide its working men and women “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” And he tapped into a popular sentiment years earlier when he declared, “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

Support for increasing the minimum wage stretches across the political spectrum. As Larry M. Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, shows in his book “Unequal Democracy,” support in surveys for increasing the minimum wage averaged between 60 and 70 percent between 1965 and 1975. As the minimum wage eroded relative to other wages and the cost of living, and inequality soared, Mr. Bartels found that the level of support rose to about 80 percent. He also demonstrates that reminding the respondents about possible negative consequences like job losses or price increases does not substantially diminish their support.

It is therefore not a surprise that when they have been given a choice, voters in red and blue states alike have consistently supported, by wide margins, initiatives to raise the minimum wage. In 2004, 71 percent of Florida voters opted to raise and inflation-index the minimum wage, which today stands at $7.79 per hour. That same year, 68 percent of Nevadans voted to raise and index their minimum wage, which is now $8.25 for employees without health benefits. Since 1998, 10 states have put minimum wage increases on the ballot; voters have approved them every time. But the popularity of minimum wages has not translated into legislative success on the federal level. Interest group pressure — especially from the restaurant lobby — has been one factor.

The social benefits of minimum wages from reduced inequality have to be weighed against possible costs. When it comes to minimum wages, the primary concern is about jobs. The worry comes from basic supply and demand: When labor is made more costly, employers will hire less of it. It’s a valid concern, but what does the evidence show?

For the evidence, lets turn to Dr. Krugman, who succinctly explains the evidence against this valid concern, and how “good” this evidence is:

Still, even if international competition isn’t an issue, can we really help workers simply by legislating a higher wage? Doesn’t that violate the law of supply and demand? Won’t the market gods smite us with their invisible hand? The answer is that we have a lot of evidence on what happens when you raise the minimum wage. And the evidence is overwhelmingly positive: hiking the minimum wage has little or no adverse effect on employment, while significantly increasing workers’ earnings.

It’s important to understand how good this evidence is. Normally, economic analysis is handicapped by the absence of controlled experiments. For example, we can look at what happened to the U.S. economy after the Obama stimulus went into effect, but we can’t observe an alternative universe in which there was no stimulus, and compare the results.

When it comes to the minimum wage, however, we have a number of cases in which a state raised its own minimum wage while a neighboring state did not. If there were anything to the notion that minimum wage increases have big negative effects on employment, that result should show up in state-to-state comparisons. It doesn’t.

So a minimum-wage increase would help low-paid workers, with few adverse side effects.

But what do these “egg-heads”, in their “ivory-towers” know? They are out of touch with the real world! The person who suffers from minimum wage increases is not the academic, or even the large corporation. It is the small business owner who suffers–Mom and Pop! Well, Gallup polled small business owners on their thoughts of minimum wage increases, and responses were not as overwhelmingly negative as one would think:

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They were also polled on the effects of a minimum wage increase on how they invest back into their business:

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The majority of small business owners responded they would not reduce their current workforce (64%) or reduce worker benefits (60%) if the minimum wage was increased. The largest negative effect would be a reduction in capital spending (38%). However, in the context of a divergence of worker compensation from productivity, and a declining share of income going to labor (in favor of capital), perhaps such a re-balancing is not such a bad thing.

Small business owners are not thrilled about the prospect of a minimum wage increase–they are not expected to be. However, the fact that nearly half support raising the minimum wage says something about small business owners.

Perhaps they recognize peoples purchasing power is tied to their wages, so increasing wages will eventually lead to higher sales (especially considering minimum wage employees have a much higher marginal propensity to consume than wealthier people). Or perhaps these people are simply more in touch with what happens in the communities they live in than their big-business contemporaries. They know people living on the minimum wage aren’t lazy people waiting for a government handout; they are their friends, family, and customers. Perhaps they believe that more egalitarian communities are friendlier, safer places, and are willing to pay a little extra in order to achieve that goal. 

Increasing the minimum wage is overwhelmingly popular, and more popular among small business owners than one would expect. Furthermore, it would save billions of dollars in Welfare programs by ending an implicit subsidy for businesses who pay non-livable wages and stimulate the economy by redistributing income to people who are more likely to spend it.

The time to act has come; people are literally taking to the streets. It is also important to index the minimum wage to cost of living increases, so we do not experience the declining real minimum wage we have had for the past 4 decades. Indexing also avoids a political battle every-time the cost of living changes (which it constantly does).

I for one am interested and excited to see the myriad benefits that decreasing poverty rates and reversing the trend of increasing income inequality have on American society as a whole.