Business Is Getting Political—and Personal

As anyone reading this blog is undoubtedly aware, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current White House Press Secretary, was asked last month by the owner of a restaurant to leave the establishment on the basis that she and her staff felt a moral imperative to refuse service to a member of the Trump administration. The incident, and the ensuing turmoil, highlights the extent to which business has become another political battleground—a concept that makes many anxious.

Whether or not businesses should take on political and social responsibilities is a fraught question—but not a new one. Writing for the New York Times in 1970, Milton Friedman famously argued that businesses should avoid the temptation go out of their way to be socially responsible and instead focus on maximizing profits within the legal and ethical framework erected by government and society. To act otherwise at the expense profitability, he reasoned, is to spend other people’s money—that of shareholders, employees, or customers—robbing them of their agency.

Though nearing fifty years of age, much of Milton Friedman’s windily and aptly titled essay, The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Profits, feels like it could have been written today. Many of the hypotheticals he cites of corporate social responsibility—“providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution”—are charmingly relevant in the era of automation anxiety, BDS, and one-star campaigns. His solution, that businesses sidestep the whole mess, focus on what they do best, and play by the rules set forth by the public, is elegant and simple—and increasingly untenable.

One reason for this is that businesses and the governments Friedman imagined would reign them in have grown much closer, even as the latter have grown comparatively weaker. In sharp contrast to the get-government-out-of-business attitude that prevailed in the boardrooms of the 1970s, modern industry groups collectively spend hundreds of millions to get the ears of lawmakers, hoping to obtain favorable legislation or stave off laws that would hurt them. Corporate (and other) lobbyists are known to write and edit bills, sometimes word for word.

You could convincingly argue that this is done in pursuit of profit: Boeing, for example, spent $17 million lobbying federal politicians in 2016 and received $20 million in federal subsidies the same year. As of a 2014 report by Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks corporate subsidies, Boeing had received over $13 billion of subsidies and loans from various levels of government. Nevertheless, this is wildly divergent from Friedman’s idea of business as an adherent to, not architect of, policy.

As business has influenced policy, so too have politics made their mark on business. Far more so than in the past, today’s customers expect brands to take stands on social and political issues. A report by Edelman, a global communications firm, finds a whopping 60% of American Millennials (and 30% of consumers worldwide) are “belief-driven” buyers.

This, the report states, is the new normal for businesses—like it or not. Brands that refrain from speaking out on social and political issues now increasingly risk consumer indifference, which, I am assured by the finest minds in marketing, is not good. In an age of growing polarization, every purchase is becoming a political act. Of course, when you take a stand on a controversial issue, you also risk alienating people who think you’re wrong: 57% of consumers now say they will buy or boycott a brand based on its position on an issue.

This isn’t limited to merely how corporations talk. Firms are under increasing social pressure to hire diversity officers, change where they do business, and reduce their environmental impact, among other things. According to a 2017 KPMG survey on corporate social responsibility, 90% of the world’s largest companies now publish reports on their non-business responsibilities. This reporting rate, the survey says, is being driven by pressure from investors and government regulators alike.

It turns out that a well marketed stance on social responsibility can be a powerful recruiting tool. A 2003 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business found 90% of graduating MBAs in the United States and Europe prioritize working for organizations committed to social responsibility. Often, these social objectives can be met in ways that employees enjoy: for example, cutting a company’s carbon footprint by letting employees work from home.

In light of all this, the choice between social and political responsibility and profitability seems something of a false dichotomy. The stakes are too high now for corporations to sit on the sidelines of policy, politics, and society, and businesses increasingly find themselves taking on such responsibilities in pursuit of profitability. Whether that’s good or bad is up for debate. But as businesses have grown more powerful and felt the need to transcend their formerly transactional relationships with consumers, it seems to be the new way of things.

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In Defense of the Center

The mushy center never inspires passion like ideological purity. The spectacle of radicalism puts asses in the seats. It’s hard, on the other hand, to imagine rebellious, mask-clad youths taking to the street in the name of fine-tuning marginal tax rates.

Oh sure, you may see a protest here and there, and practically everyone grumbles about this or that issue in which they have an interest. But as the great philosopher Calvin once said: a good compromise leaves everybody mad.

calvin

Some more so than others. Opining in the New York Times, Senator Bernie Sanders suggests Democrats can reverse their political fortunes by abandoning their “overly cautious, centrist ideology,” and more closely approximating the policy positions of a Vermont socialist.

I suppose this could be sound political advice. Everyone has an idea of the way they’d like the world to work, and Sanders’ ideas are appealing to a great many people. You could argue–as Sanders does–that Republicans have had some success with a similar strategy following the Obama years. But, as they’re finding out, ideological purity makes for better campaign slogans than successful governing strategy.

Here’s the thing: We live in a big, diverse country. People have very different wants and needs, yet we all live under the same (federal) laws. Our priorities must sometimes compete against each other, which is why we often end up with some of what we want, but not everything. Striking that balance is tough, and by necessity leaves many people unhappy. We don’t always get it right. But when you’re talking about laws that affect 320 million people, some modesty, or if you prefer, “caution,” is in order.

Alas, Bernie is not of a similar mind. In fewer than 1,000 words, he offers no shortage of progressive bromides without mention of the accompanying price tag. It’s one thing to form a platform around medicare-for-all, higher taxes on the wealthy (their “fair share”), aggressive clean energy commitments, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, or free tuition at state universities and lower interest rates on student loans. But all of them? At once?!

Sanders should remember the political and economic lessons of Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin’s foray into single-payer healthcare: Government spending–and thus government activity–is constrained by the population’s tolerance for taxation (And on the other side of things, their tolerance for a deficit of public services. Looking at you, Kansas). Go too far and you risk losing support. And unless you’re willing to rule by force, as extremists often must, that will cost you your ability to shape public policy.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Senator’s advice would do the Democrats any favors. The Democrats didn’t move to the center-left because there was widespread and untapped support for endless government programs in America. They did it because they collided with the political and economic reality of governance in our country. Americans are willing to pay for some government programs, but not at the rate Europeans pay to have much more expansive governments. The left, therefore, shouldn’t play an all-or-nothing game, but instead think about what it does well and how it can appeal to, rather than alienate, the rest of the country. That’s going to involve compromise.

Update: Following Jon Ossoff’s narrow defeat in a Georgia special election, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether a more progressive candidate would have fared better. Personally, I find it hard to believe centrism and fiscal conservatism worked against Ossoff in a historically Republican district. Much more believable is Matt Yglesias’ related-but-different take that Ossoff’s reluctance to talk policy left a void for the opposition to exploit, allowing them to cast him as an outsider.

One thing seems certain: the rift within the Democratic party isn’t going away anytime soon.

Sanders Supporters: Why Fall in Line?

On June 6, 2016, the New York Times ran this article claiming that Clinton had clinched the nomination the day before the California and five other states head to the polls to vote in the primaries. The article, based on a poll by the Associated Press, claims that Clinton has secured enough superdelegate votes to effectively guarantee her the ticket, regardless of the turnout yesterday. The timing was…serendipitous, shall we say. All in all a fitting end to the Democratic primaries.

Anyone following the election will be familiar with the growing sentiment that our political process has been hijacked by elites. To paraphrase candidates Trump and Sanders: that we have a rigged system. This surprise announcement—that voters in six states have been rendered obsolete by the markedly undemocratic superdelegate system—will surely do nothing to alleviate such disquiet.

I haven’t been shy of critiquing Sanders’ ideas from my little soapbox. He made the economy a cornerstone of his campaign and then displayed approximately zero economic acumen (in my opinion at least–plenty of people find him compelling). But for all of the eye-roll-inducing statements he made over the past year, his campaign has been a breath of fresh air. It brought to light the extent to which establishment Democrats are perceived to have failed the working class (Trump did the same for the Republicans) and underscored that there are big ideological divisions within the Democratic Party.

It also brought a troublesome revelation for many longtime Democratic voters: some of those “Washington insiders” against whom they rallied to the beat of Sanders’ war drum have a “D” prefixed to their state. That disillusionment is sure to haunt the Party as it charges into November under the banner of a candidate under federal investigation for at least the fourth time.

Now Sanders and his supporters will be told (in truth, continue to be told) that it’s time to turn back into a pumpkin and fall in line. My advice to them: don’t.

I won’t go on a diatribe here—Clinton has plenty of merit as a candidate and is certainly “qualified” to be president, to whatever extent one can be qualified for a unique position. But she and her awkward, halting coronation represent everything wrong with American politics: the presumptuous attitude of entitlement; the ethos of a benevolent dictator; the impunity of the well-connected; the fallacy that less terrible is synonymous with good.

In 1964, Malcolm X observed that while Democrats were getting into office on the black vote, black political support was being taken for granted. I’d say the same point applies to any demographic or individual. If a voter is really into Sanders’ ideas, most of which are rooted in some spirit of protectionism, how do they rationalize supporting a pronounced neoliberal like Clinton?

Vote (or don’t vote) for whomever, for whatever reason you find compelling. But Bernie supporters shouldn’t reward a political party that persistently refused to take their candidate seriously out of a sense of obligation to “party unity.”

Of Course Minimum Wage Reduces Employment

In his opus, Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt devotes an entire chapter to minimum wage laws. He’s quick to identify a semantic problem that lies at the heart of the debate on minimum wage.

“…for a wage is, in fact, a price. It is unfortunate for the clarity of economic thinking that the price of labor’s services should have received an entirely different name from other prices. This has prevented most people from realizing that the same principles govern both.

Thinking has become so emotional and so politically biased on the subject of wages that in most discussions of them the plainest principles are ignored”

Today Hazlitt’s gripe still rings true.

Presidential candidates Clinton and Sanders are calling for huge increases in the federal minimum wage (Clinton recently echoed Sanders’ call for a $15 federal wage floor). California and New York scheduled incremental increases in the state minimum wages to $15/hour by 2022 and 2021 (with New York’s timing of increase stratified by county). All this is sold to the public as a means to help poor workers, with rarely a mention of the costs of such policy, or who would bear those costs.

Despite a wealth of study on the subject and large consensus about the effects of price floors, economists aren’t speaking out against such an aggressive price-fixing scheme as loudly as one might think.

Twenty-four percent of economists surveyed by the University of Chicago disagreed that advancing the federal minimum wage to $15/hour by 2020 would reduce employment. That is, a quarter of economists disagreed that forcing employers to pay twice as much for labor would reduce their ability or desire to employ people. Fully 38% of economists surveyed responded that they were “uncertain.”

It’s hard to imagine economists making such a statement about anything else. For example: that doubling the price of  laptops would have no effect on the amount of laptops purchased. Since labor is purchased just like anything else, we can expect that making it more expensive will cause people to consume less of it.

Consider that when governments want to cut down on behaviors they deem harmful, one of their go-to tools is taxation aimed at increasing the price paid by consumers. Sanders understands that making people pay more for producing carbon means we will produce less carbon. Other politicians have proposed or implemented taxes on soda, tobacco, alcohol, and more activities in order to suppress demand for them. Yet apparently even economists fail to see the parallels between this and minimum wage.

As Hazlitt states, labor is best thought of as another good. Raising its price by mandate will yield the same effects as any other minimum price: some will be purchased for a rate higher than the free-market equilibrium, but a portion of the previously available supply will not. In other words, while some workers will get a raise, others will work less, be fired, or not hired to begin with and employers will enjoy less productivity from their workers.

No one—least of all economists—should be surprised to hear that setting the price of labor higher than people are willing to pay and accept will lead to less efficiency and productivity, nor that this would lead to slower job growth and less employment. We can even observe this happening during past increases of the minimum wage.

Minimum wage is rationalized as an intervention to alleviate poverty and give a leg up to the most vulnerable workers. However raising the minimum price of labor not only prevents consumers (employers) from buying labor beneath such a floor, but also prevents producers (employees) from selling labor below that cost. Since some people don’t have skills that are worth at least $15/hour to employers, they are going to have a much harder time finding employment under such a policy.

When we consider the people that most likely fit this description, the cynicism of minimum wage laws becomes clear. Those most unable to command premiums for labor–the young, poor, under-educated, and inexperienced—are the very people we purport to be helping! It’s no coincidence that minimum wage laws all over the world have roots in racism and ethnic nationalism. In many cases, their goal was to create unemployment among marginalized groups by eliminating their comparative advantage to native workers.

As for employers, it actually gives an advantage to bigger businesses and puts undue pressure on marginal producers (think mom and pop stores, rural and inner-city employers, etc.) who have smaller profit margins and must operate more efficiently. Quite bizarre for an election cycle marked by consternation of income inequality and skepticism of big business.

The ability to sell your labor competitively is important when you don’t have a lot to offer. We seem to understand the value of this for the affluent. No one thinks twice when a college kid takes an unpaid internship or starts volunteering to gain experience. If it’s fine to work for $0/hour, why not $1, $5, or $7?

The scale of federal minimum wage is what truly makes it a bad idea. It’s one thing to try to fix the price of a specific item in a given location (though it’s still a bad idea). But to impose a national price floor on all incarnations of labor should be unthinkable. To suggest that this won’t lead to any reduction in employment (especially in poorer places) is ridiculous.

Some proponents of minimum wage hikes seem to understand this, yet proceed regardless. Upon signing California’s minimum wage increase into effect, Governor Jerry Brown stated:

Economically, minimum wages may not make sense. But morally, socially, and politically they make every sense because it binds the community together to make sure parents can take care of their kids.

To be honest, I don’t understand the morality of pricing people out of work or making consumers spend more than they have to. Given that “57% of poor families with heads of households 18-64 have no workers”, I don’t think making them harder to employ is going to be beneficial to anyone.

It’s good to care about the poor and try to implement policies that help them, and to be clear, I’m not advocating that nothing be done. But economic policies should make economic sense, rather than being rooted in feel-good or politically expedient gestures. Minimum wages help some (often the wrong people) at the expense of others, who, now unemployable, are unable to gain experience that might lead them to prosperity or at least self-sufficiency. At the same time, the rest of society is robbed of the potential productivity of those victims of the wage floor.

After-market transactions (which I’ll get into next essay) are a much better method of helping the poor, precisely because they don’t distort labor markets or reduce demand for labor. Hopefully, our economists will soon get back to the dismal science and stop playing politics.

 

“Free” College Would be a Terrible Idea

The free college crusade represents a perfect collision of ignorance and entitlement. The movement is popular with self-interested students seeking debt forgiveness or a free ride and contributes heavily to the appeal of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy among them. While he is the most extreme in his rhetoric and supposed intentions, the venerable senator is only one among many high-profile Democrats to opine that higher education should be at least partially subsidized by federal money (or more accurately that federal subsidies should be expanded, since they already exist).

Their argument is predicated on the idea that there is a moral or economic obligation to protect students from the rising costs of college education. The underlying assumption is that the federal government is actually capable of containing such inflation by throwing money at it. However you dice it—morally or financially—it’s a bunk policy move that, if implemented, would certainly do more harm than good.

There is no free lunch…or sociology class

Let’s start off with the obvious; professors, administrators, and other faculty aren’t going to work for free. Nor can universities maintain, power, and supply themselves free of charge. It will still cost a lot to keep a college operating, so free college is a misnomer. It will still be paid for, but we would change the payer.

A basic tenet of economics is that costs should be borne by the consumer. There’s good reason for this. When consumers have skin in the game, they ration much more effectively because they’re confronted with the opportunity costs of their decisions (any money or time spent on education can’t be spent on something else) as well as the reality of paying that money back some day.

By contrast, having prospective students make unobligated investments with other people’s money would almost guarantee that more bad investments are made. That means too many people earning degrees in areas that aren’t in high demand and are unlikely to pay for themselves. It’s not that I don’t want anyone to major in art history or theology, but if you’re going to you should pay for it yourself.

Funneling more money into education will inflate costs further

Think about it: if a stranger gave $10,000 to a pizza place so that other people could eat for free, customers would probably order more than the efficient amount of pizza. Why not? There’s no risk involved, at least not to the guy taking the pizzas home.

Let’s say this generous stranger kept funding the restaurant so consumers could continue to enjoy “free” pizza. What might we expect to happen to the cost of pizza? You might be tempted to think that it will stay the same, but the truth is that it would probably rise as overhead and total cost increase. Of course, customers wouldn’t feel the burden of rising prices, and would keep eating away happily.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes the shop has had to hire more cooks and cleaning staff; order more ingredients; use more electricity etc. because they have to produce ever more pizza. Where does that money come from, if not the customers? It comes from the generous stranger, our allegorical taxpayer, who is analogous in all but one crucial aspect: her funding is given by choice and can be halted when the cost becomes prohibitive.

In real life, taxpayers would be on the hook for an increasing amount as constraints on demand are removed and overhead costs increase. A cheaper and more effective method of reducing the cost of college might be easing the accreditation process. Costs might (and probably will) also be driven down by innovations such as online learning and other challenges to the traditional college process.

Free college wouldn’t help the right people

A tuition subsidy would directly benefit the education industry and students who have, are, or will go to college. None of these groups is so destitute as to warrant burdening taxpayers, 68% of which don’t hold a diploma, with the cost of their voluntary, secondary education. On the contrary, 81% of college graduates in 2012 came from families with above-average incomes while merely 7% came from families in the bottom quintile.

Free tuition would fall in with subsidies for electric cars and solar panels: well-meaning policies that essentially transfer wealth up the income ladder to those who are much more likely to take advantage of such incentives. This makes it a very bizarre choice for a candidate, and indeed an entire party, that spends so much time perseverating on the onerous effects of economic inequality.

A major point of college is to accrue human capital: to improve your skills and come out more valuable and employable than you were when you went in. Secondary education is an investment: the benefits of which are enjoyed by the recipient in the form of higher future earnings. Making the taxpayer foot the bill for wealthy kids to invest in their futures is pretty cynical, even by modern standards.

How can you decry tax cuts on the rich and then turn around and hand them a blank check for college? More importantly, how can any of us get behind this? Campuses all over America are full of kids condemning social and economic privilege. And yet they want to vote themselves, the most fortunate echelon of the richest generation ever, out of debt with other people’s money. Let the petulance of that sink in.

What it boils down to is a notable dearth of understanding of basic economics among our generation. Even very smart people that I know are simply unable to reckon with the most fundamental principles of supply and demand and basic price theory.

A better way to help

Even if fully subsidized tuition did make it more likely that low-income people attended college, that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing and certainly wouldn’t be the best way to improve their lot. It’s pretty unlikely that someone from a poor community who has been forced to attend an underfunded school in their neighborhood is going to be adequately prepared for a college curriculum.

We see this play out again and again. We saw it with affirmative action and we see it in community colleges, where a measly 20% of students seeking a degree receive one within 3 years. It seems a large part of succeeding in college is being prepared to attend it—who could have guessed?

The most frustrating thing about this is that there is a very clear method by which we might compensate for this–it’s just wretchedly unpopular with Democrats[1]…and teachers unions.

What if instead of waiting for someone to turn 18 and encouraging them to enter a college they’re not ready for, we allowed them the ability to choose better schools as children? Instead of sequestering children from poor areas in underfunded and overcrowded schools, we should help parents send their young kids to better schools.

Make no mistake; school choice isn’t a magic bullet or a catch-all solution to educational inequality. But it would greatly improve on some of our current policies, in my opinion.

Tying kids down to public schools (44% of whose funding is procured locally) in their district is a recipe for disaster. Financing public schools through property taxes might work well in affluent communities, but it perpetuates a lack of access to education in poorer areas. Allowing people to choose where to send their kids and giving poor families vouchers for primary education would make a lot more sense than shelling out money to send unprepared students to universities. The only trouble is getting the politics to align.

If the Democratic Party really cared about improving access to education, increasing social mobility for the poor, or cultivating a competent workforce, they would give parents more choice in the schooling of their children. They might also acknowledge that there are other paths to success that don’t involve credentialism and a rigid bureaucratic structure.

Instead, they propose a plan that would pump $70 billion of public money annually into dubious investments and subsidies for the wealthy. It might not make any economic sense, but it’s great for courting votes.

 

[1] To her credit, Hillary Clinton isn’t totally against school choice. She would be fine with allowing for choice among public schools, but not private. Oddly, she cited a fear of parochial schools training terrorists to support her decision. She also thought that a voucher system would be unconstitutional. Sanders stated that he was “strongly against” any program that might redirect funding from public to private schools, including doing so in the form of tax credits.