Week in Review
Advancing technology has greatly increased productivity. Allowing fewer workers to do what workers a generation earlier did. Causing our workforce to age. Fewer workers are entering the workforce than are leaving it. And costly union contracts paying pensions and health care to those who have left the workforce has decimated union membership. For the costs they place on business have made these businesses uncompetitive in the market place. Chasing manufacturing jobs out of the country. Leaving union membership in the private sector at its lowest rates since the heyday of the labor movement. To understand why let’s take a business lesson from the Canadians. Who are trying to encourage their kids to become entrepreneurs. Unlike in America. Where business and profits have become a 4-letter word (see Canadian entrepreneurs: Born or made? by BARRIE McKENNA posted 5/10/2013 on The Globe and Mail).
[Entrepreneurial Adventure] pairs students with local business people to create a business, design a product, sell it and then give the profits to charity.
Evidence suggests Canada suffers from a weak entrepreneurial culture. While it’s relatively easy to start a company, the record of turning start-ups into fast-growing and successful enterprises is less convincing.
A 2010 study by Industry Canada…
… found that Canada generates a lower proportion of fast-growing companies than other developed countries, that relatively few small companies export and that the age profile of business owners is getting older…
Many business schools, including McGill University and the University of Toronto, now offer special entrepreneurship programs.
This is a problem. For the number one job creator in any free market economy are small business owners. People who go into business for themselves. Taking great risk. And hiring people as they grow. This is the entrepreneurial spirit. People who start out small. And become someone like Steve Jobs. Most people don’t understand the entrepreneurial process. And the importance of having a business-friendly environment to encourage entrepreneurialism. To create jobs. To grow a healthy economy. Creating new products that make our lives better. And to do that one of the first things an entrepreneur must learn is what this 12-year-old learned.
“Some things work and some don’t,” acknowledged Alim Dhanani, 12, who worked on project management and Web design for the company. “To sell something, you have to have the right price. Not too small, so you have a profit, but not too big, so people will buy it.”
A 12-year-old can understand this. The role of prices in the economy. They have to be high enough to pay the bills. But low enough to encourage people to buy from you. Often times it’s not a matter of a business owner determining the price he or she wishes to charge. They have to figure out how to pay their bills (and earn a profit) at the prevailing market price. Something labor unions don’t understand. Or they simply don’t care (see Fast-food workers in Detroit walk off job, disrupt business by Steve Neavling and Lisa Baertlein posted 5/10/2013 on Reuters).
Hundreds of fast-food employees in Detroit walked off the job on Friday, temporarily shuttering a handful of outlets as part of a growing U.S. worker movement that is demanding higher wages for flipping burgers and operating fryers.
The protests in the Motor City – which is struggling to recover from the hollowing out of its auto manufacturing sector – marked an expansion in organized actions by fast-food workers from ubiquitous chains owned by McDonald’s Corp, Burger King Worldwide and KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut parent Yum Brands Inc.
Fast-food workers, who already have taken to the streets in New York, Chicago and St. Louis, are seeking to roughly double their hourly pay to $15 per hour from around minimum wage, which in Michigan is $7.40 per hour…
“People can’t make a living at $7.40 a hour,” said Rev. Charles Williams II, a protest organizer. “Many of them have babies and children to raise, and they can’t get by with these kind of wages.”
Those workers face high hurdles in their fight for better pay. Low-wage, low-skill workers lack political clout and face significantly higher unemployment than college graduates…
The Detroit action was put together by the Michigan Workers Organizing Committee, an independent union of fast-food workers, that is supported by community, labor and faith-based groups such as the Interfaith Coalition of Pastors, UFCW Local 876, SEIU Healthcare Michigan and Good Jobs Now.
The unions want to do to fast-food what they did to the automotive industry. In this case the union basically gave unskilled workers the wages and benefits of skilled workers. Sounds great if you’re an unskilled worker. But the UAW priced the U.S. auto manufacturers out of the market. The Big Three are a shell of what they used to be. With both General Motors and Chrysler requiring taxpayer bailouts to avoid bankruptcy. And pay for their crushing pension and health care cost obligations. For GM was paying for more people not working than they were paying to work. Even a 12-year-old can understand that this is a business model that just won’t work.
So what will happen in fast-food restaurants if you raise the labor wage from $7.40 per hour to $15 per hour? That’s a labor cost increase of 103%. In the restaurant business the rule of thumb for calculating your selling prices is as follows. You calculate your food cost then triple it. For in general one third of a menu price goes to food. One third goes to labor. And one third goes to overhead (utilities, rent, insurance, etc.) and profit. Now let’s take a typical combination meal (sandwich, fries and beverage) price of $7.50. One third of this price is $2.48 which represents the labor portion of the price. The increase in labor is 103%. So we take 103% of the $2.48 ($2.54) and add it to $7.50 to get the new selling price of the combo meal. Bringing it to $10.04.
What will customers do? Now that the combo meal will cost $2.54 more will they just continue to eat fast-food like they once did? Will they stop adding an extra item from the dollar menu? Will they just buy a burger and eat it with a beverage from home? Will they just buy from the dollar menu instead of buying combos? Of course, with the increase in labor costs that dollar menu will have to become the $2.03 menu. Will people stop going to fast-food as often as they once did? Some may decide that if they’re paying for a $6 hamburger the may go to a diner or bar for a $6 hamburger. Worried about the lost business would fast-food owners try to cut their costs elsewhere to try to continue to sell fast-food at the market price? By hiring fewer people? Pushing current workers to part-time so they don’t have to give them costly health insurance? Or will they just close their restaurant. As people just won’t pay fancy restaurant prices for fast-food.
That 12-year-old in Canada would understand how the higher labor costs would affect business. Causing changes in buying habits. And changes in business practices. He would not start up a fast-food franchise if labor prices were 103% higher than they are now. For he would have to raise prices high enough to pay the bills. But when he did they might be too high to get people to come in and buy food. Causing a fall in business. And a loss in revenue. Making it more difficult to pay the bills. That 12-year-old would see this as bad business. Because he understands that a business owner can’t charge whatever he wants to charge. He has to figure out how to stay in business while selling at the prevailing market price. And though he may love fast-food he knows that his allowance won’t be able to buy as much as it once did. So he would reduce his purchases at fast-food restaurants. Just as his father will probably take the family out less often because of the higher prices. Just as single mothers struggling to pay their household bills will, too. But the unions don’t understand this. Or simply choose not to. Instead they just tell the workers that their employers are greedy.
It’s a sad day when a 12-year-old has better business sense than our unions. Then again if unions cared about business they wouldn’t have bankrupted two of the Big Three.
Tags: Business, customers, dollar menu, entrepreneur, entrepreneurial, fast food, fast food restaurants, fast-food workers, labor costs, labor union, market price, pension, prevailing market price, prices, profit, risk, small business, union, unskilled workers, wages, workers, workforce
Week in Review
The president’s economic policies have done nothing to improve the economy. The labor participation rate continues to fall. As more people give up finding a job. Because there are none to be found. And it makes one wonder. Why? Why are things so bad in the economy? The last 4 years have been the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression. And what has been the common denominator these past 4 years? President Obama. And his anti-business policies (see The Cruel Things President Obama Is Doing To The Labor Market by John Goodman posted 3/7/2013 on Forbes).
President Obama’s proposal to increase the minimum wage and the health insurance employer mandate will combine to destroy job opportunities for young, unskilled workers in cities and towns across the country.
With respect to the new health law, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of the minimum benefit package that everyone will be required to have will be $4,750 for individuals and $12,250 for families. That translates into a minimum health benefit of $2.28 an hour for full time single workers and about $3 an hour for someone working 30 hour a week. For family coverage, the cost is $5.89 an hour for a 40-hour-a week employee and $7.85 an hour for a 30-hour-a-week employee.
These are not small changes. They can double the cost of labor in some cases…
Employers have four ways to reduce this burden: (1) the mandate doesn’t apply to firms with fewer than 50 workers, (2) the mandate doesn’t apply to employees who work fewer than 30 hours, (3) the employer doesn’t have to offer or subsidize family coverage and (4) rather than provide health insurance, the employer can pay a $2,000 per (full-time) worker fine.
There are going to be lots of firms that fail to grow beyond 49 employees. But be warned: If an individual owns, say, two or three fast food franchises, the IRS has signaled that it will treat their combined operations as a single business. Also, in calculating the number of full time workers, the IRS is going to count “full-time equivalents.” That means that two workers, each working 15 hours a week, will count as the equivalent of one full-time (30 hour) worker.
As noted, employers are already reacting to ObamaCare. In fact, there was a huge shift to part-time employment in the fast food industry beginning in January. The reason: ObamaCare will employ a 12 month “look back.” That is, in deciding whether a worker is full-time or part-time next January (when the mandate becomes effective) the government will look at the average weekly hours worked in the previous year…
Bottom line: employment opportunities are being curtailed by the imposition of ObamaCare. Things will be even worse if a 24 percent increase in the cash minimum wage is heaped on top of it.
Economists have traditionally believed that an increase in the minimum wage (as well as mandated benefits) causes unemployment. However, a study by David Card and Alan Krueger found very little employment effect in the fast food industry in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
You wonder if economists ever talk to employers when they do these studies…
If government imposes higher labor costs on this industry, the restaurants will try to make it up by raising their prices. However, if the customers won’t pay the higher price — as may be the case in poorer neighborhoods — the restaurant will have to close.
Moreover, in order for prices to rise in one market there must be a corresponding decline in other markets. For the economy as a whole, employers can’t raise prices on the average with no change in the money supply.
Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of economics knows these policies don’t help business. They don’t create jobs. And if they aren’t helping to create jobs is it any wonder we’re in the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression? Of course not. And we’re back at that question. Why?
Well, we have two possible answers. Because the Obama administration is just incompetent and doesn’t understand economics. Or they know exactly what they’re doing. And if they do there would be but one explanation for their anti-business policies. They are purposely trying to make businesses drop their health insurance as paying the fine is less costly. Leaving the door open for the federal government to step in. And be the insurer of last resort. A backdoor way to national health care. The Holy Grail of the Left.
So is the Obama administration incompetent? Or devious? It is one or the other. And neither choice bodes well for the country.
Tags: anti-business policies, economic recovery, employer mandate, Great Depression, health insurance, jobs, labor costs, mandate, minimum wage, Obamacare, President Obama
Week in Review
The unions have always advertised that union made was better made. Because it was safer. And of higher quality. For unions look out for the people. They protect our kids in school. And demand high safety standards in industry. They even have a zero tolerance policy on drug use in the workplace. Large union contracts on big construction projects have mandatory drug testing to hire in. And have random-random drug tests monthly. Once a month on some random day at some random time they call workers in to pee in a cup for testing. That’s how committed the unions are in combating drug use. So you never would have expected to see something like this (see Insight: Shrinking U.S. labor unions see relief in marijuana industry by Samuel P. Jacobs and Alex Dobuzinskis posted 2/6/2013 on Reuters).
During the last few years, unions, led by the UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers union], have played an increasingly significant role in campaigns to allow medical marijuana, now legal in California, 17 other states and Washington, D.C…
Union officials acknowledge that their support stems partly from the idea that the marijuana industry could create hundreds of thousands of members at a time when overall union membership is shrinking…
Industry advocates acknowledge that the legal marijuana industry’s potential to produce jobs is difficult to project. One reason: uncertainty over how the U.S. government will deal with an industry whose product is illegal under federal law but increasingly accepted by state laws.
Since Colorado and Washington state voted to legalize marijuana on November 6, President Barack Obama has said his administration will not pursue recreational pot users in those states.
This is interesting. If the states don’t like a federal law they just ignore it. If Colorado and Washington can simply ignore a federal law they don’t like then every state that doesn’t like Obamacare should be able to ignore it, too. If the unions protest states that ignore Obamacare (the unions endorsed Obamacare) and insist that they follow federal law then so should Colorado and Washington. Who should immediately re-criminalize marijuana under state law. To match federal law.
By joining a union, marijuana workers could have more sway in pressing for higher pay and benefits such as healthcare…
The retailers there say they are conflicted – grateful for the legitimacy that labor’s involvement could bring their businesses, but worried that the support could undermine the already shaky financial footing of their small operations.
One marijuana business owner in Denver said he considered aligning with the UFCW but eventually backed away. He said he was worried that having a union shop would hurt the value of his business by driving up employment costs…
Eventually, [UFCW's Rush] helped to persuade enough labor leaders that the same union that organized Hostess bakery workers could represent people who made pot brownies.
High union labor costs just bankrupted Hostess and put them out of business. So, yeah, marijuana retailers are worried about higher labor costs if their shops unionize. There’s a reason why there is so little union membership today. It is very difficult for a business to stay in business with those high union costs. The very costs that bankrupted General Motors and Chrysler requiring the government bailout. If they unionize their costs will go up. As will their prices. Giving the non-unionized shops a price advantage. As well as the drug dealer on the street.
In Los Angeles, UFCW Local 770 is pushing a ballot measure that would set zoning and safety standards for medical pot dispensaries. For years, police and residents have complained about the impact that less-than-reputable medical marijuana dispensaries have on some neighborhoods.
Dispensary workers and owners who have aligned themselves with the union say that some competitors undermine prices and security by flouting labor laws and avoiding taxes.
Decriminalizing marijuana is not the panacea they think it is. First of all no one wants what drugs attract. Addicts. And crime. Shutting down the nonunion shops won’t take care of that problem. Because the higher prices at the ‘reputable’ drug retailers will only broaden the market for the drug dealers on the street. Who are also nonunion. And can sell their marijuana for less than a pot shop with high union labor costs.
Medical marijuana retailers have provided more than medical marijuana. People wanting marijuana for recreational use had no problem getting a doctor’s prescription. Including people who bought marijuana and resold it to kids. Higher retailer prices at ‘reputable’ pot shops are not going to change that. It will only raise the street value of marijuana. Making for a prosperous black market.
The UFCW is obviously backing and lobbying for full decriminalization. So their members can prosper from a rise in drug use. And addiction. It is interesting how the Left attacks cigarette smoking. Even suing Big Tobacco for the harm their addictive product has done to those who smoke. Yet as evil as cigarette smoking is there is no such outrage over marijuana smoking. Which they say is not only harmless but medicinal. Talk about your double standards.
Tags: cigarette, cigarette smoking, drug dealer, drug use, federal law, high union costs, labor costs, marijuana, marijuana industry, marijuana workers, medical marijuana, Obamacare, pot shop, smoking, state law, UFCW, unions
Employers are very Reluctant to hire Additional Employees because Labor Costs are their Greatest Costs
When it comes to running a business there is nothing more costly than people. Employee salaries and wages. Payroll taxes. And benefits. People need a large paycheck to live on and will go to the employer that offers the highest pay. Government has imposed costly taxes and regulatory costs. And to further entice good workers employers have to sweeten the deal with some fringe benefits like health insurance, paid vacation time, holiday pay, paid sick days and retirement plans. It adds up. Something like this:
As you can see the amount of pay employees are familiar with (the working pay above) is far less than the total cost to the employer. The employee doesn’t see the 63.1% markup on their working pay that their employer has to pay in addition to paying the employee. As a business hires more employees these costs add up. A small factory with 15 workers on the factory floor can cost the employer $1.6 million. Which is why labor costs are the greatest costs of most businesses. And why employers are very reluctant to add additional employees.
The more Productive you are the Lower your Unit Cost and the Lower the Selling Price in a Store
Besides labor costs a business like a factory will have material costs, too. These are variable costs. They’re variable because they vary with varying levels of production. The more production there is the more variable costs there are. In addition to variable costs businesses have fixed costs. Often simply called overhead.
Factories make things. Like things you can pick up off a store’s shelf. Things with low prices on their price tags. But when it can cost a small manufacturer $1.6 million JUST for its labor costs how can they sell things with such low prices? By making a lot of those things to sell. As much as they possibly can with their variable and fixed costs. What we call economies of scale. And the more they can make for their given costs the lower the unit cost is for each thing you can buy off a shelf at a store. As you can see here:
Assuming a factory can produce anywhere from 1,250,000 to 2,750,000 units with a given labor force operating the same production equipment in a factory you can see how the unit cost falls the more they produce. Which is why there is so much talk about productivity. The more productive you are (the more you can produce for a given cost) the lower your unit cost. And the lower the selling price in a store. Increasing productivity could mean moving an assembly line a little faster. Or replacing some people with machines. Things that workers don’t like. But things consumers love. For they like low prices when they go shopping.
Employers are very Reluctant to Hire New Employees and Prefer Increasing Productivity with Automation
If you crunch these numbers for the labor costs of 16 and 17 workers you can see how unit costs rise as an employee or two is added to the production floor. At an annual production of 2,000,000 units the unit cost increases $0.05 (4.6%) going from 15 to 16 workers. Adding two workers increases the unit cost $0.11 (10.1%). Doesn’t seem like a lot. But we notice when something we once bought for $0.99 now costs $1.04. And we don’t like it. But business owners like it even less. Here’s why.
Business may be booming. Those on the factory floor may be working a lot of overtime to produce at a rate of 2,000,000 units per year. And are growing unhappy with all of that overtime. They keep demanding that the owner hire another person. The owner does. Increasing unit costs by $0.05. But the owner hopes the booming economy will continue. And that they can even increase the production rate. For if they can sell an additional 250,000 units the unit cost can actually fall $0.07 to $1.02. Making the addition of a new worker on the factory floor not increase costs. As the increase in production will make costs fall greater than that increase in labor costs.
But it doesn’t always work like that. Economic booms don’t always last. When too many factories increase production to meet booming demand they bring too much supply to market. Causing prices to fall. And forcing factories to cut back on production rates. So instead of increasing the production rate they may find themselves cutting back. Perhaps going from 2,000,000 to 1,750,000. A fall of 250,000 units. Increasing the unit cost $0.21 (19.3%). Which could very well raise the unit cost above the prevailing market price. Requiring layoffs. To get the unit cost back down to $1.09. Allowing them to sell at the prevailing market price. And at a production rate of 1,750,000 units that may require letting go more than just one worker. Maybe even more than two. Which is why employers are very reluctant to hire new employees. And prefer increasing productivity with automation. For it is far easier to make machines increase or decrease production rates than it is to hire and lay off people. Making it easier and less costly to reach great economies of scale. Which makes low prices. And happy consumers.
Tags: Consumers, costs, economies of scale, employee, employer, factory, factory floor, fixed costs, labor costs, market price, overtime, prevailing market price, prices, production, production floor, production rate, productivity, unit cost, variable costs, workers
The Roosevelt Administration fought Inflation by Passing a Law to Cap Employee Wages
Most times when those in government try to fix things they end up making things worse. Giving us the unintended consequences of their best intentions. And the government had some good intentions during World War II. They were printing money to pay for a surge in government spending to pay for war production. As well as a host of New Deal programs. Which sparked off some inflation. Inflation is bad. Enter their best intentions.
One of the biggest drivers of inflation is wages. Higher wages increase a company’s costs. Which they must recover in their selling prices. So higher wages lead to higher prices. Higher prices increase the cost of living. Making it more difficult for workers to get by without a pay raise. Which puts pressure on employers to raise wages. If they do they pass on these higher costs to their customers via higher prices. It’s a vicious cycle. And one all governments want to avoid. Because higher costs reduce economic activity. And that’s how governments get their money. Taxing economic activity.
Enter wage and price controls. The Roosevelt administration thought the way to solve the problem of inflation was simply passing a law to cap employee wages. To halt the vicious cycle of escalating prices and wages. Something employers didn’t like. For that’s how they got the best people to work for them. By offering them higher wages. With that no longer an option what did these employers do to get the best people to work for them? They started offering fringe benefits. Which became a killer of business.
As People lived longer in Retirement Retiree Pension and Health Care Expenses Soared
Employers began offering health insurance and pensions as fringe benefits for the first time. To get around the wage and price controls of the Roosevelt administration. Which they had to pass on to their customers via higher prices. So the wage and price controls failed to do what they were supposed to do. Keep a company’s costs down. Worse, these benefits made promises many of these businesses just couldn’t keep.
Roosevelt also empowered unions. Who would negotiate ever more generous contracts. By demanding generous pay and benefits for current workers. And pensions and health care for retired workers. But it didn’t end there. The unions also expanded their membership as much as possible. So in those contracts they also got very costly workplace rules. If a lamp burnt out at a workstation the worker had to call an electrician to replace the lamp. They could not screw in a new lamp themselves. The unions defined every work activity in a workplace and created a job classification for it. And only a worker in that job classification could do that work. Which swelled the labor rolls at unionized plants. Who all were receiving generous pay and benefits. As were a growing number of retired workers. Greatly increasing labor costs.
For awhile businesses could absorb these costs. Business was growing. As was the population. There were more younger workers entering the factories than there were older workers retiring from them. But things started changing in the Sixties. The population growth rate flattened out thanks to birth control and abortion. So as the population grew slower the domestic demand for manufactured goods fell. While in the Seventies foreign competition increased. So you had falling demand and a rising supply. Making it harder to pass on those high labor costs anymore. Which proved to be a great problem as their market share fell. For as they laid off employees fewer and fewer workers were paying the pensions and health care costs for an ever growing number of retirees. Pensions were chronically underfunded. Worse, people began to live longer in retirement thanks to advances in medicine. Increasing retiree pension and health care expenses for these businesses. Bleeding some of them dry.
Bethlehem Steel filed Bankruptcy when they had 11,500 Active Workers and 120,000 Retirees and Dependents
Bethlehem Steel helped build America. And win World War II. It made the steel for the Golden Gate Bridge. And the bridges between New York and New Jersey. Many of the skyscrapers you see on Manhattan are made with Bethlehem steel. Little Steel. Second only to Big Steel. U.S. Steel. Big Steel and Little Steel dominated the US steel industry. Until, that is, foreign competition entered their market. And the steel minimills arrived on the scene. Neither of which had unionized workforces. Or those legacy costs (retiree pension and health care expenses). Which spelled the doom of the sprawling Bethlehem Steel. From 1954 to 2003 hot-rolled steel sheet prices rose 220%. While wages soared over 900%. And it got worse.
Employment peaked in 1957 at 167,000 workers. By the mid Eighties that fell to 35,000. With some 70,000 retirees and dependents. That is, Bethlehem’s retiree costs were about twice their active labor costs. As business continued to fall employment fell to 11,500. While their retirees and dependents rose to 120,000. Just over 10 retirees for each active worker. Unfunded pension obligations soared to $4.3 billion. Just impossible numbers to recover from. Which is why Bethlehem Steel is no longer with us today. The company was dissolved in 2001. With International Steel Group (ISG) buying some of their remaining assets. Then, in 2005, a foreign steel company, Mittal Steel, merged with ISG. Leaving no remnants of Bethlehem Steel in American hands.
ISG got the steelworkers union to reduce the number of job classifications in the Bethlehem plants they took over from 32 to 5. Greatly shrinking the labor rolls. And increasing efficiency. Helping these remaining assets to move forward. The pension fund was taken over. With retirees losing only about $700 million, giving retirees a pension of up to $44,386. But retirees lost their health care. Some $3.1 billion in spending obligations that the company couldn’t pay. And didn’t. A sad ending for an American great. A failure the Roosevelt administration was responsible for. As their good intentions resulted in unintended consequences. Setting businesses up to fail with costly fringe benefits. Adding yet another demand to the union’s list of demands. Spending obligations these businesses couldn’t pay once domestic demand fell while steel supplies rose. Leading to the inevitable. Bankruptcy of large unionized companies.
Tags: best intentions, Bethlehem Steel, Big Steel, foreign competition, fringe benefits, generous pay and benefits, health insurance, inflation, labor costs, legacy costs, Little Steel, pensions, retiree costs, retirees, Roosevelt, Roosevelt administration, unintended consequences, unions, wage and price controls, wages
Small Business Owners may have Nicer Homes but Chances are they are Mortgaged to the Hilt
A lot of people think business owners are cheapskates. Greedy bastards. Who hate their employees. And try to pay them as little as possible. Not for any business reasons. But just because they are so greedy. And hateful. During bad economic times when the employer has to make some cuts labor leaders will tell the rank and file don’t believe the employer. “Just look at the house the boss lives in. And the house you live in. Whose is better? Bigger? That’s right. The boss’ house is. Always remember that.”
Yes, bosses may have nicer homes. But chances are they are mortgaged to the hilt. Not to mention the fact that these bosses may be working an 80-hour week. Which is not uncommon for a small business owner. Especially during bad economic times. As they may be negotiating with creditors, their banker, their vendors, keeping their customers happy and trying to find new customers. While the rank and file work their 40 hours, collect their paychecks and enjoy their free time.
So it’s not easy being the boss. That’s why so few people want to be the boss. For it’s easier being an employee. You work. You get paid. And you leave work at work. Even if you think you’re not being paid as much as you deserve to be. Something most employees feel. That they’re overworked. And underpaid. But they never look at things through their employer’s eyes. And see what they really cost their boss.
Most Businesses have gone from a Defined Benefit Pension Plan to a Defined Contribution 401(k)
What an employee gets paid and what an employer pays for that employee are two different things. To begin with an employer pays for more hours of an employee’s time than he or she actually works. When you factor in vacation time, holidays and sick days an employer may pay for 2,080 hours while the employee only works 1,896 hours. If an employee makes $35 an hour those nonworking hours can add up to $6,440. Which an employee gets for doing nothing. We call them fringe benefits. Just an employer’s way of saying, “Hey, I don’t hate you. Here’s some money for doing nothing.”
Why do they pay this? Because of free market capitalism. If they don’t pay it someone else may. And attract their good workers away from them. Because if there is something employees will do is jump ship the moment they get a better offer. Which is a good thing. This is supply and demand. And despite workers feeling overworked and underpaid this free market dynamic makes sure employees get paid as much as they can while helping employers pay as little as they can. That equilibrium point where employees will keep working. While leaving employers still competitive. Though that’s getting harder and harder to do these days. As the cost of doing business has never been higher.
In addition to these fringe benefits there are also health insurance, life insurance and retirement contributions. With health care often being the greatest single employee cost to a small business owner. Which is why most now make employees pay a small portion of their health care these days. Retirement contributions have also gotten very costly. Few people still have a defined benefit pension plan these days. Typically an owner will offer a defined contribution 401(k) for the employee to contribute to. And if times are good the employer may match their contribution up to a certain amount. But employers will call this a discretionary contribution. And it will be one of the first things to go when they are having cash flow problems in a bad economy.
The Last Thing a Business Owner needs while trying to Deal with Soaring Labor Costs are more Costs and Taxes
In addition to fringe benefits there are payroll taxes and insurances. Such as Social Security. Which the employer and employee split. At least in theory. The employer currently pays 6.2% on the first $110,100 in an employee’s earnings. The employee kicks in 4.2% (which may go up another 2 points after the fiscal cliff, as that tax cut expires). In reality the employee doesn’t pay any of this. They get their check and go on their way while the employer has to find the cash to pay the 10.4% due. For an employee earning $66,360 that Social Security tax payable comes to $7,571. Another big check the owner has to write is for state unemployment. Which can be anywhere around $4,000. The following chart summarizes these and additional labor costs (note: the retirement contribution is probably between a 401(k) matching contribution and a defined benefit pension contribution).
An employee with a pay rate of $35/hour will gross $66,360. Deductions will lower actual take-home pay. But the employer’s total cost for this employee in this example is $108,252. Or an additional $41,892 than the employee grosses. Which comes out to another $17.04 an hour. Something the employee never sees. This is why labor is so costly. And why employers want to hire as few people as possible. For each additional employee they hire (in this example) they have to pay an additional 22.2% in payroll taxes/insurances. And an additional 41% in fringe benefits. Or a combined 63.1%. In addition to what they’re paying the employees for their actual work.
And this is why employers want to offload health care (especially for their retirees). And their pension liabilities. As they can add an additional 30% (or more) to their labor costs. What started out as fringe benefits to attract some of the best workers is now bankrupting many companies. People are living so long into their retirement that these cost are growing faster and larger than any other cost a business has. And it’s also why small business owners are very worried about new regulations and taxes. For the last thing they need while trying to deal with these soaring labor costs are more costs. Or taxes. Which doesn’t make them cheap or greedy. It just makes them very cautious business owners who are trying to keep their businesses afloat in an ever more difficult business environment.
Tags: 401(k), boss, bosses, business owners, defined benefit pension plan, defined contribution 401(k, employee, employer, free market, free-market capitalism, fringe benefits, health insurance, insurance, labor, labor costs, overworked, payroll taxes, pension, retirees, retirement, retirement contributions, small business, small business owner, Social Security, underpaid
Week in Review
Here is a lesson in basic economics. There is a tradeoff between costs and safety in aviation. You could hire thousands of additional mechanics to give an airplane a complete overhaul after each flight. And double their pay rate just to make sure they are especially happy workers. You can have a couple of chase planes follow a passenger airliner on every flight to observe the outside of the aircraft so they can warn the pilot of any problems. And you can top off every fuel tank on an airplane just to be extra safe. These things would make flying safer. But they would also make it very expensive to fly. So expensive that few people would fly. Thus reducing the amount of airplanes in the sky. As well as the number of flight and maintenance crews. Which illustrates the ultimate cost of generous union contracts. The more they ask for the more they put themselves out of a job.
But these unions are powerful. Margins are so thing in aviation that a strike could turn a profitable year into a money losing year. So to avoid a strike they cut costs where they can. And the one cost that gives them something to work with is their fuel costs. Because an airplane only needs enough fuel to fly from point A to point B. Plus some reserves. So they are very careful in calculating the fuel requirements to get from point A to point B. But sometimes weather can enter the picture and add a point C. And this can sometimes cause a fuel emergency (see Pilots forced to make emergency landings because of fuel shortages by David Millward posted 8/20/2012 on The Telegraph).
Pilots have had to make 28 emergency landings because they were running low on fuel according to figures compiled by the Civil Aviation Authority…
Although the total represents of fuel-related emergency landings is a reduction on 2008-10, when there were 41 such incidents, some pilots have warned the airlines are operating on very narrow margins as they seek to cut operating costs…
One retired pilot told the Exaro website that he and his colleagues were under pressure from airlines because of the industry’s need to keep costs down.
“There is pressure on pilots by airlines to carry minimum fuel because it costs money to carry the extra weight, and that is quite significant over a year…
“The way in which aircraft are being developed in becoming more fuel efficient, there is less need for fuel.
We make jet fuel by refining petroleum oil. And two things make this an expensive endeavor. Higher environmental regulations. And reductions in supply. Often due to those same environmental regulations. If they allowed the American oil business to drill, baby, drill, it would be safer to fly. Because fuel would be less expensive. And airlines could more easily afford to carry the extra fuel weight.
Airlines don’t have much power over controlling the price of jet fuel. It is what the market says it is. They have a little more luck in keeping their capital costs down thanks to the bitter rivalry between Boeing and Airbus. Who are both eager to sell their airplanes. Cutting their labor costs is another option they have but it comes with great political costs. Usually it takes the specter of bankruptcy to get concessions from labor. So when it comes to cutting their operating costs the least objectionable route to go is to cut fuel costs. By loading the absolute bare minimum required by regulations. And for safety. Airlines want to save money. But having planes fall out of the sky to save fuel costs will cost more in the long run. In more ways than one. (It’s hard to get people to fly on an airline that has a reputation of having their planes fall out of the sky.)
So there are only two practical options to fix this problem of skimping on the fuel load. Either you drill, baby, drill. Or you get labor concessions to lower you labor, pension and health care costs. The very same things that are bankrupting American cities. So you know the costly union workers are all in favor of drill, baby, drill. Because the lower the cost of jet fuel the less pressure there is on their pay and benefits.
Tags: airplane, aviation, costs, drill baby drill, emergency landings, environmental regulations, flying, fuel, fuel costs, fuel emergency, fuel tank, fuel weight, jet fuel, labor costs, safety, union contracts, unions, weight
Week in Review
GM got into trouble because they couldn’t sell cars competitively. Because they had higher labor costs than the foreign competitors taking their market share. And they simply couldn’t sell enough cars at their high prices to pay their labor costs. Which led them to bankruptcy. But President Obama saved GM. By bailing them out. And putting them on the road to prosperity. Or did he (see Morning Bell: Taxpayers’ Auto Bailout Losses Mounting by Amy Payne posted 8/14/2012 on The Foundry)?
Taxpayers will lose even more on the auto bailout than previously thought, as the Treasury has just revised its estimate upward to $25 billion. This may still underestimate the losses to come—yet President Obama plans to tout the auto bailout as a key accomplishment of his Administration…
Heritage labor expert James Sherk and co-author Todd Zywicki found that all of the taxpayer losses occurred because the Administration manipulated bankruptcy law to shelter the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) compensation. None of the losses were necessary to preserve jobs, and taxpayers spent billions to prop up the compensation of some of the most highly paid workers in America. They write:
We estimate that the Administration redistributed $26.5 billion more to the UAW than it would have received had it been treated as it usually would in bankruptcy proceedings.…Thus, the entire loss to the taxpayers from the auto bailout comes from the funds diverted to the UAW.
The union workers, who were making more than $70 an hour in wages and benefits, received preferential treatment when their companies had to restructure. GM and Chrysler owed billions to a trust fund they had created to provide UAW members with gold-plated retiree health benefits—and taxpayers ended up paying right into that fund. That doesn’t happen in a normal bankruptcy.
Even Stephen Rattner, President Obama’s “car czar,” has admitted that “We should have asked the UAW to do a bit more. We did not ask any UAW member to take a cut in their pay.” As a result, even after the reorganization, GM still has higher labor costs ($56 an hour) than any of its foreign-based competitors.
So this wasn’t so much a bailout of GM as it was a bailout for the UAW. Lovely. More debt for the rest of us so a privileged few can live better than we can. And to add insult to injury this didn’t even fix GM’s original problem. Their high labor costs. Which prevents them from selling their cars competitively. So the bailout did nothing to help GM. Which means they’ll probably need another bailout later. Or special treatment from the government. Such as a pass on paying their federal income taxes. So the American taxpayer is not benefitting at all from the GM bailout. Unless he or she is a member of the UAW.
So in other words, the GM bailout basically screwed the American taxpayer. So the president could reward a political ally. That will repay his kindness in campaign contributions. And votes. Which he desperately needs because his stewardship of the economy is worse than Jimmy Carter’s.
Tags: American taxpayer, auto bailout, bailout, Bankruptcy, GM, labor costs, President Obama, taxpayer, UAW
A Depression is an Exceptionally Bad Recession
When campaigning for the presidency Ronald Reagan explained what a recession, a depression and a recovery were. He said a recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job. And a recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job. This was during the 1980 presidential election. Where Reagan included that famous question at the end of one of the debates. “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” And the answer was “no.” Ronald Reagan surged ahead of Jimmy Carter after that and won by a landslide. And he won reelection by an even bigger landslide in 1984.
There are a couple of ways to define a recession. Falling output and rising unemployment. Two consecutive quarters of falling Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A decline in new factory orders. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, officially marks the start and end dates of all U.S. recessions. They consider a lot of economic data. It’s not an exact science. But they track the business cycle. That normal economic cycle between economic expansion and economic contraction. The business cycle has peaks (expansion) and troughs (contraction). A recession is the time period between a peak and a trough. From the time everyone is working and happy and buying a lot of stuff. Through a period of layoffs where people stop buying much of anything. Until the last layoff before the next economic expansion begins.
A depression has an even more vague science behind it. We really don’t have a set of requirements that the economy has to meet to tell us we’re in a depression. Since the Great Depression we haven’t really used the word anymore for a depression is just thought of as an exceptionally bad recession. Some have called the current recession (kicked off by the subprime mortgage crisis) a depression. Because it has a lot of the things the Great Depression had. Bank failures. Liquidity crises. A long period of high unemployment. In fact, current U.S unemployment is close to Great Depression unemployment if you measure more apples to apples and use the U-6 rate instead of the official U-3 rate that subtracts a lot of people from the equation (people who can’t find work and have given up looking, people working part-time because they can’t find a full-time job, people underemployed working well below their skill level, etc.). For these reasons many call the current recession the Great Recession. To connect it to the Great Depression. Without calling the current recession a depression.
Whether Inventories sell or not Businesses have to Pay their People and their Payroll Taxes
So what causes a recession? Good economic times. Funny, isn’t it? It’s the good times that cause the bad times. Here’s how. When everyone has a job who wants a job a lot of people are spending money in the economy. Creating a lot of economic activity. Businesses respond to this. They increase production. Even boost the inventories they carry so they don’t miss out on these good times. For the last thing a business wants is to run out of their hot selling merchandise when people are buying like there is no tomorrow. Businesses will ramp up production. Add overtime such as running production an extra day of the week. Perhaps extend the working day. Businesses will do everything to max out their production with their current labor force. Because expanding that labor force will cause big problems when the bloom is off of the economic rose.
But if the economic good times look like they will last businesses will hire new workers. Driving up labor costs as businesses have to pay more to hire workers in a tight labor market. These new workers will work a second shift. A third shift. They will fill a manufacturing plant expansion. Or fill a new plant. (Built by a booming construction industry. Just as construction workers are building new houses in a booming home industry.) Businesses will make these costly investments to meet the booming demand during an economic expansion. Increasing their costs. Which increases their prices. And as businesses do this throughout the economy they begin to produce even more than the people are buying. Inventories begin to build up until inventories are growing faster than sales. The business cycle has peaked. And the economic decline begins.
Inventories are costly. They produce no revenue. But incur cost to warehouse them. Worse, businesses spent a lot of money producing these inventories. Or I should say credit. Typically manufacturers buy things and pay for them later. Their accounts payable. Which are someone else’s accounts receivable. A lot of bills coming due. And a lot of invoices going past due. Because businesses have their money tied up in those inventories. But one thing they can’t owe money on is payroll. Whether those inventories sell or not they have to pay their people on time or face some harsh legal penalties. And they have to pay their payroll taxes (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, withholding taxes, etc.) for the same reasons. As well as their Workers’ Compensation insurance. And they have to pay their health care insurance. Labor is costly. And there is no flexibility in paying it while you’re waiting for that inventory to sell. This is why businesses are reluctant to add new labor and only do so when there is no other way to keep up with demand.
The Fed tries to Remove the Recessionary Side of the Business Cycle with Small but ‘Manageable’ Inflation
As sales dry up businesses reduce their prices to unload that inventory. To convert that inventory into cash so they can pay their bills. At the same time they are cutting back on production. With sales down they are only losing money by building up inventories of stuff no one is buying. Which means layoffs. They idle their third shifts. Their second shifts. Their overtime. They shut down plants. A lot of people lose jobs. Sales fall. And prices fall. As businesses try to reduce their inventories. And stay in business by enticing the fewer people in the market place to buy their reduced production at lower prices.
During the economic expansion costs increased. Labor costs increased. And prices increased. Because demand was greater than supply. Businesses incurred these higher costs to meet that demand. During the contraction these had to fall. Because supply exceeded demand. Buyers could and did shop around for the lowest price. Without fear of anything running out of stock and not being there to buy the next day. Or the next week. And when prices stop falling it marks the end of the recession and the beginning of the next expansion. When supply equals demand once again. Prices, then, are key to the business cycle. They rise during boom times. And fall during contractions. And when they stop falling the recession is over. This is so important that I will say it again. When prices stop falling a recession is over.
Jimmy Carter had such a bad economy because his administration still followed Keynesian economic policies. Which tried to massage the business cycle by removing the contraction side of it. By using monetary policy. The Keynesians believed that whenever the economy starts to go into recession all the government has to do is to print money and spend it. And the government printed a lot of money in the Seventies. So much that there was double digit inflation. But all this new money did was raise prices during a recession. Which only made the recession worse. This was the turning point in Keynesian economics. And the end of highly inflationary policies. But not the end of inflationary policies.
The Federal Reserve (the Fed) still tries to remove the recessionary side of the business cycle. And they still use monetary policy to do it. With a smaller but ‘manageable’ amount of inflation. During the great housing bubble that preceded the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession the Fed kept expanding the money supply to keep interest rates very low. This kept mortgage rates low. People borrowed money and bought big houses. Housing prices soared. These artificially low interest rates created a huge housing bubble that eventually popped. And because the prices were so high the recession would be a long one to bring them back down. Which is why many call the current recession the Great Recession. Because we haven’t seen a price deflation like this since the Great Depression.
Tags: business cycle, contraction, demand, depression, economic contraction, economic decline, economic expansion, economic good times, Great Depression, Great Recession, high unemployment, inflation, inflationary policies, inventories, Jimmy Carter, Keynesian, Keynesian economics, labor costs, layoffs, monetary policy, prices, production, recession, recovery, Ronald Reagan, sales, subprime mortgage crisis, supply, the Fed, unemployment
Since the Dawn of Civilization we’ve Waged a War against High Labor Costs
Technology determines our standard of living. The greater we develop technology the higher our standard of living. Because the things that make our lives easier and more enjoyable come down in price as technology advances. So that the great conveniences and comforts of life are available to all. And not just for the amusements of a wealthy upper class. For example, who owned and enjoyed the first automobiles? It was the wealthy upper class. Exclusively. Until Henry Ford used all the technology of the day to reduce the price of a car so that a working man could afford and enjoy one. Changing America forever.
Labor. The cost of people making things. This is the cost that holds back the standard of living. The thing that made the comforts of life affordable only to the rich. Since the dawn of civilization we’ve waged a war against high labor costs. To find ways to allow people to create more for less. The division of labor allowed specialization and a middle class. Where artisans made things they could trade for other things. But artisans were artists. Each thing they made was one of a kind. And it took time. A single artisan could not operate at an economies of scale to bring unit prices down. Which tended to keep their more labor-intensive works more costly and available only to the wealthy class. And rulers of their civilization.
Great talent was going to waste. And a great number of people were not living anywhere near as well as the few well-to-do. To unleash this human capital, to make a better life available to anyone, they had to reduce these labor costs. Figure out a way to make more for less. And we took a giant step forward in this direction thanks to war. One of the great drivers of technology.
Precision Machine Tools allowed the Interchangeability of Parts
Some of our first firearms were works of art. Built by highly skilled artisans. Gunsmiths. Who carefully and painstakingly shaped, fitted and gently filed parts he created and assembled together into a working firearm. Changed the way we fought wars forever. They were expensive. And not all that plentiful at first. Because it took such a long time for a gunsmith to build one from scratch. Who was always busy building new guns. Or carefully and painstakingly repairing old ones damaged in battle. Shaping, fitting and filing a replacement part into the old firearm and restoring it to working order.
Then someone got a bright idea. Actually, a few had the same bright idea at various points in time. If we could standardize these parts by building them to a set of specifications we could mass-produce these parts. Building the same part over and over again, one after another, following a set of specifications as closely as possible. And then take these uniform parts and assemble firearms out of them. Because the parts were uniform they were interchangeable. Any part could go into any gun. A worker could just grab these interchangeable parts from piles of identical parts and slap them together into a finished firearm. Furthermore, we could keep spare parts in our armories. So we can easily repair parts damaged or broken in combat by simply replacing the broken part with a new part. Without sending the firearm back to the manufacturer.
Of course, the interchangeability of parts was not possible without the precision machine tools provided. At first artisans guided their hand tools with a trained eye. Often securing the piece he was working in a vise and working the tool around the piece. Machine tools allowed us to spin our work and used a constrained tool to shape it. Or to constrain our work and apply a spinning tool to drill, cut or shape it. Using machines to constrain our work allowed us to apply greater forces on our work. Which advanced metal working. And allowed us to manufacture things with complex shapes and demanding specifications. Creating the many thousands of pieces that we ultimately assemble into a finished good. Allowing us to build more for less.
Computer Controlled Machine Tools and Robots increased the Speed and Precision of Assembling Automobiles
The interchangeability of parts and machine tools led to the assembly line. Where we assembled things in mass quantities. From piles of interchangeable parts. Then Henry Ford made the assembly line move. Taking mass production to a new level. Reducing the costs for one of the wealthy class’ most expensive toys. The automobile. Bringing labor costs down so far that the final selling price was inexpensive enough for the working man to afford.
Computer controlled machine tools increased the speed and precision at which we made these interchangeable parts. And robots on the assembly line increased the speed and precision of assembling automobiles. Which should have reduced the price of cars even further. But they seem to be more expensive than they need be. Making many cars today too expensive for the working man. Making them toys for the rich and well-to-do again. For technology has reduced costs everywhere in the assembly pipeline but one. The final assembly labor costs. Which should have plummeted in the advance of all this technology. But they haven’t. Because unions have removed these costs from market forces. Keeping labor costs higher than market costs. And in turn pushing the selling price of their cars higher than market prices. Opening the door to Japanese competition in the Seventies. And the Japanese stepped in. Sold a lot of cars. So many that they would one day even sell more than GM. Where we come full circle. One of the countries (the other being Nazi Germany) that changed American manufacturing by pulling it out of the Great Depression changed it once again.
During the war years of the Great Depression FDR set a wage ceiling. He didn’t want employers paying workers too much. A bit of a problem when you’re trying to hire the best workers. So employers got creative. And, instead, started offering benefits to get around that wage ceiling to attract the best workers. Following World War II the wage ceiling was gone. But the benefits lived on. And are some of the most contentious issues discussed at contract negotiations with the United Automobile Workers (UAW). Ultimately leading to the great legacy costs that led the Big Three (GM, Chrysler and Ford) to bankruptcy and government bailouts.
Tags: artisans, assembly line, automobile, firearm, gunsmith, Henry Ford, interchangeability of parts, interchangeable, interchangeable parts, labor costs, machine tools, more for less, precision, price, set of specifications, specifications, standard of living, technology, upper class, wealthy, working man
« Previous Entries