Wal-Mart is the new General Motors for the Middle Class

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 22nd, 2014

Week in Review

The left hates Wal-Mart.  Because they are nonunion.  And their low prices make it difficult for small mom & pop shops to stay in business charging their customers higher prices.  But being nonunion lets them hire more people.  And their low prices allow people to buy more with their paychecks.  Good things.  Yet the left hates Wal-Mart.  Because they would rather have union jobs even if it means fewer jobs.  And higher prices.  Despite Wal-Mart being the best thing for the middle class since General Motors (see Walmart and the middle class, sinking together by Rick Newman posted 2/21/2014 on Yahoo! Finance).

It was once General Motors (GM) whose fortunes reflected those of the middle-class Americans who bought its products. Now, that bellwether Goliath is Walmart (WMT)…

A chronically weak job market is pinching lower-income consumers — some of whom can’t even afford to shop at Walmart anymore.

The digital revolution has left Walmart at a disadvantage against etailers such as Amazon (AMZN), which has 7 times’ Walmart’s online revenue, and a much smaller physical footprint to manage.

With Walmart tied so closely to the fortunes lower-middle-class Americans, it’s no exaggeration to say that, as goes Walmart, so goes America. And vice versa…

A century ago, Henry Ford famously doubled the pay of his workers — to $5 per day — to reduce turnover and make his production lines more efficient. That move had the added benefit of raising living standards for Ford workers and helping establish the modern middle class.

Even though Walmart is the nation’s largest employer — with 1.3 million U.S. workers — it seems highly unlikely it could achieve anything similar to what Henry Ford did. Global competition gives retailers little room to raise costs without giving away pricing advantages. And fading demand for lesser-skilled workers lacking a college degree leaves few companies with a real incentive to raise wages, aside from earning a bit of public goodwill. Before Henry Ford doubled wages, his workers often left for other blue-collar jobs in a booming industrial economy. Most Walmart workers lack such options.

Amazon is nonunion, too.  But Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, donated $2.5 million to support gay marriage in Washington State.  Donates primarily to Democrat candidates.  And supports an Internet sales tax (see What Are Jeff Bezos’s Political Leanings, and How Might They Shape the Washington Post? by David A. Graham, The Atlantic, posted 8/5/2013 on the National Journal).  So there are things the left likes about Amazon.  But they only have about 100,000 employees to Wal-Mart’s 2.2 million.  Which is why the left has an all out assault on Wal-Mart.  Because they want to unionize those 2.2 million.  For 2.2 million people would provide a lot of union dues.

Unionization or a higher minimum wage does not build a strong middle class.  A strong economy does.  That’s what helped Henry Ford raise his wages.  To keep his best workers from quitting so they could take higher paying jobs elsewhere.  Which is how people earn more money.  When an economy is so robust that there are more jobs than people to fill them.  Requiring employers to pay more to attract workers.  Not by forcing employers to pay more.  Especially during a weak economy.  When a business’ margins couldn’t be thinner.  Leaving them unable to raise wages without cutting workers.  Which the left will be glad to see.  Lost jobs.  As long as those remaining are union jobs.

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The Minimum Wage Debate

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 16th, 2013

Economics 101

A Fall in Economic Activity follows a Surge in Keynesian Stimulus Spending

The minimum wage argument is a political argument.  Because it’s a partisan one.  Not one based on sound economics.  Such as the classical school of economics that made America the number one economic power in the world.  Thrift.  Savings. Investment.  Free trade.  And a gold standard.  Then you have the politicized school of economics that replaced it.  The Keynesian school.  Which nations around the world accept as sacrosanct.  Because it is the school of economics that says governments should manage the economy.  Thus sanctioning and enabling Big Government.

Keynesian economics is all about consumption.  Consumer spending.  That’s all that matters to them.  And it’s the only thing they look at.  They completely ignore the higher stages of production.  Above the retail level.  They ignore the wholesale level.  The manufacturing level.  The industrial processing level.  And the raw material extraction level.  Which is why Keynesian stimulus fails.  Just putting more money into consumers’ pockets doesn’t affect them.  For they see the other side of that stimulus.  Inflation.  And recession.  And they’re not going to expand or hire more people just because there is a temporary spike in consumer spending.  Because they know once the consumers run through this money they will revert back to their previous purchasing habits.  Well, almost.

Keynesian stimulus is typically created with an expansion of the money supply.  As more dollars chase the same amount of goods prices rise.  And people lose purchasing power.  So they buy less.  Which means following a surge in Keynesian stimulus spending there follows a fall in economic activity.  Which is why the higher stages of production don’t expand or hire people.  Because they know that for them the economy gets worse—not better—after stimulus spending.

A Stronger Economy would help Minimum Wage Workers more than Raising the Minimum Wage

Increasing the minimum wage shares the Keynesian goal of putting more money into consumers’ pockets.  And many of the arguments for increasing the minimum wage mirror those arguments for Keynesian stimulus.  Even to reverse the consequences of previous Keynesian policies (see Everything You Ever Needed to Know About the Minimum Wage by Jordan Weissmann posted 12/16/2013 on The Atlantic).

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which means that depending on the city you’re in, 60 minutes of work will just about buy you a Chipoltle burrito (without guac). By historical standards, it’s fairly low. Thanks to inflation, the minimum wage is worth about $3.26 less, in today’s dollars, than when its real value peaked in 1968.

It’s a Keynesian argument that says putting more money into people’s pockets will increase economic activity.  That’s the rebuttal to the argument that a higher minimum wage will reduce economic activity (by raising prices with higher labor costs).  For they will take those higher wages and spend them in the economy.  More than offsetting the loss in sales due to those higher prices.

The whole concept of Keynesian stimulus is predicated on giving consumers more money to spend.  Like raising the minimum wage.  Either with stimulus money raised by taxes.  From borrowing.  Or printing.  Their favorite.  Which they have done a lot of.  To keep interest rates low to spur housing sales in particular.  But with this monetary expansion comes inflation.  And a loss of purchasing power.  So the Keynesian policies of putting more money into consumers’ pockets to stimulate economic activity has reduced the purchasing power of that money.  Which is why the minimum wage in real dollars keeps falling.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.57 million Americans, or 2.1 percent of the hourly workforce, earned the minimum wage in 2012. More than 60 percent of them either worked in retail or in leisure and hospitality, which is to say hotels and restaurants, including fast-food chains.

…Almost a third of minimum-wage workers are teenagers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some in retail sales get a commission added on to their hourly wage.  Many in the food and leisure industry earn tips in addition to their hourly wage.  So some of those who earn the minimum wage get more than the minimum wage.  Those who don’t are either unskilled entry level workers.  Such as students who are working towards a degree that will get them a higher-paying job.  Those working part-time for an additional paycheck.  Those who work because of the convenience (hours, location, etc.).  Those who have no skills that can get them into a higher-paying job.  Or because these entry-level jobs are the only jobs they can find in a bad economy.

A stronger economy could create better jobs.  And higher wages.  For it is during good economic times that people leave one job for a better job.  And employers pay people more to prevent good employees they’ve already trained from leaving.  So they don’t have to start all over again with a new unskilled worker.  This would be the better approach.  Creating a stronger economy to allow unskilled workers to move up into higher skilled—and higher paying—jobs.  For you can’t have upward mobility if there are no better jobs to move up into.

On one side of the debate, you mostly have traditionalists who believe that increasing the minimum wage kills some jobs for unskilled workers, like teens…

On the other side, you have researchers who believe that increasing the minimum wage doesn’t kill jobs at all and may even give the economy a boost by channeling more pay to low-income workers who are likely to spend it.

The Automotive industry has long fought for tariff protection.  For the high cost of their union labor made their cars costlier than their imported competition.  The legacy costs of an aging workforce (health care for retirees and pensions) required a government bailout to keep General Motors and Chrysler from going belly-up.  And it was this high cost of union labor that caused the Big Three to lose market share.  Shedding jobs—and employees—as they couldn’t sell the cars they were making.

So higher wages raise prices.  And reduce sales.  Leading to layoffs.  And reduced economic activity.  The unions believe this.  That’s why they fight so hard for legislation to protect themselves from lower-priced competition.  You would have to believe that the economic forces that affect one part of the economy would affect another.  And those economic forces say that higher wages kill jobs.  They don’t increase economic activity.  They just help the lucky few who have those high-paying jobs.  While many of their one-time coworkers found themselves out of a job.

When the minimum wage goes up, the theory says, businesses shape up. Managers find ways to make their employees more productive. Turnover slows down, since people are happier with their paychecks, and the unemployed snap up jobs elsewhere in town. Meanwhile, Burger King and McDonald’s can raise their prices a little bit without scaring off customers.

Managers finding ways to make their employees more productive?  Do you know what that means?  It means how they can get more work out of fewer employees.  No worker wants to hear management talk about productivity gains.  For that usually means someone will lose their job.  As the remaining workers can do more with less because of those productivity gains.  So that’s a horrible argument for a higher minimum wage.  Because fewer people will have those bigger paychecks.  Made possible by reducing costs elsewhere.  As in laying off some of their coworkers.

Based on data from 80s and early 90s, Daniel Aaronson estimated that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage drove up the price of McDonald’s burgers, KFC chicken, and Pizza Hut’s pizza-like product by as much as 10 percent. Assuming that holds true today, it means that bringing the minimum wage to $10.10 would tack $1.60 onto the cost of your Big Mac.

McDonald’s will never win the award for having the healthiest food.  And that’s fine.  People don’t go there to eat healthy.  They go there for the value.  As it is one of the few places you can take a family of four out for about $25.  Adding another $1.60 per burger could add another $6.40 to that dinner out.  For a family living paycheck to paycheck that may be just too much for the weekly budget.  Especially with inflation raising the cost of groceries and gasoline.  Thanks to those Keynesian economic policies.

Raising the Minimum Wage will not Result in any of the Lofty Goals the Economic Planners Envision

There is a lot of anger at these minimum wage companies paying their employees so little.  Some of their minimum workers have gone on strike recently to protest their low pay.  As they are apparently not working at these companies because they love the work.  So suffice it to say that no one is yearning to work at these companies.  And that some may outright hate these jobs.  So why in the world would we want to punish them by paying them more?  Removing all ambition to leave the jobs they hate?

If you raise the minimum wage what happens to other jobs that pay what becomes the new higher minimum wage?  Putting their earnings on par with unskilled entry-level jobs?  Jobs that require greater skills than entry-level minimum wage jobs?  Will they continue to work harder for the same wage as unskilled workers?  Will they leave their more difficult jobs for an easier entry-level job?  Will they demand a raise from their employer?  Keynesians would say this is a good thing.  As it will drive wages up.  It may.  But to pay these higher labor costs will require cost cuts elsewhere.  Perhaps by shedding an employee or two.

Raising the minimum wage will not result in any of the lofty goals the economic planners envision.  For if putting more money into consumers’ pockets is all we need to create economic activity then we wouldn’t have had the Great Recession.  The stagflation of the Seventies.  Or the Great Depression.  Keynesian stimulus spending didn’t create new economic activity to prevent any of these.  So why would a rise in the minimum wage be any different?

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Roosevelt, Wage and Price Controls, Fringe Benefits, Health Insurance, Pensions, Unions, Bankruptcy and Bethlehem Steel

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 3rd, 2013

History 101

(Originally published November 20th, 2012)

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.

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How a 12-Year Old Canadian and U.S. Unions see Business Differently

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 12th, 2013

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.

Why?

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.

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Roosevelt, Wage and Price Controls, Fringe Benefits, Health Insurance, Pensions, Unions, Bankruptcy and Bethlehem Steel

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 20th, 2012

History 101

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.

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The Federal Reserve, Roaring Twenties, Stock Market Crash, Banking Crises, Great Depression and John Maynard Keynes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 25th, 2012

History 101

The Federal Reserve increased the Money Supply to Lower Interest Rates during the Roaring Twenties

Benjamin Franklin said, “Industry, perseverance, & frugality, make fortune yield.”  He said that because he believed that.  And he proved the validity of his maxim with a personal example.  His life.  He worked hard.  He never gave up.  And he was what some would say cheap.  He saved his money and spent it sparingly.  Because of these personally held beliefs Franklin was a successful businessman.  So successful that he became wealthy enough to retire and start a second life.  Renowned scientist.  Who gave us things like the Franklin stove and the lightning rod.  Then he entered his third life.  Statesman.  And America’s greatest diplomat.  He was the only Founder who signed the Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France (bringing the French in on the American side during the Revolutionary War), Treaty of Paris (ending the Revolutionary War very favorably to the U.S.) and the U.S. Constitution.  Making the United States not only a possibility but a reality.  Three extraordinary lives lived by one extraordinary man.

Franklin was such a great success because of industry, perseverance and frugality.  A philosophy the Founding Fathers all shared.  A philosophy that had guided the United States for about 150 years until the Great Depression.  When FDR changed America.  By building on the work of Woodrow Wilson.  Men who expanded the role of the federal government.  Prior to this change America was well on its way to becoming the world’s number one economy.   By following Franklin-like policies.  Such as the virtue of thrift.  Favoring long-term savings over short-term consumption.  Free trade.  Balanced budgets.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  And the gold standard.  Which provided sound money.  And an international system of trade.  Until the Federal Reserve came along.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) is America’s central bank.  In response to some financial crises Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act (1913) to make financial crises a thing of the past.  The Fed would end bank panics, bank runs and bank failures.  By being the lender of last resort.  While also tweaking monetary policy to maintain full employment and stable prices.  By increasing and decreasing the money supply.  Which, in turn, lowers and raises interest rates.  But most of the time the Fed increased the money supply to lower interest rates to encourage people and businesses to borrow money.  To buy things.  And to expand businesses and hire people.  Maintaining that full employment.  Which they did during the Roaring Twenties.  For awhile.

The Roaring Twenties would have gone on if Herbert Hoover had continued the Harding/Mellon/Coolidge Policies

The Great Depression started with the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  And to this date people still argue over the causes of the Great Depression.  Some blame capitalism.  These people are, of course, wrong.  Others blamed the expansionary policies of the Fed.  They are partially correct.  For artificially low interest rates during the Twenties would eventually have to be corrected with a recession.  But the recession did not have to turn into a depression.  The Great Depression and the banking crises are all the fault of the government.  Bad monetary and fiscal policies followed by bad governmental actions threw an economy in recession into depression.

A lot of people talk about stock market speculation in the Twenties running up stock prices.  Normally something that happens with cheap credit as people borrow and invest in speculative ventures.  Like the dot-com companies in the Nineties.  Where people poured money into these companies that never produced a product or a dime of revenue.  And when that investment capital ran out these companies went belly up causing the severe recession in the early 2000s.  That’s speculation on a grand scale.  This is not what happened during the Twenties.  When the world was changing.  And electrifying.  The United States was modernizing.  Electric utilities, electric motors, electric appliances, telephones, airplanes, radio, movies, etc.  So, yes, there were inflationary monetary policies in place.  But their effects were mitigated by this real economic activity.  And something else.

President Warren Harding nominated Andrew Mellon to be his treasury secretary.  Probably the second smartest person to ever hold that post.  The first being our first.  Alexander Hamilton.  Harding and Mellon were laissez-faire capitalists.  They cut tax rates and regulations.  Their administration was a government-hands-off administration.  And the economy responded with some of the greatest economic growth ever.  This is why they called the 1920s the Roaring Twenties.  Yes, there were inflationary monetary policies.  But the economic growth was so great that when you subtracted the inflationary damage from it there was still great economic growth.  The Roaring Twenties could have gone on indefinitely if Herbert Hoover had continued the Harding and Mellon policies (continued by Calvin Coolidge after Harding’s death).  There was even a rural electrification program under FDR’s New Deal.  But Herbert Hoover was a progressive.  Having far more in common with the Democrat Woodrow Wilson than Harding or Coolidge.  Even though Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were all Republicans.

Activist Intervention into Market Forces turned a Recession into the Great Depression

One of the things that happened in the Twenties was a huge jump in farming mechanization.  The tractor allowed fewer people to farm more land.  Producing a boom in agriculture.  Good for the people.  Because it brought the price of food down.  But bad for the farmers.  Especially those heavily in debt from mechanizing their farms.  And it was the farmers that Hoover wanted to help.  With an especially bad policy of introducing parity between farm goods and industrial goods.  And introduced policies to raise the cost of farm goods.  Which didn’t help.  Many farmers were unable to service their loans with the fall in prices.  When farmers began to default en masse banks in farming communities failed.  And the contagion spread to the city banks.  Setting the stage for a nation-wide banking crisis.  And the Great Depression.

One of the leading economists of the time was John Maynard Keynes.  He even came to the White House during the Great Depression to advise FDR.  Keynes rejected the Franklin/Harding/Mellon/Coolidge policies.  And the policies favored by the Austrian school of economics (the only people, by the way, who actually predicted the Great Depression).  Which were similar to the Franklin/Harding/Mellon/Coolidge policies.  The Austrians also said to let prices and wages fall.  To undo all of that inflationary damage.  Which would help cause a return to full employment.  Keynes disagreed.  For he didn’t believe in the virtue of thrift.  He wanted to abandon the gold standard completely and replace it with fiat money.  That they could expand more freely.  And he believed in demand-side solutions.  Meaning to end the Great Depression you needed higher wages not lower wages so workers had more money to spend.  And to have higher wages you needed higher prices.  So the employers could pay their workers these higher wages.  And he also encouraged continued deficit spending.  No matter the long-term costs.

Well, the Keynesians got their way.  And it was they who gave us the Great Depression.  For they influenced government policy.  The stock market crashed in part due to the Smoot Hawley Tariff then in committee.  But investors saw the tariffs coming and knew what that would mean.  An end to the economic boom.  So they sold their stocks before it became law.  Causing the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Then those tariffs hit (an increase of some 50%).  Then they doubled income tax rates.  And Hoover even demanded that business leaders NOT cut wages.  All of this activist intervention into market forces just sucked the wind out of the economy.  Turning a recession into the Great Depression.

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Great Depression, FDR, New Deal, John Maynard Keynes, Labor Unions, Collusion, Unemployment, Lend-Lease and Stages of Production

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 11th, 2012

History 101

FDR increased the Power of Labor Unions and allowed Big Corporations to Collude with Each Other

Those in mainstream economics (i.e., Keynesian economics) studied the Great Depression and determined that the problem was a lack of spending.  Which is why they cheer FDR and his New Deal programs.  Because the New Deal spent enormous amounts of money.  And according to prevailing Keynesian thought that was all that was needed to end the Great Depression.  Spending.  And if the private sector wasn’t going to spend money then the government could.  And the government’s spending could replace all that economic activity that disappeared when the private sector stopped spending.  So the government spent.  But in those 10 to 15 years they failed to pull the nation out of the Great Depression.

According to Keynesian thought, and John Maynard Keynes himself who visited FDR in the White House, the government needed to spend money.  Even money they didn’t have.  Keynes urged the president to deficit spend.  To run huge deficits in the short term to kick-start the economy.  Keynes showed that it was the only way with a lot of figures and math.  FDR later said Keynes was more a mathematician than an economist.  Still, FDR spent.  But he did even more.  Believing part of the reason for the lack of spending was the evils of capitalism.  There was just too much competition keeping prices low.  And businesses selling at low prices couldn’t pay high wages.  Ergo to stimulate economic activity FDR wanted to increase the cost of doing business.

FDR increased the power of labor unions to help them negotiate higher wage packages.  And he allowed big corporations to collude with each other so they could raise their prices so they could afford to pay those higher union wages.  These two things really helped workers get better pay.  Some 25% higher they otherwise would have had.  This was a big win for labor.  And for the socialists and communists in America who hated capitalism.  (The 1930s were a time of nationalist, socialist, fascist and communist movements sweeping the world.  And strong elements in the U.S. wanted to join these movements.  The Soviet Union even had agents working inside the Roosevelt administration.)  In fact, they were angry that FDR didn’t take this chance to deliver the deathblow to capitalism once and for all by nationalizing some big industries.  Something FDR wasn’t willing to do.

FDR did Everything in his Power to Increase Wages & Prices because of the Massive Deflation of the Great Depression

Then came the alphabet soup of make-work agencies.  Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) paid young unemployed men to do landscaping and other outdoor activities.  Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) paid young men to build dams and other water related activities.  Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) raised food prices by paying farmers not to grow crops and to kill off some of their livestock herds instead of bringing them to market.  National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) reduced unfair competition by letting big corporations collude with each other to keep their prices high.  Public Works Administration (PWA) was a whole new agency that built roads and bridges.  Works Progress Administration (WPA) paid for more construction work for men, sewing work for women and arts projects for the creatively inclined.  National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gave more power to unions to keep their wages (and the prices of the things they made) high.  And many other alphabet agencies.

Most of these programs passed between 1933 and 1935.  So FDR put a lot of money into workers’ pockets during the 1930s.  And according to Keynesian economics all that money would cause an explosion in consumer spending.  Thanks to the Keynesian multiplier.  For every dollar a consumer received from the government it would generate up to $5 of new GDP.  Which was probably one of the mathematical equations Keynes discussed that so underwhelmed FDR.  And that formula is 1/(1-MPC).  Where MPC stands for the marginal propensity to consume (and if it’s 0.80 you get a multiplier of 5).  If a person receives $100 and spends $80 then their MPC is 0.80 or 80%.  This is basically trickle-down economics Keynesian style.  If the person above spends that $80 those receiving it will spend $64.  Those who receive $64 will spend $51.20.  And so on until these other people create an additional $400 of economic activity in addition to that original $100.

And FDR couldn’t ask for a better time to spend that money.  During the Great Depression.  He was doing everything in his power to increase wages and prices because of the massive deflation of the Great Depression.  So even though he was trying to raise prices they were still low throughout much of the economy.  Which meant a little bit of money bought a lot of stuff.  Because deflation strengthened the dollar.  Giving it more purchasing power.  Allowing buyers to get a lot of bang for the buck.  Especially those union workers making 25% more than they normally would have been making.  Talk about kick-starting an economy.  It was so easy.  They even had mathematical formulas saying this would end the Great Depression.  The Great Depression was as good as over.

Had President Obama not been Elected the Great Recession would have Ended some time in 2010

The unemployment rate topped out at around 25% in 1933.  Excluding the government make-work, the true unemployment rate didn’t fall below 20% until 1936.  And never got below 14% until 1941.  When America began tooling up to build the instruments of war.  To become the Arsenal of Democracy.  A few things happened during this time to greatly reduce the unemployment rate following 1941.  The war removed a lot of men from the workforce to serve in the military.  The Supreme Court found parts of the New Deal unconstitutional.  And there was a split in organized labor that helped conservatives (Republicans and Democrats) gain power in Congress.  And they shut down some of those liberal New Deal programs.  So while one war began (World War II) another ended (the war on business).

And how did things progress after they ended their war on business?  Pretty well.  The unemployment rate fell.  To 14.6% in 1940.  To 9.9% in 1942.  To 1.9% in 1943.  To 1.2% in 1944.  Then it soared back up to 1.9% in 1945.  With the war over the unemployment rate rose again.  But nowhere near where it was during FDR’s New Deal 1930s.  From 1948 to 1968 it averaged 4.7%.  Not too bad considering full employment is 5%.  So for the 30 years or so following the end of New Deal policies the economy returned to full employment.  And stayed at full employment.  The conservatives in Congress needed but 4 years to do what FDR couldn’t do in 10 years with his Keynesian, New Deal policies.

Yes, the war helped.  A lot.  It pulled a lot of men out of the workforce.  And American industry ramped up to provide the war material for war.  However, we financed that buildup with deficit spending and American war bonds.  As most of that war material went to our allies via Lend-Lease.  Which means we gave most of it away to allow others to fight the war.  So it was little different than Keynesian spending.  So why did the war spending work when all those alphabet soup make-work agencies didn’t?  Because of the stages of production.  Putting more money into consumers’ hands only helped the retail and wholesale stages.  It did not do anything to stimulate the manufacturing or raw commodities stages.  Especially with those high union wages and lack of competition thanks to the collusion to keep prices high.  All that did was pay the very few who actually had jobs very well.  While making it economically foolish to hire any new workers because of the exceptionally high cost of labor (25% higher than it would have been without the New Deal programs).  That high cost of business just slammed the brakes on economic activity.  Economic activity picked back up only after conservatives in Congress undid some of the damage of the New Deal.  In fact, had it not been for FDR’s New Deal the Great Depression would have ended some 7 years earlier.  Extrapolating this to the Great Recession today one could estimate that the Great Recession would have ended 7 years earlier had it not been for the Keynesian policies of President Obama.  So if the current recession lasts as long as the Great Depression and President Obama wins a second term and continues his anti-business policies the recession will last 7 years longer than it need be.  Or, had President Obama not been elected it would have ended some time in 2010.  Giving us full employment today instead of 14.7% U-6 unemployment.

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Inflation, Prices and Wages (Real and Nominal)

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 23rd, 2012

Economics 101

Inflation is Good for those who Owe Money but Bad for Bankers 

There is a direct correlation between the amount of money in circulation and prices.  The more money the higher the prices.  The less money in circulation the lower the prices.  During the Great Depression the Federal Reserve contracted the money supply and prices fell.  And it caused havoc in the economy.  Low prices a problem?  Yes.  For some.  It was good for anyone buying anything for their money was worth more and could buy more.  But it wasn’t good for people who owed money.  Or banks.

Farmers had borrowed a lot of money to mechanize their farms in the Twenties.  So they owed the banks a lot of money.  When prices fell so did their earnings as the crops they grew sold for less at market.  Good for the consumer.  But bad for the farmer.  For with that big ‘pay cut’ they took they could not repay their loans.  They defaulted.  And when a lot of them defaulted they left banks with a lot of bad loans on the books and little cash in their vaults.  Causing bank runs and bank failures.

This is why farmers are in favor of inflation.  Increasing the amount of money in circulation.  Instead of deflation.  Decreasing the amount of money in circulation.  For when you increase the money supply prices rise.  Meaning more money for them at market.  Making it easier for them to repay their loans.  For although the money supply increased loan balances remained unchanged.  Higher earnings.  Same old debt.  Therefore easier to pay off.  Even though the value of the dollar fell.  So inflation is good for the farmer.  But bad for the banker.  Because the dollars they get back when the farmer repays his loan now buy less than they did before the inflation.

To Fully Appreciate the Impact of Inflation we must talk about Real Prices and Real Wages

Think of a grocer.  He buys from a food distributor to stock his grocery store shelves.  His distributor buys from farmers and food processing companies.  These purchases and sales happen BEFORE a consumer buys anything from a grocery store.  Now BEFORE the consumer goes shopping let’s say the Federal Reserve doubles the amount of money in circulation.  So the consumer goes shopping with a dollar worth HALF of what it was worth when the grocer stocked his shelves.  So if the grocer doesn’t raise his prices to account for this inflation he’ll be able to replace only HALF of what he sells with the proceeds from those sales.  Because his distributors will have doubled their prices to reflect the halving of the value of the dollar.

Of course doubling prices throughout the food supply chain will ultimately lower sales.  Which no one in this chain wants.  Which creates somewhat of a problem.  Especially when consumers don’t like paying higher prices.  Food processing companies will raise their prices.  But they can do something else to make it look like they’re not raising their prices that much.  They can reduce their packaging.  So boxes of cereal and bags of chips get smaller while prices increase only a little.  This lessens the perception of inflation on both consumer and seller.  At least, for those who can do this.  We sell gasoline by the gallon.  Which means they have to pass on the full impact of inflation in the price at the pump.  Which makes it look like gasoline prices are rising faster than most other prices.  Which is why consumers hate oil companies more than food companies.

The price we pay in the grocery store and at the pump are nominal prices.  Prices noted in dollars.  Nominal prices rise to factor in inflation.  But they don’t tell us the real impact of inflation.  That is, how it reduces our purchasing power.  For prices aren’t the only thing that rise.  Our wages do, too.  And if our nominal wages rise at the same rate as nominal prices do we won’t really notice a difference in our purchasing power.  If our nominal wages rise faster than nominal prices then we gain purchasing power.  If nominal prices rise faster than our nominal wages we lose purchasing power.  So to fully appreciate the impact of inflation we must talk about real prices and real wages.  Not the dollar amount on the price tag.  But the affect on our purchasing power.  In times of increasing purchasing power a single earner may be able to meet all the financial needs of a family.  In times of declining purchasing power it may take a second income to meet the financial needs of the family.  This is what we mean when we talk about real prices and real wages. 

Government causes the Erosion of Purchasing Power Always and Everywhere

You may get a large raise at work giving you a high nominal wage.  But if nominal prices are rising (as in a higher price at the gas pump) real wages are falling.  Because you can’t buy as much as you once did.  Meaning you’ve lost purchasing power.  So even though you got a nominal raise you may have taken a real pay cut.  Pretty much everyone today earns more than their father did.  Yet today we struggle to have as much as our fathers did.  Even with a second income in the family.  This is the impact of inflation.  Which causes real prices to rise.  Real wages to fall.  And our standard of living to fall.

As real prices rise and real wages fall we have to make choices.  We can’t have the same things we once did.  If we lose too much purchasing power our spouse may have to provide a second income, spending less time with his or her children.  Or people may work more overtime.  Or take a second job.  Or simply cut back on things.  And enjoy life less.  Cut out movie night.  Or going out to dinner.  Not renew their season tickets.  Or give less to charity.  This is the true cost of inflation. 

This all goes back to the amount of money in circulation.  As Milton Friedman said, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”  Meaning that only government can create inflation.  Because government controls monetary policy.  And the amount of money in circulation.  Which means government causes the erosion of purchasing power always and everywhere.  Even the price at the pump.  As oil is a global commodity priced nominally in U.S. dollars.  So whenever the Americans inflate their money supply the oil producers raise their prices to offset the devalued U.S. dollar.  So government causes much of the pain at the pump.  Whose monetary policies decrease real wages.  And increase real prices.   

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Insurance and Risk Management

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 2nd, 2012

Economics 101

By collecting a Small Fee from Many Policy Holders Insurance Companies can Afford to Pay for the Large Losses of a Few

Insurance has one purpose.  To protect wealth.  People work hard accruing wealth.  Buying a house.  Cars.  College fund for the kids.  Retirement 401(k)s and IRAs.  It takes a long time to earn the money that lets us have these things.  And they take a constant stream of payments to sustain them.  And we are always at risk of losing them.  Something can interrupt that stream of payments to sustain them.  An accident or illness that prevents us from working.  Burying us in a stack of unexpected bills.  A tree could fall onto the house during a bad storm.  You could total your car while driving to work in a thick fog.  A wife could lose her husband leaving her to raise their children on her own.

These are very real risks that we must manage.  Because we need to protect our wealth.  We buy house and car insurance so we can keep or replace our houses and cars because we can’t afford to buy new ones should we lose the old ones.  We buy life insurance to provide for our families should we die.  We buy health insurance so an accident or disease doesn’t wipe out our savings, college fund and retirement investments.  Because we do do these things we can manage the risks in life.  So that something unexpected and incredibly expensive doesn’t take everything away that we worked so hard for.

Managing our risks allows us to live our lives.  To plan for the future.  A future that has a price tag.  A future that takes a lifetime of accumulating wealth to pay for.  And to protect the wealth that provides for our families and our retirements we buy insurance.  Groups of people join together and pay a small fee for an insurance policy that will protect a very large amount of wealth.  So if we have an unexpected and very expensive event in our lives our insurance will protect our wealth by paying for our losses.  By collecting a small fee from hundreds of thousands of policy holders insurance companies can afford to pay for the large losses of a few.  Allowing life to go on.  As best as it can following these  unexpected events.  So even in the worst of events families can keep their homes.  Keep their kids in their schools.  Protect their kids’ future by keeping their college fund intact.  Replace their property.  Allowing life to go on as close to what it was before the event.  All thanks to insurance.

Bad Insurance Risks have an Advantage over Insurance Companies due to Asymmetric Information and Adverse Selection

Insurance companies provide this valuable service.  But it isn’t easy.  Because insurance isn’t a science.  But statistical analysis.  And risk analysis.  Which is how they determine the cost of their insurance policies.  A critical part for the survival of insurance companies.  So they can continue to provide this valuable service.

Insurance companies are at a disadvantage because of asymmetric information.  Meaning their customers know more about how great a risk they are than the insurance company.  For example, reckless drivers don’t offer that information when someone is quoting a policy for them.  For they want a low price.  Not a high price that reckless drivers normally get charged.  This is a problem mostly with young drivers.  Older drivers have a driving record.  If it’s a safe record they get a low quote.  If the record includes many points and at-fault accidents they will get a high quote.  Young drivers, though, don’t have a driving record yet.  This is where the statistical analysis comes in.  On average young men drive more recklessly than young women.  Based on the statistical evidence.  So they charge young men higher rates than they charge young women.  Problem solved.  But this causes another problem.

Not all young women are good drivers.  But by charging young women lower rates some bad women drivers are getting a rate lower than their risk warrants.  Which means insurance companies will lose money insuring these drivers at rates below their risk level.  In fact, this will attract more high-risk drivers.  Thus increasing an insurance company’s risk exposure.  And as they pay out claims that exceed the premiums they collect they have to raise insurance rates for all women drivers.  Thus discouraging some good drivers from buying insurance because of the higher premiums.  Thus increasing the percentage of high-risk drivers.  Which forces the insurance companies to raise their premiums again to cover these higher losses.  We call this problem adverse selection.  Where pricing plans to manage risk ends up increasing risk.  One way around this is by group coverage.  Like in health insurance.  Where everyone at a company buys insurance in exchange for a lower group rate.  Including the high-risk people.  And the low-risk people.  Thus avoiding adverse selection.

Economic Growth is the Creation of Wealth and our Insurance Protects that Wealth

When is insurance not insurance?  When it is health insurance.  At least as it is today.  It still acts like insurance for the unexpected and catastrophic accident or illness.  But it is anything but insurance for most everything else.  The latest example in the media these days being birth control.  Which is neither an unexpected nor a catastrophic expense.  For there are few expenses that are more expected and more affordable than birth control.  Unlike, say, chemotherapy.  Or trauma care in the emergency room.  Both of which are unexpected.  And very, very expensive.

When insurance pays for everything for everybody it is no longer managing risk.  Insurance companies are no longer collecting a small fee from all policy holders to pay for the large losses of a few.  Instead they’re collecting a large fee from everyone to pay for the costs of everyone.  Or more precisely, they’re collecting a large fee from the employers who provide health insurance to their employees.  So the recipients of all those free health care goodies don’t see their costs.  Which is how they’ve been able to include everything but the kitchen sink in today’s health care insurance policies.  Causing the price of health insurance to soar.  Hurting families.  Businesses.  And the economy as a whole.

A healthy economy allocates scarce resources to where we use them most efficiently.  When we do we create the most goods possible from these scarce resources.  Making society as a whole better off.  By improving the standard of living for society as a whole.  But by turning health insurance into a welfare program it increases the cost of doing business.  Which puts downward pressures on wages.  Preventing real wages from keeping pace with the rise in consumer prices.  Leaving workers with less disposable income.  Which translates into weak economic growth.  And a stagnant or declining standard of living.

Economic growth is the creation of wealth.  And our insurance protects that wealth.  When we convert that insurance into welfare, though, we put our wealth at risk.  By putting greater pressures on that stream of payments to sustain our wealth.  Our future plans.  And our families.

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Faced with Unpleasant Austerity Spain follows Greece’s Lead and Riots in the Streets

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 31st, 2012

Week in Review

The Eurozone is suffering the consequences of their social democracies.  Their cradle-to-the-grave welfare state.  And huge governments full of government jobs.  Paying nice salaries and benefits.  Greece is on the brink of bankruptcy because of their out of control spending.  And when they try to rein in that spending the people take to the streets in violent protest.  Making it very hard for the government to take back some of the free stuff they’ve been giving out to buy their votes.  And making it ever harder to avoid bankruptcy.  Now it’s Spain’s turn (see Spain Unions On Strike Over Austerity Plans by Robert Nisbet posted 3/30/2012 on Sky News).

Scores of Spanish workers have been arrested after protesting on a day of anger over a swingeing austerity drive and changes to labour laws…

In scenes reminiscent of anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece, tens of thousands held protest marches in Madrid and other cities…

There is widespread anger at moves by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government – which is not yet 100 days old – to slash Spain’s debt and boost the economy.

Spain’s biggest unions called the 24-hour strike over labour reforms which make it cheaper and easier for companies to lay people off and cut wages without consultation.

The government claims they are needed to tackle the 22.85% jobless rate, which is predicted to rise to almost 24.3% this year…

The government is under pressure to reduce its budget deficit, which last year ballooned to 8.51% of all the goods and services produced by Spain.

The European Union says this must be reduced to 5.3% this year and 3% in 2013 but economists warn that growth in Spain is so sluggish and debt so high, it will be a tough deadline to meet.

There is good reason for nervousness in the Eurozone. Unlike Greece and Portugal, Spain is deemed too big to bail and British banks are also heavily exposed to Spanish debt.

With unemployment running at 50% among young Spaniards and, as a member of the Eurozone, no monetary levers to pull, the government in Madrid says it has little choice but to wield the axe once again.

Peak unemployment in the U.S. during the Great Depression was about 25%.  So Spain is enduring Great Depression unemployment.  That’s bad.  What’s worse is that those who can be the most violent in their discontent, the young, suffer from 50% unemployment.  Filling them with discontent.  And a lot of free time on their hands.  Never a good combination.

If Spain has a high budget deficit it can only mean one of two things.  Either their government is spending too much.  Or their economy cannot generate sufficient tax revenue from their tax structure.  Either taxes aren’t high enough.  Or taxes are too high and they dampen economic activity thus reducing tax revenue.  With those high unemployment numbers, though, the smart money is on ‘they’re spending too much’.  Both the government.  And the employers.  Where the unions are holding the cost of labor (wages and benefits) so high that it’s too costly to hire more employees.  Whereas if the market set wages and benefits these costs would come down to reflect that large surplus of labor out there.  And the people who want jobs could get jobs.

The problem with these social democracies is that they are anti-business.  They favor the public sector over the private sector.  But you can’t keep beating up on the private sector.  Because they pay the taxes that fund the public sector.  A lot of that unemployment no doubt are government workers they let go to meet their Eurozone requirements.  And there are probably a lot more to follow.  If they reduce the cost of labor in the private sector the private sector will be able to absorb these people.  And as the private sector grows and becomes more productive more people will be paying taxes.  And they will be able to bring down those massive budget deficits. 

But if they don’t bring down labor costs or cut government spending, hello Greece.  Which they are currently experiencing in the streets of Spain.  Which, incidentally, is the path the U.S. is currently on.

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