Rise of the Robots

May 22, 2017

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Martin Ford. Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2015.

Here is a book whose title sums it up pretty well. The robots are coming to a workplace near you, and by the time they take over, a large portion of the workers will be out of a job. That may soon invalidate one of the cardinal assumptions of industrial capitalism, that people make a living through employment. How then will they live, and how will they continue to participate in economic consumption? In Ford’s view, millions will have to rely on a basic income guaranteed by the government. They will get “enough to get by, but not enough to be especially comfortable.”

I will say at the outset that I find this to be a pretty bleak vision of the future, although that in itself does not make it wrong. I will explore some doubts I have about Ford’s vision later. But first I’ll take a closer look at his argument.

The decline of the “golden age”

Once upon a time, back in the twentieth century, “the American economy was characterized by a seemingly perfect symbiosis between rapid technological progress and the welfare of the American workforce.” New technologies like the assembly line raised worker productivity, allowing for higher wages, higher spending, and higher demand for mass-produced goods and services. That kept the system going in a “virtuous feedback loop.” Ford makes the connection sound a little too technologically-determined and automatic for my taste, overlooking how hard workers had to fight to obtain a decent share of their rising output. Nevertheless, the country did finally achieve a positive connection between industrial technology and mass prosperity.

Ford believes that information technology breaks that connection. The new machines are not just tools that make workers more productive; they are potential replacements for the workers themselves. Robots empower capital (their owners), not labor. Ford sees evidence of this in a number of recent economic trends: Wages have been stagnating; labor’s share of national income has been declining; labor force participation has been falling; job creation has slowed to a crawl; income inequality has soared; and even college graduates are increasingly underemployed.

Other factors have aggravated the situation: offshoring of manufacturing jobs, growth of the financial sector and consumer debt, and political policies that favor capital over labor. But the development of information technology is the trend with the biggest potential to shape the future, because of its continuing exponential growth.

Automation and job destruction

Ford cites research to support the claim that “nearly 50 percent of jobs will ultimately be susceptible to full machine automation.”  Manufacturing jobs are prime candidates, but the transformation will hardly end there. In the more developed economies, automation will also overhaul the service sector, where most workers now work. Retail workers will be replaced by online sellers, intelligent vending machines, and robotic sales staffs. Robots will be preparing and serving fast food.

As the machines become smarter, they will threaten jobs up and down the job ladder. Ford does not expect that the workers displaced at the bottom will find expanding opportunities at some higher level, which was often the case in the last century. Instead he emphasizes the potential of smart machines to take over the more predictable tasks at many levels, including tasks that have required mental skills and a fair amount of education. Computers are now using vast amounts of data to make decisions, solve problems, and even to modify their own procedures through trial and error learning. They are helping to diagnose diseases, dispense pharmaceutical products, provide customer service, prepare financial plans, and serve as personal assistants to managers. That puts many white-collar jobs at risk.

The conventional wisdom that people can find jobs as long as they get a good education may no longer be true:

We are running up against a fundamental limit both in terms of the capabilities of the people being herded into colleges and the number of high-skill jobs that will be available for them if they manage to graduate. The problem is that the skills ladder is not really a ladder at all: it is a pyramid, and there is only so much room at the top….And because artificial intelligence applications are poised to increasingly encroach on more skilled occupations, even the safe area at the top of the pyramid is likely to contract over time.

Economic polarization

Economists have observed a process of “job market polarization” in which middle-class jobs are destroyed and replaced with “a combination of low-wage service jobs and high-skill, professional jobs that are generally unattainable for most of the workforce.” The automation of a middle-class job can save the employer more in wages than automation of a low-wage job. Eventually, automation will become cheap enough so that even workers who are willing to work for little may have trouble competing with the robots.

Ford expects the information economy to be largely a “winner-take-all” economy. Those who own and manage the robots will have a great advantage over workers who are competing for a dwindling supply of jobs. The winners will also include the companies that control the centralized computing hubs that provide data and software to the machines, as well as the principal producers of digital content for mass audiences. A few star performers can stream most of the music people want to listen to, and a few renowned scholars can stream online courses to masses of college students. The biggest losers will be those who can neither compete with nor find employment with the centralized providers of information.

As a software developer and expert on artificial intelligence, Ford is in the awkward position of both advancing the new technology and warning of its disruptive potential. His concerns about increasing economic polarization are both moral and practical. Since citizens as taxpayers have supported much of the basic research in information technology, they may have a legitimate claim on its benefits. And as a practical economic matter, a productive and innovative economy requires consumers with the purchasing power to buy the goods and services being produced. If automation breaks the link between production and consumption (robots produce, but people have to consume), how will the economy function to deliver products to consumers and buyers to sellers? “Continued progress depends on a vibrant market for future innovations–and that, in turn, requires a reasonable distribution of purchasing power.”

Ford suggests a thought experiment in which millions of workers are displaced, unemployment rises, wages fall, mass purchasing power declines, and mass-production industries fail. He also imagines, with the help of some science fiction writers, a “techno-feudal” scenario in which the economy is increasingly geared toward producing luxuries for the super-rich, who maintain a “robot-enforced tyranny” to keep the unemployed masses from overthrowing the system. It’s not a pretty picture.

A basic income guarantee

Ford’s main proposal for preventing such scenarios is a basic income guaranteed by the government. It would appeal to liberals on humanitarian and social justice grounds, and it would appeal to conservatives as a minimal intrusion by government into the market economy. It could be funded partly by eliminating other social programs, like food stamps and housing assistance. It could also pay for itself to a degree by promoting economic growth and tax revenue. It would be kept deliberately low, so that people unable to find work could meet their essential needs, while people able to work would still have an incentive to do so.

As Ford notes, proposals such as his have been around for a long time and have received support from liberals and conservatives alike, although never enough to be adopted in the United States. If high unemployment becomes as chronic as Ford expects, a strengthening of the social safety net along these lines might be necessary. But having said that, I am not sure that it is enough to relieve what is essentially a bleak view of our future. The economy he describes would still be polarized between winners and losers, with masses of the losers deprived of rewarding work.  The middle class would still be hollowed out, which many social analysts regard as bad news for democracy.

I also have questions about whether his proposal would even work to stabilize a highly automated economy. One thing that bothers me about Ford’s economic vision is that he never clearly says whether his future society will be richer or poorer in per-capita production and consumption. One would certainly hope that putting millions of smart machines to work would add to a country’s productive capacity. Why then should millions of people tolerate being reduced to a minimal income, especially if many of them are former middle-class workers who lost their jobs to machines? Even with Ford’s guaranteed income in the equation, falling incomes could fail to balance rising production, forcing society to give up much of the potential benefit of the technological revolution. There is also the political problem of how to contain the social dissatisfaction resulting from the gap between rising expectations and disappointing results, which brings us back to techno-feudalism and social repression.

With these concerns in mind, I will go on to ask whether the robotic revolution has some more positive possibilities that Ford may be overlooking.

Continued

 

 


Glass House (part 3)

April 6, 2017

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The “1% economy”

Brian Alexander’s book Glass House is subtitled “The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town.” Alexander is a journalist, not a macroeconomist, and he doesn’t attempt much analysis of the economy as a whole. Nevertheless, he seems sure that the brand of capitalism we have been practicing lately is largely responsible for Lancaster’s decline.

Alexander suggests that owners and investors have more than one route to profit: “You can increase profits by building value through research and development, creating new products, investing in plants and equipment. But that takes time….Instead, you can also increase company profit by making the same products with the same sales volumes, but cutting expenses.” Which route is chosen dramatically affects people’s lives: “If you were the target company employee, or a small town where that company was located, you might prefer to add value through investment in people, machines, and research and development, for a long-term benefit.”

I didn’t see anywhere in the book where Alexander explained how this choice is affected by the general nature of the “1% economy,” but I’ll offer a few thoughts. Two features of the 21st-century US economy thus far are extreme economic inequality and sluggish economic growth. (Some would say the two are related, although the relationship may not be simple.) The wealthy minority have a lot of capital available to invest. But very weak income growth for the majority limits their ability to spend on new products. Under those conditions, it is not surprising that a lot of capital would go to buy existing enterprises rather than create new ones; nor is it surprising that cost-cutting rather than expansion of production would be a favored route to profit. If this strategy works to make the 1% richer despite hollowing out the middle class, that only reinforces the inequality and sluggish growth, creating a vicious cycle.

Ideological responses

The workers and townspeople who are the victims of economic decline have little knowledge of macroeconomics or high finance. Without understanding the underlying causes, they react to the symptoms they see–the wage concessions, the layoffs, the family instability, the reduced commitment to work, the drug problem and the crime. They try to interpret what they see within a traditional belief system linking hard work, self-reliance, economic success and strong families. If more people are failing, well, that must be due to some mysterious decline in personal responsibility and achievement.

Like many Midwestern small towns, Lancaster, Ohio had always been at least moderately conservative. But as economic conditions deteriorated, “A significant faction within Lancaster lost its moderate conservatism. Stoked by cable news, internet videos, and right-wing politicians, they insisted that most of Lancaster’s problems had to be the natural product of an over-generous social service system that coddled lazy, irresponsible people.” Few stopped to consider what work ethic the high-flying financiers were living by when they made millions off of other people’s misfortunes.

Dependency on government was increasing in two ways: direct assistance through programs like food stamps and Medicaid (whose expansion under Obamacare Ohio chose to implement), and reliance on public money to create jobs. “Medicaid and Medicare supplied over 60 percent of the hospital’s income. The public schools were the second-largest employer in town.” Glass-maker Anchor Hocking had dropped to third. But the increasing dependency was accompanied by denial or resentment.

A certain kind of racism was entangled with popular attitudes toward the needy, but Alexander is careful to qualify it. It was more complicated than a simple prejudice against people who looked and acted different. It was more the resentment of struggling whites against any suggestion that people of color deserved more help than they did, or the idea that one group should have to bear the costs of some other group’s failures. It was easier to direct hostility across racial lines than to identify the shadowy financial interests and economic forces that were really responsible for their problems. “Somebody, they thought, was screwing them out of the good-life lottery. Somebody was screwing them. It just wasn’t who they thought.”

Political fallout

The political leaders of Lancaster and many of its higher-income residents were Republicans. Alexander describes them as having an anti-tax philosophy that kept them from raising the money to maintain the town’s infrastructure and institutions. They also had a “pro-business bias [that] blinded them to how Newell and Cerberus [new owners of the glass company] picked their pockets.”

The blue-collar workers of Lancaster were more likely to vote Democratic, if they voted at all. But they were turned off by the Party’s preoccupation with the rights of minorities like African Americans and gay people.

In 2012, Fairfield County, where Lancaster was located, voted 57% for Romney, although Ohio went narrowly for Obama. In 2016, the county went 60% for Trump, helping turn the state red again.  The great irony here is that by voting for Romney and Trump, the people of Lancaster were casting their lot with the kind of financial wheelers and dealers Alexander holds responsible for the town’s decline.

Donald Trump promised the downwardly mobile workers of towns like Lancaster to “make America great again.” What those workers couldn’t acknowledge was that “buccaneering free-market finance” had done so much to undermine that greatness. It was so much easier to blame “sin, laziness, scientists, immigrants, unions, and any number of other enemies of the American Way.” Trump cleverly combined populist anger with right-wing conservatism. The good manufacturing jobs would come back if the government would defend the borders, make tougher trade deals with other countries, and lighten the tax and regulatory burden on business. Trump shared Romney’s admiration for the wealthy as the job creators. What was missing from his critique was any suggestion that they might be investing the country’s wealth unwisely.

Alexander does not discuss the 2016 election, but I think he would agree that it does not portend a reversal of fortunes for towns like Lancaster. What I fear it does is add a layer of political exploitation to the economic exploitation that has already occurred.


Glass House (part 2)

April 5, 2017

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Yesterday I gave an overview of Brian Alexander’s Glass House, his story of the economic decline of Lancaster, Ohio. Today I will fill in some of the details about the decline of its principal employer, the Anchor Hocking glass company.

First, a word of caution. The financial wheeling and dealing that helped bring down Anchor Hocking is very complicated and sometimes shrouded in secrecy. Alexander is not an economist or CPA, so he has to rely primarily on the stories told by his informants to make sense of it all. What he does have going for him is that he is a good journalist, he digs deep into the information available to him, and he knows the town of Lancaster well, having grown up there himself. Ultimately, we cannot know what would have happened to businesses like Anchor Hocking if they hadn’t been targeted by other companies as sources of quick profits. However, I think Alexander makes a pretty good case that the leveraged buyouts and revolving door of owners did more harm than good.

Newell

The first company to acquire Anchor Hocking in a leveraged buyout (in 1987) was Newell Corporation, a maker of household goods like window shades and hardware. The good news is that Newell’s management “introduced a few needed modern efficiencies and systems that Anchor Hocking had neglected–like data and accounting techniques, order tracking, customer service methods.” They succeeded for a time in making Anchor Hocking more profitable. On the downside, they sold off some parts of the company and eliminated an important segment of Lancaster’s leadership by bringing in outside executives who didn’t reside in the town. They persuaded local authorities to take money away from public schools in order to finance tax breaks. They were also harder on workers, eliminating training opportunities and quickly firing those who didn’t hit performance targets.

The larger problem was that Newell was becoming financially overextended because of its continuing acquisitions. Its merger with Rubbermaid in 1999 “nearly killed the company,” because Rubbermaid was in such bad shape and the deal left Newell with such a debt burden. Newell no longer wanted to put any money into Anchor Hocking for maintenance or improvements. It sold off the company in 2004, one year after getting the tax breaks from the town.

Cerberus

Anchor Hocking’s next owner was the private equity firm Cerberus. Its business was buying and selling companies, not manufacturing as such.  Here things get a little complicated. Cerberus formed a new company, Global Home Products Investors, LLC, to buy Anchor Hocking and two other businesses from Newell. Global Home Products borrowed most of the money it needed to make the buys, meaning that it and not Cerberus bore the cost of the acquisitions. To make things more confusing, it borrowed a lot of the money from a Cerberus affiliate, so that Cerberus made money by lending to GHP, its own creation. That also meant that “Anchor’s cash flow wound up supporting the structure of Global Home Products [and ultimately Cerberus], and because of that it starved.”

Anchor was still profitable, but GHP’s need to get money out without putting much in soon began to hurt the company. Maintenance was neglected; quality suffered; cash flow deteriorated; and the retirement plan was underfunded. After a while Anchor Hocking wasn’t even paying some of its suppliers. In 2007, after only two years in business, Global Home Products filed for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy proceedings were contentious, but in the end GHP’s lenders got paid, while the pension plan lost millions and retirees lost medical benefits.

“Meanwhile, Cerberus continued to thrive. As of mid-2016, Cerberus was one of the largest private equity firms in the world, with more than $30 billion under management, and [founder and manager] Stephen Feinberg was named as one of Donald Trump’s key economic advisers.” Trump, of course, also knows something about continuing to thrive while taking his acquisitions into bankruptcy.

Monomoy

As a result of GHP’s bankruptcy, Anchor Hocking was sold at auction to the sole bidder, Monomoy Capital Partners. That was an investment fund controlled by the private equity firm Monomoy. As with the Cerberus deal, the purchase was made with mostly borrowed money. The deal was structured so that the debt was incurred by Anchor Hocking rather than by Monomoy.

Monomoy’s intention was to manage Anchor Hocking for a couple of years and then sell it at a profit. Most of what Monomoy did “followed the standard private equity playbook: jawbone the unions, cut costs even at the price of damaging longer-term success, do a sale-leaseback of real property assets, take whatever public money you can get from communities eager to save their industries…and collect fees.” The sale-leaseback occurred when Monomoy sold Anchor Hocking’s distribution center for a quick $23 million, a “shortcut to make the company look profitable, though at the price of a twenty-year lease.”

Before Monomoy could sell Anchor Hocking, the financial crisis intervened, discouraging lending and putting a chill on leveraged buyouts.  Still stuck with a company it didn’t want to keep, Monomoy took cash out in 2009 by resorting to a “dividend recapitalization.” “Monomoy had Anchor Hocking borrow $45 million. Anchor then paid Monomoy Capital Partners, LP, $30.5 million as a dividend.”

In 2012, Monomoy merged Anchor Hocking with Oneida, another troubled company that it owned, naming the combined company EveryWare Global. In 2013, Monomoy sold a minority share of EveryWare Global to a special purpose acquisition company controlled by the Clinton hedge fund. Most of the money for this purchase was also borrowed, and that too became part of EveryWare’s debt. At this point, “EveryWare Global was drowning in over $400 million in liabilities. It possessed just over $100 million in total assets.”

As the excessive debt strained EveryWare’s cash flow, Monomoy threatened to shut down Anchor Hocking unless the union agreed to a deal: Monomoy would give the company a cash infusion of $20 million, but the workers would accept lower wages, an end to company contributions to retirement plans, and higher insurance premiums. The unions accepted the ultimatum in the summer of 2014. Despite those concessions, EveryWare declared bankruptcy in 2015. This time, the lenders took over the company. They appointed a “turnaround board” of bankers and other glass industry outsiders to fix up the company for sale, like a rundown house.

The losses were hardly distributed evenly. Alexander concludes:

From the standpoint of a private equity firm, it was a success. Like a lucky old lady hitting a slot in Reno, Monomoy put a little money in and pulled a wagonload of money out.
….
Monomoy sent what was left of Lancaster’s once-grand, 110-year-old employer into bankruptcy court while it made off with millions and the employees walked their wages and benefits backwards in time. Lancaster’s social contract had been smashed into mean little shards by the slow-motion terrorism of pirate capitalism.

Continued


Glass House

April 4, 2017

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Brian Alexander. Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Ask any American why so many manufacturing plants have been closing across the United States, and the answer you will probably get is that they moved to Mexico, or their products couldn’t compete with Chinese imports. Brian Alexander doesn’t deny the role of globalization and foreign competition in the decline of a Midwestern manufacturing town, but he has a different story to tell. It’s a story that is more about the workings of the domestic economy in an era of extreme inequality. Playing a prominent role in this story are private equity firms that buy and sell companies for short-term gain, finding ways to profit even at the expense of the acquired companies themselves and the communities where they are located.

An “all-American town”

The setting for Alexander’s story is Lancaster, Ohio, a manufacturing town that flourished in the decades after World War II. In 1947 it was celebrated by Forbes magazine as the “epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system” (in Alexander’s words). Its largest employer was the Anchor Hocking glass company, formed by the 1937 merger of Hocking Glass and Anchor Cap and Closure. It was one of the biggest American companies to be located in a small town. “By the late 1960s, it was the world’s leading manufacturer of glass tableware, the second-largest maker of glass containers–beer bottles, baby food jars, coffee jars, liquor bottles–and employed more than five thousand people in Lancaster, a town of about twenty-nine thousand back then.” This was the era when a young man could graduate from high school, join the union, and make good enough money to support a family at a middle-class standard of living. Production and consumption worked together in a virtuous cycle: The workers, who in the 1940s included many returning GIs, “were marrying, setting up house, and having babies. And they needed glass: glass dishes glass tumblers, glass cookware, glass jars.”

Managers and laborers didn’t always see eye to eye, but they lived in the same town, grew up attending the same public schools, made friends across class lines, and shared some civic pride. Wives, who were less likely to be employed, devoted themselves to civic causes for the betterment of the community.  While emphasizing Lancaster’s general harmony and community spirit, Alexander does not overlook the flaws. The small minority of African Americans in town “were treated as barely tolerated guests” and confined to the lowest jobs.

Perils of private equity

By the 1980s, Anchor Hocking was facing some new economic challenges. Aluminum cans and plastic bottles were replacing a lot of glassware. Large discount retailers like Walmart were pushing suppliers to lower prices. Global commerce was increasing, and America’s strong dollar was making imports relatively cheap and exports relatively expensive. Nevertheless, few analysts were ready to give up on the company. Because glassware is breakable and often heavy, it isn’t the easiest product to import. Anchor Hocking also had the advantage of experience and versatility. “No other company made glass using as many different processes, or had as many different products sold to retailers, the food service industry, candlemakers, florists, winemakers, and distillers.”

Anchor Hocking remained profitable, but its declining revenues made it a target for takeover bids. Other companies, especially private equity firms, saw an opportunity to buy Anchor Hocking at a reasonable price, make some changes to boost profitability, and then sell it for a quick gain. In theory, such a takeover could be a win-win for everybody–the firm that makes the acquisition, the investors or lenders who finance it, and the employees of the company acquired. The trouble is that the acquiring firm can arrange things so that it can get more out than it puts in, even if the acquired company continues to do poorly. In fact, the acquiring firm’s quest for short-term profits can actually impede long-term growth and help it do poorly.

Private equity firms have a number of techniques for maximizing gains for themselves while imposing risks and costs on others. They acquire businesses by borrowing other people’s money, but structure the deal so that the debt is carried by the company acquired. Much of that company’s revenue then has to go to debt payments rather than to investments in future performance. New owners looking for quick profits may relentlessly cut costs by cutting wages, skimping on maintenance and training, or underfunding retirement plans. Product quality, worker morale and customer loyalty may suffer.  They may sell off assets and then have the company lease them back, producing a short-term gain at the expense of a longer-term cost. Private equity firms can also charge acquired companies high fees for advising them on what to do. Even if the acquired company has to declare bankruptcy–and Anchor Hocking did it twice–the private equity firm will have taken out more than it put in, leaving any losses to be borne by workers, retirees or other investors.

No wonder that the critics of private equity firms have viewed them as “chain-saw cowboys who slashed employment, cut investment, and shut down marketing and research–all in order to goose the bottom line just long enough to foist a shiny, but hollowed-out and highly indebted, company onto new buyers and then count their money on the helicopter flight from Manhattan to their summer houses in the Hamptons.”

Signs of social decay

By the time a series of new owners had bought and sold Anchor Hocking, the company was a shadow of its former self, with many of its operations shut down or sold off and most of its workers gone. Along with the decline of other manufacturing firms in Lancaster, the impact on the town was devastating. The poverty rate of families with children under five rose to 38 percent, while the percentage of mothers who married the fathers of their babies declined. Department stores that had served the middle class disappeared, and “retailers to the impoverished” like tattoo parlors, dollar stores, pawn shops and payday loan offices proliferated. Loans  for people with shaky finances became more available, but at subprime, exorbitant interest rates that kept people deeply indebted.

More subtle but equally important was the impact on local culture. What Alexander calls “a subculture of immediate, if temporary pleasure” spread at the expense of the traditional culture of work, responsibility and aspirations for the future. Robbed of so many opportunities to produce something of value, more people focused on consuming things, especially pain-killing drugs. The fact that dealing drugs was more lucrative than most of the jobs available to people of limited education fed the supply along with the demand.

As the tax base eroded, and as confidence in government and the future declined, the town spent less on things like schools and good roads. And yet it scraped up money to provide tax breaks for the companies that promised to come in and save local businesses. The top executives of those companies didn’t live in Lancaster and had little stake in the town and its residents. What was left of the local leadership was “incompetent, or just overmatched,” which reinforced the lack of confidence in government. Those residents who did have good jobs were often people who commuted to Columbus and had little time for participation in local affairs.

As for the town’s future, Alexander has this to say:

Lancaster, as a place, would survive; it was too big to dry up like a Texas crossroads bypassed by the interstate. Maybe it would sell scones and coffee to visitors and one day complete a transformation, already well under way, into a Columbus bedroom community with organic delis and rehabilitated loft apartments in the old Essex Wire building. Or maybe it would slide into deeper dysfunction. For sure it could never go back….

Continued

 

 


A Measure of Fairness (part 2)

February 26, 2015

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In A Measure of Fairness, Pollin, Brenner, Wicks-Lim and Luce report their research on two kinds of wage laws: state minimum wage laws, and municipal laws that set a living wage higher than the federal and state minimums.

In 2007, Congress mandated that the federal minimum wage rise to $7.25 an hour by 2009. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have raised their minimum wages higher than that; seven states and D.C. have a minimum of at least $9.00 (see map and data)

Municipal laws that set a wage higher than both the federal and state minimums are usually narrow in scope, applying only to businesses with municipal contracts. San Francisco and Santa Fe are two cities with broader living-wage laws.

The authors identify two different ways of defining a reasonable living wage, one focusing more on benefits and the other on costs:

First, what is a wage rate that is minimally adequate in various communities, in the sense that it enables workers earning that minimum wage and the family members depending on the income produced by this worker to lead lives that are at least minimally secure in a material sense? What wage rate, correspondingly, can allow for a minimally decent level of dignity for such workers and their families?
The second, equally legitimate, question…asks, How high can a minimum wage threshold be set before it creates excessive cost burdens for businesses, such that the “law of unintended consequences” becomes operative?

High on the list of unintended consequences would be job losses if businesses chose to lay off workers or leave a city or state rather than accept higher wage costs.

The authors also identify two ways of studying these issues: prospective research that tries to anticipate the consequences of proposed laws, and retrospective research assessing the actual consequences of existing laws. Except for the last section, the findings described below are from prospective studies.

Benefits to workers and families

Who benefits from wage laws? The answer might seem to be obvious, but some critics have questioned the need for such laws on the grounds that the lowest-wage workers are rarely major breadwinners, but are often younger workers whose wages will probably go up before long anyway. The authors find that the laws primarily benefit the people they are intended to benefit: low-income workers who are “well into their long-term employment trajectories,” with a high proportion of primary breadwinners and other major contributors to family income. In addition, the laws have important ripple effects, tending to raise the wages of workers who are already a little above the legal minimum. For example, the authors estimated that 20% of the people of Arizona would receive some income benefit from a proposed minimum-wage increase, including workers and members of their families.

Several of the research reports are from studies of a proposed city-wide minimum of $10.75 for Santa Monica. It was passed by the city council in 2001 but repealed by the voters in 2002. In order to evaluate its probable effect on incomes, the authors gave careful consideration to poverty thresholds and basic economic needs. First, they drew on research by the National Research Council on more realistic poverty thresholds than those established by the federal government. “The commission’s report…presented eight separate studies using different methodologies for coming up with alternative poverty measures. If we simply calculate the average of these eight alternative poverty lines, this average is 42 percent above the official poverty line.” Considering that the cost of living in the Los Angeles area is about 25% above the national average, they decided to use 160% of the federal poverty line as the poverty threshold for their research.

By that standard, a family consisting of one adult and two children would need an income over $21,475 to escape poverty, which corresponds to a full-time hourly wage of $10.32. A family with two adults and two children would need an income of $27,030, corresponding to a full-time hourly wage of $13.00 with only one adult employed. (All figures were in 1999 dollars, so would have to be somewhat higher today.)

The authors also drew on research by the California Budget Project, which constructed a “basic needs” budget for Los Angeles and other California regions. The CBP described this as “more than a ‘bare bones’ existence, yet covers only basic expenses, allowing little room for ‘extras’ such as college savings or vacations.” By that standard, a family with one adult and two children would need an income of $37,589, or a wage of $18.07 an hour. A family with two adults and two children would need a little less, $31,298, or a wage of $15.05, if one adult stayed home and provided child care. With both adults employed full-time, however, they would need $45,683 because of child care and other costs, but each job would only have to pay $10.98 an hour to generate that income.

To assess the impact of the proposed $10.75 hourly wage, the authors construct two very specific “prototypical family types.” The first is a three-person family whose primary breadwinner earns $8.00 an hour and contributes 70% of the family income. A raise to $10.75 increases the family income from $19,430 to $24,105, an increase of 24.1%. This takes the family from 10% below the adjusted Los Angeles poverty line to 12% above it. It also takes the family from 48% below the CBP “basic needs” budget to only 36% below it.

The second prototypical family is a four-person family with a low-wage worker earning $8.30 an hour and contributing 50% of the family income. A raise to $10.75 increases the family income from $29,880 to $34,290, an increase of 14.8%. (The other adult earner is not assumed to have an hourly rate low enough to be covered by the minimum-wage increase.) This takes the family from 12% above the adjusted Los Angeles poverty line to 29% above it. It also takes the family from 35% below the CBP “basic needs” budget to only 25% below it.

However, some of the increased income from higher wages would be offset by higher taxes and lost tax credits. (It wouldn’t be offset by loss of food stamps or medical benefits, since neither prototypical family was poor enough to qualify for those in the first place.) The authors calculate that the offsets amount to 40% of the income gains for the first family and 27% of the income gains for the second family.

Costs to business

Most legally mandated wage increases are not dramatic, and their impact is limited by the number of workers whose wages are already at or near the new minimum. Typical of the research reported here is the authors’ finding that a Santa Fe living-wage ordinance would increase average costs relative to business revenue by about 1%. The impact is often two or three times greater for businesses with more low-wage workers, especially in the food service and hotel industries.

Affected businesses can handle the added labor cost in many different ways. Perhaps the most obvious is to raise prices. Although that poses some risk of lost business, the damage is limited if the price increases are small, competitors are also raising their prices, consumers are interested in quality more than price, and possibly that consumers prefer to patronize businesses that treat their employees well, as some research indicates. In addition, some businesses, especially retail businesses operating in poor neighborhoods, may gain business because better-paid workers have more money to spend.

Another way that businesses absorb higher labor costs is through increased productivity. Higher wages tend to reduce turnover, which reduces the costs incurred in recruiting, selecting, hiring and training new workers. Based on their research in Santa Fe, the authors suggest that 40% of the cost of higher wages can be recovered in higher productivity.

Businesses can also absorb higher labor costs by redistributing income within the firm. This can be done in a rather subtle fashion, simply by letting low-wage workers have a larger share of productivity gains, while holding higher incomes steadier. Perhaps that is only fair, considering that the country has been doing the opposite for some time: “The fact that the minimum wage has been falling in inflation-adjusted collars while productivity has been rising means that profit opportunities have soared while low-wage workers have gotten nothing from the country’s productivity bounty.” If paying a higher wage forces a business to accept slightly lower profits, the damage to its competitive position is limited by the fact that its competitors may be facing the same problem.

Two more drastic responses to increased costs are to lay off workers or relocate to another city or state. The businesses most likely to relocate are those with a customer base that is not tied to a specific location, and with a substantial increase in labor costs. But many of the businesses that rely on low-income labor also have strong ties to a particular place, such as many restaurants and hotels.

The authors’ summary of their New Orleans research is typical of their conclusions:

Our results suggest that the New Orleans firms should be able to absorb most, if not all, of the increased costs of the proposed minimum wage ordinance through some combination of price and productivity increases or redistribution within the firm. This result flows most basically from the main finding of our survey research–that minimum wage cost increases will amount to about 0.9 percent of operating budgets for average firms in New Orleans and no more than 2.2 percent of operating budgets for the city’s restaurant industry, which is the industry with the highest cost increase.  This also suggests that the incentive for covered firms to lay off low-wage employees or relocate outside the New Orleans city limits should be correspondingly weak.

 Retrospective studies

In a few cases, the researchers were able to evaluate the effects of wage increases that had already been in effect for some time. Mark Brenner and Stephanie Luce studied the effects of wage ordinances in Boston, Hartford and New Haven covering businesses with city contracts. Critics had predicted that fewer companies would bid on city contracts, and the reduction in competition would result in higher costs for the city. In fact, there wasn’t much difference: The number of bidders went down in New Haven, but went up in Hartford and stayed the same in Boston. Businesses did not lay off workers, but adjusted to the higher wages mainly by accepting lower profit margins.

Brenner, Wicks-Lim and Pollin did a study comparing states with and without minimum-wage laws higher than the federal minimum. They found no adverse effects of higher minimum wages on employment.

Wicks-Lim and Pollin studied the effects of Santa Fe’s citywide minimum wage on job opportunities for low-wage workers. Aaron Yelowitz had reported that unemployment rose once other factors were statistically controlled. Wicks-Lim and Pollin found that employment actually held steady, but that the rate of unemployment was higher than expected only because more people came into the labor market looking for work. They came “precisely because there were more jobs and better jobs in Santa Fe than elsewhere.” Pollin also reminds us that the United States used to have a higher minimum wage (in inflation-adjusted dollars) in the 1960s than it has today, with no apparent damage to employment or productivity.

In general, this book supports the conclusion that raising wages for low-income workers brings at least modest benefits to workers, while imposing modest costs on employers and consumers. For workers, the benefits are partly offset by higher taxes and reduced benefits for the poor. For employers, the costs are partly offset by price increases, higher productivity, and redistribution of compensation among different levels of workers. Living-wage initiatives are one effective way of addressing extreme income inequality and poverty. They are not a cure-all, however, and other measures like progressive taxation and direct public assistance remain important as well.