Cameron’s ‘full employment’ pledge isn’t very convincing

Earlier today in Ipswich, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to turn Britain into a nation of “full employment”, aiming to overtake Germany for the top percentage of people in work.

From the BBC:

The PM is aiming for Britain to have the highest percentage of people in work of any developed nation.

Labour said the Conservatives’ promises would sound like “empty words” to the unemployed or those on low pay.

Mr Cameron’s goal of “full employment” would involve the UK, currently 72%, overtaking Germany’s 74% in terms of the percentage of people in work, said BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith.

There is no timescale, but it is an “aspiration which he wants to achieve”, he added.

It’s a nice ‘aspiration’ sure, but Labour’s not the only group to think these are ‘empty words’ coming from the PM.

Why?

His pledge to bring full employment to Britons includes measures to increase the number of start-up loans provided by the government, as well as plans to invest in infrastructure, which he hopes will attract business and support new apprenticeships.
But no word about changes to the minimum wage. Not a word about the personal allowance or National Insurance tax.

Research that my colleague Ben recently highlighted shows what a negative effect the minimum wage can have on unemployment – it’s estimated that “minimum wage increases reduced the national employment-to-population ratio by 0.7 percentage point(s)” in the United States during the late 2000’s.

What’s more, a job is significantly less valuable to the newly employed if she is still unable to provide for herself and her family. At the same time the PM scraps the minimum wage, he should raise the tax-free personal allowance to the Living Wage, taking the poor out of tax completely. National Insurance tax should also be scrapped for low-earners, as it works as just another form of income tax.

A backtrack on minimum wage increases combined with pegging the personal allowance and NI to a Living Wage would be a serious indication of Cameron’s commitment to ‘full employment.’ But while he continues to spout plans for increased government spending and building, I remain unconvinced.

It’s the minimum wage that’s keeping youngsters out of work

From the Independent: 

The young are the new poor

The Independent – Cahal Milmo
A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned that young adults and employed people are now more likely than pensioners to be living in poverty in Britain because of the surge in insecure work and zero hours contracts.

The reason for this is the minimum wage, which also explains why we have nearly 1m youngsters out of work entirely.

While the minimum wage for young people does not seem high – £5.13 an hour for 18-20-year-olds, and £3.79 for under-18s – the fact is that many young people do not provide that much value to an employer. Indeed, when National Insurance and other costs are added, the value of an unskilled young person is often negative. Young people have to learn the habits of work, turning up on time each day, the skills needed in the job, and ‘soft’ skills such as how to get along in a team with colleagues, how to deal with customers, how to react when things go wrong, and so on. It may take many years of training and job experience to lean these skills.

That is why for centuries we have had apprenticeships in which young people earn very little but learn a trade. But minimum wages – plus the heavy burden of workplace regulation which makes it very difficult to let someone go once they have been hired, however inappropriate they turn out to be – make employers more reluctant to take on people with few or no skills and experience.

The result is that minimum wages hurt those they are supposed to help. Employers do not take on young people, or those without skills, or those nearing retirement, or people with poor social or language skills, or ex-prisoners, or people with mental health issues, because their business cannot carry the cost of giving them the support and training they need to become more productive than the cost of employing them.

We need a Negative Income Tax, not a Living Wage

The new Living Wage rate was announced today. I’ve written a bit about the Living Wage already. If it’s private, it’s probably not a big deal, although it could still lead to unemployment. I suspect it’s done by big firms that don’t have many low-skilled workers as a PR move but I quite like PR moves that involve paying low skilled people more. And I worry that people will generalize from those big firms to assume that the whole market could bear a mandatory Living Wage, which is almost certainly untrue and would be very harmful to many of the people it’s supposed to help.

What’s more interesting is the problem of low pay in general. Even though unemployment has fallen a lot in recent years in the UK, real wages have barely risen at all. Even as wages do begin to rise on average, it’s possible that wages for low skilled workers may not as jobs for them are outsourced to cheaper countries. The ASI has proposed raising the personal allowance (including National Insurance threshold) to the minimum wage rate, but this doesn’t do much good for part-time workers or currently-unemployed people who would earn below the minimum wage if we scrapped that, as I think we should.

So low pay may be a problem without any clear solution, for which most popular ‘solutions’ don’t actually work.

But there may be a fix that does work – a Negative Income Tax or a Basic Income. As I’ve written before these are actually very similar even though one is almost exclusively supported by right-wingers and the other almost exclusively by left-wingers. As ever in politics, we’re speaking different languages.

A Negative Income Tax is a form of income top-up that only looks at an individual’s income, not whether they are in work or not, and tops that income up automatically if they are earning less than a given amount. The extra money is withdrawn at a tapered rate, so that for every pound you earn from work, you lose (say) fifty pence in top-up, ensuring that workers always have a clear incentive to demand higher wages, and that work always pays more than joblessness for unemployed people.

This would replace lots of existing working age benefits, including Jobseekers’ Allowance, council tax relief, the Employment and Support Allowance and tax credits. You could probably implement a decent one without increasing total expenditure. The exact rates can be determined by running trials across the country.

A Negative Income Tax like this would almost certainly be a boon to people on low pay, and would avoid most of the problems that minimum wages and current welfare schemes face.

Indeed the main objection may simply be that it is redistributive. That’s where I break with many of my fellow libertarians – I want free markets because they make poor people’s lives better, and I am OK with redistribution if it’s done in a market-friendly way that makes poor people’s lives better too. If this sounds surprising, remember that this puts me in the same boat as Milton Friedman (who campaigned for a Negative Income Tax) and FA Hayek, and indeed in the same utilitarian philosophical camp as Ludwig von Mises.

I suspect low pay will continue to be a problem for many years, maybe becoming even worse as automation renders some people permanently unemployable. It is necessary but not sufficient to simply rebut other people’s bad ideas.

In the Negative Income Tax we have a policy that can actually go a big way to solving the problem, and hopefully replace some of the harmful policies we have right now. Rhetorically, I think we free marketeers need more positive solutions to policy problems, and if we could get over our squeamishness about endorsing certain forms of ‘good’ redistribution, we may be able to surprise people into listening to and maybe even agreeing with us. If low pay is indeed the long-term problem that it seems to be, the Negative Income Tax’s time may finally have come.

How food banks trump the welfare state

On the face of it, the figures are damning. Food banks in Britain helped over 900,000 people last year, up around a third over the year before. It seems Britain has a real problem with food poverty. Our benefits system just isn’t coping.

But, like so many media headlines, the truth is a lot more subtle. Nearly all food banks in Britain are run by a single Christian charity, the Trussell Trust. In the last few years it has found a niche, sharpened its act, and opened a lot more. So not surprisingly, care professionals have been sending more people along. It may not be that the underlying problem is getting worse, just that it is being better served.

Nor is it the government’s benefit reforms that explain the rise. Food banks were growing long before the measures were passed in 2013, and many of the reforms have not even been implemented yet. And by merging scores of benefits into a far simpler universal benefit, the reforms should hopefully help ensure that people do not in fact fall through the gaps in the over-complicated welfare net.

The underlying problem that food banks help solve is not food poverty, any more than it is shoe poverty, clothes poverty, electricity poverty or water poverty. It is the temporary crises that people sometimes get into when they are unemployed or on low pay. Around 60% of food bank users are once-only users. They hit a crisis and can’t afford the groceries; that is why care workers refer them.

Around 30% of them have problems because their benefits payment has not arrived in time, or they are being penalised for not showing up at interview, or they have simply filled in a form wrongly. And you can blame that on our over-complicated, bureaucratic, distant and unfeeling state benefits system. We spend £94bn a year on it, a seventh of all government spending (and the government spends a lot). If we devolved the process to local communities and voluntary groups, it would work much better.

No government can do much about the fact that food prices have risen nearly 35% since 2007. Well, actually, they could stop subsidising biofuels, which has diverted huge amounts of agricultural produce out of human mouths and into gasoline tanks. And they could do something about the fact that other essentials have been soaring in price too. Government-mandated to renewable energy adds about 15% to the fuel bills of businesses and private sector organisations, plus about 6% on the gas bills and 11% on the electricity bills of domestic customers. That is why poorer people run out of cash and economise by going hungry.

Nearly everyone in Britain is well fed – some too much so – because Britain is a peaceful, trading nation with an established rule of law. Our farmers are not afraid to plant crops in case they are stolen by thugs or invading armies. Our traders bring produce to us from all over the world. If you want to see chronic poverty, look at countries that do not have this thriving market system.

Because this market system makes us a rich country, we can afford to help people who run into problems. The biggest philanthropic sector on the planet is that of America, the world’s richest country. In fact, America, Canada, New Zealand all have large food bank movements. That is because they are rich, and because they have a strong sense of community too. In Britain, too much of that sense of community has been crowded out by our state bureaucracy.

It is actually good to see charities taking on these problems. The state is inevitably large and lumbering. Private charities are much better at tackling individual human issues, like families who run out of cash from time to time.

Of course, the state could help in a very simple way. A large number of people referred to food banks are actually not those on benefits, but people on minimum wages. The government has pledged to take everyone on minimum wage out of tax, and about time too – it is absurd to tax people who are on the breadline. And yet we are still charging them and their employers another, hidden tax, namely National Insurance Contributions. Again, it’s crazy. If you want to help people in poverty­–and get people into the world’s best welfare programme, namely a paying job–you should be making work pay, which for many of the nation’s poorest, is appallingly not the case.

Two cheers for technocracy

Who needs experts? The minimum wage was once an example of the triumph of technocracy, where decisions are delegated to experts to depoliticise them.

The Low Pay Commission was set up to balance competing priorities – increasing wages without creating too much unemployment. If you were a moderate who thought the minimum wage was a good way of boosting low wages, but recognised that it might also create unemployment, the LPC gave you a middle ground position. (For what it’s worth, I’m an extremist.)

That technocratic settlement also allowed politicians to, basically, safeguard against an ignorant public. By delegating decisions like this to experts, bad but politically popular policies could be avoided. Relatively well-informed politicians could avoid having to propose bad policies by depoliticising them.

Other examples of this include NICE’s responsibility for deciding which drugs the NHS should and shouldn’t provide, and the Browne Review that recommended student fees, which had cross-bench support. The old idea that “you can’t talk about immigration” comes from an informal version of this – everyone in power knew that people’s fears about the economics of immigration were bogus, so they were basically ignored.

But that technocratic settlement now looks dead. Labour has now made a specified increase to the minimum wage part of its electoral platform, following George Osborne’s lead earlier this year. That means that voters will have to choose not just between two rival theories about the minimum wage, but two competing sets of evidence about whether £7/hour or £8/hour is better, given a wage/unemployment trade-off.

Whether voters are self-interested or altruistic doesn’t really matter. A self-interested low wage worker would still need to know if a minimum wage increase would threaten her job; an altruistic voter would similarly need to know a lot about the economics of the minimum wage and the UK’s labour market to make a judgement about what level it should be.

And of course the minimum wage is just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of questions that political parties offer different answers to that voters have to make a judgement about.

In practice this does not happen. Voters are very uninformed about basic facts of politics, and are almost entirely ignorant about economics, which almost everyone would agree would be necessary to make the correct judgement about something like what the minimum wage level should be (even if they didn’t agree on which theories and evidence was relevant). Even the use of rules-of-thumb such as listening to a particular newspaper or think tank (ha) will suffer from the same problems.

Voters, then, face a nearly impossible task. Assuming they are bright, well-intentioned, and believed that it was important for them to cast their vote for the party that would have the best policies, they would have to amass an enormous amount of information to make the right decision on all the questions they, in voting, have to answer.

So voters are trapped. They cannot know what minimum wage rate is best any more than they can know what drugs the NHS should pay for. They are, empirically, very unaware of basic facts, but they would find it hard to overcome that even if they wanted to.

Does democracy make us free? Maybe, but it’s the freedom of a deaf-blind man – we can choose whatever policy we want, without any idea about what those policies will actually do. So, if the alternative is more direct democracy like this, maybe technocracy isn’t so bad.