Labor Trends

September 4, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

On this Labor Day Weekend I’ll review some current employment numbers and look at a historic trend whose results surprised me. The August employment report released this past Friday buoyed the stock market. Job gains remained strong but moderated from the half million jobs gained in July. The slowing gains indicated a predicted response to rising interest rates. Had the number of job gains risen to 600,000 for example, the market might have sold off. Why? Currently the market is predicting a rise in rates to a range of 3.5 – 4.0% in the next year. A labor market resistant to rising rates would have implied that the Fed would have to set rates even higher to cool inflation. Secondly, the unemployment rate rose .2% to 3.7%, another indication that rising rates are having a modest effect on employment. Modest is the key word.

The participation rate – the percentage of working age people who are working or looking for work – rose slightly to 62.4%, still 1% below pre-pandemic levels. Reopening classrooms and the further relaxing of pandemic restrictions are contributing factors. Additional family members may be joining the workforce to cope with rising household expenses. The number of marginally attached workers – those who want a job but haven’t actively looked for a job in the past month – declined to 5.5 million, still a half million above pre-pandemic levels. These “discouraged” workers remain below 1% of the labor force, a level indicating a strong labor market. President Obama inherited an economy in crisis and the percent of discouraged workers declined to nearly 1% but not below. As the rate fell below 1% in the first months of the Trump presidency, Mr. Trump cheerfully took credit. A politician and his followers blow their horns to encourage others others to join their coalition.


A 17,000 employment gain in financial jobs surprised me. Rising interest rates have lowered mortgage applications and I thought the employment numbers for the financial industry would decline. Lastly, weekly earnings are up over 5.6% but have not kept up with inflation. Unemployment numbers are low, job openings are high. Why don’t workers have more pricing power?

A Historic View

Earlier this week I was looking at labor slumps since World War 2. These slumps are periods at least six months long. They start when the number of workers first declines. They end when employment finally surpasses its previous high. Employment first declines about two months after the start of a recession, as the NBER later determines it*, so it is a lagging indicator.

I split the period 1950-2022 into two 36 year periods. The first period lasted from 1950-1986; the second period from 1986-2022. In the first period there were 7 recessions and employment slumps. In the second period there were 4 recessions and slumps. Even though there were more recessions in the first period, the number of months of sagging employment was far less than the second period, 131 vs 168. No doubt that was due to the 75 month long slump of the Great Recession. That’s an extra three years of a lackluster job market which affected demand for workers and the pay they could command. In the chart below I have sketched the labor slumps. Economic recessions have a lasting impact on the labor market.

In the first period, the longest slump lasted 26 months during the early 1980s recession when the unemployment rate rose above 10% and inflation was in the teens. That began in September 1981 and lasted until November 1983. In the second period, the job market sagged during the Great Recession for 75 months, from February 2008 until May 2014. The least severe slump was this last one, beginning in April 2020 and ending in April 2022. The recession in 2001 lasted only 6 months but the labor slump lasted 40 months, from June 2001 until October 2004, just before the 2004 election.


More prolonged slumps affect wages. In the chart below the BLS compares nominal and inflation-adjusted median weekly earnings over the past twenty years. The real earnings of workers have barely risen because they are not sharing in the productivity gains of the past decades. The earnings gap between men and women has varied little during that time.

Contributing Factors

Why are labor slumps lasting longer during this later period? There are many contributing factors. When there was a larger manufacturing base recessions were more frequent but workers were brought back to work more quickly. The two recessions of the 2000s made that decade the hardest on workers. The two labor slumps totaled more than five years during the decade.

The 1970s gets a bad rap but it was the 1950s which had the second largest number of months when employment sagged – a total of 3.5 years. Standing five decades apart, the 2000s and 1950s had very different economic and family structures. Fewer women worked in that post war decade. The waiting period for unemployment insurance was twice as long and benefits lasted less than four months. These were inducements for workers to find any kind of work to support their families. Union membership was much higher in the 1950s so workers could rely on those benefits while unemployed. They would not have wanted to lose their union membership so they might have worked off the books for cash while they waited for hiring to pick up at the same company or the same industry. Like so many economic trends, the interaction between factors is complex and not readily identifiable.


Reckless speculation was the main contributor to the two recessions in the 2000s. Financial shenanigans played a smaller role in the slump of the early 1990s. The increased length of these slumps in the last four decades supports an argument that our economy has lost too much of its manufacturing base and is out of balance. There is too much financial speculation and not enough actual production. The federal deficit has increased so much in the past two decades because the private economy cannot generate enough growth on its own.


Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash

*The NBER marks only the decline portion of a general economic slump so the gray shaded areas will be shorter than the labor slump. However, the chart illustrates the prolonged effect that an economic decline has on the labor market.

BLS. (2022). Median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by sex. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from

Price, D. N. (1985, October). Unemployment insurance, then and now, 1935–85. Social Security Administration. Retrieved September 3, 2022, from

Which Side

May 23, 2021

by Steve Stofka

A simple economic model of production attributes equal shares to capital and labor. Why then do those who contribute the capital get to keep all the profits? In our political system, Republicans publicly advocate for the owners of capital. The political posture of the Democratic Party falls on the side of workers, but both parties often favor the owners of capital. Most of the 27 Republican led states are ending the Federal program of enhanced unemployment benefits, believing that a weaker bargaining position for workers will help business owners (National Law Review, 2021).

The combined batting average in the Major League Baseball this year is .235, near an all-time low. The ball is too dead, complain the action-oriented fans who think that the batters are the important producers of good baseball. They want more hits. Nonsense, say the fans who like a good defensive game. The pitching is better. Pitchers are the key producers. Nah, pitchers’ battles are too boring, say action-oriented fans. You want a lot of running around, taunt the defensive-oriented fans, go watch basketball. If we can argue this point about a sport, is it any wonder that we split into two political camps, those favoring capital and those favoring labor?

150 years ago, the economist Karl Marx asked why do the contributors of capital get to keep all the profits? Capitalists had more political power, an evolution of the system of property rights under feudalism. Under those arrangements, the workers were bound to the land and the landowners had all the power. Marx predicted that industrialization would continue to concentrate workers in urban areas, a radical prediction at a time when the economy was almost entirely agricultural. Through greater association, Marx thought that workers would command more political power and overthrow the system of property rights that gave capital most of the power (Marx, 1994, p. 169). Why hasn’t that occurred?

In our country, the owners of capital have prevailed, both politically and economically. Policies that favor workers are branded as communist or socialist, and in the minds of many Americans, the two are synonyms. Until a hundred years ago when Progressives enacted child labor laws, American industry, particularly cloth mills, depended on child labor. Before American independence, the colonies encouraged British courts to send them children to work in the linen mills (Abbott, 1908, pp. 18-21). The justification for laws and property arrangements that forced children to work was the Puritan belief that idleness is evil and subverts character and spiritual growth (Abbot, 1908, p. 15). Conservative values are the political form of Puritan religious beliefs.

It is no surprise that Puritan Republicans would favor laws that reduce the bargaining power of workers. They believe that it is better that a worker be employed at any wage than be idle. They can’t force workers to work – that would be slavery – so they construct a system of laws and property arrangements that “induce” workers to “voluntarily” enter employment. As a governing strategy, Republicans believe in less freedom for workers and more freedom for capital. Republicans have picked the side of capital.

Using the impetus of the social uprisings of the early 20th century, Progressives in the Republican Party helped enact greater rights for workers. In a “whose side are you on” split in the party, the Progressives broke away from the Republicans and joined forces with the Democrats in the 1910s. Republicans became the party that favored the owners of land and capital and that was the end of their ideological growth. They became a reactionary party, a party of “No,” acting with one mission – to curb the growth of Progressive policy proposals that changed the power dynamic. Republicans would be the Party of the Haves.

In The Discourses written 500 years ago Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that in any society there are two factions, the “haves” and the “have-nots.” In a discussion of which group is more likely to cause social disturbances, he reasoned that it was the haves because they “can bring about changes with greater effect and greater speed” (1983, p. 118). Republicans disagree. In their analysis, it is the have-nots, the working class, that threaten social stability. When Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the Senate, voices dismay at the ordinary folk at BLM protests, he expresses the view of the aristocratic haves who are suspicious of any expression that threatens the power balance.  To the haves the existing power balance is social stability.

Republican states are dominated by the interests of extractive industries, the companies that mine, drill and dig to get resources from the land. These industries are a critical component of our economy but they have an extractive mindset, regarding politicians as clay to be molded to their interests and people as replaceable resources to be mined for profit. Because many of these states have low population densities, profits have a greater vote than people. To retain their own  power, Republican governors and legislators lighten the pockets of workers to pad the pockets of big industry owners.

Whether it is sports, religion or politics, each side constructs justifications as castle walls to defend their position. Each side lobs fireballs of criticism into the strongholds of those on the opposite side, and each side is ready to extinguish any criticism before it does damage. For thousands of years, we have migrated across the globe because we could not negotiate with our families or others who held power. America is the land of people who ran away from wherever they were to get away from “those people.” We’re run out of room so now we run into, not away, from each other. Will we learn to negotiate with “those people” or will we destroy each other?


Photo by Bill Stephan on Unsplash

Abbott, E. (1908). A study of the early history of child labor in America. American Journal of Sociology, 14(1), 15-37. doi:10.1086/211641

Machiavelli Niccolò̀. (1983). The Discourses. (B. Richardson & L. J. Walker, Trans., B. Crick, Ed.). Penguin Books.

Marx, K. (1994). Selected writings. (L. H. Simon, Ed.). Hackett. National Law Review. (2021, May 22). Unemployment insurance system update, Part III: Additional states opting out of federal unemployment benefits. Retrieved May 22, 2021, from

The Long and Short Run

August 16, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Gold is at an all-time high. Like wheat and other commodities, it pays no interest. Gold’s price moves up or down based on expectations about the value of money used to buy gold. If inflation is expected to increase, the price of gold will go up. Eight years ago, after several rounds of quantitative easing by central banks, gold traders bet that inflation would rise. It didn’t, and the price of gold declined by a third.

Since mid-February, the U.S. central bank has pumped almost $3 trillion of liquidity into the economy (Federal Reserve, 2020). Numbers like that hardly seem real. Let’s look at it another way. The overnight interest rate is so low that it is essentially zero – like gold. People around the world regard U.S. money and Treasury debt as safe assets – like gold. Imagine that the central bank went to Fort Knox, loaded up 1.5 billion troy ounces of gold – about 103 million pounds – in gold coins and dropped them on everyone in the U.S. There are about 190,000 tonnes (2204 lbs./tonne) of gold in the world, a 70-year supply at current production. A helicopter drop of gold would be almost 47,000 tonnes, or 25% of the world supply. It would take five C-5 cargo planes to haul all that.

Milton Friedman was an economist who believed in the quantity theory of money. His model of money and inflation held “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” If the growth of money was greater than the growth of the economy, inflation resulted. The data from the past decade has refuted this model. Former chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke noted that the evidence suggests that economists do not fully understand the causes of inflation (C-Span, 2020, July). He was including himself in that group of economists because he had been an advocate of that model (Fiebiger & LaVoie, 2020).

What has the Federal Reserve and the government done to navigate the difficult path created by this pandemic? Helicopter Money for businesses and consumers. Lots of toilet tissue, so to speak. No reason to hoard, folks. There’s plenty. They have followed the first of John Maynard Keynes’ prescriptions for a downturn. The government should spend money. Why? It is the only economic actor that can make long-term decisions. Everyone else is focused on the short term.  Keynes badly mis-estimated the short-term thinking of politicians, particularly in an election year.

Will the flood of money cause inflation as gold bugs assert? Some point to the recent rise in food prices as evidence of inflationary forces. However, the July Consumer report indicates only a 1% annual rise in prices, half of the Fed’s 2% inflation target. The rise in food prices this spring was probably a temporary phenomenon. It suggests that the Fed is fighting deflation, as Ben Bernanke noted this past April (C-Span, 2020 April).

Since March, government spending has helped millions of American families stay afloat during this pandemic. Congress has gone home without extending unemployment relief and other programs. Many families are being used as election year hostages by both sides. House Democrats put their cards on the table three months ago. Republicans in the Senate and White House have dawdled and delayed. Faced with a chaotic consensus in his own coalition, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has largely abdicated control of the Senate to the White House and the wishy-washy whims of the President.

We return to where we began – gold. It is neither debt, equity nor land. As a commodity, only a small part is used each year. It has been used as a medium of exchange and a store of value. Except for a few years during and after the Civil War, gold held the same price from 1850 until the 1929 Depression – $20.67. In the long run, longer than a person’s retirement, gold is good store of value. In the ninety years since the Great Depression began, the price of gold has grown 100 times. Yet it is still lower than its price in 1980. The U.S. dollar does not hold its value over several decades, but it is predictable in the near-term. In a tumultuous world, predictability is valuable. The dollar has become the new gold.


Photo by Lucas Benjamin on Unsplash

C-Span. (2020, April 7). Firefighting. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from (00:21:15).

C-Span. (2020, July 18). Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen Testify on COVID-19 Economic Inequities. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from (01:35:20)

Federal Reserve. (2020, July 29). Recent Balance Sheet Trends. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from

Fiebiger, B., & LaVoie, M. (2020, March 4). Helicopter Ben, Monetarism, The New Keynesian Credit View and Loanable Funds. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from

The Two 10%

August 9, 2020

by Steve Stofka

In the past three months the stock market has been on a tear. The last time we’ve seen such a rise? 1938. People are day trading on the Robinhood platform. Hop aboard the gravy train and party like it’s 1999, near the height of the dot-com bubble.

According to the Federal Reserve, the top half of households in this country own 99% of the stock market. The top 10% own a whopping 87% of the market. So why do many news outlets broadcast updates on the stock market  every hour?

Share of Equity Ownership by Wealth Percentile

A second group of 10% is unemployed, according to the unemployment report released Friday. House Democrats passed a $3 trillion bill in May. Republicans and the White House have been worried that too many Americans are going to get fat and lazy if the federal government continues to support the unemployed with extra benefits. They have fought among themselves about a stimulus package, and 15 Republican Senators – half their caucus – don’t want to do anything more for the American people. The Senators who are up for election this year do want to pass something but want to appear frugal at the same time – a difficult task.  

The richest 10% are doing fine. This week the NY State’s Attorney General announced a suit to terminate the non-profit status of the NRA and dissolve the organization. Their investigation has been going on for more than a year. In September 2019, House Ways and Means Committee member Brad Schneider revealed several allegations against NRA executives (2019). Whether the IRS had already begun an investigation at that time is unclear.  The NRA has paid exorbitant expenses for their executives, including Wayne LaPierre, the public spokesman and VP of the organization. These include homes, yachts, and private jets for them and their families. The executives billed the “expenses” to the NRA’s ad agency, Ackerman McQueen, who then submitted bills with little detail to the NRA, which paid the ad agency.

Dues to the organization have been declining since Donald Trump was elected president. Gun manufacturers have relied on scare tactics to sell their products and have been big supporters of the NRA. Since the election of Trump, sales have declined. Two years ago, the oldest gun manufacturer, Remington, declared bankruptcy. As NRA revenues fell, the abuses came to light when the organization fell behind on payments to the ad agency. Influential members devoted to the mission of the organization have been appalled at the corruption.

Mr. Trump has signaled his support for the organization. Like all Presidential hopefuls, his financial affairs came under scrutiny. The Trump Foundation was later dissolved because of the same self-dealing practices.

The top 10% are always doing fine because they pay an army of lawyers and accountants to legally dodge the rules. Every week, Mr. Trump’s comments indicate how little he knows about any of the laws of this country because the laws don’t apply to him. He is part of the 10% that owns the stock market. When those markets came under stress a few months ago, the Federal Reserve stepped in with massive infusions of liquidity to preserve the assets of that 10%. They are the fire department for the rich.

Who will come to rescue the homes and families in the unfortunate 10% whose extra UI benefits have ended?  



Photo by Fritz Benning on Unsplash

Schneider, B. (2019, October 09). NRA’s Actions “Absolutely” Raise Questions on Tax-Exempt Status Testifies Non-Profit Tax Expert. Retrieved August 08, 2020, from

Moral Hazard

July 26, 2020

by Steve Stofka

This week additional unemployment benefits will cease but Senate Republicans and the White House announced that they could not agree among themselves about the appropriate course of action for a second stimulus bill. What is the problem? Many Republicans think that an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits rewards people for not working. The issue is a familiar one to policymakers and economists: moral hazard.

Moral hazard arises when party A has no incentive to do X because party B will pay the cost. In this example, Party A = a taxpayer. X = go to work. Party B = the federal government. An insurance policy illustrates the problem of moral hazard. If an insurance company – called the principal – provided comprehensive insurance for a house, the homeowner – the agent – would have less incentive to maintain the property because the owner bears little of the cost of repair. Comprehensive is the key word. There must be some cost to the insured. Moral hazard was evident during the financial crisis over a decade ago. Financial traders made a lot of money by taking risks. When those risks blew up, taxpayers picked up the bill for the loss.

Another key ingredient of moral hazard is asymmetry of information. In a purchase transaction, the seller – the one receiving the money – knows more about the item being sold than the buyer – the one paying out the money. Laws and regulations attempt to minimize the asymmetry, but it is an inherent feature of a transaction. In a principal-agent model, the agent – a babysitter or the CEO of a public company – knows more than the principal – the parents or the stockholders. The principal must trust the agent to some degree and monitor the agent to some degree.

With that bit of background, let’s return to the issue of extended unemployment benefits. Who is the agent and who is the principal? Republican leaders think of themselves as the principal, as though it was their money that they are paying out. In their thinking, we, the taxpayers, are the agents who cannot be fully trusted. If Republicans pay people unemployment benefits, how do they know that people will look for a job?

This concern demonstrates the patriarchy that is the core ideology of the Republican Party. Lawmakers are not the parents, or the principals. In a democratic republic, lawmakers are the agents of the citizens. We worry about the moral character of our representatives, not the other way around. We, the citizens, are the principals.

Senator McConnell says that he is acting on behalf of taxpayers. Which taxpayers is he referring to? The ones who will be unable to pay their mortgage or their rent next month? The taxpayers of the future? He wasn’t concerned about them when Republicans passed their tax bill a few years ago. That tax bill was meant to appease the stakeholders, the big moneyed interests that are the real principals in this country. In effect, we, the citizens, are but their agents.

230 years ago, American colonialists rebelled against the aristocracy that controlled the economy and politics of Britain and its colonies. Here we are again. Senator McConnell is one of the most powerful men in this country because he is an agent for the American aristocracy. For one day a year, citizens act as principals by voting. Sensing that the tide of sentiment is going against Republicans in this election, Republican lawmakers and the White House are trying every legal maneuver to deny the vote to as many people as possible.

The moral hazard is when the agent takes effective control from the principal. That is the government of Venezuela under Nicolás Maduro. The Republican party proclaims that they are the champions of “small government.” What those two words mean is government by a small elite. If you prefer an impotent and passive role as a citizen, vote Republican this fall. If you want a more robust government which acts like an agent of the people, make another choice.


Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash

The Federal Risk Reserve

June 16, 2019

by Steve Stofka

What if the federal government offered competitive products that help individuals and businesses manage risk? Today, the government insures many Americans through a variety of programs and a potpourri of agencies. I am proposing that the government do more risk management through a separate and independent agency like the Federal Reserve.

Well, doesn’t the financial industry already act as a risk broker? It does – and it doesn’t. It picks the risks that it wants to broker – and leaves those it doesn’t want to the government. The 1986 S&L crisis, the 1987 stock market crash, the 1998 Asian financial crisis, the 2002 Enron crisis and the 2008 financial crisis indicate that Wall Street is not an efficient risk manager.

Let’s look at some common risks that the government already manages. The federal government insures mortgage risk through an umbrella agency called the Federal Housing Finance Agency, or FHFA (Note #1). Financial companies do not want the risk of loaning money to people for thirty years at a low fixed rate. Why? People’s circumstances and the housing market change over such a long period of time. Finance companies might prefer a shorter time period – say five years – so that they could renegotiate the terms of the mortgage. Many mortgages are bundled by banks and mortgage companies, then sold to investors with guarantees from the government.

The government manages the risk of poor asset management by its member banks. In the late 1920s, the onset of the Great Depression caused the failure of many banks and millions of people lost their life savings. Who would insure a bank against its own lack of judgment or improper management? The government became the insurer of last resort when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was created in 1933 (Note #2).

There were a lot of bank failures during the 2008 financial crisis. Through the FDIC, the federal government handled the transition of each one. No depositors lost money. California, Georgia, Florida, Illinois and Minnesota have each had more than twenty failures in the past decade (Note #3).

Bank failures since 2007

In many cases, the FDIC stepped into a failed bank at closing time on Friday evening, closed the institution and fired the management. Over the weekend they did a thorough accounting of the bank’s assets and liabilities, packaged and sold the bank’s performing loans to another bank which re-opened the following Monday under a new name. Nothing to worry about here, folks. Go on about your business. The FDIC has proved itself an efficient and prudent risk supervisor.

The government manages the risk of natural disasters. Insurance companies are reluctant to cover damage from “acts of God.” Homeowner’s insurance does not cover flooding, for example (Note #4). If they did, it would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, the government insures flood damage through the National Flood Insurance Program (Note #5). Because the program is subject to much political influence, it lacks fiscal prudence. The program’s greatest expenses are recurrent repairs to structures in areas that are prone to flooding, but the program can not charge the premiums reflecting those increased risks. An independent agency with a long-term outlook would act less rashly.

Employee risks are managed by state and federal government agencies which deploy government funds to pay unemployment claims. For employees injured on the job, private insurers are reluctant to pay for replacement wages for an injured employee. Even after medical bills are paid, the employee may need retraining after the injury – an additional expense that private insurers want to avoid. Furthermore, employers wanted to avoid the risk of being sued by their employees for unsafe working conditions. Many states have Workmen’s Compensation programs that are either government agencies or independent agencies set up by law (Note #6).

The federal government manages health risks. It plays a large role in the health insurance market and in the health delivery market through the Medicare, Medicaid and tax subsidy programs. The federal government pays almost half of all health care costs in the U.S. through these programs (Note #7).  In 2017, this amounted to 8% of the entire GDP of the country.

In summary, the federal government is already heavily involved in insuring risk. Private industry has taken the gravy and dumped the risks that they don’t want to insure on the government. If the government assumed some of the lucrative insurance products, it would help offset the costs of these other risks. Let’s get government in the capitalism business. Let an independent government agency start offering some competitive financial insurance products and see if they can attract some market share.



  1. Federal Housing Finance Agency encloses several formerly independent government finance agencies
  2. History of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  3. The map of bank failures is from the FDIC site
  4. Homeowner’s insurance and the distinction between flooding caused by wind (may be insured) and that caused by rain (not insured). Allstate
  5. National Flood Insurance Program
  6. Workmen’s Compensation Insurance

Adults Wanted

The end of another month ending involving billing customers, paying taxes, balancing the bank accounts and closing the books.  Each month it becomes apparent that one of the reasons why there is not more robust job creation is the “invisible” employee costs, both in dollars and in the business owner’s liability.  By invisible, I mean that these costs are typically out of sight and out of mind to most employees.  These costs are quite visible to the owner who, failing to account for them in their business pricing, soon goes out of business.

These costs were designed to be invisible to employees because if most employees knew all the costs, some politicians might lose their jobs.  A paycheck with a gross amount of $1000 might have $200 or more taken out for taxes and health care premiums.  The net amount of the paycheck is $800, which is what we get to spend on bills, rent/mortgage, food, transportation and a movie. We grouse about the $200 in taxes but that $200 pales in comparison to the invisible costs that don’t show on that paycheck stub.  Most of these costs are mandated by either Federal or State law and include Workmen’s Compensation insurance, Unemployment Insurance, Liability Insurance, and Social Security and Medicare taxes (employer’s half).  The cost of these mandates goes into neither your pocket or the employer’s pocket. Benefit costs include health insurance, retirement contributions, education reimbursements, vacation and sick pay.  Mandated costs and benefits can easily add $500 to $1000 in cost to that $1000 gross paycheck amount.  In addition, there are indirect costs which include office and production equipment, rent, utilities, and transportation, as well as the internal costs of accounting, supervision, and training.  After those costs, that $1000 gross paycheck can have a final cost of $2500 or more. 

The indirect costs are simply a part of any business; they are the costs of producing a dollar of revenue to the business.  My chief concern is the invisible insurance and tax mandates whose costs are hidden from employees.  By making the employer, not the employee, responsible for the payment of these costs, politicians could more easily sweep them under the rug.  Some people strongly object to the health insurance mandate but how many protest or are even aware of the Unemployment Insurance mandate or the Workmen’s Compensation Insurance mandate?  Many are not aware simply because the cost is paid by the employer.  While the employer may write the check, the employer “deducts” the cost from the employee by lowering the gross amount that they can pay to an employee.

I am not making a case against these insurances and taxes that add a safety net for workers.  What I do object to is the surreptitious way that lawmakers have enacted them in order to hide the magnitude of the costs of these safety programs.  Because these mandates are structured as a payment from the business and not the employee, Workmen’s Comp, Liability, and Unemployment Insurance are rated based on the company’s industry classification and claims history.  An employee who has worked twenty years without an accident is charged the same amount of money as his/her co-worker who does not pay attention to safety regulations and common sense.  The same holds true for liability insurance; a thoughtful employee and a careless employee pay the same amount.  In some construction industries, Workmen’s Comp and Liability insurance can be 20% or more of gross pay – not a trivial amount.  Should a careless driver and an accident-free driver pay the same amount in auto insurance?  Of course not.  Yet that is how Workmen’s Comp, Liability and Unemployment Insurance are rated.  Since there is no individual worker history, no individual experience rating, there is no direct cost tied to a worker’s actions.  An employee can become naturally divorced from the consequences of their actions.  Often an employer will not add another employee if they are not sure whether he/she will be able to keep them on six months from now.  The reason is that many, if not all, states will increase the unemployment insurance rate for that business when the employee is let go in six months and files for unemployment insurance.  It can be more cost efficient for an employer to pay some overtime to existing employees to make up the extra work till the employer is sure that business volume is on the increase. 

Unlike the other insurance mandates, the health care mandate at least makes individuals personally responsible for their own insurance.  With no direct responsibility for their own Workmen’s Comp, Liability and Unemployment insurance, employees are effectively treated, in the eyes of lawmakers, like teenage children.  A host of state and federal employment regulations only confirms that status.  In the eyes of our laws,  employees are not quite adults.  Employers are treated by state employment agencies as though they were the parents of not quite fully responsible teenagers and the burden of proof is on the employer to show that the employer complied fully with regulations.

How did we get here?  During the second World War, the Federal Government was running up extremely large war costs and experiencing severe cash flow problems.  One problem the government had was that tax payments were not due till March 15th of each year (in 1954 the date was changed to the current April 15th), which meant the government had to borrow a lot of money each month.  Many people were not paying all of their taxes, either income or the Social Security tax enacted several years prior.  The problem of collecting delinquent taxes presented yet another costly headache for the government.  A noted economist of the time, John Kenneth Galbraith, suggested a solution last used eighty years earlier during the Civil War:  make employers withdraw the taxes before they paid their employees.  This would both solve the problem of timely collection of taxes and curb much of the delinquency.  It would be much easier for the government to go after the far fewer businesses in the country than millions of individual taxpayers.  Thus the withholding system was born again. (A history of taxes)

Once the mechanism of withholding was in place, politicians realized what a boon this was.  Taxpayers dislike taxes and the politicians who enact them. Politicians could now increase existing insurance costs and mandate new ones without the taxpayers – the voters – constantly being reminded of these now invisible costs.  Politicians simply had to change the law, then notify a relatively small number of businesses to pay more.  That created a new problem for business owners.  Politicians had effectively deflected the disapproval of voters onto employers.  When an insurance cost goes up, it is difficult for an employer to say to an existing employee that the employer will have to reduce an employee’s hourly wage or salary to make up for this increased cost.  For subsequent hires, an employer can reduce the hourly wage or salary that they will offer to a new employee.  The employer has two alternatives:  raise the price it sells its product or service; or eat the increased cost.  Employers complain about this state of affairs long and loud. They form trade groups and lobby their state legislatures.  The politicians get the better of a bad situation:  listen to loud protests from a lot of voters and possibly get thrown out of office or have to listen to a relatively few employer lobbyists.

I am not advocating the abandonment of the withholding system, which does solve the problem of timely tax payments.  I am advocating for a system that directly charges those who are going to benefit from the safety net that exists – the employees.  This is no longer the paper and pencil age of World War 2.  Digitized records would enable most state and federal agencies to assign individual ratings to employees based on their history.  A new or existing employee presents their individual rating for various types of insurance to the employer and the employer deducts the amounts and sends to the appropriate agency, just as they do now.  The difference is that the employee gets to see what he/she is being charged for and might in some cases be able to control some of those costs.  Instead of being paid $20 an hour, an employee might be paid $34 an hour.  The cost to the employer is the same.  For many of these mandated costs, the tax write offs to the employer are the same; it is a cost of producing business income.

What can we do about it?  Press your elected representatives for individual ratings for these insurances.  An employee who has never filed for unemployment insurance pays the same as a person who has collected six months of unemployment insurance last year.  Does that seem fair?  Why have an employee half and an employer half of the Social Security and Medicare tax?  It all comes out of the employee’s pocket in the long run.  Why the game of hiding the costs?

Imagine a world where an employer can have a bit more sales volume, hire an employee and let them go if sales subsequently fall off.  An employee who is let go would then make the choice of whether to collect unemployment.  They might absolutely need the unemployment insurance and that would affect their individual unemployment rating the same as it does when we file an auto insurance claim.  They might try harder to get another job or switch to a different job in order to keep their individual unemployment rating pristine.  It would be the employee’s choice.

Imagine a world where the employee controls what they put away for retirement.  If you want to put away $6,000 a year tax free into a 401K retirement plan, why shouldn’t you?  Why have the charade of the employer matching your contribution by some percentage?  How did we get to the point where employee compensation is a haunted house of smoke and mirrors?  

Imagine a world where an employee is not bound to an employer for insurances and benefits and tax benefits.  Imagine a world where the employee has choices.  Imagine a world where the employer pays the total of the employee cost to the  employee and the employee then sees the true scope of deductions.  In fact, we do have that world now.  Employers are increasingly using subcontractors and temporary agencies as a way to sidestep the burdens of employment.  From the BLS July Labor Report: “Temporary help services has recovered 98 percent of the jobs lost during the most recent downturn.” (Source).  Tell your state and federal representatives that you would like a different world – one in which you are treated like an adult.

Unemployment Insurance Extension

The recent failure of the Senate to extend unemployment insurance (UI) benefits has sparked debate around the country.  This Senate report from the Joint Economic Committee focuses on the question of whether extending UI benefits causes the unemployed to be less aggressive in their job search or to be more discriminating, taking only those jobs similar in rank and experience to the job they lost.  This widely held notion is based on studies done in the 1970s and 1980s that found that unemployed workers found jobs just before their benefits ran out.  The committee heard testimony from authors of these decades old studies, who replied that those studies were no longer applicable because they were primarily concerned with temporary or cyclic layoffs in manufacturing industries. Manufacturing now comprises less than 20% of the economy. 

This Senate committee was chaired by a Democrat, leading some to respond that the report is biased in favor of extending benefits.  However, the report includes testimony from Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman and a staunch conservative, who said “when you’re in period of job weakness where it is not a choice on the part of people whether or not they’re employed or unemployed, then, obviously, you want to be temporarily generous”.

It is the states have been largely responsible for the lack of funding for their unemployment reserves.  As this National Unemployment Law Project report shows on page 3, for the past four decades states have been lowering the wage base they collect UI taxes on from almost 50%  of taxable wages to less than 30% of taxable wages.  It is the states that have been unable to extend UI benefits simply because they have not prepared for the “rainy day” of a serious recession.  Many states and advocates for the unemployed then come crying to the Federal government to help them and their citizens who are suffering from the lack of planning by state politicians.

As a small employer, I strongly oppose the numerous burdens that states and the Federal government put on employers.  Under current law in most states, UI rates charged to employers are based on the experience ratings of each employer, which penalizes those employers with greater turnover.  Thus, employers are reluctant to hire a new employee if they are not sure that the increased business will be more or less permanent.  If they let that new employee go in 4 months, the employee will be able to collect unemployment insurance, which drives up the experience rating and UI rate of the employer and costs the employer more for all employees.

In my opinion, unemployment insurance should be paid for and based on the experience rating of a worker, not the employer.  If UI is to be part of the social contract, then collect it from the citizens who may benefit from that insurance, not the employers.  Some might counter that proposal with the argument that, once the burden of the insurance tax is shifted to the employee, there is the possibility of collusion between an employer and employee to defraud the system.  For example, an employee who wanted to quit a job – and would thus be unable to collect UI benefits – could ask the employer to fire him or her so that they could collect UI benefits.  Since the employer now has no “skin in the game”, the employer might agree to falsify the employee’s record to show that the employee was fired.  In the long run, however, it is the employee who will bear the cost in higher insurance premiums.

We are currently seeing the results of bad planning and policies that target and penalize employers.  Although some economic indicators show an uptick in spending and an increase in sales for some industries, businesses in general are reluctant to hire simply because the cost burden of a new employee requires such a commitment from the employer.

For now, solutions include extending UI benefits for now and dipping into federal stimulus funds for the money.  Why have the Democrats refused to touch the stimulus money to fund further extensions?  I have heard little of any substance from Democratic politicians explaining why they don’t want to pay for UI benefit extensions with stimulus funds.  If anyone has, please let me know.

The ultimate solution has to come at the state level where states need to keep adequate reserves for unemployment claims.  Secondly, states need to transition away from employer based unemployment insurance.