Fight for $15

The fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage is the hottest issue among progressive Democrats today. There has been a lot of progress as cities including Seattle and Los Angeles have passed this as their minimum wage, as has the entire state of New York (but only for “fast food” workers, strangely). It would be a big hike from today’s $7.25 per hour, a 106% increase that swamps any previous jump. President Obama, and many Democrats, favor a smaller $12 per hour rate as something of a compromise.

But where did these numbers come from? Why are they important? What effects would a minimum wage rise have on the economy? It’s worth spending some time looking at the postwar history of the minimum wage, from 1947 to 2015, to see where we are today and what it means.

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Tax Profits, Not Labor!

Are you properly compensated for your work? As we discussed previously, between 1947 and 1973 worker’s salaries accounted for half of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). There was a solid if unspoken agreement that labor and capital split the spoils of the free market equally between them.

But what of output per worker? Is it possible that workers are slacking off and don’t deserve the same arrangement they had in the immediate Post WWII era? An analysis of productivity, or output per worker, shows some interesting trends that may point to more unspoken agreements that the various markets for capital and labor expect. These trends follow business cycles, and as such point to some important changes that are necessary as we move ahead into the next cycle in the next few years.

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Not Hiring, but not Firing

Where are the jobs? Job creation has been the hot economic topic since the big downturn in 2008. The sooner we have full employment the sooner demand for goods and services will turn around and there will be a net upward pressure on wages. But in 2015 the rate of increase in jobs has slowed somewhat, barely hitting 200k net every month from a solid run of 220k the year before. What happened?

The data is even more confounding when you look at the net good news on jobs – that initial claims for unemployment per week are at an all-time low as a percent of total jobs. We’re not creating jobs as fast as we should, but we also aren’t losing them. Along with a large backlog of unfilled job postings there is substantial evidence that something is wrong. Is it a skills gap? Or something else?

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Strategy as Leadership

Leadership.  There has been a lot of talk about it lately, or more to the point the lack of it.  In common talk it is defined as “Doing or standing for the things I like” far more often than is useful.

There is a horrible lack of leadership everywhere in the developed world right now.  Can anyone name a powerful nation with good leadership?  Perhaps you can name a few businesses that have it, but not many.  How about social leadership? Religious leadership?  Are there more than a few people in rich nations anywhere who have a strong following that is capable of getting done what they want or need to?

Then again, the lack of leadership is hardly surprising.  It is not about a charismatic figure that molds the masses to action – it’s about getting things done.  That requires strategic thinking, and strategy is something horribly under-appreciated.  I might chalk that up to excessive selfishness or a failure of moral character in our world, both of which are issues.  But upon reflection, it seems to come down to a lack of understanding of what Strategy is and why it is important.

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Glad Tidings

If you need a dose of Christmas cheer, it’s best to look in a very unlikely place. The business and financial press is positively melting down over the most recent jobs report, which showed an impressive 321k net increase in jobs. Given that Barataria has been very positive on the US economy in 2014, you would expect us to join in the merriment.

Sure, why not. Just don’t over-do it, because this is only a make-up call. There is nothing reported this week that hasn’t been true for a year, and the noise in the data makes it look especially strong for November. The truth is that job growth has been strong all year and we are on pace for a good 2015.

There are plenty of reasons to cheer, but like the office Christmas party a good time is no reason to get crazy.

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Industrial Capacity is Back

When looking for economic data that tells us all how we’re all doin’, sometimes you just can’t beat the classics.

Long ago, the US was a nation that made stuff. Economic expansions or contractions could be measured by industrial output with a rather high degree of precision. Lower output meant that people were losing their jobs and the nation was slowing down.

The industrial capacity figure hasn’t been used much lately because we don’t rely on manufacturing for the bulk of the jobs anymore. At about 12M jobs, it’s just over 10% of all employment. But it still means a lot, and the results are encouraging.

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Skills Gap?

Is there a “skills gap”? Many economists and policy wonks have debated whether or not persistent unemployment is related to a lack of workers with just the right training to fill today’s jobs. JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon famously wrote an argument in favor of a lack of skills as the major problem, which Paul Krugman then proceeded to tear apart. The arguments continue back and forth with little resolution.

So is there such a problem? The short answer is “no”, but the long answer is “yes”. An excellent piece by James Besson in Harvard Business Review (HBR) un-asks the question neatly and shows that there is indeed a problem developing the right skills in a changing economy – but it’s not something we can fix simply by changing what kids learn in college. It’s much more endemic to a dynamic, open economy all around.

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