Minimum wage and length of poverty spells

I had a pre-programmed blog post on the issue of the minimum wage and poverty which was preempted by Mark Koyama (a blogger here at Notes on Liberty). The tweet is below and it has forced me to adjust the post.

Mark is absolutely right! Let me explain why with my own spin on it.

First of all, the demand curve slopes downwards – always. However, the method of adjusting to price changes (wages are a price and the minimum wage is a price control) is not an empirical constant.  I am unlikely to fire workers for a 1% in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage. Firing workers implies transaction costs that are dependent of context (for example, if I am friend with my employee, this is a transaction cost in the form of a lost friendship), firm size (I won’t fire my only employee which represents 50% of my output for a 1% hike in MW) laws (firing and hiring regulations), institutions (social institutions, reputation, norms), my clientele (how elastic is their demand) and technological alternatives. For a 1% increase, I am likely to reduce work hours or cut marginal benefits (no free soup for you). For a 10% increase, I am more likely to consider the option of firing a worker or I may shift to a new technological set that reduces my demand for labor.  It may happen rapidly or take some time, but there will eventually be an adjustment.

In any case, the minimum wage will imply some losses with a deadweight loss. Only the method by which it materializes is debatable.  By definition, some people will be hurt and generally and even if supply is super-elastic (doubtful), some suppliers (workers)  will be ejected from the market (or the quantity of labor they can supply will be ulitmately reduced). Since the minimum wage generally tends to fall on unskilled workers, this must be correlated with workers close to the poverty line.

Ideally, we’d need a measure of the minimum wage to be compared with the “at-risk” population over a long period of time in order to encapsulate all the effects of the minimum wage. The perfect measure is the “length of poverty spell” variable which has been emerging progressively from the BLS. The problem is that it is not broken down by state. Fortunately, Canada has that variable (well, a low-income variable which is a relatie poverty measure) for provinces. Inside the Survey of Labor and Income Dynamics (affectionally known as the SLID), this longitudinal variable has a span of eight years. Basically, we can know if a person has been below the low-income threshold for up to eight years. Let’s take that extreme measure and plot it against the minimum wage divided by the average wage.

As one can see from the scatter plot below, there is a more or less clear relationship between the minimum wage as a share of the average wage and the length of poverty spells. What is more impressive is that this graph is not a regression. More precisely, the provinces with the highest minimum wages (like my own province of Quebec and the province of Nova Scotia) also have the most extensive social welfare nets. Alberta,  a province with the lowest minimum wage ratio and one of the least “generous” social welfare net in Canada, is at the very bottom of the pack in terms of the persistence of poverty.


I think this graph acts in very modest (but clear) support to Mark’s point (which is also the point of Burkhauser, Sabia, MaCurdy and many others)

Peter Singer vs The Poor

I am new at Notes On Liberty, graciously invited by Brandon Christensen. I’ll be blogging about a range of things, some of which will include political philosophy.

I am currently working on a paper on Peter Singer’s famous “Famine, Affluence and Poverty” paper that argues that we have a moral obligation to donate a lot of our current holdings to poor people. His argument is pretty straightforward.

Premise 1: I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

Premise 2: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. This principle seems almost as uncontroversial as the last one. It requires us only to prevent what is bad, and to promote what is good, and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important. I could even, as far as the application of my argument to the Bengal emergency is concerned, qualify the point so as to make it: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.

Example: An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

And therefore, he concludes, there is a strong moral imperative to donate a lot of money to poorer people who are in dire need of assistance.

However, there seems to be something obvious that is overlooked, something that I haven’t encountered in the literature on the topic. Namely, Singer discusses the implications this principle has for rich people, they have to donate a lot of money, because being poor and suffering because of lack of food is bad. However, this principle doesn’t limit itself to creating obligations for those in affluence. It should, ipso facto, also create implications for those in poverty.

Premise 1: Poverty and the suffering it causes is bad. (It seems hard for Singer to disagree with this.)

Premise 2: If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, we ought, morally, to do it.

Ok, fair enough. But if poverty is bad: why doesn’t this principle create a very strong moral obligation for people in poverty to not get children (and thus putting more people in this situation?) Maybe one could argue that getting children is a great moral good (or that not getting children is a great moral evil), but it seems weird to say that putting people into something that (by implication of Singer’s views) is considered a great moral evil is somehow a good thing.

So if I am right, Singer needs to accept that his views create a strong moral obligation towards poor people not to get children.

Even more so. If this is the case, it follows that everyone every has a strong moral implication not to get children, because we will always be poorer than we’ll collectively be 100 years in the future. (Were the original cave dwellers immoral people for getting children then?)

Maybe one can argue that even though suffering is bad, but on net, a human life is still a good thing. The marginal choice leads us to say ‘we need another life’ (that’s on net good) but when a specific human life is in need, we need to help that life, on that margin, because on that margin, we can still alleviate suffering (which is generating ‘less bad and more good’). The issue with this line of argument seems that it has a very strong assumption that a life is, on net, a good thing. But even ignoring that, it does open the gate towards a comment from the ‘rich people’ to say: ‘well, if those parents don’t have a moral obligation to not get children because on net a human life is still worth living, even if there is some suffering, why do we have an obligation then to help at the point of suffering? The life, on net, was still a good life.’ (This point follows from the assumption that it isn’t unethical for those parents to get children, despite their poverty and the suffering that results from it.)

I invite any and all comments on this issue.

Would a Universal Basic Income Increase Poverty?

Switzerland has recently overwhelming voted against a proposal that would establish a universal income guarantee (sometimes called a “basic income guarantee” or the similar Friedman-influenced “negative income tax”[1]). Though I myself am a supporter of BIG as a nth best policy alternative for pragmatic reasons,[2] I’m unsure if I myself would have voted for this specific policy proposal due to the lack of specifics. A basic income is only as good as the welfare regime surrounding it (which preferably would be very limited) and the tax system that funds it.[3] However, the surprising degree of unpopularity of the proposal—with 76.9% voting against—was quite surprising.

The Swiss vote has renewed debate in the more wonkish press and blogosphere, as well as in think tanks, about the merits and defects of a Basic Income Guarantee here in the States. For example, Robert Goldstein of the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities[4] has a piece arguing that a BIG would increase poverty if implemented as a replacement for the current welfare state. His argument covers three points:

  1. A BIG would be extremely costly to the point of being impossible to fund.
  2. A BIG would increase the poverty rate by replacing current welfare programs like Medicaid and SNAP.
  3. A universal welfare program like a BIG—as opposed to means-tested programs—is politically impossible right now due to its unpopularity.

For this post, I’ll analyze Goldstein’s arguments in detail. Overall, I do not find his arguments against a BIG convincing at all.

The Political Impossibility of a BIG

Goldstein writes:

Some UBI supporters stress that it would be universal.  One often hears that means-tested programs eventually get crushed politically while universal programs do well.  But the evidence doesn’t support that belief.  While cash aid for poor people who aren’t working has fared poorly politically, means-tested programs as a whole have done well.  Recent decades have witnessed large expansions of SNAP, Medicaid, the EITC, and other programs.

If anything, means-tested programs have fared somewhat better than universal programs in the last several decades.  Since 1980, policymakers in Washington and in a number of states have cut unemployment insurance, contributing to a substantial decline in the share of jobless Americans — now below 30 percent — who receive unemployment benefits.  In addition, the 1983 Social Security deal raised the program’s retirement age from 65 to 67, ultimately generating a 14 percent benefit cut for all beneficiaries, regardless of the age at which someone begins drawing benefits.  Meanwhile, means-tested benefits overall have substantially expanded despite periodic attacks from the right.  The most recent expansion occurred in December when policymakers made permanent significant expansions of the EITC and the low-income part of the Child Tax Credit that were due to expire after 2017.

In recent decades, conservatives generally have been more willing to accept expansions of means-tested programs than universal ones, largely due to the substantially lower costs they carry (which means they exert less pressure on total government spending and taxes).

I agree that Goldstein is right on this point: universal welfare programs are extremely unpopular right now, like the Swiss vote shows. I imagine that if a proposal were on the ballot in the States the outcome would be similar.[5] However, this is no argument against a Basic Income. Advocating politically unpopular though morally and economically superior policies is precisely the role academics and think tank wonks like Goldstein should take.

If something is outside the Overton Window of Political Possibilities, it won’t necessarily be so in the future if policymakers can make the case for it effectively to voters and the “second-hand dealer of ideas” in think tanks and academia get their ideas “in the air,” so to speak.[6] It wasn’t that long ago that immigration reform or healthcare reform seemed politically impossible due to its unpopularity, yet the ladder has popular support and the former was actually accomplished.[7]

If anything, the unpopularity of a BIG is precisely why people like Goldstein should advocate for the policy.

The Fiscal Costs of Funding a Basic Income Guarantee

Goldstein points out, rightly, that a Basic Income Guarantee would be extremely expensive:

There are over 300 million Americans today.  Suppose UBI provided everyone with $10,000 a year.  That would cost more than $3 trillion a year — and $30 trillion to $40 trillion over ten years.

This single-year figure equals more than three-fourths of the entire yearly federal budget — and double the entire budget outside Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest payments.  It’s also equal to close to 100 percent of all tax revenue the federal government collects.

Or, consider UBI that gives everyone $5,000 a year.  That would provide income equal to about two-fifths of the poverty line for an individual (which is a projected $12,700 in 2016) and less than the poverty line for a family of four ($24,800).  But it would cost as much as the entire federal budget outside Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest payments.

Where would the money to finance such a large expenditure come from?  That it would come mainly or entirely from new taxes isn’t plausible.  We’ll already need substantial new revenues in the coming decades to help keep Social Security and Medicare solvent and avoid large benefit cuts in them.  We’ll need further tax increases to help repair a crumbling infrastructure that will otherwise impede economic growth.  And if we want to create more opportunity and reduce racial and other barriers and inequities, we’ll also need to raise new revenues to invest more in areas like pre-school education, child care, college affordability, and revitalizing segregated inner-city communities.

Of course, Goldstein is right that a BIG would be fairly expensive and we are already having serious issues funding our existing welfare state. However, he grossly oversells the difficulty in funding it. In particular, it is not necessary to raise taxes to pay for it or for current welfare expenditures.

Goldstein likely gets the $10,000 figure from Charles Murray’s proposal for a BIG. Personally, I’m no fan of Murray’s proposal as it goes too far and he proposes financing it by increasing payroll taxes, which are economically inefficient. However, let’s assume that the relevant proposal is around $7,000 dollars.[8] Multiplying that by the US population of 320 million makes for a total cost $2.24 trillion per year.[9] This could be paid for by using the BIG to replace the following current welfare programs and cutting discretionary spending:[10]

  1. $65.32 billion annually in discretionary spending on Veteran’s benefits
  2. $66.03 billion in discretionary spending on Medicare and other healthcare benefits
  3. $69.98 billion in discretionary spending for education.[11]
  4. $13.13 billion in discretionary spending for food and agriculture (eg., SNAP).[12]
  5. $1.25 trillion in mandatory spending for Social Security.[13]
  6. $985.74 billion in mandatory spending for Medicare and Healthcare.
  7. $95.3 billion in mandatory spending for veteran’s benefits.[14]

Spending a UBI Could Replace

That’s a total of $2.542 trillion in savings annually, more than enough to fund the proposed BIG with another $300.3 billion to spare that could be used for tax credits for low-income households to use on healthcare,[15] education,[16] retirement,[17] and/or basic necessities like food.[18] Funding the program would be a huge challenge, but it is possible to do it without tax increases.

Additionally, Goldstein ignores the fact that similar proposals, such as Friedman’s negative income tax, would have a much lower cost while having a similar effect. The Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond has estimated that a NIT could cost only $182 billion annually.[19] From Hammond’s analysis:

Just how much of a cost difference is there between a UBI and NIT? To get a rough idea, I used the Census population survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which has the distribution of individuals over the age of 15 by income level in $2,500 intervals (I subtracted retirees). I then calculated the transfer each quantile would receive based on a hypothetical NIT which starts at $5,000 for individuals with zero income and is phased out at a rate of 30%. Multiplying the average transfer by the number of actual individuals in each grouping and summing, I arrived at total cost of $182 billion—roughly the combined budget for SSI, SNAP and EITC.

The Effect of Replacing Welfare with a BIG on Poverty

Goldstein would object to my line of reasoning by saying cutting all that spending would harm the poor and increase the poverty rate. He says as much in his piece:

UBI’s daunting financing challenges raise fundamental questions about its political feasibility, both now and in coming decades.  Proponents often speak of an emerging left-right coalition to support it.  But consider what UBI’s supporters on the right advocate.  They generally propose UBI as a replacement for the current “welfare state.”  That is, they would finance UBI by eliminating all or most programs for people with low or modest incomes.

….Yet that’s the platform on which the (limited) support for UBI on the right largely rests.  It entails abolishing programs from SNAP (food stamps), which largely eliminated the severe child malnutrition found in parts of the Southern “black belt” and Appalachia in the late 1960s, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Section 8 rental vouchers, Medicaid, Head Start, child care assistance, and many others.  These programs lift tens of millions of people, including millions of children, out of poverty each year and make tens of millions more less poor.

Some UBI proponents may argue that by ending current programs, we’d reap large administrative savings that we could convert into UBI payments.  But that’s mistaken.  For the major means-tested programs — SNAP, Medicaid, the EITC, housing vouchers, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and school meals — administrative costs consume only 1 to 9 percent of program resources, as a CBPP analysis explains.  Their funding goes overwhelmingly to boost the incomes and purchasing power of low-income families.[20]

Moreover, as the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal has noted, eliminating Medicaid, SNAP, the EITC, housing vouchers, and the like would still leave you far short of what’s needed to finance a meaningful UBI.  Would we also end Pell Grants that help low-income students afford college?  Would we terminate support for children in foster care, for mental health, and for job training services?

This is by far and away the weakest part of Goldstein’s argument.

First of all, as my analysis above showed, Konczal’s and Goldstein’s idea that eliminating the current welfare state “would still leave you far short of what’s needed to finance a meaningful UBI” is just false. Even a relatively robust UBI of $7,000 a year is doable by significantly cutting current welfare programs.

But more importantly, Goldstein’s assertion that replacing the welfare state with a UBI would increase poverty is fully unwarranted. He seems to take a ridiculously unsophisticated idea that “more means-tested programs immediately reduce welfare.” His assertion that the programs in question “lift tens of millions of people, including millions of children, out of poverty each year and make tens of millions more less poor” is, at best, completely erroneous. For three reasons: first, individuals know better what they need to lift themselves out of the than the government, and these programs assume the opposite. Second, the structure of status quo means-tested programs often creates a “poverty trap” which incentivizes households to remain below the poverty line. Finally, thanks to these first two theoretical reasons, the empirical evidence on the success of the status-quo programs in terms of reducing the poverty rate is, at best, mixed.

The way our current welfare state is structured is it allocates how much money can go to what basic necessities for welfare recipients. So if a household gets $10,000 in welfare a year, the government mandates that, say, $3,000 goes to food, $3,000 goes to healthcare, $3,000 goes to education, and $1,000 goes to retirement.[21] This essentially assumes that all individuals and households have the same needs; but this is simply not the case, elderly people may need more money for healthcare and less for education, younger people may need the exact opposite, and poorer families with children may need more for food and education than other needs. It’s almost as if our current welfare system assumes interpersonal utility function comparisons are possible, or utility functions of poorer people are fairly homogenous but they’re not. It also ignores the opportunity cost of the funding for helping individuals and households out of funding; a dollar spent on healthcare may be more effectively spent on food for a particular individual or household.

In sum, there’s a knowledge problem involved in our current welfare policy to combat poverty: the government cannot know the needs of impoverished individuals, and such knowledge is largely dispersed, tacit, and possessed by the individuals themselves. The chief merit of a UBI is, rather than telling poor people what they can spend their welfare on, it just gives them the money and lets them spend it as they need.

Second, universal programs are superior to means tested programs precisely because the amount of transfer payments received does not decrease as income increases. Our current welfare programs too often make the marginal cost of earning an additional dollar, above a certain threshold, higher than the benefits because transfer payments are cut-off at that threshold. This actually perversely incentivizes households to remain in poverty.[22] For example, the Illinois Policy Institute while analyzing welfare in Illinois found the following:

A single mom has the most resources available to her family when she works full time at a wage of $8.25 to $12 an hour. Disturbingly, taking a pay increase to $18 an hour can leave her with about one-third fewer total resources (net income and government benefits). In order to make work “pay” again, she would need an hourly wage of $38 to mitigate the impact of lost benefits and higher taxes.


Or consider this chart (shown above) from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare showing the same effect in Pennsylvania

UBI does not suffer from this effect. If your income goes up, you do not lose benefits and so there are no perverse incentives at work here. Ed Dolan has analyzed how the current welfare state with its means-tested benefits is worse in terms of incentivizing work and alleviating poverty extensively. Here’s a slice of his analysis:


The horizontal axis in Figure 1 represents earned income while the vertical axis shows disposable income, that is, earned income plus benefits. To keep things simple, we will assume no income or payroll taxes on earned income—an assumption that I will briefly return to near the end of the post. The dashed 45o line shows that earned and disposable income are the same when there are no taxes or income support. The solid red line shows the relationship between disposable and earned income with the MTIS policy.

This generic MTIS policy has three features:

A minimum guaranteed income, G, that households receive if they have no earned income at all.

A benefit reduction rate (or effective marginal tax rate), t, indicted by the angle between the 45o line and the red MTIS schedule. The fact that t is greater than zero is what we mean when we say that the program is means tested. As the figure is drawn, t = .75, that is, benefits are reduced by 75 cents for each dollar earned.

A break-even income level, beyond which benefits stop. Past that point, earned income equals disposable income.

When these two factors are taken into account (that individuals know better than the government what they need to get out of poverty and there are significant poverty traps in our welfare state), it is no surprised that the empirical evidence on the effectiveness of these anti-poverty programs is far less rosy than Goldstein seem to think.

After reviewing the empirical literature on the relationship between income and welfare improvements for impoverished households, Columbia University’s Jane Waldfogel concluded “we cannot be certain whether and how much child outcomes could be improved by transferring income to low income families.” The Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner wrote in 2006:

Yet, last year, the federal government spent more than $477 billion on some 50 different programs to fight poverty. That amounts to $12,892 for every poor man, woman, and child in this country. And it does not even begin to count welfare spending by state and local governments. For all the talk about Republican budget cuts, spending on these social programs has increased an inflation-adjusted 22 percent since President Bush took office.

Despite this government largesse, 37 million Americans continue to live in poverty. In fact, despite nearly $9 trillion in total welfare spending since Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty in 1964, the poverty rate is perilously close to where it was when we began, more than 40 years ago.

Tanner’s point remains true today. The chart below shows that, despite a massive increase in anti-poverty spending since the war on poverty was declared under Johnson’s “Great Society,” Poverty rates have remained woefully stagnant. In fact, the reduction in poverty that was occurring prior to Johnson’s interventions stopped soon thereafter.

US Poverty Spending

Also, the point is that UBI is a replacement for current welfare benefits. Most households probably would not see a decrease in amount of benefits under a UBI, depending on the specifics of the proposal, and some might even see an increase, contrary to Goldstein’s analysis. Further, they’d be able to actually spend this on what they know they need rather than what government bureaucrats thin they need.

UBI lacks the flaws of the current welfare state, and would likely decrease poverty far more effectively than Goldstein thinks, especially when compared to his favored status-quo.

[1] Though there are some technical differences between Milton Friedman’s proposal for a “negative income tax” and most Basic Income Guarantee proposals, they essentially have the same effect on income. See the Adam Smith Institute’s Sam Bowmen on this point.

[2] See Matt Zwolinski for the “Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income,” it should be noted that “pragmatic reasons” here does not refer to my pragmatist philosophical views. Zwolinski has also made a moral case for the basic income on Hayekian grounds that a BIG could reduce coercion in labor negations. I am unsure to what extent I am convinced by this line of reasoning, but it is a valid argument nonetheless.

[3] The Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond has made the case that universal transfer programs like a Basic Income cannot be analyzed outside of the tax system that pays for it.”

[4] Or, as my think tank buddies jokingly call it, the “Center for Bigger Budgets.”

[5] Having said that, polls have shown that it is popular across the pond in the Eurozone. The Swiss proposal would call into question this point but it could be argued that the vagueness of the Swiss proposal is why it was turned down not necessarily the spirit of it.

[6] My colleague Ty Hicks of Students for Liberty has made this point well. See also Hayek’s “Intellectuals and Socialism.”

[7] Granted, the Affordable Care Act was not really what most on the left or the right wanted in the first place and has been a disaster.

[8] This number is selected because, according to the CBO, $9,000 is the average amount in means-tested welfare benefits per household for 2006. But that’s for households and a BIG discussed here is for individuals, so it is understandable to make a BIG slightly less than the current average. Goldstein would object that this is far below the poverty line, but BIG is not meant to be a replacement for total income on the labor market at all, so it is unclear why this is an objection in the first place.

[9] This is admittedly a crude and naïve calculation but it is virtually identical to the method Goldstein himself uses to estimate the cost.

[10] All figures for this section are for the 2015 budget and are taken from here.

[11] Goldstein is sure not to be happy with cutting education, and I myself would like to replace this spending with few-strings-attached funding for local education or private school tax vouchers. I’ll address this point more later in this piece.

[12] Much of this is food stamps, which would be rendered obsolete by a BIG anyways. Goldstein would object, more on that in the next section.

[13] Not all of this could be cut, and there would be legal and detailed nuances on how to treat financial obligations for Social Security, veteran’s benefits, and Medicare. The specific legal complexities of mandatory welfare spending are not my areas of expertise, admittedly, and is outside the scope of this paper. I’m just illustrating that it is possible to cut at least some of this spending, perhaps even the majority of it, to fund it.

[14] Many people would object to cutting veterans benefits. First of all, BIG could act in place of these benefits

[15] I have in mind expanding tax-exempt Health Savings Accounts here. I also think funding this by eliminating the employer-based deduction would be a step in the right direction and reduce cost fragmentation in the healthcare market, as Milton Freidman argued.

[16] I have in mind a private school taxpayer voucher system like what is in Sweden.

[17] I have in mind something similar to this proposal to reform social security from the Cato Institute.

[18] I have in mind something like the pre-bates proposed in the Fair Tax.

[19] For this reason, I prefer an NIT to a BIG, but I prefer both to our current welfare state.

[20] This point is Ironic considering the fact that CBPP’s own research shows that government benefits in America overwhelmingly goes to households above the poverty line, in the middle and upper classes. See this chart (source):


[21] The real-world numbers are probably different and vary a little bit from household to household, but this is just a hypothetical to illustrate a more general point.

[22] It should be noted, however, that the EITC, and some other programs, is largely free of this defect. This is because the EITC itself is modeled after Friedman’s NIT.

Note: The first chart has been edited since this was initially posted for readability.

Basic income: a debate where demand magically disappears!

For a few months now, the case for the basic income has resurged (I thought it died with Milton Friedman in 2006, if not earlier). In the wake of this debate, I have been stunned by the level of disconnect between the pundits and what the outcome of the few experiments of basic income have been. The most egregious illustration of this disconnect is the case of the work disincentive.

To be clear, most of the studies find a minor effect on labor supply overall which in itself does not seem dramatic (see Robert Moffitt’s work here). Yet, this is a incomplete way to reflect on the equilibrium effect of a massive reform that would be a basic income.

Personally, I think that there is a good reason to believe that the labor supply reaction would be limited. At present, many tax systems have”bubbles” of increasing marginal tax rates. In some countries like Canada, the phasing out of tax credits for children actually mean that the effective marginal tax rate increases as income increases from the low 20,000$ to the mid 40,000$. As a result, a basic income would flatten the marginal tax rate for those whose labor supply curve is not likely to bend backward. In such a situation, labor supply could actually increase!

Yet, even if that point was wrong, labor supply could shift but without any changes in total labor provided. Under most basic income proposals, tax rates are dropped significantly as a result of a reduced bureaucracy and of a unified tax base (i.e. the elimination of tax credits). In such a situation, marginal tax rates are also lowered. This means greater incentives to invest (save) and acquire human capital. This will affect the demand for labor!

A paper in the Journal of Socio-Economics by  Karl Widerquist makes this crucial point. None of the experiments actually could estimate the demand-side reaction of the market. Obviously, a very inelastic labor demand would mean very little change in hours worked and the reverse if it was very elastic. But what happens if the demand curve shifts? Widerquist does not elaborate on shifts of the demand curve, but they could easily occur if a basic income consolidates all transfers (in kind and conditional monetary) allows a reduction in overall spending and thus the tax take needed to fund activities. In that case, demand for labor would shift to the right. A paper on the health effects of MINCOME in Manitoba (Canada) shows that improvement in health outcomes are cheaply attained through basic income which would entail substantial health care expenditures reduction.

I have surveyed the articles compiled by Widerquist and added those who have emerged since. None consider the possibility of a shift of the demand curve. Even libertarian scholars like Matt Zwolinski (who has been making the case forcibly for a basic income for sometime now) have not made this rebuttal point!

Yet, the case is relatively straightforward: current transfers are inefficient, basic income is more efficient at obtaining each unit of poverty reduction, basic income requires lower taxes, basic income means lower marginal tax rates, lower marginal tax rates mean more demand for investment and labor and thus more long-term growth and a counter-balance to any supply-side effect.

I hope that the Bleeding Heart Libertarians will take notice of this crucial point in favor of their argument!

On celebrating the new year with a thought experiment

Each time I start teaching classes at the business school where I am a course lecturer, I am always amazed at the disconnect between the quantitative facts and the beliefs that individuals have. My favorite relates to poverty and inequality.

Everybody seems to think that poverty is increasing and that worldwide inequality is increasing. Each time, I have to show figures to shoot down those beliefs. I also do it in the french media of my home province of Quebec where – as a result of pointing out those facts – I am branded as a “neoliberal” for being optimistic for the fate of mankind.

However, let’s think about it in the context of the new year to see why there is room for optimism. Let’s make a thought experiment similar to John Rawls’ original position but somewhat differently. You have a hat with all the years since the neolithic age, each on a separate piece of paper. If you had to hope for one year in particular, which would prefer? I would pick 2016!

By picking 2016, I have one chance in ten of living under extreme poverty. At any earlier point in time, these odds would have been close to 90%. (The data comes from the Our World In Data project by the amazing Max Roser).


Although this diminished poverty does not explain every improvement with regards to every other metrics of living standards (life expectancy, infant mortality, nutrition, heights, body mass, survival to diseases), it does explain an appreciable part of these improvements.

Sit down with some friends to celebrate the new year and ask them about this “thought experiment”. Ask them if they would pick 2016. Once it is presented as such, I am sure that in spite of all the headwinds facing mankind, they will be optimistic.

Keynesianism, the Global Economy, and Responsibility

Economist Joseph Stiglitz has an op-ed out in Project Syndicate lamenting bad policies for the current economic stagnation of the West. This response comes from economist Peter Boettke, and I think it is an important and woefully neglected one:

Since 2008, and before, [Stiglitz] has been constantly complaining about neo-liberal policy and how its lack of attention to the appropriate regulatory framework and disregard for fundamental policy priorities has produced the mess we are in.  In fact, he made the argument very simply even while he was in positions of tremendous political power in the Clinton administration and at the World Bank — if only the world would listen to me, and engage in the appropriate interventions then the mess would be avoided.  But who were the so-called neo-liberals that weren’t listening to him?  What neo-liberal thinker had the same powerful positions that he held?  Did F. A. Hayek or Milton Friedman actually come back from the grave to serve as head of the CEA or as Chief Economist at the World Bank?  Or did all this disruptive inequality and global imbalance happen on the watch of other thinkers.

I think Boettke is right, but I also think both economists are wrong in a sense, too. First of all, global poverty over the past twenty years or so has been halved thanks to the very neoliberal policies that both economists are disagreeing about, and that both economists have more or less endorsed. With this important, praiseworthy accomplishment in mind, why would these guys want to spend so much time pointing fingers at each other?

I know why they are pointing fingers (because of the terrible shape that Western economies are in), but I am a little baffled at the audacity of Stiglitz and other Keynesians who have held the levers of power for sixty years to point the finger at something other than themselves.

Really quickly: Some of might ask why Boettke and Stiglitz agree on neoliberalism abroad and disagree on policy at home. My short answer would be because the West already has the institutions (property rights, other individual rights, etc.) that economists have identified as necessary for a market order, so their debates about policy occur within the same theoretical framework. Post-colonial states (“developing states”) have virtually none of the institutions that the West, and so it easy for economists with different theoretical paradigms to agree on generalities concerning these developing countries (“they need to open up to world trade and focus on property rights before they do much else”). Does this make sense?

Around the Web

This is the 69th installment of ‘Around the Web’. Giggity!

  1. guaranteed income vs. open borders; Economist Kevin Grier weighs the options
  2. How poverty taxes the brain; A sexy-sounding female gives us the low-down
  3. The origins of Northwest European ‘guilt culture’; Evolutionary anthropologists are so, soooo cute
  4. The ‘thoughtful libertarian’ subreddit; Finally!
  5. Is Christmas efficient? Only an economist (Tyler Cowen) could ask such a thing
  6. God, Hayek and the Conceit of Reason; Concise essay by Jonathan Neumann in Standpoint
  7. Milton Friedman’s 1997 musings on a common currency in the European Union: The Euro: From monetary policy to political disunity