The Justice Dividend

While I was listening to The New Bazaar and enjoying an episode with Tim Harford, I was reminded that economists don’t just have the job of understanding the world. We have a responsibility to our fellow man of keeping fallacy and economic misunderstanding at bay (a Sisyphean task).  That doesn’t mean that we just teach economic theory. We can and should advocate for good economic policy ideas and try to think up some policy alternatives that fit our political climate.

Here I was sitting, being grumpy at the US Federal deficit, when an idea came to me. I am full of ideas. Especially unpopular ones. So, I especially like ideas that make political sense to me given that the political parties care about their policy values and re-election. Asserting that people in congress actually care about policy apart from re-election is kind of a pie-in-the-sky assertion. But, here we go none the less.

Mancur Olson liked to emphasize the role of concentrated benefits and diffused costs in political decision making. Economists point to it and explain the billion-dollar federal subsidies that go to interest groups. A favorite example is Sugar subsidies. As of 2018 there were $4 billion in subsidies and sugar growers earned $200k on average. The typical family of four pays about $50 more in subsidies each year as a result. The additional tax burden of higher sugar prices is also relatively small. Therefore, says the economist, the few sugar beet and sugar cane farmers have a large incentive to ensure the subsidy’s survival while others pay a relatively small cost to maintain it. That small cost means that there is little money saved and little gain for any individual who might try to fight the applicable legislation.

That’s the standard story. But it’s so much worse than a story of concentrated benefits and diffused costs. The laity don’t know how the world works in two important ways. First, many people will simply say that they are happy to protect American producers for an additional $50 per year. That’s a small price to pay for ensuring the employment and production of our fellow Americans, they say. An economist might reply, in a manner that so automatic that it appears smug, that that $50 would instead go to producers of other goods and that our economy would be more productive if the sugar-producing resources were diverted elsewhere. This is Bastiat’s seen and unseen. Honestly, I suspect that neither economists nor non-economists can adopt the idea without a little bit of faith.

Secondly, people don’t know what causes a particular price to change. Hayek painted this characteristic as a feature of the price system. We are able to communicate information about value and scarcity without evaluating the values of others or the actual quantity of an available resource. However, lacking causal knowledge of prices makes for some bad policies. Say that the subsidies and protections subsided and the price of US sugar declined. The consumer would likely not know anything about the subsidies in the first place, much less that they were rescinded. Further, the world is a complicated place and people are apt to thank/blame irrelevant causes otherwise (corporate greed, anyone?).

When economists blame concentrated benefits and diffused costs, they often assume that there is perfect information. THERE ISN’T. People don’t know how the world works well enough to predict with confidence what will happen in an alternate version of reality without subsidies. Nor do they understand the particular determinants of prices in our current world. Half the battle is a lack of knowledge about the functioning of the world – not just that the costs and benefits fail to provide a strong enough incentive for legislative change.

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Redesigning Unemployment Insurance

How does unemployment insurance work?

From the worker’s perspective, unemployment insurance isn’t detectable unless the worker loses their job. Once that’s happened, the person can apply for benefits – a check that you can cash or deposit into your bank account. These benefits vary by state, with the composition of your family, and your income prior to separation. The most generous maximum benefit is provided by Massachusetts at $823 per week for an individual and the least generous is provided by Mississippi at $235 per week. States also vary by the length of time for which a person can collect benefits. Montana is the most generous at 28 weeks and North Carolina ties with Florida for the least generous at 12 weeks. If you find a job and become employed before the maximum benefit duration, then you stop receiving payments.

From the employer’s perspective, unemployment insurance is the premium that you pay per employee each year. The premium is not optional – so it’s a tax. Employers pay it for the privilege employing workers. There are two components of the tax: a state and federal portion. The federal portion is more or less constant per employee. The state portion changes with the incidence of unemployment claims and payments that a state makes in the prior year. When a lot of people get fired, state unemployment taxes rise as a policy response.

Why provide UI benefits?

There are two typical reasons for governments to provide unemployment benefits – and a 3rd not-so-typical reason. The first is as a matter of relief. People often lose a job through no fault of their own, and we don’t want those people to become destitute or to forego the bare essentials that money can afford. The second reason to provide benefits is as a matter of macroeconomic spending stimulus. Contrary to popular belief, this stimulus is not about encouraging greater production through greater sales. The stimulus is meant to encourage total spending in the economy to be higher than it would have been otherwise (See Irving Fisher on debt deflation and Scott Sumner on NGDP targeting). The 3rd and not so typical reason for governments to provide unemployment insurance is to keep people from going to work (See Tyler Cowen for why this might be desirable during a pandemic).

Incentives Matter

The 3rd reason above hints at a problem. People lose benefits when they become employed again. It is exactly because benefits provide relief that they reduce the incentive to find a job. Importantly, this is not a judgment of propriety or moral chastisement. It simply is the case that UI payments make being unemployed a little more tolerable. The tenacity with which people search for a job becomes a little less urgent. Anyone well acquainted with human nature (outside of a textbook) will tell you that it is good for humans to work. There are economic, social, and psychological benefits – not to mention the material benefits enjoyed by society. So, longer periods of unemployment are a problem.

Not only does the receiving UI benefits cause longer unemployment spells, losing benefits when you find a job acts as a penalty to finding a labor market match. It’s not happenstance that people who lose their UI benefits tend to become employed shortly thereafter. In terms of economic activity and gains from trade, society is materially better off when people find jobs more quickly (probably socially better off too). If you can get people to acknowledge the above logic, then there is plenty of room for people to disagree on the propriety of the UI benefits system.

Remove Disincentives – Keep the Relief

As Thomas Sowell is known for saying “There are no solutions – only trade-offs.”  That’s true. It’s also true that there is also no such thing as a free lunch. But some things are a lot more like a free lunch than others.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just help unemployed people and not disincentivize them from finding a job? In part it’s impossible. The UI payments do both and there is no separating them. But, the disincentive provided by removing payments when a job is found can be addressed. Why not just permit UI benefits even after someone has found a job?

An Outlay Neutral Prescription

What does the social program designer consider? Simply, the policy maker considers government outlays, government revenues, and economic impact. All else constant, policy makers like small outlays, high revenues, and good economic impacts.

I propose that states adopt the following policy. First, eliminate variables benefits. This part of the policy is not essential, but it clarifies the exposition. Now, it doesn’t matter whether you were an executive at a bank or a janitor at the bank – both receive the same weekly UI payment if they lose their job. What should the benefit be? For the purposes of outlay neutrality, the new benefit is the same as the average benefit was last year. The average benefit and total outlay across all claimants is unchanged.

When a person finds a job under the current system they are paying an implicit tax when their benefits get pulled. Let’s eliminate the employment disqualification. That’s right. When a person finds a job, they just continue to receive benefits. They don’t receive UI benefits indefinitely, however. In order to maintain outlay neutrality, the duration of UI benefit payments will be equal to the average duration last year.

Say what?!

Put yourself in the shoes of the person looking for a job under the current system. Say that your UI benefit is $800 per week and that you job-search for 10 hours each week. Say that you find a job that pays $1,000 per week. If you take the job, then you will go from working 10 hours per week to working 40 hours per week. And, you go from having an income of $800 per week to having an income of $1,000 per week. In other words, you get to work 30 more hours per week for $200 more income. The unemployed person is making the decision to take the job at $25 per hour, or stay home at $80 per hour ($1,000/40 Vs $800/10).

But what’s the perspective under the outlay neutral proposal in which the benefits continue even after employment? The decision is substantially different.  The unemployed person is making the decision to take the job at an average of $45 per hour, or stay home at $80 per hour ($1,800/40 Vs $800/10).

Of course, staying home still might look attractive. But it looks relatively less attractive than it did under the standard system of work-disqualifying benefits. If a person has 4 weeks of remaining benefits when they find the job, then continuing to receive UI benefits would mean that the total income over that month would be $7,200, versus $3,200 from staying home, or $4,000 under the standard system. Again putting yourself in the shoes of the unemployed, doesn’t this decision look different? Might you feel enticed to accept the job?

Under the proposed policy, government outlays are constant – there is no change in expenditures. Revenues increase because more employed workers means more employer-paid UI tax payments (not to mention other tax payments). Economic performance improves because greater employment increases total output. Let’s go ahead and throw in the additional social benefits too.

People Have Feelings

…And they’re complicated. Part of the sympathetic idea of unemployment insurance benefits is to provide relief. As a matter of gut instinct, this is why many people favor the UI transfer program over others. They can imagine themselves in such a circumstance through no wrong-doing of their own. But once we say that benefits will continue – even after someone finds their job – the UI program becomes less obviously a matter of sympathy-inducing relief. There is a political problem.

I say: put your feelings aside. Let’s get people employed again. Let’s increase tax revenues and increase economic activity. Let’s address the problem of unemployment in a better way – and spend not a dime more doing it.