DJ is one of my dearest friends. He was one of the first people to befriend me when I moved to a new city as a high-school junior. He was there for the debriefs after high-school dates, and I was there for his. He was there for an awful lot of firsts, none of which we need discuss here. We’ve had great road trips and great times over the decades. He was best man at my wedding. Except for my wife, he’s shared more of life’s ups and downs with me than has any other person.
There is only one problem with DJ. He doesn’t know squat about economics. It’s not because I haven’t tried. He refused to believe what I tried to share from my first economics class back in 69/70. He’s refused to believe anything about economics that I’ve tried to teach him since. DJ’s a communist, and he’s darn proud of it too, and he’s probably never going to learn, but I’m going to keep trying.
Which brings us to today’s topic. DJ posted a link to this Robert Reich blog entry and a taunt on Facebook today.
In the blog, Reich correctly points out that inequality is a growing problem in America today. Then, he starts getting things wrong, very wrong, basically coming to the conclusion that if we reduced managements’ incomes and increased workers’ incomes all would be well with the world.
I can’t believe that Reich really believes that if we just set a higher minimum wage and instituted a new maximum wage, we’d have prosperity for all. It is well understood in economics that minimum wages increase unemployment and price ceilings create shortages. Reich’s policy would cause output to fall, unemployment among lower-wage workers to dramatically increase, and management to move to someplace else, say Singapore or Hong Kong.
Inequality is problem, a serious problem and a growing problem. The causes are a failed educational system, a completely inadequate safety net, and a lack of commitment to opportunity in far too many communities.
While returns to education have been increasing, our educational system has been declining. The failure to prepare students for the workforce, particularly those who will not go to college, is paid for by the student. It is paid for in lower income throughout their work life, and in more frequent and longer-lasting income interruptions.
Educational problems are not limited to k-12. The rapid increase in the cost of a college degree is strong evidence that colleges and universities have managed to extract a significant portion of the gains to education, often leaving the student with debt that takes years to repay. Too often that expensive, debt-funded, degree fails to provide the expected income, a result of a degree in a field with little market value or a program that lacked rigor.
The lack of an efficient safety net means that unemployed workers have an incentive to take the first available job offer. That first job offer may be a perfect match, but it may not be. The problem is that without a safety net that would allow time for a search for a better match, or provide for geographic mobility, both society and the worker are worse off.
Finally, communities limit opportunity in the service of quality of life, failing to recall that for many quality of life begins with opportunity.