Category Archives: Economy

A Furniture Industry Renaissance?

Tim Hairston, laid off in 2007 when Bassett Furniture shut down a factory, has regained employment at the company's new Bench Made facility. Photo credit: Roanoke Times.

Tim Hairston, laid off in 2007 when Bassett Furniture shut down a factory, has regained employment at the company’s new Bench Made facility. Photo credit: Roanoke Times.

by James A. Bacon

At its peak in the 1980s, Basset Furniture Industries employed roughly 9,000 people, with the largest concentration in Martinsville and Henry County. One of the largest furniture manufacturers in the world, the company provided jobs not only for machinists and assembly workers on the factory floor, as one would find in any mill town, but middle-class jobs in furniture design, sales & marketing, and administration, as well as high-income executives. Bassett, a census-designated place of little more than 1,000, was surely one of the smallest communities in the United States to boast its own country club and golf course.

The rise of China and the advance of globalization decimated Bassett Furniture and its namesake community. Actually, “decimate” does not come close to describing what happen to the company. The word is derived from the ancient Roman practice of killing one of ten soldiers as punishment for the entire unit. Bassett shed more than nine of ten jobs, hitting bottom around 800 employees early in this century, as it dismantled its manufacturing operations and hung on as a designer, distributor, retailer and importer of mostly Chinese-made furniture.

Today, there are signs that the tide has turned, reports the Roanoke Times. Bassett’s emphasis on custom-built furniture, providing a choice of 1,000 upholstery fabrics, and free in-home design visits seems to be paying off. The company resumed manufacturing in Bassett in January, and announced plans to build an upholstery manufacturing center in Texas to produce sofas, love seats, sectionals and chairs. Total employment, including Zenith Global Logistics, a freight line, has rebounded to 2,400.

Bassett is illustrative of broad economic trends that portend better times for the American manufacturing sector and employment of blue collar workers whose livelihoods have been shattered by globalization and automation.

In the late 1970s, when I was cutting my teeth as a business reporter in Martinsville, furniture manufacturing was a low-wage, semiskilled industry. Bassett and other Virginia and North Carolina furniture manufacturers had gotten their start in the pre-World War II era by tapping cheap labor off the farm. The business strategy worked for decades — until China emerged as a global competitor with even lower cost labor. Furniture companies led the move to “off-shore” manufacturing operations overseas. Since then, American blue collar wages have stagnated while Chinese wages have soared, eliminating much of the labor cost differential. Now furniture companies are participating in the re-shoring” phenomenon — the shifting of manufacturing back to the United States. Fortunately, while the Chinese came to dominate the manufacturing end of the business, they never penetrated the U.S. sales, distribution and retail segments of the business. The preservation of those core functions has allowed American companies to rebound.

Meanwhile, Bassett has developed a mass-customization strategy that requires faster turn-around times than is possible with a 30-day supply chain leading all the way back to China. While some furniture parts still can be machined and shipped from China to the U.S., Bassett needs an operation closer to home that allows final assembly and installation of upholstery fabrics hand-picked by the customer.

The Roanoke Times article alludes to another niche that Bassett is building upon:

The company’s new Bench Made line of high-end dining furniture features pieces handcrafted in red leaf maple by about 25 workers in a 30,000-square-foot space once used as a warehouse in Bassett. The workers carefully antique the Bench Made pieces with wire brushes and add tiny holes that resemble natural wormholes.

There will always be a market for cheap, mass-produced furniture as well as semi-customized furniture for the working class and middle class with limited incomes. But the top 20% of the market increasingly is looking for furniture that is unique and distinctive, and that typically means hand crafted — the trend I described last week in “The Rise of the New Artisan Class.”

Do these trends portend a comeback for Virginia’s furniture sector? I think that’s a reasonable hope, although any enthusiasm must be tempered by the reality that job creation will be modest — advances in automation mean far fewer workers are required on the assembly line than 30 years ago — and far from sufficient to restore the economic fortunes of Southside Virginia. Still, anything that staunches the bleeding of jobs is a positive sign. And anything that actually brings even a few jobs back to the region is cause for celebration.

The Rise of the New Artisan Class

Botanical etching made by oak and mimosa leaves

Botanical etching made from oak and mimosa leaves. Photo credit: Tracery 157

Cathy Vaughn took the big leap a couple of years ago of going into business for herself as an artisan working in copper. While fabricating trellises, tryptics, candelabras and chinoiserie, she developed a new technique, which, as far as she knows, is a first — creating images upon copper plate from the chemicals found in leaves. The result has been a series of extraordinary images, as seen above, that look as if they could have been lifted from a modernist New York art gallery.

She arranges leaves upon the copper, wraps them in cellophane and sets them aside for about two weeks. Leaves from different species of trees have different chemical signatures, which interact with the copper to leave a wide array of colors. Art meets science as Vaughn arranges different species of leaves in varying patterns to create novel effects.


Vaughn in her studio. Photo credit: Tracery 157

It’s too early to tell if the “botanical etchings” will become a big moneymaker, Vaughn told me at a recent arts and crafts exhibit in Richmond, but early signs are encouraging. I’m no art critic, and I’m not even a fan of modernist art, but I found many of her creations visually arresting, even beautiful. Given the fascinating narrative behind her creations, I would venture to predict that she will enjoy considerable success — not just in Richmond but far beyond.

Richmond is hardly unique in having a vibrant arts community — Charlottesville and Staunton craftsmen were well represented at the particular event I attended — but the arts and crafts movement is growing. Many Richmond-area artists have a connection with Virginia Commonwealth University’s school of the arts, while others with a graphic arts background come from the advertising/ marketing sector. Budding artists are supported by a soft infrastructure: numerous art galleries, an artists’ guild, the Art Works and Plant Zero artists’ studios and the Richmond Visual Arts Center.

It’s easy to be dismissive of arts & crafts as an engine of economic growth — the term “artsy fartsy” suggests eccentricity and dilettantism — but a fundamental shift in consumer preference to “mass customization” suggests that artists, craftsmen and the so-called “makers” are a rising economic force. Not only will the revival of artisan create employment opportunities in a slow-growth economy, there is an inherently egalitarian aspect to the movement. Artists, craftsmen and makers are self-employed. They could become the new yeoman class of the post-industrial economy.

An analogy that I draw, and other observers readily accept, is with the beer industry. A couple of decades ago, three or four monster brewing companies dominated the U.S. beer market. The main competition came from major foreign brands. Then the micro-brewery phenomenon took off as consumers revolted against the sameness of the national brands and embraced the individuality of home brews, with their novel tastes, feisty branding and personal connection with consumers. The Brewers Association counted 1,871 microbreweries, 1,412 brewpubs and 135 regional craft breweries in 2014. That year saw the opening of 615 new breweries and only 46 closings. Craft brewers provided 115,469 jobs, an increase of almost 5,000 from the previous year.

The efflorescence of the beer industry is matched, in Virginia at least, with a veritable explosion in the number of wineries, not to mention artisinal producers of meats, cheeses, breads, seafoods, pastas, dressings, sauces, and confections. The Virginia’s Finest website lists 43 categories of made-in-Virginia products from herbs and honeys to soups and nuts.

The revolt against mass standardization is nothing new. The so-called “arts and crafts” movement originated in the late 1800s in reaction to machine production, and it never disappeared. But arts and crafts appear to be undergoing a resurgence, fueled by the growing hunger for unique, hand-crafted products and the rise of the Internet as an inexpensive distribution and marketing channel. In the future, inexpensive 3-D manufacturing will open up new fields for creative expression and the invention of entirely new products.

The rise of the arts-and-crafts economy is something devoutly to be wished for. Politicians will be tempted to jump on the bandwagon and “help” by doling out subsidies of some kind or another. Arguably, the fastest way to kill the movement is to make it dependent upon government largess. However, public policy probably can contribute to the movement by enabling artists, craftsmen, artisans and makers to form co-ops and mutual assistance societies to provide for common needs such as health care, disability insurance and the like. Tax policy should cease discriminating against the self-employed by extending the same tax breaks for health care provided to corporations, labor unions and other large entities.

For the most part, though, we just need to leave the artisans alone. They are creative people, and we should trust them to figure out what’s best for themselves.

Dominion’s Proposed Six-Year, Virginia Infrastructure Spend: $11.7 Billion


Source: Chmura Economics & Analytics

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Resources proposes to expend $11.7 billion over the next six years on energy infrastructure serving Virginia, including new generating plants, electric transmission lines, a gas pipeline and environmental clean-up, the company announced today. Of that amount, an estimated $5.7 billion will be spent in Virginia, producing a direct and indirect economic impact averaging $1.68 billion per year over the six-year period.

“Our growing Commonwealth requires an expanding and reliable energy infrastructure,” said Paul Koonce, CEO of Dominion’s Energy Infrastructure Group and president of Dominion Virginia Power. “Our capital investment program over the next six years is designed to meet that need and achieve environmental goals of the federal Clean Power Plan.”

Governor Terry McAuliffe weighed in with a favorable comment upon the investment program. “In order to build the new Virginia economy, we must have low-cost, diverse and reliable energy resources. These investments not only build upon an already solid foundation for economic growth in Virginia, they also create tens of thousands of jobs and produce billions of dollars in capital that benefits the Commonwealth today.”

Only one project on the list, construction of the Brunswick County gas-fired generating plant, has received regulatory approval. Others are at various stages of development, from being “on the drawing board” to moving through the regulatory process, according to Dominion spokesman David Botkins. Especially controversial are the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline; continued pre-construction development of the proposed North Anna 3 nuclear power plant; and several proposed electric transmission lines; all of which are opposed by landowners and/or environmentalists. Also controversial, because of potential impact on rate payers, is a proposal to put vulnerable electric distribution lines underground.

Assuming all the projects go forward, the economic impact on Virginia would be considerable. According to a study commissioned by Dominion and conducted by Chmura Economics & Analytics, Dominion’s capital investment would inject $771 million directly into Virginia’s economy in the first year, 2015, and would generate an additional $579 million in indirect and induced impact for a total impact of nearly $1.4 billion. Total impact would peak in 2017 at $2.5 billion and then level off around $1 billion annually in subsequent years.

About half the impact would come from construction spending, the press release stated, while “the rest would result from growth in other sectors of the economy as spending spread.”

Frank Rambo senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, responded in an email communication that Dominion should reallocate its investments from capital-intensive projects, which “produce high shareholder profits at the ratepayers’ expense,” into more labor intensive energy resources such as renewable technologies and energy efficiency. A shift from an over-reliance on natural gas to clean energy, he said, “will not only create more jobs but also help lower electric bills and create healthier communities.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The impact of Dominion’s proposed energy projects on Virginia’s economy would be considerable. More important than the short-term stimulus of the design, engineering and construction work is the necessity of expanding the capacity of Virginia’s energy infrastructure to meet the anticipated growth of Virginia’s population and economy — a critical point made in the press release by Virginia Chamber of Commerce CEO Barry DuVal. That benefit, not captured by the Dominion numbers or the Chmura study, would dwarf the impact of the capital expenditures themselves.

However, not all energy projects are created equal. Some offer a higher risk-adjusted Return on Investment than others. Is it worth $808 million to keep open the option of a third nuclear power unit at the North Anna power station that even Dominion concedes would cost rate payers $19 billion — with no guarantee that the project ever will be built? Is it worth spending $1 billion to bury roughly 20% of Dominion’s local distribution system to reduce the number of electric outages and shorten recovery times during major storm events?

Perhaps more fundamental is the question of what kind of electric grid Virginia wants to build. Dominion’s vision of the energy future is one in which Dominion continues to play a major role, building the power plants (including nuclear, natural gas, solar and wind), the electric grid, and the natural gas pipeline to supply the gas, all embedded in the larger, multistate PJM Interconnection system in which Dominion would swap electric power with out-of-state power producers as needed to meet peak demand and ensure reliability. Dominion’s critics envision a decentralized future with more wind and solar generated by independent, small-scale power producers less dependent upon large-scale transmission lines that shuttle electric power long distances. The costs and benefits of the competing visions are all but impossible to estimate with econometric models.

The Hampton Roads Economy in Two Graphs

Recession recovery in the U.S., Virginia and Hampton Roads, measured by total jobs restored, 2007-2015. Source: "The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015."

Recession recovery in the U.S., Virginia and Hampton Roads, measured by total jobs restored, 2007-2015. Source: “The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015.”

Hampton Roads didn’t have a bad year in 2014 — its economy grew 1.34%, higher than its growth rate in five of the previous six years. But that growth still didn’t come close to getting the economy back to pre-2007 recession levels, according to the 2015 “State of the Region” report published by Old Dominion University’s Center for Economic Analysis. The region still employs 15,000 fewer employees than in 2007.

The recent decline in defense spending — 3.2% below its 2011 peak — hasn’t helped (although it’s worth noting that defense spending is higher than in 2007).

Estimated direct Department of Defense spending, 2000-2015. Source: "State of the Region."

Estimated direct Department of Defense spending, 2000-2015. Source: “State of the Region.”

Writes lead author James V. Koch, ODU president emeritus:

The upshot of declining DOD spending is that it has forcibly diversified the Hampton Roads economy. We estimate that only 39.3 percent of our regional economic activity could be attributed directly and indirectly to defense spending in 2014. This is down from 44.9 percent in 2011 and our all-time high of 49.5 percent in 1984.

The region’s three other main industries are tourism, shipbuilding and ports. Tourism, as measured by hotel revenues, had yet to recover to 2007 levels by 2014 (although they may do so this year). Within the tourism sector, Virginia Beach has gained market share while the Historic Triangle has lost. Shipbuilding has been a bright spot; industry employment exceeds 2007 levels by 4,600 jobs.

Direct port-related activities account for 6% of the Hampton Roads regional economy. Cargo shipments reached a record level in 2015 at 210,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). Despite important advantages such as deep channels, cargo growth lagged that of East Coast ports as a whole. But the ports may represent the region’s best best for diversification from the military, the report suggests. It is well situated to handle the giant super-ships dominating the sea lanes. If the ports can deal with some off-terminal productivity issues, the could see continued growth.


Job Stimulus through Tax Reform

free_lunchby James A. Bacon

It is an axiom of economics that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Like Isaac Newton’s laws of physics, the adage is universally true… most of the time. Just as Newtonian physics breaks down at the quantum level, however, the free-lunch maxim breaks down in the realm of taxes. Some taxes depress economic activity so much that replacing them with less harmful taxes stimulates economic growth and job creation while remaining revenue-neutral.

Finding the right combination of taxes is the animating force behind the four-year effort of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy (TJI) to restructure Virginia’s tax code. Working with Chmura Economics & Analytics, President Michael Thompson introduced the idea in 2012 and has been refining the approach ever since. The Institute has just published an update.

In the past year, Thompson has been talking to groups representing business, municipal government and tax reform to identify a restructured tax system for Virginia that would be not only economically beneficial but politically palatable. The approach that emerged from the years-long process would eliminate three counterproductive business taxes — the Business Professional and Occupational License tax, the Machine & Tools tax, and the Merchants Capital tax — and replace lost revenue by expanding the sales tax to encompass currently exempt services. The health care sector would remain exempt.

Of the 23 scenarios examined, the one that produced the most positive economic benefits was “Scenario 5,” which included the reforms noted above plus eliminating the state’s bottom two personal income tax brackets (up to $5,000) and shaving the other two brackets by 9.25%. According to Chmura, the results would be:

  • 79,000 increase in private employment
  • $287 million increase in investment
  • $2.85 billion increase in real disposable income
  • $8.4 billion increase in state GDP

One important caveat: Thompson describes the economic model as a “dynamic tax/spending” model. If I correctly understand the meaning of that phrase, the model achieves revenue neutrality by including in its forecast revenues generated by the economic growth. While I prefer dynamic analysis to static analysis (basing tax policy on the assumption that changes in tax policy have no effect on real-world economic behavior), the approach does entail an extra layer of assumptions, which in turn introduces an added element of uncertainty to the analysis.

If Governor Terry McAuliffe wants to put Virginians back to work, tax policy may be the biggest lever he has at his disposal. He needs to give the idea serious consideration.

Virginia Migration Patterns

Sources of emigration to the Washington metropolitan area.

Sources of emigration to the Washington metropolitan area.

by James A. Bacon

The U.S. Census Bureau has released inter-metropolitan migration data based on its 2009-2013 American Community Survey, and Luke Juday at the Stat Chat blog has created a tool allowing people to visualize the origins and destinations of people coming and leaving each metropolitan area. The results for Virginia’s metros, though hardly surprising, are nonetheless intriguing. Showing the linkages between metros, I would suggest, shows how inter-connected they are by ties of family, friends, education and business.

The Washington metropolitan linkages are, strongest by far with the major cities of the Northeastern megalopolis, particularly Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Boston, but the region does have fairly strong ties to Virginia, including Richmond, Hampton Roads, Blacksburg and Charlottesville as well. Washington’s ties to states south of Virginia are tenuous. Only Atlanta registers as an important node for back and forth movement.

The net immigration, not shown in the maps but displayed in the table below, also is revealing. New York, Boston and Phillie send far more people to Washington than they receive in return. But Washington exports people to Virginia — Richmond at the top of the list, followed by Blacksburg and Charlottesville. One suspects there is a strong university connection with Blacksburg and Charlottesville. The steady leakage of people from Washington to Richmond is an interesting phenomenon worth digging into.


The Richmond story is marked by strong linkages with the other metros in Virginia. While its total migration numbers are smaller than those of Washington, a metropolitan region five times its size, they are larger as a percentage of the population. The situation is reversed for movement between Richmond and New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia; there is less movement than between Washington and those metros, even on a population-adjusted basis.

Sources of immigration to Richmond

Sources of immigration to Richmond

Richmond is a net exporter of population to Blacksburg and Harrisonburg, college towns, and a large importer from Washington, Norfolk and New York.

The one big surprise in this data: There was far less movement between Richmond and North Carolina metros than I expected. In my personal experience, Richmond is full of Tarheels (including my wife). I guess that anecdotal information doesn’t count for much.


I did not have time to develop comparable profiles for other Virginia metros, but if readers are inclined to do so, I would be happy to publish their analysis.

Student Debt and the Decline of New Business Formation

by James A. Bacon

Many are the ways in which burgeoning student debt — $1.2 trillion and rising — cripple the economy. On this blog we’ve discussed how debt delays family formation, housing purchases and consumer spending. Recent research from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Board also suggests that student debt dampens new business formation, an insight that ties into another line of inquiry on this blog: understanding the slow rate of job creation in the current economic cycle.

The engine of job creation in the U.S. economy is new business formation. The spawning of new businesses has experienced a long-term decline since 1978, but that decline has been particularly pronounced since 2005. In recent years more firms have exited the marketplace than have entered it, as seen in this Brookings Institution graph below, taken from “Declining Business Dynamism in the United States: A Look at States and Metros,” published in 2014. The numbers may have improved in the past two  years, but probably not enough to change the long-term picture.


I have argued on this blog that the massive wave of regulation enacted in the past six years has dampened the economic recovery by imposing large new costs on businesses. As the regulatory burden has increased, economies of scale have shifted in favor of larger firms which have the resources to deal with the regulations. Numerous industry sectors are consolidating: banking, hospitals and health insurance most visibly. Industry consolidation may be a factor in explaining the decline in overall net business formation but it only goes so far.

The Brookings data shows that the problem isn’t an accelerating death rate of businesses — the exit rate of firms from the economy has remained fairly stable since 1978 — it’s the dearth of business births. I would suggest that regulation has dampened new business formation by creating barriers to entry in many industries.

While I still hew to that view, I think there’s more to the story. There also is strong evidence that the surge in student debt — $1.2 trillion and rising — has depressed new business creation among young people.

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadephia

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadephia. (Click for larger image.)

The authors of the recently published Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia paper, “The Impact of Student Loan Debt on Small Business Formation,” has found a “significant and economically meaningful” negative correlation between geographic variation in student loan debt and net business formation for small firms of one to four employees. “Based on our model, an increase of one standard deviation in student debt reduced the number of businesses with one to four employees by 14% on average between 2000 and 2010.” (Please don’t ask me to define “standard deviation.” Here’s an an explanation.)

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. (Click for larger image.)

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. (Click for larger image.)

To launch a business, especially a small business, individuals need access to capital, the authors argue. Small businesses receive approximately 75% of this capital from banks in the form of loans, credit cards and lines of credit, which are contingent upon the borrower’s credit-worthiness. “Given the importance of an entrepreneur’s personal debt capacity in financing a startup business, personal debt that is incurred early in life and that restricts a person’s ability to take on future debt can have profound implications for growth in small businesses,” the study says.

The growth in student debt over the past decade has damaged the credit-worthiness of an entire demographic cohort: 17% of student loans are delinquent, and another 44% are not being repaid due to borrowers either still being in school or having received a repayment deferral or forbearance. Even students who are paying their debt on schedule find their credit worthiness downgraded.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial today, the Kauffman Foundation has found that new entrepreneurs ages 20 to 34 fell to 23% of self-starters in 2013, down from 35% in 1996.

The U.S. system of higher education may be creating the best educated generation in American history, but it may be the least entrepreneurial in decades.

As Virginians seek ways to reignite a state economy hobbled by the decline in federal spending and an eroding business climate, we need to give more attention to what it takes to stimulate new business formation. And that should entail taking a closer look at the link between higher ed and student debt, and the link between student debt and new business formation. All the state and federal “programs” designed to promote new business formation, I suspect, don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the rise in student indebtedness. Tackling student indebtedness gets us into a thicket of very complex issues that aren’t easily solved but that’s no excuse for failing to focus on what really matters.

A Tax Structure Finely Tuned for… a 20th Century Economy


Virginia business tax rates. Image credit: Tax Foundation, KPMG

A new study by the Tax Foundation and KPMG of state business taxes differs from previous studies, which look at average levels of taxation, by examining how state tax structures affect different types of business. The big conclusion from “Location Matters: The State Tax Costs of Doing Business“: Firms experience dramatically different tax rates because their exposure varies to different state and local taxes.

The study’s analysis of Virginia’s tax structure suggests that established companies experience much lower overall tax burdens than new companies. The Old Dominion ranks second best in the country for mature, labor-intensive manufacturing operations but only 35th for R&D facilities.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have frequently decried the lack of entrepreneurial dynamism in Virginia as a root cause for our sluggish economic performance. There may be many reasons for Virginia’s mediocre growth record in recent years but, based upon the data shown in the chart above, one of them is certainly the structure of business taxes.

In every category analyzed, new firms experience higher effective tax rates than mature firms. Just as important, look at the comparative ratings. Virginia ranks No. 2 in the country for mature, labor-intensive manufacturing companies — neither a growth sector, nor a particularly high-paying sector — but only 35th for R&D, the kind of economic activity every state covets. If we wanted to design an economy for the 20th century, not the 21st, we’ve done a pretty good job.

(Hat tip: Larry Gross)

Want Social Justice? Create Jobs.

Photo credit: Buz and Ned's

Photo credit: Buz and Ned’s

by James A. Bacon

I’m all in favor of people earning higher wages. I want to live in a society in which people make enough from their labors to live on without government assistance. I just don’t think that mandating a minimum wage is the way to go about it, for all the reasons that foes of the minimum wage usually cite that don’t bear repeating here. A better way to increase wages is to (a) increase the number of jobs in the economy, which would (b) give employees more options, which would (c) prompt employers to offer better wages, benefits and working conditions in order to hang onto their workforce. Crank up the jobs machine, and the wages, benefits and working conditions will follow.

This forehead-smackingly obvious formula can be seen at work in Richmond’s restaurant community. After years of sub-par economic growth following the Great Recession, competition for skilled restaurant employees in the Richmond region is finally heating up. And guess what’s happening — restaurateurs are raising wages.

Thus, we read in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today that Buz Grossberg, owner of Buz and Ned’s Real Barbecue restaurants, is bumping the starting pay to $12.50 per hour for regular employees and to $8 per hour for servers working for tips. That’s up from $8 and $6 an hour respectively.

Grossberg acted for reasons both idealistic and pragmatic. “This has been on my mind a long time, even before it became current politics,” he said. “It’s just gotten worse and worse. It’s gotten hard for people to repay their bills and see their family without working multiple jobs. … How do you attract people and keep people who can’t afford to feed their family? Pay them a living wage.”

But why did he act on his conscience now? Turns out that it’s getting harder finding and retaining talent, particularly kitchen workers, in Richmond’s increasingly competitive and crowded restaurant scene, according to other restaurateurs quoted in the article. Said Grossberg: “The people who would typically work [in the restaurant industry] are going other places.” Paying higher wages will bring them back in.

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s basic supply-and-demand economics. If the economy creates jobs at a faster rate, wages will rise faster. And how do we create more jobs? Once place to start would be to re-think some of the job-killing policies we’ve enacted over the past 15 years, starting with Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, the Affordable Care Act, EPA regulatory overreach, higher taxes, regulation of the Internet and dozens of other initiatives that collectively have gummed up the economy and slowed growth to a crawl.

Defenders of the current regulatory regime tend to blame mysterious “economic forces” beyond their control. I’m old enough to remember those who claimed the “stagflation” of the 1970s likewise was due to some mysterious change in the nature of the economy rather than the policies of Richard “We’re All Keynesians Now” Nixon and Jimmy “Gas Rationing” Carter. Then along came policies that killed inflation, deregulated major industry sectors, cut taxes and enacted and real government spending cuts, precipitating nearly two decades of job creation. The surge in jobs in the 1980s and 1990s made the minimum wage irrelevant in many parts of the country because businesses were so desperate for labor that they were paying more than the minimum already.

I do feel badly for anyone trying to make a living on the minimum wage. But the answer isn’t more of the same “social justice” economics that have created our moribund economy and depressed wages. The best social justice program in the world is a strong job-creating economy.

Market Failure and Government Failure

ethics_and_economicsby James A. Bacon

Jon Wight, a business school professor at the University of Richmond, is a huge fan of Adam Smith, best known for his classic economic treatise, “The Wealth of Nations.” Wight thinks Smith is one of the greatest economists who ever lived, not as much on the grounds that he championed “free markets,” as many conservatives might think, as on the way he built his economic theories upon a platform of morals and ethics, as articulated in his earlier, lesser known work, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Not surprisingly, Wight makes frequent references to Smith in his own, recently published book, “Ethics in Economics: an Introduction to Moral Frameworks,” in which he outlines a moral framework for understanding markets.

Wight, a friend of mine, argues that is impossible to disassociate markets from the cultural and moral context in which they are embedded. In one chapter, “Moral Limits to Markets,” he argues that not all human relationships can, nor should be, market relationships. Relationships between husband, wife and children, for instance, are not, and should not be, conducted in accordance with market rules. Similarly, he argues against price gouging in times of crisis, discrimination on the basis of race and the commercial transaction of human body parts (made all the more timely by the recent revelation of Planned Parenthood’s commerce in fetal tissue). At bottom, his book is an argument for social justice and a retort to the “modern welfare theory” school of economics that argues that voluntary transactions between willing buyers and sellers maximizes consumer preferences and economic welfare.

The book is an easy read, spiced with lots of contemporary allusions, of an incredibly abstract subject, and I urge Bacon’s Rebellion readers of a philosophical bent to buy it. The book advanced my thinking about the moral context of economics immeasurably. If you’re too cheap to buy the book, at least check out Wight’s “Economics and Ethics” blog here. He doesn’t always reach the same conclusions I do… well, let’s say he often reaches entirely different conclusions… but I like the way he thinks. He acknowledges the complexity and nuances of issues. He takes the trouble to understand the arguments of others even if, in the final analysis, he doesn’t agree with them.

To my mind, if there was one philosophical flaw to Wight’s book, it is this: While Wight does a masterful job of dissecting “market failures” — they are many, and they are real — and while he does acknowledge parenthetically that many government fixes to market failures do themselves have flaws, he doesn’t give the same level of attention to the “government failure” as he does to “market failure.”

That is a very lengthy and roundabout way to get to the subject of today’s post. A new Cato Institute paper by Chris Edwards, “Why the Federal Government Fails,” struck a chord precisely because Wight’s book had sensitized me to the issue of market failure and I had begun thinking that someone needs to categorize government failure in the systematic way. Just as Wight provides a taxonomy of market failure, Edwards provides a taxonomy of government failure.

I cannot say it better than Edwards himself in his executive summary:

Most Americans think that the federal government is incompetent and wasteful. Their negative view is not surprising given the steady stream of scandals emanating from Washington. Scholarly studies support the idea that many federal activities are misguided and harmful. A recent book on federal performance by Yale University law professor Peter Schuck concluded that failure is “endemic.”

What causes all the failures?

First, federal policies rely on top-down planning and coercion. That tends to create winners and losers, which is unlike the mutually beneficial relationships of markets. It also means that federal policies are based on guesswork because there is no price system to guide decisionmaking. A further problem is that failed policies are not weeded out because they are funded by taxes, which are compulsory and not contingent on performance.

Second, the government lacks knowledge about our complex society. That ignorance is behind many unintended and harmful side effects of federal policies. While markets gather knowledge from the bottom up and are rooted in individual preferences, the government’s actions destroy knowledge and squelch diversity.

Third, legislators often act counter to the general public interest. They use debt, an opaque tax system, and other techniques to hide the full costs of programs. Furthermore, they use logrolling to pass harmful policies that do not have broad public support. Continue reading