Wise words from Warren Buffett. The Oracle of Omaha predicts how the rush to sharply raise the minimum wage will end. (Spoiler: badly for the people the policy purports to help.) And Buffett also offers a smart alternative to help low-income workers:
In my mind, the country’s economic policies should have two main objectives. First, we should wish, in our rich society, for every person who is willing to work to receive income that will provide him or her a decent lifestyle. Second, any plan to do that should not distort our market system, the key element required for growth and prosperity.
That second goal crumbles in the face of any plan to sizably increase the minimum wage. I may wish to have all jobs pay at least $15 an hour. But that minimum would almost certainly reduce employment in a major way, crushing many workers possessing only basic skills. Smaller increases, though obviously welcome, will still leave many hardworking Americans mired in poverty.
The better answer is a major and carefully crafted expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which currently goes to millions of low-income workers. Payments to eligible workers diminish as their earnings increase. But there is no disincentive effect: A gain in wages always produces a gain in overall income. The process is simple: You file a tax return, and the government sends you a check.
In essence, the EITC rewards work and provides an incentive for workers to improve their skills. Equally important, it does not distort market forces, thereby maximizing employment.
The existing EITC needs much improvement. Fraud is a big problem; penalties for it should be stiffened. There should be widespread publicity that workers can receive free and convenient filing help. An annual payment is now the rule; monthly installments would make more sense, since they would discourage people from taking out loans while waiting for their refunds to come through. Dollar amounts should be increased, particularly for those earning the least.
There is no perfect system, and some people, of course, are unable or unwilling to work. But the goal of the EITC — a livable income for everyone who works — is both appropriate and achievable for a great and prosperous nation. Let’s replace the American Nightmare with an American Promise: America will deliver a decent life for anyone willing to work.
Yep. Wage subsidies so work pays better without the potential antiemployment effects of the minimum wage. (Here is my plan to try to meld both policies.) I love that last bit especially: “America will deliver a decent life for anyone willing to work.” Right on. That’s a pretty good lens through which to examine public policy.
Buffett is also is great at explaining why a rising tide is no longer lifting all boats. And “worker voice” or “Reagan-Bush tax cuts” don’t get a mention:
The poor are most definitely not poor because the rich are rich. Nor are the rich undeserving. Most of them have contributed brilliant innovations or managerial expertise to America’s well-being. We all live far better because of Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Sam Walton and the like. Instead, this widening gap is an inevitable consequence of an advanced market-based economy. Think back to the agrarian America of only 200 years ago … Visualize an overlay graphic that positioned the job requirements of that day atop the skills of the early American labor force. Those two elements of employment would have lined up reasonably well. Not today. A comparable overlay would leave much of the labor force unmatched to the universe of attractive jobs. That mismatch is neither the fault of the market system nor the fault of the disadvantaged individuals. It is simply a consequence of an economic engine that constantly requires more high-order talents while reducing the need for commodity-like tasks.