Of Incentives and Jobs

Remember the early days of the recession and its intensification by the policies of Washington? Remember how the politics of envy ended up causing more job losses as the demagogues in the White House and on Capitol Hill lambasted incentives employers offered to successful employees? Good thing that the politics of envy are now behind us, that we have all grown up and recognized how foolish it all is to feel better by pulling other people down. Then again, maybe my blog post from 2009 still has some relevance today.

Weird things happen when we decide by law who should have jobs and who should not and we order how people and businesses should spend money. I am not referring to the legality of telling people who receive money from the government how to live their lives and run their businesses. I am referring to the wisdom of it. And by “weird” I really mean “bad.”

On Friday a press release came across my desk, issued by seven travel-meeting-event industry trade associations. Their basic message was that the public beating up of companies over the meetings they hold and the incentive programs that they have for employees is killing the travel, tourism, and meeting industry and the people who work in it. They estimate that 200,000 jobs were lost in that industry in 2008, and a larger number of job losses are predicted for 2009.

Even the old communist governments figured out that workers respond to incentives. Under the power of incentives people work harder, smarter, and more creatively. They may even enjoy their work more. Sometimes incentives that take the employee out of the normal routine can be very powerful. If left to their own devices, businesses will experiment with different packages of incentives to guide their employees into the most efficient ways to accomplish company goals and objectives. Will they get it right? Often they will not. When they get it wrong, they try something else.

What is the best set of incentives, and should the incentives include travel and recreation programs? I do not know, and neither do you. No one has enough information, smarts, or involvement to know. You may know what works for you, but are you willing to say that others should be offered the same rewards or that you should be given the same incentive program designed by someone somewhere else or in some other line of work? Everyone meeting company goals gets a set of golf clubs. That may work fine for Harry, but how about for you?

While it may be lots of fun to rant about businesses sending employees to Florida for a weekend, do we have any idea how that might figure into the incentive programs in those businesses? If you take that option away, what other option will work as well or as efficiently? Again, I do not know, and neither do you.

Up until recently, I did not have to know or pretend to know. We left it for businesses and their employees to figure out. In view of the efficiency of our businesses–which efficiency continued to improve and lead the world even in 2008–American businesses have been getting the incentives much more right than wrong. When we decide to make those decisions for other people, especially when we try do so through government force, we can be pretty sure we will get it wrong. Who wants to explain to the 200,000 travel and tourism industry people who are in danger of losing their jobs why businesses should not be holding meetings in Williamsburg or San Antonio or Nashville? Step up now; a frozen turkey if you get it right.

(First published February 8, 2009)

Of Plumber Joe and Community Organizer Barry

I first published this before the 2008 presidential election. In the years since, President Obama’s community organizer background has faithfully exerted itself.

It took a real life example to give life to the key difference between the two candidates for president. When Plumber Joe met Barack Obama campaigning in his neighborhood, Joe asked the would-be president, why do you want to tax my small business? Actually, more precisely, Joe wants to buy the plumbing business he has worked at, and Obama wants to raise taxes on it, and Joe asked Obama, why? At first, Obama equivocated and mumbled something about getting some tax breaks to offset the tax hikes. When Joe refused to buy into that sleight of hand trick, Obama fessed up. Obama admitted that he wanted to spread the wealth around. In other words, he said that Joe would be making too much money, so Obama wanted to take from him and give to someone else.

Why would Obama want to do that? Because, unlike Plumber Joe, who has a real job, Obama’s career experience came as a “community organizer” (when he was known in Chicago as Barry). Taking money from people and giving it to others is what community organizers do. Barry the Community Organizer now wants to organize a big community, of over 300 million people, and he wants to keep spreading the wealth around. Community organizers like to do that, because they like to get the credit for being compassionate and generous, compassionate and generous handing out other people’s money.

Joe has worked hard as a plumber. Joe has saved and prospered. Now Joe wants to own his own business and provide work for other employees. The employees, these plumbers, would provide plumbing services and get paid by their customers. Barack Obama wants to take some of that money—O.K., a lot of that money—and spread it around to people who would get their money from Barack, people who have not been as “lucky” as Plumber Joe.

Lucky? My guess is that it was not luck that made Joe work hard over the years and save his money to be in a position to own a business and provide real jobs to other people. Under a President Obama, Joe and others like him would become unlucky.

John McCain has been trying to point out for weeks that the change offered by Barack Obama is a big time return to the tired old tax and spend politics of the big government politicians. John McCain is not the most eloquent campaigner, and the mass media has been doing its best to bury his message anyway. McCain finally found a real life example, and that is the most eloquent statement of all. At the last national debate, on a stage that the mass media could not ignore, McCain introduced us to Joe the Plumber (who by the way did not ask for all the attention and is a bit embarrassed by it), and McCain asked, why raise his taxes? Why raise anybody’s taxes going into an economic downturn?

If you do not raise the taxes, you cannot keep spending other people’s money and winning praise for your compassion and generosity. And that is the point of this election.

(First published October 16, 2008)

Of Borrowing and Saving

The basic rule is, if you are not already saving, then you are not ready to borrow. This may sound paradoxical, but it is the only safe way to approach borrowing.

You may wonder, if I have savings, then why would I borrow? That question may be answered in any number of ways. Asking it suggests some lack of understanding of the proper purpose of borrowing.

The proper purpose of borrowing is to manage your income. You should never borrow to spend beyond your income.

Most people receive income in lumps, like once a month or twice a month. Expenses do not always behave themselves that way. First, there are the every day expenses, such as for food, transportation, and a wide range of miscellaneous minor expenditures that quickly add up. Then there are other expenses that occur monthly and may more or less happen at about the same time as your income. A third category is the big expenditure, that may come once or twice a year, such as tuition, taxes, major purchases, insurance premiums. Since the timing of our income and outgo often do not line up, we use borrowing to help bring the two into line.

For example, the tuition is due in September, but you plan to pay for college by working through the school year. A student loan or other borrowing arrangement with the college can line your income up with the expense.

Another example might involve a big appliance. Your refrigerator breaks down and you need a new one. You may not usually have several hundred dollars of unallocated income available in any one month to pay for the new refrigerator, but you likely will over the course of a year. Borrowing lets you draw that income from the course of the year into your current month and match it against this large purchase needed today.

Here is a bigger example. You need a new car, both for family transportation and perhaps even for travel to work. Very few people have enough ready income to buy the new car with what will be received in any one month. Most people, though, can draw upon funds available from their income over the course of a few years to pay for the car, and borrowing is the tool that they can use to do that.

Of course, this borrowing from the future to pay for something today can be abused. There is a natural temptation common to man to seek gratification today and worry about tomorrow’s problems tomorrow, even while causing them today. Two things can help counter this potential for abuse. One is interest, and the other is saving.

Interest is what we pay for borrowing. While rewarding the lender, it is a penalty against anyone who borrows in order to spend beyond his income. As you spend beyond your income, the interest mounts. In the end, it will bring down the abuser once the abuse has gone too far and gets out of hand.

Saving is a more benign and effective check on the impulse to borrow in order to spend beyond income. If you are regularly saving, you are doing something even more important than preparing for the future and reaping the rewards from lending to other borrowers. By definition, if you are saving, you are living within your income. You are taking part of your income and putting it aside. That discipline is what is needed to prevent you from using borrowing to exceed your income. You have a proven practice of spending less than you earn.

That is why I say that if you are saving, then you are prepared to borrow, and if you are not saving, then you are either living right on the edge—spending your income as fast as it is received—or you are going beyond, borrowing to spend beyond what you earn, and that leads to trouble. Then you will be spending to consume something that you did not earn and do not deserve. The eventual price for that is loss of freedom, as you must in the future consume much less than you earn in order to satisfy the debts.

(First published September 8, 2008)