Bernie Sanders keeps probing for ways to create a backdoor minimum income, and he’s eager to loot successful job creators and their customers in the process. Last month I wrote about the folly of his proposed legislation that would offer federal job guarantees to all. A new Sanders bill, introduced jointly with Rep. Ro Khanna (D – CA), is an equally bad idea called the Stop BEZOS Act, or the “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act”. It’s pretty obvious that the selection of the acronym preceded the naming of the bill. Imagine the fun his Senate staffers had with that! The logical flaws embedded in the title of the act are bad enough. The effort to garner attention by using the title to smear the name of a famous technology entrepreneur is sickening.
Jeff Bezos, of course, is the founder and CEO of Amazon, the online retailer, as well as the owner of the Washington Post. Amazon has been rewarded by consumers for its excellent service and aggressive pricing, and it is now valued at about $1 trillion. That makes Bezos a very wealthy man, and it is no coincidence that Sanders has chosen to make an example of him in an effort to inflame envy and classist passions.
While some details of the bill remain sketchy, firms with more than 500 workers would face a 100% tax on every dollar of federal benefits received by those employees. But the tax would apply only to “low-wage” employees, however that is defined, and not simply any employee receiving federal benefits. If the bill became law (and it won’t any time soon), it would require a costly federal administrative apparatus to coordinate between several agencies, including the IRS. Beyond the tax itself, the compliance costs for firms won’t be cheap, and it will create terrible incentives: if you own a business, you would have a strong incentive to avoid hiring workers with little experience or weak skills, or anyone you might deem likely to be a recipient of federal aid. If you have 499 employees, you’ll probably think hard about how to execute future growth plans. Nothing could do more to improve the return to investment in automation.
Is Amazon really a “bad” employer? That’s what the title of the Sanders bill says. In fact, the company has been accused of harsh labor practices in its fulfillment centers. Life for corporate managers is said to be no picnic, and labor turnover at Amazon is high. Nonetheless, the wages it pays attract plenty of applicants. Unskilled labor does not command a high wage, and that is no fault of an employer willing to provide them with work and experience. Yet the bill would punish those employers, as well as employers having part-time workers drawing federal aid.
An absence of punishment can hardly be described as a “subsidy”, as the bill’s title suggests. But that is exactly how leftists think, at least when they do the punishing. In this respect, the bill’s title is an assault on logic and a misuse of language. It would also represent a violation of constitutional principles like property rights and freedom of contract.
The idea of taxing employers to recoup any public aid received by their workers is intended to affect a de facto “living wage”. However, one benefit of an independent social safety net, as opposed to a living wage tied to that net, is that the former largely preserves the operation of labor markets, despite creating some nasty labor-supply incentives. Wage rates that approximate the value of worker productivity allow efficient matching of jobs with workers having the requisite skills, even if the skills are relatively low-grade. Those wages also minimize distortions in the economics of production within firms and across different industries. Furthermore, prices faced by buyers should reflect the real resource costs associated with demands for various goods. They should not be inflated by political decisions about the level of federal welfare benefits. Quite simply, preserving labor market efficiency enhances the ability of the economy to allocate resources to the uses for which they are most highly-valued.
There are independent questions about whether the structure and level of benefits provided by the welfare state are appropriate. Those are matters of legitimate policy debate, and those benefits must be funded by taxpayers, but they should be funded in the least distortionary way possible. Bernie Sanders imagines that the burden of those taxes can simply be imposed on large employers with no further consequences, but he is badly mistaken. Consumers will shoulder a significant part of that burden under his latest scheme. And, of course, Sanders’ beef with Bezos is a cynical political ploy. It amounts to cheap scapegoating intended to promote another one of Sanders’ bad policy ideas.