Posts Tagged ‘cost’

The power of modular bureaucracy

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

The news story du jour is to muse about why small businesses are not hiring.  Talk of tax credits, in my view, totally misses the point.

Nostradoofus essentially answered this question some time ago:  the problem is not cost, but red tape, both government and private.

The non-salary costs of hiring employees (chiefly health insurance, worker’s comp, liability insurance, legal work and tax filings) have grown far more complex and unpredictable in the past 15 years, yet are almost entirely outside the control of both employer and employee.

The problem is not so much the expense, but the trend toward ever greater UNCERTAINTY and COMPLEXITY of employing workers — the thousand small details that constantly change and that are outside the employer’s control.

This problem falls disproportionately on small business, which lacks the scale to employ specialized human resources staff to handle the complexity and unpredictable change.  Small business also lacks the financial depth to handle unpredictable changes in cost.

Repeat:  the costs themselves are not the problem.  Health insurance and pensions, for example, are both good and necessary. The problem is the UNCERTAINTY of those costs, and the COMPLEXITY of compliance.

This trend also helps explain offshoring.

To bring the problem into better focus, consider the fact that most small businesses have 0 or 1 employees.  As a result, to move the unemployment needle significantly would require that we convince a lot of solo businesspeople to hire their first employee.  This, in turn, would require convincing each of those prospective employers to do all of the following.

  • File weekly, monthly and quarterly employment tax reports with at least 3 different taxing agencies.
  • Expose themselves to huge penalties if they file anything incorrectly.
  • Educate themselves about insurance (liability, worker’s comp, medical) and pensions.
  • Shop for insurance at least once a year.
  • Take on “single unknowns” like unpredictable growth in health insurance costs.
  • Take on the “double unknown” of unpredictable liability exposure to employees.

Balanced against this commitment of hundreds of hours a year and a totally unpredictable financial commitment, the prospective employer has a simple alternative:  bid the work out on  If the employer can engage someone outside the US, they eliminate all tax filings, insurance and pensions, and almost all legal liability.  They just send cash by PayPal when the job is done.

From the perspective of the harried, overworked solo businessperson, this simplification is much more compelling than any mere cost advantage from offshoring.  Other things equal (cost and quality), offshoring is by far the better deal for the small business, because it is so much simpler.

The only policy solution here is for the US to get serious about streamlining its sclerotic employment system.  For example, one of the best arguments for nationalized health care and pensions is that they are simple and modular.  You just pay into them and get the services.  This allows both worker and employer to focus their attention on other things.

Independent modules, by their nature, offer lower performance than purpose-optimized solutions.  Viewed in isolation, modules are suboptimal.  But what they lack in efficiency, they more than make up for in simplicity and maintainability.  This is as true with government and bureaucracy as it is with software development.

It would be irrational to argue that optimization is always more important than simplicity, just as it would be irrational to argue we should write all software in assembly language, just because it will run faster.

The Essence of our Predicament

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

The essence of our economic predicament is that the cost of debt has risen dramatically on instruments the Fed can’t control: longer durations and riskier issuers.

This happened to corporations and consumers simultaneously. Both rises were essentially unexpected, i.e. not priced in. Now we’re getting whipsawed as realization of the new cost of capital is priced in.

Other things equal, disinflation or deflation is the logical result of an uncontrolled, unexpected, sustained, large increase in the cost of capital.

Fed rate cuts can mitigate that, but not as much as desired, because most of the problem is concentrated at the other end of the risk and duration spectrum, e.g. 30 year mortgages or BBB corporate debt.

This essentially all resulted from a loss of faith in the judgment of the rating agencies, and in the solvency of the debt insurers. The Fed rate could go to zero, and banks would still be afraid to lend to a BBB credit, because they can’t be sure it’s really BBB any more, or that they can insure reliably against a default. So restoring faith in the ratings agencies and debt insurers is probably a prerequisite
to flattening both the yield curve and the risk premium.

As long as it stays like that, we appear to be facing an era in which asset prices are falling and cost of servicing debt is rising, so that seems deflationary. The alternative, which I prefer, is to cut Fed
rates so aggressively that things go the other way, i.e. dollar falls, durables prices rise, etc. But keep in mind that fewer people have much equity left to buy things with, no matter where rates go.

That’s how it looks from this armchair.