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Immigration, trade, and child care

Author(s): John Cochrane

From the Grumpy economist:

Both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton want to lower the cost and, presumably, increase the amount of child care. A quick economics quiz: What is the policy change that would have the greatest such effect?

I hope you answered: legal immigration of child care workers! And remove the large number of restrictions on providing child care.  As the WSJ points out in a recent editorial,

... regulation drives up the cost of care. States set minimums on square feet per child; licensing requirements; ratios for staff-to-children; group sizes. Zoning laws prevent care centers in convenient places such as residential neighborhoods. Regulation also limits options like informal care at grandma’s house or families who share nannies.

On the latter, zoning, for example, forbids commercial activity in residential-zoned areas, like the ones where people live. And WSJ left out the full weight of American labor law and taxation. Anyone who has tried to legally hire a nanny has a good sense of that. (See also Ivanka Trump's oped  describing the plan.)

Needless to say, that is not the candidates' preferred approach, who were vying with each other to offer federal subsidies. Mr. Trump is, needless to say, simultaneously vowing to deport large number of child-care workers. Mrs Clinton is not making any noises about removing legal restrictions or taxes on low-skill part time employment. (The WJS offers that "Mr. Trump deserves credit for noting" the above comments on regulation, but did not offer a link. If anyone knows where this is, put it in a comment, as I had not heard about it.)

A lot of economics comes down to: Supply competition is the best answer to just about every economic problem. 

This is a small example of a spreading disease in American economic policy. The recipe: 1) introduce strong supply and competition restrictions, usually to politically favored groups. Soon, however, those groups start charging higher prices. So 2) give subsidies so people can pay the higher prices induced by 1). It's perfect: now both sides depend on politicians. See, most egregiously, health care and housing.

The trouble is, you can only make one thing (child care, now) cheaper by making everything else more expensive. A tax credit for child care means higher taxes on everything else. We're running out of everything elses fast!

This is a good moment for supply and demand, and a good illustration of how this basic economic tool gives insights that are not obvious.

(If you can't see the supply and demand graph, try here.)  Demand slopes down. The less child care costs, the more of it people buy.  Supply curve slopes up. If child care workers can charge more, more people take those jobs or set up child care businesses.

The red graph shows what happens if we allow lots of immigration, and also deregulate supply. The supply curve shifts to the right -- more child care offered at the same price. Moreover, if we allow immigration, the supply curve becomes flatter -- a smaller increase in price produces a larger increase in the amount of child care.

There is a very important distinction between domestic and international supply. In the end, the US workforce is limited. The more people who go in to child care, the fewer do something else. The upward slope of the child-care supply curve represents an inward shift of the supply curves of everything else, meaning higher prices and lower quantities. Immigration gives us a free upward slope.

This graph analyzes a federal subsidy for child care. If people get a $100 subsidy, they are willing to pay $100 more for the same amount of child care, so the demand curve goes up by $100, as shown. I drew the supply curves with more extreme slopes, to make a deeper point.

The "restricted" supply curve is nearly vertical. This is what happens in an industry with strong supply restrictions, like, say, epi-pens. The subsidy means people are willing to pay $100 more. With no more supply forthcoming, the result is simply that people pay $100 more and get the same quantity.

Subsidizing something with restricted supply does not benefit consumers. It just raises the price and benefits the producers. 

The consumers, unaware of what's going on, become dependent on the subsidy of course. See health care and education.

With lots of supply competition, and a flat supply curve, the subsidy instead raises the quantity of child care delivered, which is presumably what both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump desire from the policy. A subsidy only increases quantities if there is lots of supply competition and easy entry. 

The journal gets this

Mrs. Clinton raises the Trump offer in every regard, from more Head Start funding to salary support for day-care workers. And if you think care is expensive now, wait until Mrs. Clinton wades in. She likes to say that child care can be more expensive than college tuition, which is false. The irony is that her day-care blowout would recreate what has made college notoriously expensive—large subsidies for the provider and buyer. Day-care centers and pre-Ks could raise prices, confident that government will cover the increase.

The graph offers a little more precision. Subsidies only raise college expenses because of restricted supply. The Administration's war on for profit colleges unambiguously pushes the supply curve to the left.

On the human side of our immigration restrictions, I recommend a beautiful New Yorker article by Rachel Aviv on the life of a woman who immigrated illegally from the Phillippines to care for the children of... well, people like the Trumps and Clintons. The US will not kick out illegal immigrants because deep down we know that without them the cost of child care will skyrocket. But the cost to a low-wage worker of illegal status -- never being able to see family again -- is worth remembering.

The New Yorker article makes clear also how much immigration to the US is driven by desperate conditions elsewhere. If you don't want immigration to the US, the best possible solution is to aggressively buy what other countries have to sell, so people can make a living there. Needless to say, neither Mr. Trump nor Mrs. Clinton seem at all aware of this obvious connection.

(Vaguely competent foreign policy is the second best possible solution. Refugees from Syria and Honduras would not be coming here if we had not let their country fall apart, or fueled a drug war.)

Most child care is not Mrs. Trump, handing off children to a loving nanny in Manhattan as she speeds off to her job as.. whatever it is she does. Tellingly, the Trump plan takes the form of a tax credit and a new addition to the bewildering number of tax sheltered savings vehicles. What, doesn't everyone have a tax lawyer? A lot of child care is done off the books, for people who also work off the books.  This is also a good moment to reflect on the wisdom of the new ban-cash movement plus e-verify so that every single transaction in the US is taxed and appropriately monitored for compliance with labor laws, licensing, OSHA, and so on...

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