Posts tagged with: labor

unemployedNote: This is the latest entry in the Acton blog series, “What Christians Should Know About Economics.” For other entries in the series see this post.

 The Term: Unemployment

What it Means: If you consult a dictionary, you’ll find a number of commonsensical definitions for unemployment: the state of being without a job; being without a paid job but available to work, etc. But like many other economic terms, the dictionary definition can vary significantly from how the term is often used. For example, since your teenage daughter, your neighbor’s stay-at-home spouse, or your retired grandfather are without a job, are they considered “unemployed”? In each case the answer is the same: It depends.

According to the federal government, to be unemployed a person must (a) be jobless, (b) looking for a job, and (c) available for work.

People are considered employed if they have a job (whether temporary, part-time, etc.). People who are neither employed nor unemployed are considered to be not in the labor force.

In America, the labor force consists of all persons 16 years old and over who are not serving on active duty in the military and are not confined to institutions such as nursing homes and prisons and either have a job or are looking for work. The labor force is made up of both the employed and the unemployed.

So unemployment refers to anyone who doesn’t have a job, wants one and is available to work, and is actively looking for work. That last part is particularly important because “discouraged workers” are not counted as unemployed. (See below for more on discouraged workers.)

Because jobs can serve the needs of our neighbors and lead to human flourishing both for the individual and communities, they are the most important part of a morally functioning economy. Workers dropping out of the labor force because they’ve grown discouraged is therefore one of the most pressing moral and economic issues in America today. Sadly, it is also one of the most overlooked.

Today, the Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee released some stats showing the shocking decline in the male participation in the labor force, particularly men between the ages of 25-54:

Record 1 In 8 American Men In Their Prime Working Years Are Not In The Labor Force_0.preview


According to the committee members:


Terminator-2-Judgement-Day-posterI oppose implementing Skynet and increasing minimum wage laws for the same reason: to forestall the robots.

It’s probably inevitable that a T-1000 will return from the future to terminate John Connor. But there is still something we can do to prevent a TIOS from eliminating the cashier at your local McDonalds.

In Europe, McDonalds has ordered 7,000 TIOSs (Touch Interface Ordering Systems) to take food orders and payment. In America, Panera Bread will replace all of their cashiers with wage-free robots in all of their 1,800 nationwide locations by 2016. There is even a burger-making robot that can churn out 360 gourmet hamburgers per hour.

I, for one, welcome our new fast-food robot overlords. I’m just not ready for them yet.

America could have saved more jobs if, prior to the Industrial Revolution, politicians had banned the use of tractors. But that would have made everyone (especially those of us living in 2014) much worse off. Many Americans understand this point and yet still believe that when workers lose their jobs, we automatically become worse off.

Economist Bryan Caplan explains the problem with this ‘make-work’ bias, and why we are better off because of 19th century workers who lost their farm jobs.

mcdonalds“Clean up your own mess. Your mother doesn’t work here.”

That was a sign, printed on dot matrix printer paper, which hung in the breakroom of the McDonald’s where I worked. While that was nearly thirty years ago, I suspect that same sign is still there (though probably reprinted on a laser printer). But the idea behind it has changed. Your mother may not work at McDonalds, but the company—and others that hire low-skilled employees—are increasingly taking on the role of in loco parentis.

Lessons in basic life skills that were once taught by parents—such as punctuality, self-direction, basic personal hygiene—are increasingly being provided by the shift manager at the local fast food restaurant. That is why it’s absurd to claim that companies that are willing to hire people who are unqualified for the labor force are somehow getting over on the American taxpayer.

As Reihan Salam,

Seattle-mystWhen I was growing up I had a buddy—let’s call him “Bob”—who was constantly asking, “What happens if we do . . . ?” Bob’s curiosity, however, only led him to wonder about foolish actions. He never pondered, for example, what would happen if we all volunteered at the senior citizens center. Instead, his thinking ran more along the lines of what would happen if we jumped off the senior citizens center.

The reaction of me and the rest of my friends was always, “Let’s find out!” But we were more prudent than Bob (or maybe just more cowardly) so we’d encourage him to try whatever reckless idea he had in mind so we could learn from his experience. We learned, for instance, that if jump off the 3-story senior citizens center, a stack of cardboard boxes will not be enough to sufficiently break your fall.

Bob’s shenanigans would daily provide for us what social scientists would call a “natural experiment.” A natural experiment is a study of the effect of an independent variable, which has not been planned or manipulated by the researchers, on a dependent variable. (The word ‘natural’ in the term natural experiment therefore refers to an event that is not planned by the researchers.)

The city of Seattle is about to pull a Bob, by foolishly raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The effect on the citizens of Seattle will be almost entirely harmful. But it will provide a natural experiment on the effect of raising the minimum wage laws that the rest of American can learn from. Anyone who isn’t already convinced that increasing the minimum wage has a detrimental impact on employment and harm minority workers will, in a few years, have solid proof. We will all be able to look to Seattle to see the difference between good, albeit naive, intentions and sound economic policy.

Here are some of the effects I predict the policy will have in the next three years:

hobbylobby1The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby contraception case. But which arguments will have the most influence on the justices? Michael McConnel, a respected Religion Clauses scholar from Standford, explains which four arguments are most likely to be important:

Cutting through the politicized hype about the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga case (“Corporations have no rights!” “War on Women!”) the Justices during oral argument focused on four serious legal questions, which deserve a serious answer:

(1)  Could Hobby Lobby avoid a substantial burden on its religious exercise by dropping health insurance and paying fines of $2,000 per employee?

(2)  Does the government have a compelling interest in protecting the statutory rights of Hobby Lobby’s employees?

(3)  Would a ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby give rise to a slippery slope of exemptions from vaccines, minimum wage laws, anti-discrimination laws, and the like?

(4)  Has the government satisfied the least restrictive means test?

I think the answer to all four questions is “no.” I offer brief thoughts on each below.

Read more . . .