Note: 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.)
When 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:
In his latest column, Tyler Cowen points out that whatever economic recovery we’ve experienced has “largely bypassed young people,” arguing that such a development is bound to have an impact for years to come:
For Americans aged 16 to 24 who aren’t enrolled in school, the employment picture is grim. Only 36 percent are working full time, down 10 percentage points from 2007. Longer term, the overall labor-force participation rate for that age group has dropped 20 percentage points for men and 14 points for women since 1989.
This lack of jobs will damage the long-term careers of a big chunk of the next working generation. Not working after you finish school very often means missing out on developing the skills and habits that will serve you well later on. The current employment numbers are therefore like a telescope into the future labor market: a 23-year-old who is working part time as a dog walker, yoga instructor or retail clerk may be having fun, but perhaps will receive fewer promotions as a 47-year-old.
Cowen notes a higher minimum wage as one potential culprit, but argues that “the root causes run much deeper,” ranging from increasing uncertainty to expanding globalization to a newfound pickiness among employers. Arnold Kling offers some additional hypotheses, including the idea that decreases in child-rearing among the young-and-able will likely lead to decreases in a need or desire to work full-time. (more…)
For this week’s Acton Commentary, ahead of Labor Day weekend, I write about “working harder and smarter,” lessons we can learn from Ashton Kutcher and Mike Rowe.
One of the implications of connecting hard work with smart work is that the difficulty of work on its own does not determine its value in the marketplace. It isn’t a question of how hard you are working, but how hard you are working in productive service. This is why Lester DeKoster writes,
The paycheck follows upon work. Often the harder we work, the larger the paycheck—though, as many workers know, this unfortunately is not an invariable law. That is because, as we shall see, work and wage are not related as cause and effect.
He refers to money as the “bait,” which induces us to work and which tends to direct our work in service to others. But the bait can become a “trap” if we conflate the meaning of work with the wage: “Work endows life with meaning because of what work is, not because of what it earns. Paychecks buy goods and services provided to us through the gift of selves by others, but money buys no meaning. Life’s meanings are not for sale!”
The protests organized by labor organizations to advocate for an increase in the minimum wage have garnered attention, most recently from the NYT, which editorialized in favor of such moves. Over at Think Christian, I weigh in with an attempt to provide some more of the complex context behind the moral evaluation of such mandates.
In the piece, I’m really less interested in the plight of current-minimum wage workers relative to those who might become minimum-wage workers with an increase, those who are currently priced-out of labor markets because of minimum-wage legislation, and those who will be priced out with an increase.
Earlier this week, Joseph Sunde discussed the issue with an eye towards the price of labor: “Prices are not play things.” I largely agree with Joseph about the significance of the price associated with various kinds of labor. The signal that minimum-wage workers should be receiving is that their work is not that specialized or valuable in the marketplace. You can rage against the values of the marketplace all you like, but that’s what the prices signal.
One of the most basic concepts in economics and business is marginal or incremental cost, the additional cost needed to produce or purchase one more unit of a good or service. For example, if a business can produce 100 widgets at a total cost of $5,000 and 101 widgets for $5,500, the marginal cost of the 151st unit is $500. At that rate, the company has a disincentive to produce more than 100 widgets since the cost rises sharply (an average additional cost of $4.45 per widget).
The same principle applies to the cost of labor. Imagine a worker who makes $16 an hour for 29 hours per week but whose incremental cost for the 30th hour of work each week rises to $112.15. For the 29 hours of labor, the cost is $464 while for 30 the cost is $576.15. That sharp increase would prevent many employers from hiring workers for more than 29 hours per week.
“More and more, I find Catholics dividing themselves into capitalist and distributist camps,” writes Bernardo Aparicio García, president of the Catholic journal Dappled Things. To help readers establish “a firm foundation” for thinking about economic questions, García opened up the pages of his journal to Robert T. Miller, for capitalism, and John C. Médaille, for distributism. The result is a lengthy exchange “On Truth and Trade: Economics and the Catholic Vision of the Good Life.”
Miller is a professor of law at the Villanova University School of Law and writes for First Things. Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He writes for the Distributist Review. Here are some snippets from the debate:
… I will defend a more modest proposition, namely, that, for people like us in a society like ours, capitalism is the most reasonable choice among the various economic systems we might adopt. To defend this more modest proposition, I start with some deep assumptions about human life.
Among these, the deepest is that human beings, being physical beings, have material needs and so must organize the world’s material resources to meet them. Another deep assumption is that even modestly complex manipulations of material resources—let alone sophisticated projects like building transcontinental railroads, designing computers and their software, or refining petroleum products—require the cooperation of very large numbers of human beings. This point is vastly under-appreciated. In 1958 Leonard Read famously estimated that the number of human beings involved in producing an ordinary wooden pencil from raw materials to final product exceeds one million; nowadays, in a more complex economy, that’s probably a gross underestimate. Yet another assumption is that information about the various possible uses of resources is difficult to obtain and analyze and, moreover, changes very rapidly.
From a moral point of view, what we want from an economic system is that it generate and distribute resources in a way that maximizes the long-run probability that all members of society have enough goods and services to lead decent lives. One way to do this would be to appoint a central body authorized to allocate resources and charged with responsibility to ensure that everyone receives a fair share. This is socialism, and it has proved a very poor solution to the economic problem. There are two main reasons for this. The first concerns information: the central authority cannot acquire enough reliable information, much less process it fast enough, to allocate resources efficiently. This results in tremendous waste. Thus, in the former Soviet Union, warehouses full of unneeded machine parts sat and rusted while consumers found no toilet paper on the store shelves.
Clearly, the standard model of economics has failed us. Not only has it failed to bring a stable economic order, but it has destabilized the family and the community as well, and grown the government past any reasonable bounds. Clearly, a different model is needed. Note that I said “different” rather than “new.” It is not a question of inventing new systems, but of examining existing systems to see what works and what doesn’t. Economics—or rather political economy—is preeminently a practical science. We need to find out what works, and adapt it to our own circumstances. Inventing models is easy; getting them to work is hard. And if a system has no existing implementations, we are permitted to assume that it can’t be implemented. So, can we find a system on the ground and working that will address our questions of political economy?
I believe we can, and that system is distributism. This system seeks to restore distributive justice to its proper place in the economic order; its main tenet is that without a proper distribution of the rewards of production, markets cannot be cleared, family life will be disturbed, and the markets will become more dependent on government and consumer finance to clear.
Now the major difference between distributism and conventional economics has to do with property and a just wage; that is, with the things the Catholic Church teaches as essential to economic order. Standard economics justifies the wage on the basis of “free contract,” that is, if there is no government coercion which forces someone to accept a given wage, then the wage must be considered “just.” Further, through free bargaining, both sides, capital and labor, will get what they actually produce and productivity will be properly rewarded.
Also see Beyond Distributism by Thomas E. Woods Jr., available in the Acton Bookshoppe.