France at the Brink (Again)?

This Sunday, French voters will return to the polls to decide the country’s next president. Last month’s first-round vote reduced the field to two unconventional candidates: Emmanuel Macron, formerly a top official of the left-wing Parti Socialiste and now leader of the fledgling En Marche! party; and Marine Le Pen, until recently the leader of the nationalist-right Front National

“The China Shock” Implicates Domestic Policies, Not Trade

A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, titled “The China Shock: Learning from Labor Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade,” has created Piketty-like buzz in U.S. trade policy circles this year.  Among the paper’s findings is that the growth of imports from China between 1999 and 2011 caused a U.S. employment decline of 2.4 million workers, and that wages and employment prospects for those who lost jobs remained depressed for many years after the initial effect. 

While commentators on the left have trumpeted these findings as some long-awaited refutation of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the authors have distanced themselves from those conclusions, portraying their analysis as an indictment of a previously prevailing economic consensus that the costs of labor market adjustment to increased trade would be relatively subdued (although I’m skeptical that such a consensus ever existed). But in a year when trade has been scapegoated for nearly everything perceived to be wrong in society, the release of this paper no doubt reinforced fears – and fueled demagogic rants – about trade and globalization being scourges to contain, and even eradicate.

Last week, Alan Reynolds explained why we should take Autor, et. al.’s job-loss figures with a pinch of salt, but there is an even more fundamental point to make here. That is: Trade has one role to perform – to grow the economic pie. Trade fulfills that role by allowing us to specialize. By expanding the size of markets to enable more refined specialization and economies of scale, trade enables us to produce and, thus, consume more.  Nothing more is required of trade. Nothing!

Still, politicians, media, and other commentators blame trade for an allegedly unfair distribution of that pie and for the persistence of frictions in domestic labor markets. But reducing those frictions and managing distribution of the larger economic pie are not matters for trade policy.  They are matters for domestic policy. Trade does its job. Policymakers must do their jobs, too.

Another Lesson from Bastiat: So-Called Employment Protection Legislation Is Bad News for Workers

Frederic Bastiat, the great French economist (yes, such creatures used to exist) from the 1800s, famously observed that a good economist always considers both the “seen” and “unseen” consequences of any action.

A sloppy economist looks at the recipients of government programs and declares that the economy will be stimulated by this additional money that is easily seen, whereas a good economist recognizes that the government can’t redistribute money without doing unseen damage by first taxing or borrowing it from the private sector.

A sloppy economist looks at bailouts and declares that the economy will be stronger because the inefficient firms that stay in business are easily seen, whereas a good economist recognizes that such policies imposes considerable unseen damage by promoting moral hazard and undermining the efficient allocation of labor and capital.

We now have another example to add to our list. Many European nations have “social protection” laws that are designed to shield people from the supposed harshness of capitalism. And part of this approach is so-called Employment Protection Legislation, which ostensibly protects workers by, for instance, making layoffs very difficult.

Should Low-Skill Workers Eat Cake?

Yesterday, the governors of California and New York signed legislation to raise their states’ minimum wage over the next few years to $15 an hour throughout California and much of New York. Similar proposals are percolating in other state and local governments, and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called for a national minimum wage of $15/hour.

Predictably, critics of raising the minimum wage are arguing that the higher wage floor will hurt employment for low-skill workers, the very people the wage floor is intended to help. A worker will be employed only if the value of his output is greater than the cost of employing him—a cost that includes wages, employer payroll taxes (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance), training and outfitting costs, the new health care mandate and other benefits, etc. According to these opponents, the higher wage floor will reduce employment for low-skill workers and encourage employers to find non-labor ways to accomplish low-skill tasks (e.g., ATM machines, self-serve gas pumps, vending machines, automated phone answering systems).

Wage-increase supporters dismiss this concern, claiming there’s no proof that a higher wage floor hurts employment. A very large body of empirical research indicates otherwise, however, with the negative effects falling mainly on workers below age 25 (which isn’t surprising, as 77% of workers earning the federal minimum wage are below age 25, and they have few demonstrated work skills). Wage-increase supporters can argue the research isn’t unanimous, but given the one-sidedness of the extensive empirical evidence, that argument sounds a bit like climate change denial—if not creation science.

More thoughtful wage-increase supporters have begun offering a different argument: Yes, they concede, raising the minimum wage can hurt low-skill employment. But that harm is a worthwhile tradeoff for better wages for the remaining low-skill work: some workers may lose their jobs or some work hours, but others will get a raise.

This argument is important and interesting—in a Marie Antoinette* sort of way.

Air Hostesses Then and Now

In the mid-1960s, being an air hostess was considered to be a glamorous job. Back then, however, air stewardesses were paid less than half of what they make today. They also had to endure much longer flights, since 1960s airplanes carried relatively little fuel and had to stop for refueling. That also meant that flight attendants had to serve more meals and, consequently, worked harder during the flight. Most importantly, the likelihood of dying on the job declined substantially.

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