(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘labor

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood”*…

… so the quality of those thoughts matters– as does their diversity. Ha-Joon Chang surveys the monoculture of current economic thinking, explains why that’s problematic, and proposes a remedy…

… Up to the 1970s, economics was populated by a diverse range of ‘schools’ containing different visions and research methods – classical, Marxist, neoclassical, Keynesian, developmentalist, Austrian, Schumpeterian, institutionalist, and behaviouralist, to name only the most significant. These schools of economics – or different approaches to economics – had (and still have) distinct visions in the sense that they had conflicting moral values and political positions, while understanding the way the economy works in divergent ways. I explain the competing methods of economists in my book Economics: The User’s Guide (2014), in a chapter called ‘Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom – How to “Do” Economics’.

Not only did the different methods coexist but they interacted with each other. Sometimes, the competing schools of economics clashed in a ‘death match’ – the Austrians vs the Marxists in the 1920s and ’30s, or the Keynesians vs the neoclassicals in the 1960s and ’70s. At other times, the interactions were more benign. Through debates and policy experiments tried by different governments around the world, each school was forced to hone its arguments. Different schools borrowed ideas from each other (often without proper acknowledgement). Some economists even tried the fusion of different theories – for example, some economists fused the Keynesian and the Marxist theories and created ‘post-Keynesian’ economics.

Economics until the 1970s was, then, rather like the British food scene today: many different cuisines, each with different strengths and weaknesses, competing for attention; all of them proud of their traditions but obliged to learn from each other; with lots of deliberate and unintentional fusion happening.

Since the 1980s, however, economics has become the British food scene before the 1990s. One tradition – neoclassical economics – is the only item on the menu. Like all other schools, it has its strengths; it also has serious limitations… neoclassical economics is today so dominant in most countries (Japan and Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, Italy and Turkey are exceptions) that the term ‘economics’ has – for many – become synonymous with ‘neoclassical economics’. This intellectual ‘monocropping’ has narrowed the intellectual gene pool of the subject. Few neoclassical economists (that is, the vast majority of economists today) even acknowledge the existence, never mind the intellectual merits, of other schools. Those who do, assert the other varieties to be inferior. Some ideas, like those of the Marxist school, they will argue, are ‘not even economics’. It’s claimed that the few useful insights these other schools once possessed – say, for instance, the Schumpeterian school’s idea of innovation, or the idea of limited human rationality from the behaviouralist school – have already been incorporated into the ‘mainstream’ of economics, that is, neoclassical economics. They fail to see that these incorporations are mere ‘bolt-ons’, like the baked potato beside a Pizzaland pizza, rather than genuine fusions – like Peruvian cuisine, with Inca, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese influences, or the dishes by the Korean American chef David Chang (no relation), with American, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Mexican influences…

The problem… is the almost total dominance of one school, which has limited the scope of economics and created theoretical biases and blindspots. In the same way in which the country’s refusal to accept diverse culinary traditions made Britain before the 1990s a place with a boring and unhealthy diet, the dominance of economics by one school has made economics limited in its coverage and narrow in its ethical foundation…

Economics… influences who we are by affecting the way the economy develops and thus the way we live and work, which in turn shapes us… economics influences the kind of society we have. First, by shaping individuals differently, varying economic theories make societies of contrasting types. Thus, an economic theory that encourages industrialisation will lead to a society with more forces pushing for more egalitarian policies, as explained above. For another example, an economic theory that believes humans to be (almost) exclusively driven by self-interest will create a society where cooperation is more difficult. Second, different economic theories have different views on where the boundary of the ‘economic sphere’ should lie. So, if an economic theory recommends privatisation of what many consider to be essential services – healthcare, education, water, public transport, electricity and housing, for example – it is recommending that the market logic of ‘one-dollar-one-vote’ should be expanded against the democratic logic of ‘one-person-one-vote.’ Finally, economic theories represent contrasting impacts on economic variables, such as inequality (of income or wealth) or economic rights (labour vs capital, consumer vs producer). Differences in these variables, in turn, influence how much conflict exists in society: greater income inequality or fewer labour rights generate not just more clashes between the powerful and those under them but also more conflicts among the less privileged, as they fight over the dwindling piece of pie available to them.

Understood like this, economics affects us in many more fundamental ways than when it is narrowly defined – income, jobs and pensions. That is why it is vital that every citizen needs to learn at least some economics. If we are to reform the economy for the benefit of the majority, make our democracy more effective, and make the world a better place to live for us and for the coming generations, we must ensure some basic economic literacy…

Economics is the language of power and affects us all. What can we do to improve its impoverished menu of ideas? The case for economic literacy: “The Empty Basket,” in @aeonmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

* John Maynard Keynes


As we go to school, we might spare a thought for a candidate for study, David Ricardo; he died on this date in 1823.  A political economist, he developed a labor theory of value in his seminal Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, published in 1817; he was instrumental in the development of theories of rent, wages, and profits; and at a time of mercantilist sentiment, he introduced the theory of competitive advance and advocated free trade.  Indeed, most economists rank Ricardo as the second most influential economic thinker working before the 20th century, after Adam Smith.



“The roots of the word ‘compete’ are the Latin con petire, which meant ‘to seek together'”*…

Peter Thiel would have us believe that “competition is for losers.” The FTC begs to differ. Earlier this month, it introduced a proposed rule that would eliminate employee noncompete agreements. Scott Galloway explains why this is a very good plan…

… Yesterday’s iconoclasts pull the ladder up behind them the moment they become today’s icons. We’re in general agreement that “anti-competitive” behavior is bad, and have laws against it. Yet companies have been able to convince regulators to look the other way on an increasingly popular weapon of mass entrenchment. They’re passing out OxyContin during an AA meeting. The Oxy? Noncompete agreements…

Noncompete clauses are what firms use to sequester your human capital from competitors. When a new employee signs a noncompete with, say, Johnson & Johnson, they agree that when their employment ends, they won’t work at another pharmaceutical company for a designated period — usually one to two years. If you’re familiar with noncompetes, you likely associate them with technology jobs, where employers want to protect valuable intellectual property. And that’s the defense most often offered for the restrictions. BTW, the argument is bullshit … a confidentiality agreement does the trick.

The irony of noncompetes is they only serve to dampen growth. One of the few places where they’re banned is also home to the world’s most innovative tech economy: California. Job-hopping and seeding new acorns have been part of Silicon Valley since the beginning. In 1994 a Berkeley economist theorized that California’s ban on noncompetes was one of the main reasons Silicon Valley existed at all, and in 2005, economists at the Federal Reserve put forward statistical evidence supporting the theory. Apple, Disney, Google, Intel, Meta, Netflix, Oracle, and Tesla were able to succeed without limiting the options of their employees.

Yet outside California, corporate boardrooms love noncompetes. Historically they were attached only to high-skilled, high-paying jobs. Now they’re becoming ubiquitous across different industries at all levels. Fast-food workers are  being forced to sign noncompetes, as are hairstylists and security guards. Roughly a third of minimum wage jobs in America now require such agreements. If forcing noncompetes on America’s lowest-paid workers sounds like indentured servitude, trust your instincts.

Employers claim noncompetes give them the assurance to pay for training and other investments in their employees. There is some evidence that noncompetes are associated with more worker training. But there’s a catch: They also decrease wages. The good news is we’ll train you to operate the fryer, the bad news is we won’t pay you a living wage to do it — and you can’t take a better job across the street.

The FTC estimates that noncompetes reduce employment opportunities for 30 million people and suppress wages by $300 billion per year. That’s far more than the total value of property stolen outright every year. Multiple studies also show that noncompetes reduce entrepreneurship and business formation. Which makes sense — it’s difficult to start a business when talent pools are not accessible or allocated to their best use. Downstream, the lack of competition leads to entrenchment, which eventually results in higher prices for consumers — as one study found has occurred in health care. Everybody loses. Except, of course, the incumbent’s shareholders…

It’s worth remembering the insight of W. Edwards Deming, one of the architects of Japan’s rise to industrial leadership after World War II: “In 1945, the world was in a shambles. American companies had no competition. So nobody really thought much about quality. Why should they? The world bought everything America produced. It was a prescription for disaster.”

The case against noncompete agreements: “Compete,” from @profgalloway.

See also: “Noncompete Agreements Reduce Worker Pay — and Overall Economic Activity” (source of the image above).

* Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


As we remove the shackles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1915 that Ralph Chaplin, a Wobblie (a member of the Industrial Workers of the World) finished his poem “Solidarity Forever“– which, sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”/The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” has become a labor movement anthem.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 15, 2023 at 1:00 am

“A fair day’s-wage for a fair day’s work: it is as just a demand as governed men ever made of governing.”*…

As low-wage employers struggle to find workers, it seems as that labor– which has been left behind over the last several decades, as the economic benefits of growth have flowed to executives and owners– may be about to have its day. But will it? And what might that mean?

In her first statement as Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen said that the United States faced “an economic crisis that has been building for fifty years.” The formulation is intriguing but enigmatic. The last half century is piled so high with economic wreckage that it is not obvious how to name the long crisis, much less how to pull the fragments together into a narrative. One place to start is with the distribution of national income between labor and capital (or, looked at another way, between the wage share and the profit share of national income). About fifty years ago, the share of income going to labor began to decline, forming a statistical record of the epochal collapse of working class power. Episodes of high employment in the 1990s and the late 2010s did not reverse the long-term pattern. Even today, with a combination of easy money and fiscal stimulus unprecedented since World War II, it is unclear what it would take to reverse the trend in distribution.

Few would seriously dispute that hawkish Federal Reserve policies have played a direct role in the decline of the labor share since the 1970s. This is the starting point for thinking about monetary policy and the income distribution, but many questions remain. Today’s expansionary program extends beyond monetary policy to include fiscal stimulus and even industrial policy, but the first sign of an elite rethinking was the Fed’s dovish turn around 2016. (The Fed chair then was Yellen, whose current tenure as Treasury Secretary has been marked by close coordination with her successor, Jerome Powell.) In a fundamental sense, the entire Biden program hangs on the Fed: low interest rates made possible a reevaluation of the cost of massive government debt, which has in turn opened new horizons for a would-be activist government. 

If the age of inequality was the product of a hawkish Fed, could a dovish central bank reverse the damage? Today, there is more reason to speak of a “pro-labor turn” than perhaps at any time over the last half century. But history is not so easily reversed. The new policy regime is not a simple course correction to decades of misguided neoliberalism. There is evidence that the current experiment was made possible by a recognition that workers had suffered a secular defeat—specifically, that they had lost the ability to increase or even defend their share of the national income. What would happen if labor became stronger?…

Tim Barker (@_TimBarker) explores: “Preferred Shares,” in Phenomenal World (@WorldPhenomenal).

On a related note: “The economics of dollar stores.”

[Image above: source]

* Thomas Carlyle


As we re-slice the pie, we might send acquisitive birthday greetings to Claude-Frédéric Bastiat; he was born on this date in 1801 (though some sources give tomorrow as his birthday). An economist and writer, he was a prominent member of the French Liberal School. As an advocate of classical economics and the views of Adam Smith, his advocacy for free markets influenced the Austrian School; indeed, Joseph Schumpeter called him “the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived”… which is to say that Bastiat was a father of the neo-liberal economic movement that’s been central to creating the situation we’re in.


“Everybody’s talkin’ about hard times / Like it just started yesterday”*…

Humanity is richer than it has ever been. We live longer than we ever have; people have access to an endless supply of culture, knowledge, and consumer goods, all from a small device in their pocket. So why are we all so pissed off all the time?

That’s the question political economist Mark Blyth and hedge fund manager Eric Lonergan tackle in their recent book, Angrynomics, which examines the economic roots of rising personal stress and growing popular anger. Blyth and Lonergan look at the transformations of our daily lives and the larger economy over the past 40 years, from the deregulation of finance to the rise of big tech, and explain why these steps that have added to GDP have come at the expense of personal stability. What’s pitched as bringing flexibility and dynamism to the economy has translated into constant economic uncertainty for most people, which breeds anxiety and stress, and thus anger…

A conversation with co-author (and Brown University political economist) Mark Blyth (@MkBlyth) about why the economy has made us pissed off at everything: “We’re All Mad As Hell, Thanks to Late Capitalism.”

* Prince, “Ol’ Skool Company”


As we work to lower the heat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the Civil Works Administration.  Intended as a short-term agency charged quickly to create jobs for millions of unemployed Americans through the hard winter of 1933–34, it was closed in March of 1934– having provided work for 4 million workers who laid 12 million feet of sewer pipe and built or improved 255,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, 3,700 playgrounds, and nearly 1,000 airports.

CWA was effectively replaced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which operated on a much larger scale.  Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by the agency.

Civil Works Administration workers cleaning and painting the gold dome of the Colorado State Capitol (1934)


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 8, 2020 at 1:01 am

“My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it.”*…




Over the past few decades, labor force participation has sharply dropped for men ages 20-34. Theories about the root cause range from indolence, to a lack of skills and training, to offshoring, to (perhaps most interestingly) the increasing attractiveness and availability of leisure and media entertainment. In this essay, we propose that the drop in labor participation rate of young men is a result of a combination of factors: (i) a decrease in cost of access to media entertainment leisure, (ii) increases in both the availability and (iii) quality media entertainment leisure, and (iv) a decrease in the marginal signalling utility of (conspicuous) consumption goods for all but the highest earners.

At the macro level, this results in sub-optimal production, as firms are unable to satisfy their demand for labor via the usual mechanism of increasing wages. If you believe that economic productivity and growth are good, this presents a challenge when attempting to design stimulus policy, because subsidies or increases to the minimum wage would yield the same non-result as firms increasing wages. We discuss the potential efficacy of the somewhat radical idea of a tax on human attention or time spent consuming entertainment media as a way to stimulate productivity…

Somewhat radical, indeed…  Economics for the Leisure State: Andrew Kortina (co-founder of Venmo and fin.com; @kortina) and Namrata Patel (Product at Airbnb and former VP, Product + Design at Minted; @namratalpatel) on “Kinky Labor Supply and the Attention Tax.”

* Abraham Lincoln


As we sample soma, we might send inclusively-calculated birthday greetings to Barbara Bergmann; she was born on this date in 1927.  An economist, she was a trailblazer in the development of feminist economics, contributing important work on topics that ranged from childcare and gender issues to poverty and Social Security.  She was co-founder and President of the International Association for Feminist Economics and a trustee of the Economists for Peace and Security.

Bergmann source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

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