The visible hand in economics

Archive for the ‘Labour economics’ Category

My recent post on universal student allowances was relatively provocative (I thought it might be a little more provocative – maybe it would have been if I said all students and all unemployed people should borrow money instead :P ). As a result, it is a good time to briefly go through the way I see the labour market and a few of the things I think are important for analysing it.

The labour market is a difficult thing to analyse given that it is the only input to production where we also value the outcome for the input!  The best way to look at labour in this case is to separate out the person selling the labour and the “labour input” – so when you go to work you are “selling an input” and the price you receive is your compensation for that – the wage.

Fundamentally, the labour market starts with the core bit – actual working labour. There are people who are employed in firms working for those that own capital.

Now, just by looking at employees and capital owners we can’t say anything about the labour market without rabid conjecture an flying euphemisms. In order to get an idea about how the “trade” between the owners of labour and the owners of capital occurs we need to get an idea about the people who do own labour but aren’t selling it.

Note: Very long post – skip to conclusion if you want, I doubt you will lose anything ;)

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I’m always confused when I hear the economists are against strikes. After all, it is perfectly sensible to place strikes in the bargaining relationship between employees and employers.

I think the confusion stems from the fact that many economists also say that there is a definite limit to strike action – as if it is set up by a significantly powerful union it merely represents the action of a monopoly against a weaker consumer (in this case the firm). As we know that market power leads to suboptimal outcomes, the case of a strong union and a weak firm will lead to a suboptimal outcome – namely too little production, because too much of the surplus is extracted by the seller (labour).

However, this does not imply that economists are completely against the option of striking being available.

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Over at Econospeak

There appears to be a fair amount of disdain in his post about the mathematical nature of economics. However, I will forgive him for this – he is a heterodox economist after all, so his very discipline is focused on critiquing areas where mainstream economic thought makes a wrong turn. Although I do not share the mis-trust of mathematical theory (infact I believe it is a very useful way to organise ideas (sort of like writing them down), I do agree with the concept that an over reliance on technical models, without an understanding of the underlying assumptions, can lead to spurious conclusions in economics (however, as we have said before, this is a problem with the subjective application of a model – it is not invalidate the model in of itself).

Anyway, the authour appears to believe that economists ignore the idea of a worker. Fundamentally, I get the impression that he is believes economics discusses the rights of capital owners in far more detail than we talk about the rights of workers. However, I’m not certain that I agree – let me try to explain:

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Over at The Standard they are discussing ‘triangular employment situations’ and a bill that is coming in to play that will give employees greater rights in these situations. Now that’s cool, I don’t have any issues with that. If I had to critique the bill I would run with the employee choice argument – if the employee chooses that he wants to work in a scheme where he doesn’t get sick leave etc (as he gets compensated for this) then these schemes provides this opportunity, so removing this opportunity will reduce the welfare of the workers in the scheme.

Still this isn’t my point. I was interested in the fact that Steve Pierson mentioned the surplus value of labour. The wikipedia definition for this is:

Surplus value is a concept created by Karl Marx in his critique of political economy, where its ultimate source is unpaid surplus labor performed by the worker for the capitalist, serving as a basis for capital accumulation.

Now I always found this idea a bit unusual. Fundamentally it states that labour unit creates more value than it is paid by the capitalist, and that excess value is taken by the capitalist and either used to create more capital or for their own consumption. Fundamentally, as capital is in some sense equivalent to savings, which is deferred consumption, the capitalist is taking this surplus away from the labour that created it.

Many contemporary proponents of the theory would not be this extreme – however, they would still fundamentally say that the surplus that the capitalist extracts comes from the exploitation of the worker. As a relatively middle of the road economist this isn’t how I feel:

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There is talk in the air that the New Zealand government may one day look at “income splitting” as a form of providing tax relief.

Income splitting changes the fundamental economic unit that is taxed from the individual to the household. The most likely form of income splitting we could see in New Zealand would see the gross income of the main income earner and their partner (either through marriage, civil union, or some other definition) aggregated and then split evenly between the two partners before being taxed at the individual tax level. As tax rates increase with income, this would lower the tax liability of all two-person households.

However, is this policy fair, or even sensible?

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Yesterday we had the dual announcements of both Fisher and Paykel and ANZ moving work overseas.

The Standard has taken issue with this activity. Particularly, two posts at the Standard lamented the “exploitation” of foreign workers and stated that consumers should stand up to protect domestic jobs.

On a separate note we have seen the closure of a Dunedin knitwear company at the same time, while the D&B payment survey shows that manufacturers are taking a long time to pay their bills, taking 53.6 days on average (can only find old one :P ):

What do these stories have in common other than the sad fact of job losses? What do these stories tell us about the New Zealand economy?

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Consider the ‘traditional’ capitalist (envisage the Monopoly™ man). This capitalist owns the means of production, such as a factory, or piece of machinery, a building, or piece of land. The capitalist uses their means of production to extract economic profit.

Times are changing. As we move towards a service based economy, like all other developed countries, increasingly the means of production take the form of human capital. Human capital is the capital that is built up within an individual, for example through education, on the job training and everyday work. The holder of human capital is herein referred to as the ‘modern’ capitalist (envisage a slimmer, more refined Monopoly™ person, possible black, possibly Asian, possibly a woman, possibly trans-gender – we don’t discriminate).

Human capital is the foundation of professional service firms, ranging from the glamorous, such as private sector economic consulting firms, to the pedestrian, such as lawyers and accountants.
But this trend towards human capital accumulation brings us to what I term the curse of human capital. Read the rest of this entry »

Tyler Cowen reports that the signalling model of education is dead! Apparently new research indicates that the value of the signal accounts for no more than 28% of the cost of education. It only takes a couple of months for an employer to learn your productivity, so how can it take years of education to signal what an employer can learn in months?

Let’s not forget that education has always been about both human capital accumulation and signalling. 28% isn’t huge, but it’s significant. It certainly doesn’t kill off the signalling model, although it does suggest that it shouldn’t provide the primary motivation for getting education.

Matt’s post on equity and efficiency reminds me of a paper by Greg Mankiw and Matthew Weinzierl on optimal taxation. The idea is as follows. Suppose that we think equity means a society where everyone has the opportunity to earn income proportional to the effort that they exert. The hardest workers are those who succeed in earning the most money, while others may choose a life of leisure and earn less. Well, to establish such a utopian place we’d have to do a lot more than eliminate racism, sexism and xenophobia from the human race. Read the rest of this entry »

Kiwiblogblog raised the issue of labour shortages in New Zealand. As well as mentioning the labour shortages in New Zealand, they also stated that similar labour shortages exist overseas. Some of these shortages (eg doctors) have existed for a long time, all around the world. However, if this is the case why isn’t the wage rising to try and take care of these shortages?

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So there is a big debate raging in the New Zealand blogosphere about the exodus of labor to Australia. Matt
joined in on the debate and made the very valid point that it’s real wages we need to care about, not the nominal wage and that for this happen we basically need productivity increase so that output increases. The same people with more money buying the same set of goods will just push prices up leaving us where we started.

While I don’t want to wade heavily into the debate, I’m still undecided what the best course to take is as I’m not totally convinced by the arguments from the left or the right. The one thing that does bother me is that strengthening employee power to negotiate higher wages seams to be though of as a magic wand. In line with Matt’s argument, giving workers higher wages doesn’t really do much if there isn’t a corresponding increase in productivity. People seem to have the causality all wrong, in general increases in productivity increase wages not the other way round.

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A rising outflow of New Zealander’s to Australia is causing concern amongst a bunch of people. People move away for a number of reasons, as the Department of Labour nicely points out. However, as economists we like to think at the margin. We are not interested in the general reasons that people are leaving New Zealand, in so much as we are interested in the ‘marginal’ factors that are driving people overseas. The non-policy factors mentioned by DOL are constant, the weather will stay warmer, the country will remain as close, and the culture will remain similar. However, the policy factors (e.g wages, taxes) can be changed, and as a result will have an impact on the ‘change’ in migration levels (beyond some sort of trend).

The Standard provides one piece of the puzzle we require in order to control migrant outflows – we need higher wages. However, the solutions they provide may not necessarily be the correct ones. A important marginal factor in the decision on whether to stay and work in NZ, or do so in Australia is the difference in ‘real disposable income’. Ignoring non-wage income for now leaves us with ‘real disposable salary’. Increasing nominal wages may not lead to an increase in real disposable salary if all it does is increase inflation. If we pay everyone more $$$ but don’t increase the number of goods avaliable to buy, then the price of goods will increase and peoples true living standard will not change.

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Recently the two main political parties in New Zealand have announced schemes that aim to, in some ways, help up-skill 16 and 17 years olds. At the same time, National has come out stating that it will leave student loans interest free, but provide a reward for repayments (leading to much debate).

Although these may seem like separate issues, when I look at the economy the issues of youth employment/skills, education, and unemployment/employment are intensely linked. As a result any policy that the parties take up on one of these issues must take into account how it influences these other sections of society.

In this post my aim is to put forward my current belief of what an ideal policy would look like for these three sectors – that’s right, I said policy not policies. Personally I think that all three are so closely linked that we have to use the same or very similar instruments in order to provide the right sort of outcome. Now, this analysis will be unashamedly normative, I’m going to be packing it with value judgments. I will try to make these judgments clear so you can either i) attack me on them, ii) work out where my objective logic may have gone wrong, separate of the value judgments.

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Perhaps it is apropos to start the new year’s blogging with a look back at history. A working paper reported at Vox examines Stalin’s gulags from an economic, rather than political, viewpoint. In Western capitalist economies it is the threat of losing one’s job that motivates effort in employment. If you shirk and are caught then you get fired. However, in a centrally planned economy there is no possibility of getting fired: everyone has a role to play and nobody is left out. How then is a dictator who’s done the hard yards planning out the lives of an entire country for five years to motivate his workforce? Miller and Smith suggest that Stalin used the gulags as a device to enforce discipline among workers. Read the rest of this entry »

Over at Not Sneaky they are discussing how a higher minimum wage may lead to higher employment when we have a firm that has market power in the labour market (hat-tip CPW). The argument is a very interesting one as economists often view a minimum wage as a way of placing a price floor, which leads to a lower level of employment and social ‘surplus’.

On the blog he uses this fine graph to explain the result. The purple line illustrates the path of wages and employment. According to that, there is a range where higher wages create greater employment in the labour market. Let me attempt to explain this.

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