Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why Not Help Those Not Willing to Work for It Out of the Labor Force?

I was reading a wonk blog post that mentioned this statement by President Obama, "He’s said he wants to create 'more chances for folks to earn their way into the middle class as long as they’re willing to work for it.'"

The obvious corollary to this should be helping those who are not willing to work to get into the middle class to not have to. A major problem for many employers of lower wage workers is that they have issues finding employees who can do basic things like show up to work on time and spend their shift working rather than goofing off. This understandably makes them reluctant to take chances on lower wage workers more generally by giving them opportunities for greater responsibility and instead instills an attitude that low wage workers are dispensable.

This raises the question in my mind of why we consider it a good thing to make everyone work? Someone that doesn't want to work and is content living in a rat's nest of an apartment eating Cheetos, getting stoned, and playing video games isn't going to be anyone's idea of a model worker. Why is it a good idea to make someone willing to work to get ahead to have to compete with losers in the job market? Most businesses have crude measures for recruiting low wage workers, its hard to distinguish Mr. Cheetos from someone that has worked hard at multiple low wage employers with high turnover. Most small businesses won't bother trying.

Yet we constantly hear of policies that are designed primarily to punish Mr. Cheetos until he is willing to go out and get a job. This makes no sense, Mr. Cheetos is a terrible worker no one wants. Why not pursue policies to keep Mr. Cheetos on the couch so employers only have Mr. Willing To Work to choose from?

Wouldn't everyone be better off in this scenario?

Of course, if you believe in labor exploitation it makes a lot of sense to get Mr. Cheetos off the couch because this produces more labor supply and makes it easier to exploit Mr. Willing to Work but this isn't a theory often mentioned in polite company.


  1. I suspect that the problem isn't dealing with Mr Cheetos. there's obviously no benefit to anyone in forcing him to find a job which he then fails to do. No, the sticking point is the guy who will do an adequate job once employed, but who would rather not if he can manage.

    That is, I suspect, a far larger group. (Including me, at least some days.) While it might be perfectly possible to support Mr Cheetos et al in idleness, supporting all of those guys who can but would rather not is not, at least yet, vaible. And there isn't a good way to determine, a priori, who is which kind of potential employee.

    1. I think everyone has a few days where they feel like dropping out if they could survive by not doing so.

      But I'm unconvinced that there are a lot of people that would drop out of the labor force if supplied with the bare means of subsistence. If there were, I think a lot more people would be retiring in their mid 30s, it really doesn't take much wealth to provide someone with a subsistence diet, a plot of land in a low cost of living state, and a basic trailer. But hardly anyone does this. Supplying a basic negative income tax, like $10,000 a year, might be enough to get Mr. Cheetos to drop out of the labor force while giving the guy doing adequate work some bargaining power by giving him the option of refusing excessive employer requests since he could make ends meet with a part time job.

      This is probably worth a full post, or a few, but something I've been thinking about is how American culture leads to labor exploitation. Specifically, the lack of any real middle ground between an upwardly mobile 50+ hour a week job and a not even subsistence level, multiple part time job existence. I think a lot of people want to work just enough to provide for themselves and to supply their families with enough to have a shot at social mobility. However, if you look at job postings no one is recruiting for people that simply want a steady job. Everyone post is for someone that is entrepreneurial, has a can-do attitude, and is willing to do whatever it takes.

      I believe this sets the stage for labor exploitation. Most people simply want a steady job, but if these don't exist it becomes possible to exploit workers for additional increments of effort that they don't really want to supply at any wage rate. I don't think this is a good outcome for businesses, even if it is for owners of capital, but I do think something like this describes the modern American labor market.