Sunday, April 27, 2014

Power Disparities in the Workplace: The Indignity of Background Checks

My current job is switching me from a contract to a permanent position, part of this involves a thorough background check. Every time I go through one of these I am struck by how undignified the whole process is and how many employees have to go through this even though it has little bearing on their actual jobs. My particular case doesn't fit this, my position in the accounting department would present a number of opportunities to an unscrupulous individual.

However, reading over the fine print of the documents shows that they are not simply seeking targeted, job relevant information. Instead, the checks are very open ended and seek to gather as much information as possible. This is what I find disturbing, its a huge invasion of privacy. Yet, it seems that few privacy advocates seem inclined to take on this issue, all I ever hear about is attempts to curtail the governments information gathering, or in rare cases companies gathering information through the web, and never serious attempts to limit companies' ability to get potential employees to piss in a cup.

This dynamic represents one of the more obvious signs of the inequality between capital and labor in our economy. If we were all equal autonomous actors freely exchanging our labor for income then surely we would demand a large premium for this intrusion into our lives. Yet, coordination* among employers has rendered this individual negotiation impossible, mandatory background checks are a requirement of employment just about everywhere. Strangely enough, where they do begin to decline in frequency (but never really disappear) is at much higher levels in the economy where companies are even more vulnerable to a bad actor.

While this kind of dynamic doesn't impact me personal, beyond the indignity of it all, these practices do serve to keep labor down by creating a pool of individuals who find it difficult to compete on an equal footing for work due to having infractions that will show up on a criminal background or credit check. It would be far more equitable if employers were required to defend their background checks to only screen for items that would be directly job relevant, like drug abuse for a pharmaceutical company, theft or other property crimes for an accounting position, or serious violent crimes for any position. Yet, we see close to no pressure to force companies to restrict this practice, and certainly no pressure from individual level market participants who have no power to press their claims against employers who have an overwhelming advantage in forcing potential employees to acquiesce this invasive and undignified sacrifice of privacy.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Are Markets Better Described as Robust than Efficient?

Something that I think all of us with private sector jobs experience in our day to day lives is just how incompetent a large number of private businesses are. These may be our customers, suppliers, or another division. Yet, somehow, these businesses thrive despite not really having a good grasp of basic administrative procedures, financing, or sometimes even customer service.

Despite this, we often write and speak of private sector actors as if they are brilliant and efficient individually, despite the experiences of our everyday lives.* We simply assume as a result of mere market success that a business or individual has ability and competence. This isn't surprising, the just world hypothesis is a powerful cognitive bias which leads us to believe that the system as a whole must be more just than what our individual experiences would lead us to conclude. However, there is no property of the market system which should lead to this belief.

What's more notable is how little this impacts how we think about the market system as a whole. After all, given an immortal, perfectly rational, and omniscient central planner even the worst designed communist system would work beautifully. What's remarkable about the market system is that it should lead to ever increasing levels of productivity and efficiency even if the individual actors are all completely incompetent. Competition and creative destruction should lead businesses to be ever better even if they only differ due to random variation alone.

Yet, somehow this doesn't seem to impact how we think and write about markets and how they reward people much at all. Instead we often read in the popular press views about how market success means that an individual or business possesses unusual ability or competence despite the dearth of well established causal links between market success and any particular ability or trait. Creative destruction works as more of an evolutionary system, simple selection will lead to new forms to suit the environment they're in without the need for any conscious planning.**

An example may help illustrate this. The need for a common computing platform caused the market to require that a single operating system would predominate. In the early years of innovation in the personal computer market a wide variety of operating systems developed, all with a business plan that was more or less plausible. It was inevitable, however, that only one of these would dominate the industry due to the structure of the market. Someone was going to make billions, and did, but the need for a common platform meant that this would have happened whether or not any of the competing platforms exhibited even the barest level of competence. In addition, once established the need for interoperability mean that structural factors dominate any actual characteristics of the competition.***

This makes me think that markets might be better described as robust rather than efficient. The incredible thing about markets is that even if all the individual actors are morons the systemic factors will still lead to good outcomes, unlike other forms of human organization. But somehow this doesn't break into popular discussions of markets at all, much less into discussions about how our market system is distributing the fruits of our labors. I'm not sufficiently well versed in economic literature to know whether or not someone has done work on this, but I'm very curious if anyone has tried.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Overhead Allocation vs. Theft

I was reading Dean Baker's excellent post today on high speed trading. My initial reaction was that this was simply theft, high frequency traders supply absolutely no value to anyone but reduce the gains made by legitimate traders.

The first comment, however, made me think. SteveB asks "I don't understand how the tax solves the problem. Wouldn't it just increase the spread between buy and sell prices, and make the exchange even less efficient?" This would be an instance where the government and private thieves are doing almost exactly the same thing. So why are they different?

An easy way to answer this is to compare what the government does to overhead. While the private thieves are simply skimming other peoples money a new government tax is more like a business adjusting how it applies overhead across its various business units. The new tax assigns more of society's cost to the trading sector while allocating the costs away from other productive activities.

While perhaps not the best way to describe government's role, the overhead analogy does bear a certain appeal for communicating government's role to the business minded. As organizations grow larger and more complex their direct costs tend to decline while overhead increases. A local mechanic shop is likely to have very high direct costs and low overhead compared to a company like Ford, yet Ford will be far more efficient despite so much of its costs accruing to overhead.

Something similar is happening as government's role expands. Modern society is vastly larger and more complicated than it was a few centuries ago. Modern businesses require employees with a much larger capital investment, does anyone think the graduates of a one room schoolhouse would be qualified for a Wall Street trading job? Modern capital markets are vastly more complex and trust between corporations requires a much more active oversight role today than it did in the past. I could go on ad nauseam, but the basic point is that modern businesses exist today only as a result of a large supply of social and institutional capital. Without this capital many would still exist but in a much smaller and less productive form.

So while a financial tax would result in a roughly similar decrease in profits accruing to the parties to the transaction this money would be going to indirectly support the activities of the traders. Resistance to these kinds of taxes are ultimately akin to a business unit arguing against the allocation of overhead assigned to it. While this can increase the book profitability of the unit, this often makes the enterprise as a whole less efficient since the individual unit is unlikely to have a full appreciation of the overall costs of the organization. This makes the organization as a whole less productive since costs are misallocated.

At an extreme, anti-tax fervor can be compared to a dirty salesman who asks for his project to be costed at "true"* cost and then goes ahead and sells at near list price, driving his margins and commissions way up by robbing the organization as a whole of the portion of cost allocated to overhead (many organizations have a sufficient level of control to prevent this from being done too blatantly, I don't think the 113th Congress is one of them).

Another point is that as more of our productivity results in overhead rather than direct cost it becomes increasingly easy for the egotistical and/or unscrupulous to argue that the increased productivity is the result of their efforts rather than from efficiencies stemming from an organization as a whole. This happens at both the national level and within organizations, with direct costs so low it also becomes more difficult to assign the overall productivity of an organization to individual members. Since Americans tend to be so individualistically oriented we are rarely satisfied with assigning results to the system, instead preferring to allocate costs and production to individual people; even when this is conceptually incomprehensible.

*I've run into a few organizations where the salesmen assume that the marginal product cost is the true cost. It can be very hard to make these folks understand that overhead really matters.