Cowen and Lemke, on employment

The problem:

…Before the financial crash, there were lots of not-so-useful workers holding not-so-useful jobs. Employers didn't so much bother to figure out who they were. Demand was high and revenue was booming, so rooting out the less productive workers would have involved a lot of time and trouble — plus it would have involved some morale costs with the more productive workers, who don't like being measured and spied on. So firms simply let the problem lie.

Then came the 2008 recession, and it was no longer possible to keep so many people on payroll. A lot of businesses were then forced to face the music: Bosses had to make tough calls about who could be let go and who was worth saving. (Note that unemployment is low for workers with a college degree, only 5 percent compared with 16 percent for less educated workers with no high school degree. This is consistent with the reality that less-productive individuals, who tend to have less education, have been laid off.)

In essence, we have seen the rise of a large class of "zero marginal product workers," to coin a term. Their productivity may not be literally zero, but it is lower than the cost of training, employing, and insuring them. That is why labor is hurting but capital is doing fine; dumping these employees is tough for the workers themselves — and arguably bad for society at large — but it simply doesn't damage profits much. It's a cold, hard reality, and one that we will have to deal with, one way or another.

The solution?  Here is a paragraph which did not make the final editing cut:

…being unproductive in one job doesn’t mean a lifetime of unemployment. A worker who wasn’t worth much sweeping up the back room is suddenly valuable when new orders are flowing in and he is needed to ship the goods out the door. And if all those new orders require keeping the warehouse open late, the company may need to bring in a new night watchman. To paraphrase a common metaphor, a rising tide eventually lifts most boats. When the economy’s expanding, a worker who previously was worthless will at some point become valuable again. But this means that workers at the bottom of the economic ladder will have to wait until the entire economy has mended itself before they have the chance to improve their lot: That can be a painstakingly slow and uncertain process.


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