Empirical Evidence, Sexual Harassment, and the Economic Way of Thinking

An improvement in a district’s schools will increase house prices in that district. A burger and fries will cost more than a burger. All else the same, cars that get more miles per gallon will sell for higher prices than cars that get fewer miles per gallon. I trust that most people would not find these statements objectionable.

All else equal, an improvement in workplace conditions will reduce wages. Now that looks slightly different than “A burger and fries costs more than a burger” but it’s really not. Think of the worker as buying better working conditions with a lower wage, thus better working conditions (burger plus fries) cost more (lower wage) than worse working conditions (burger alone).

Conceptually the burger story and the workplace story are very similar but the latter causes Henry Farrell to object:

…where you will find me objecting, and quite vociferously too, is to the suggestion that we ought to employ simple econ 101 style analysis in order to figure out the tradeoffs, and the appropriate solutions. This style of analysis has an awful lot of presuppositions built into it, and these presuppositions are politically loaded.

Let’s take the case of labour relations. If, as Matt argues, you ought to start with a model of firms, each of which has a cost function such that the total compensation they can offer is fixed, and any increase in costly rights (such as not having your body searched to stop you smuggling widgets out between your arse-cheeks) is inevitably associated with a proportionate decline in wages, then, indeed, you will end up concluding that compulsory rules forbidding body searches will lower overall choice without really benefitting anyone. But you only get to that result because of what you are assuming in the first place. You are assuming that there isn’t any real distributional action happening within the firm – and in particular, that the firm’s owners don’t have any surplus (that they are able to extract because e.g. of workers’ weaker bargaining position) that could be reallocated through regulation. In other words, you are only ‘refuting’ the people you disagree with, because you assume away the problem that they are worried about.

(FYI, Henry is responding to a smart and devastating post by Matt Yglesias that no doubt rankled because Matt is a liberal.)

Henry gets the economics wrong (the model does not require perfect competition) but let’s ignore that and look to his larger point:

The lesson here is straightforward. Simple economic models can be quite useful, but they should be employed with very considerable caution. In particular, one should always think carefully about whether the assumptions of your model blind you to factors that are important to the debate that you are applying them to. As a secondary matter, you should also look to the empirical support for your model – intuitively appealing models are frequently wrong.

Now. what are you expecting to follow this paragraph? Surely, some empirical evidence that the model is wrong. None follows. Henry seems to think that economists have never thought about their assumptions or tested their models. Nothing could be further from the truth so let me provide some empirical evidence about the model of compensating differentials:

Here is Jonathan Gruber and Alan Krueger (n.b. both of them have worked for Obama) on workers’ compensation:

This paper empirically examines the incidence of the workers’ compensation program to infer the likely consequences of mandated health insurance proposals. In certain industries, such as trucking and carpentry, workers’ compensation insurance costs are quite large, and vary tremendously within states over time, and across states at a moment in time. This variation is used to identify the incidence of the program. Empirical analysis of two data sets suggest that changes in employers’ costs of workers’ compensation insurance are largely shifted to employees in the form of lower wages.

Here is Gruber on mandated maternity leave:

I consider the labor-market effects of mandates which raise the costs of employing a demographically identifiable group. The efficiency of these policies will be largely dependent on the extent to which their costs are shifted to group-specific wages. I study several state and federal mandates which stipulated that childbirth be covered comprehensively in health insurance plans, raising the relative cost of insuring women of childbearing age. I find substantial shifting of the costs of these mandates to the wages of the targeted group. Correspondingly, I find little effect on total labor input for that group.

And, dare I mention it, here is Joni Hersch in a recent paper in the AER on sexual harrasment:

Workplace sexual harassment is illegal, but many workers report that they have been sexually harassed. Exposure to the risk of sexual harassment may decrease productivity, which would reduce wages. Alternatively, workers may receive a compensating differential for exposure to sexual harassment, which would increase wages. Data on claims of sexual harassment filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are used to calculate the first measures of sexual harassment risks by industry, age group, and sex. Female workers face far higher sexual harassment risks. On balance, workers receive a compensating wage differential for exposure to the risk of sexual harassment.

Henry goes wrong because he doesn’t want to conclude that sexual harassment is ok but he thinks that the only way to deny that conclusion is to deny that wages are higher so he rejects the model, he rejects the assumptions that he thinks (incorrectly!) are driving the model and he assumes without looking for any evidence that wages are in fact not higher. (Talk about being blinded by assumptions!).

Matt Yglesias, by the way, is much smarter on this point, he doesn’t reject the model but gives several extensions, such as externalities, that may change the conclusion.

Here is another way to think about sexual harassment and the model. What the theory and the empirical results are saying is that people exposed to a higher risk of sexual harassment are paid more, just as people exposed to a higher risk of death are paid more. In the case of risk, however, the firm’s owners (shareholders) are paying higher wages but also getting the benefits of risky work. But in the case of sexual harassment the shareholders are paying higher wages but not getting the benefits of sexual harassment. In other words, from the firm’s point of view sexual harassment is a bit like employee theft – with the stealing being done by the harassers. (I alluded to this point in my original post and Miles Kimball made it as well.) Thus, shareholders may benefit if the government can reduce sexual harassment at low cost, precisely because they would then be able to pay lower wages without losing productive workers.

Now this analysis is not complete or the only way to frame the issue (again see Yglesias for other approaches). It may bother some people that in this version the biggest gainers from sexual harassment law may well be the firm owners rather than the previously harassed (but does it bother you that the among the biggest gainers from better schools may be property owners without children?) Nevertheless, the principle here is clear, the way to think about these issues is not to throw out economic reasoning but to apply the reasoning ever more deeply.


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