Results for “occupational licensing”
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Ban the Box or Require the Box?

Ban the box policies forbid employers from asking about a criminal record on a job application. Ban the box policies don’t forbid employers from running criminal background checks they only forbid employers from asking about criminal history at the application/interview stage. The policies are supposed to give people with a criminal background a better shot at a job. Since blacks are more likely to have a criminal history than whites, the policies are supposed to especially increase black employment.

One potential problem with these laws is that employers may adjust their behavior in response. In particular, since blacks are more likely than whites to have a criminal history, a simple, even if imperfect, substitute for not interviewing people who have a criminal history is to not interview blacks. Employers can’t ask about race on a job application but black and white names are distinctive enough so that based on name alone, one can guess with a high probability of being correct whether an applicant is black or white. In an important and impressive new paper, Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr examine how employers respond to ban the box.

felony-ban-the-boxjpg-4cf5965f1e8f84ed_largeAgan and Starr sent out approximately 15,000 fake job applications to employers in New York and New Jersey. Otherwise identical applications were randomized across distinctively black and white (male) names. Half the applications were sent just before and another half sent just after ban the box policies took effect. Not all firms used the box even when legal so Agan and Starr use a powerful triple-difference strategy to estimate causal effects (the black-white difference in callback rates between stores that did and did not use the box before and after the law).

Agan and Starr find that banning the box significantly increases racial discrimination in callbacks.

One can see the basic story in the situation before ban the box went into effect. Employers who asked about criminal history used that information to eliminate some applicants and this necessarily affected blacks more since they are more likely to have a criminal history. But once the applicants with a criminal history were removed, “box” employers called back blacks and whites for interviews at equal rates. In other words, the box leveled the playing field for applicants without a criminal history.

Employers who didn’t use the box did something simpler but more nefarious–they offered blacks fewer callbacks compared to otherwise identical whites, regardless of criminal history. Together the results suggest that employers use distinctively black names to statistically discriminate.

When the box is banned it’s no longer possible to cheaply level the playing field so more employers begin to statistically discriminate by offering fewer callbacks to blacks. As a result, banning the box may benefit black men with criminal records but it comes at the expense of black men without records who, when the box is banned, no longer have an easy way of signaling that they don’t have a criminal record. Sadly, a policy that was intended to raise the employment prospects of black men ends up having the biggest positive effect on white men with a criminal record.

Agan and Starr suggest one possible innovation–blind employers to names. I think that is the wrong lesson to draw. Agan and Starr look at callbacks but what we really care about is jobs. You can blind employers to names in initial applications but employers learn about race eventually. Moreover, there are many other margins for employers to adjust. Employers, for example, could simply start increasing the number of employees they put through (post-interview) criminal background checks.

Policies like ban the box try to get people to do the “right thing” by blinding people to certain types of information. But blinded people tend to use other cues to achieve their interests and when those other cues are less informative that often makes things worse.

Rather than ban the box a plausibly better policy would be to require the box. Requiring all employers to ask about criminal history would tend to hurt anyone with a criminal record but it could also level racial differences among those without a criminal record. One can, of course, argue either side of that tradeoff and that is my point.

More generally, instead of blinding employers a better idea is to change real constraints. At the same time as governments are forcing employers to ban the box, for example, they are passing occupational licensing laws which often forbid employers from hiring workers with criminal records. Banning the box and simultaneously forbidding employers from hiring workers with criminal records illustrates the incoherence of public policy in an interest-group driven system.

Ban the box is another example of good intentions gone awry because the man of system tries to arrange people as if they were pieces on a chessboard, without understanding that:

…in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder. (Adam Smith, ToMS)

Addendum 1: The Agan and Starr paper has much more of interest. Agan and Starr, find, for example, evidence of discrimination going beyond that associated with statistical discrimination and crime. In particular, whites are more likely to be hired in white neighborhoods and blacks are more likely to be hired in black neighborhoods.

Addendum 2: Agan was my former student at GMU. Her undergraduate paper (!), Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function?, was published in the Journal of Law and Economics.

Declining Mobility and Restrictions on Land Use

Mobility has been slowly falling in the United States since the 1980s. Why? One possibility is demographic changes. Older people, for example, are less likely to move than younger people so increases in the elderly population might explain declines in mobility. Mobility has declined, however, for people of all ages. In the 1980s, for example, 3.6% of people aged 25-44 had moved in the last year but in the 2000s only 2.2% of this age group had moved.

In fact, mobility has declined within age, gender, race, home ownership status, whether your spouse works or not, income class, and employment status so whatever the cause of declining mobility it has to be big enough to affect large numbers of people across a range of demographics.

My best guess is that the decline in mobility is due to problems in our housing markets (I draw here on an important paper by Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag). It used to be that poor people moved to rich places. A janitor in New York, for example, used to earn more than a janitor in Alabama even after adjusting for housing costs. As a result, janitors moved from Alabama to New York, in the process raising their standard of living and reducing income inequality. Today, however, after taking into account housing costs, janitors in New York earn less than janitors in Alabama. As a result, poor people no longer move to rich places. Indeed, there is now a slight trend for poor people to move to poor places because even though wages are lower in poor places, housing prices are lower yet.

Ideally, we want labor and other resources to move from low productivity places to high productivity places–this dynamic reallocation of resources is one of the causes of rising productivity. But for low-skill workers the opposite is happening – housing prices are driving them from high productivity places to low productivity places. Furthermore, when low-skill workers end up in low-productivity places, wages are lower so there are fewer reasons to be employed and there aren’t high-wage jobs in the area so the incentives to increase human capital are dulled. The process of poverty becomes self-reinforcing.

Why has housing become so expensive in high-productivity places? It is true that there are geographic constraints (Manhattan isn’t getting any bigger) but zoning and other land use restrictions including historical and environmental “protection” are reducing the amount of land available for housing and how much building can be done on a given piece of land. As a result, in places with lots of restrictions on land use, increased demand for housing shows up mostly in house prices rather than in house quantities.

In the past, when a city like New York became more productive it attracted the poor and rich alike and as the poor moved in more housing was built and the wages and productivity of the poor increased and national inequality declined. Now, when a city like San Jose becomes more productive, people try to move to the city but housing doesn’t expand so the price of housing rises and only the highly skilled can live in the city. The end result is high-skilled people living in high-productivity cities and low-skilled people live in low-productivity cities. On a national level, land restrictions mean less mobility, lower national productivity and increased income and geographic inequality.

From my answer on Quora.

Here is my post on occupational licensing and declines in mobility.

Wednesday assorted links

1. The ingenuity of evil?

2. Brink Lindsey: Low-hanging fruit guarded by dragons.

3. Prospective markets in everything: a vegetarian patty so similar to meat that it appears to bleed.  And will one device change how we cook forever?

4. Amazon’s plan to fill the sky with drones and end the great stagnation.

5. The White House report on occupational licensing (pdf).

6. The game theory of Uber? (speculative)

Assorted links

1. Chemists find a way to unboil eggs.  And the Obama administration targets occupational licensing.

2. Jodi Beggs example database for Principles of Economics course.

3. When writing about China, it is much easier to acknowledge the importance of the top one percent.  A very good post, #moodaffiliation.

4. Afghan carpet weavers are putting drones on their rugs.

5. Will new technology lead to ultraropes, much longer elevator shafts, and much taller cities?

6. Why the left wing sometimes finds it hard to succeed, follow-up post here, I’m not saying you should read those through.  And do more expensive placebos work better?  Original paper here.  And here is Ross Douthat on same.

7. People identified through credit card use alone, often as few as four transactions.

8. Interview with Charles Plosser.

Our Guild-Ridden Labor Market

Could right and left unite in opposing occupational licensing? In an excellent primer Morris Kleiner makes the argument:

One unifying theme about the growth of occupational regulation has been the opposition from both the left and right of the political spectrum. Many on the left are concerned about the reduction in job opportunities, the increase in prices, and the diminished availability of services for those in or near poverty. On the right there is concern for economic liberty and access to the labor market and jobs. Many licensed professions are relatively low-skilled jobs, such as barbers, manicurists, nurse’s aides, and cosmetologists. The social costs of a bad haircut may be negligible, but the social costs of creating additional employment barriers for disadvantaged populations are not. Licensure laws often exclude ex-felons—defensible in many professions, but not in all, and such prohibitions make it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to find post-prison employment, thereby contributing to America’s high recidivism rate.

…If both the left and right oppose more occupational regulation, why is it growing? From the time of medieval guilds, service providers have had strong incentives to create barriers to entry for their professions in order to raise wages. In contrast, consumers who will be affected by the higher costs due to licensure are unorganized and arguably underrepresented in the political process.

Read the full post and Kleiner’s excellent book for many useful references. Here are previous MR posts on occupational licensing.

The new issue of Econ Journal Watch

Too little, too late on the excess burdens of taxation: Cecil Bohanon, John Horowitz, and James McClure show that public finance textbooks do a very poor job of illuminating the excess burdens of taxation and incorporating such burdens into the analysis of the costs of government spending.

Does occupational licensing deserve our seal of approval? Uwe Reinhardt reviews Morris Kleiner’s work on occupational regulation.

Clashing Northmen: In a previous issue, Arild Sæther and Ib Eriksen interpreted the postwar economic performance of Norway and the role of economists there. Here Olav Bjerkholt strongly objects to their interpretation, and Sæther and Eriksen reply.

Pull over for inspection: Dragan Ilić explores replicability and interpretation problems of a recent American Economic Review article by Shamena Anwar and Hanming Fang on racial prejudice and motor vehicle searches.

Capitalism and the Rule of Love: We reproduce a profound and rich—yet utterly neglected—essay by Clarence Philbrook, first published in 1953.

EJW Audio

The link to the issue is here.

America’s economic problems predated the Great Recession

Here is a very good piece by Binyamin Appelbaum, focusing on the research of Davis and Haltiwanger, here is one excerpt:

Employment losses during the Great Recession may have had more to do with factors like the rise of Walmart than with the recession itself, two economists say in a new academic paper.

The paper, presented Friday morning at the annual gathering of economists and central bankers at Jackson Hole, Wyo., argues that the share of Americans with jobs has declined because the labor market has stagnated in recent decades — fewer people losing or leaving jobs, fewer people landing new ones. This dearth of creative destruction, the authors argue, is the result of long-term trends including a slowdown in small business creation and the rise of occupational licensing.

“These results,” wrote the economists Stephen J. Davis, of the University of Chicago, and John Haltiwanger, of the University of Maryland, “suggest the U.S. economy faced serious impediments to high employment rates well before the Great Recession, and that sustained high employment is unlikely to return without restoring labor market fluidity.”

Their findings contribute to the growing genre of papers that purport to show that the weakness of the American economy is caused largely by problems that predate the recession — and that the Federal Reserve can’t remedy them with low interest rates.

Read the whole thing.

The Paul Ryan anti-poverty plan

The Ryan plan is here (pdf), an NYT summary is here. Overall it’s pretty good.  It attacks excess incarceration and occupational licensing and regressive regulations, three issues where a serious dialogue is badly needed.  It makes a good attempt to limit the incentives for lower-income people not to work.  It’s better than what the Left is turning out for the first time in…how long?

I’m not crazy about the complicated plan to monitor the lives of the poor in more detail (“…work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty.”)  And my biggest conceptual objection is the heavy stress on block grants and letting the states figure things out.  I’m not opposed to that in principle, and I might even favor it, but I think it’s often the lazy man’s way of avoiding talk about difficult trade-offs.  I’d like to see a possible plan for just a single state, or better yet two or three, that is supposed to represent an improvement.  That shouldn’t be too hard to do, or if it is maybe the states can’t do it either.  It’s not as if fifty states are giving us a market-based discovery process, as the rhetoric sometimes implies.  Furthermore we have a bunch of large states with ongoing bad governance, such as CA, NY, and IL, and maybe the federal government really can do better for those places.

Here is Vox on the regulation side of the plan.  Kevin Drum offers comment.  Ross Douthat mostly likes it.  Jared Bernstein doesn’t like it.  Robert Greenstein is critical.  Here is Neil Irwin.  And Annie Lowrey.  And Josh Barro.  And Yuval Levin.  And Ezra Klein.  Other people have opinions about it, too.  Or so I am led to believe.

New issue of Econ Journal Watch

You will find it here.  The contents include:

James Tooley on Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s Poor Economics: Banerjee and Duflo propose to bypass the “big questions” of economic development and focus instead on “small steps” to improvement. But, says Tooley, they proceed to make big judgments about education in developing countries, judgments not supported by their own evidence.

Why the Denial? Pauline Dixon asks why writers at UNESCO, Oxfam, and elsewhere have denied or discounted the success and potentiality of private schooling in developing countries.

Neither necessary nor sufficient, but… Thomas Mayer critically appraises Stephen Ziliak and Deirdre McCloskey’s influential writings, particularly The Cult of Statistical Significance. McCloskey and Ziliak reply.

Was Occupational Licensing Good for Minorities? Daniel Klein, Benjamin Powell, and Evgeny Vorotnikov take issue with a JLE article by Marc Law and Mindy Marks. Law and Marks reply.

Mankiw vs. DeLong and Krugman on the CEA’s Real GDP Forecasts in Early 2009: David Cushman shows how a careful econometrician might have adjudicated the debate among these leading economists over the likelihood of a macroeconomic rebound.

Shout it from the rooftops, Matt!

Matt Yglesias shouts it from the rooftops on occupational licensing:

Licensing requirements…are by far the best statistical predictor of business-friendliness, for those subjected to them. And unlike taxes or environmental rules, these have spread like kudzu, with little scrutiny and often scant policy rationale.

A recent comprehensive survey of state licensing practices by the Institute for Justice reveals little consistency or coherent purpose behind most licensing. Nevada, Louisiana, Florida, and the District of Columbia, for example, all require aspiring interior designers to undergo 2,190 hours of training and apprenticeship and pass an exam before practicing. In the other 47 states, meanwhile, there’s no legal training requirement. My friends and co-workers living in D.C.’s Virginia and Maryland suburbs appear to get on fine with unlicensed interior decorators, and all across America, amateurs have decorated their own homes without imperiling public safety.

Almost all states—though not Alabama or the anarchic United Kingdom—require barbers to be licensed, but the specific requirements seem to vary arbitrarily. New York barbers need 884 days of education and apprenticeship. Across the river in New Jersey, it’s 280. But getting one’s hair cut in New Jersey (to say nothing of England) is hardly a life-threatening gamble.

…a wide range of these rules could be done away with entirely at basically no risk. Regulation is needed when it would make sense for a firm to deliberately engage in malfeasance. Dumping harmful toxins into the air is highly profitable unless it’s prohibited. Financiers can draw huge bonuses by taking on too much risk, only to wreck the economy later. In other occupations, though, shoddy work brings its own punishments. An interior decorator who can’t get recommendations from satisfied customers probably won’t remain an interior decorator for long.

In these cases, licensing rules raise the prices the rest of us pay, make it difficult for successful entrepreneurs to expand their businesses, and are often a major barrier to employment for the most vulnerable populations.

We have covered these issues before on MR but sometimes you just have to KEEP SHOUTING.

Timothy Noah’s *The Great Divergence*

The subtitle is America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.  His policy conclusions are:

1. Soak the rich

2. Fatten government payrolls

3. Import more skilled labor

4. Universalize preschool

5. Impose price controls on colleges and universities

6. Reregulate Wall Street

7. Elect Democratic Presidents

8. Revive the labor movement

This book is well-written and it is a useful survey of left-democrat points of view on the problem.  I do not think most of these recommendations will much limit inequality (though they may have other virtues), but my main wish is that he had offered some additional possible solutions.  #1 on my list is “more innovations which benefit virtually everybody,” which is how the last great equalization (1870-1970 or so) came about.   Parts of his list, such as #3, get at this obliquely but it should be front and center of the entire book.  Let’s debate how we can make that happen.  If there were a new invention as important as the toilet, shareholders would not and could not appropriate most of the gains.  “Deregulate housing” and “deregulate medical care” also deserve a ponder, as does “abolish occupational licensing” and “subsidize basic science.”  That global inequality has fallen radically is understood and recognized but not emphasized.  It is culturally beyond the pale — on the left at least — to write “encourage conversions to Mormonism” but as a recommendation it is right on the mark.  This book needs more which is culturally beyond the pale.  How about “run some of the bad schools with lots of discipline, more like the KIPP academy?”

Why economic mobility measures are overrated

By mobility I mean whether people are crossing into different income quintiles or deciles than the ones they were born into, or the ones they enjoyed at an earlier period of life.

1. If the general standard of living is rising (and I am more than willing to admit problems in this area for the United States), mobility takes care of itself over time.  I find it more useful to focus on slow growth, if indeed that is the case.  Just look at income growth for non-wealthy families and that is more useful than all the mobility measures put together.

2. Measured mobility in the United States does not seem to be falling, or at least not falling much, as shown by Scott Winship.

3. For a given level of income, if some are moving up others are moving down.  Do you take theories of wage rigidity seriously?  If so, you might favor less relative mobility, other things remaining equal.  More upward — and thus downward — relative mobility probably means less aggregate happiness, due to habit formation and frame of reference effects.

4. Why do many European nations have higher mobility?  Putting ethnic and demographic issues aside, here is one mechanism.  Lots of smart Europeans decide to be not so ambitious, to enjoy their public goods, to work for the government, to avoid high marginal tax rates, to travel a lot, and so on.  That approach makes more sense in a lot of Europe than here.  Some of the children of those families have comparable smarts but higher ambition and so they rise quite a bit in income relative to their peers.  (The opposite may occur as well, with the children choosing more leisure.)  That is a less likely scenario for the United States, where smart people realize this is a country geared toward higher earners and so fewer smart parents play the “tend the garden” strategy.  Maybe the U.S. doesn’t have a “first best” set-up in this regard, but the comparison between U.S. and Europe is less sinister than it seems at first.  “High intergenerational mobility” is sometimes a synonym for “lots of parental underachievers.”

5. How much of immobility is due to “inherited talent plus diminishing role for random circumstance”?  Is not this cause of immobility very different — both practically and morally — from such factors as discrimination, bad schools, occupational licensing, etc.?  What are you supposed to get when you combine genetics with meritocracy?  I do not know how much of current American (or other) immobility is due to this factor, but I find it discomforting that complaints about mobility are so infrequently accompanied by an analysis of this topic.

6. I am more than willing to hear arguments than a less mobile society is a less stable society, or otherwise a society which makes worse political decisions.  But I haven’t seen serious arguments here.  By “serious arguments” I mean those which take endogeneity into account and go beyond noting that Denmark is a better polity than Brazil, and so on.

7. I would like all measurements in this area to take into account the pre-migration incomes of incoming entrants.  Denmark, which doesn’t let many people in, is a much less upwardly mobile society once you take this into account.  Sweden deserves more praise, and in general this factor will make the Anglo countries look much, much more supportive of mobility.

Addendum: Here is more from Scott Winship.