Daniel Hamermesh: Let's Make it Harder for Low-Skilled People
By David Henderson
The person who wants to get you fired is not your friend.
Daniel S. Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli recently presented data showing that Americans work longer hours, and more night and weekend hours, than Europeans. I’m not familiar with Professor Stancanellia’s other work, but Professor Hamermesh is a well-known American labor economist. So he understands, as does his co-author, that, just as in other markets, these results reflect the interaction of supply and demand. Here’s part of one of their paragraphs, a part that shows that understanding:
Weekend and night work is not attractive to most workers. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it generates, on average, higher pay per hour than work at ‘normal’ times–wage differentials that compensate for the undesirability of working at unattractive hours (Kostiuk 1990). Also unsurprisingly, it attracts workers with the least human capital. In the US and Germany, young workers, those with less education, and immigrants are more likely than other employees to work at these times. In the US, minorities are also more likely to perform weekend and night work (Hamermesh 1996).
Notice their correct use of the verb “attracts.” The hours themselves are often unattractive. But the higher pay compensates for this and attracts “workers with the least human capital.”
But now consider the very next sentence of their paragraph:
The burden of working at unpleasant times falls disproportionately on those who have the least earning power.
Did you see their sleight of hand? After pointing out that these workers want to be in those jobs, given their low human capital, Hamermesh and Stancanelli call working at unpleasant times a “burden.” But it’s not a burden. It’s an opportunity, as they themselves recognize.
The authors then raise a question and provide two possible answers:
Why are Americans so much more likely to work at strange times than Europeans? The results here show that it is not because Americans work more than Europeans.
. One cause might be the greater inequality of earnings in the US that induces low-skilled workers — earning relatively less than low-skilled Europeans — to desire more work at times that pays a wage premium.
. Another possibility is cultural, so that Americans just enjoy working at these times more than their European counterparts. But citing cultural differences is an easy way to avoid thinking or doing anything about an issue.
Notice what both explanations have in common: the supply side, that is, the desire of workers to work “at strange times.”
But Hamermesh and Stancanelli don’t want people who are disproportionately low-skilled to be able to act on their desires. They end with the following:
If we really want to reduce the amount of work that occurs at times that are viewed as unpleasant, the solution may be to revert to the shop-closing laws (Blue Laws) that prevailed in the US years ago. No free-marketer would like this, but it may well be worth reviving these laws in order to get the US out of what might be a low-level, rat-race equilibrium.
In other words, pass laws so that these people will be forced to give up their best of what many of us would regard as lousy options.
Their solution, for people who are suffering: Suffer more.
I’ve posted about Hamermesh’s advocacy of more labor market regulation here.
HT to Mark Thoma