Life Is Good for Skilled Workers

A blog about business and economics.
July 5 2012 10:52 AM

Life Is Good for Skilled Workers

Henry Farrell says it would enhance productivity to start mistreating economics professors:

But let’s draw the comparison out a little. What would the world look like if [George Mason University] economics professors were treated similarly to workers in low-paid jobs with little protection? No offices – at best open cubicles, so that a supervisor could stroll by, making sure that the professors were doing the job that they were supposed to be doing. Monitoring of computers to prevent random websurfing. Certainly no air conditioning. Compulsory random drug testing. Body searches, in case professors were sneaking office supplies back home. Monitoring – at best – of bathroom breaks, and written demerits and termination of employment for professors who took too many of them. Perhaps Tyler might want to argue that such pervasive distrust and supervision would hurt productivity rather than help it – but it would seem difficult plausibly to reconcile such an argument with his prior claim that mooching, slacking and skiving off is endemic among his colleagues.
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But then in the next paragraph, he says it wouldn't be productivity-enhancing:

Knowing professors quite well, including economics professors, I can very safely predict their reaction if they found themselves subjected to such vigorous supervision, (perhaps as a result of some general bill attacking academic privileges passed through the Virginia legislature). And it wouldn’t be a careful consideration of contracts, and a measured conclusion that given the inevitable incompleteness thereof, they would have to put up with it until they could find a job at some more enlightened institution. It would be sputtering, semi-coherent outrage at what they would perceive as a humiliating and direct assault on their professional and human dignity. Indeed, they’d have a point. But it isn’t only professors who have dignity as workers and human beings. And that’s a rather important point too.

At the end of the day, GMU professors wouldn't react to a lower-quality work experience with "sputtering, semi-coherent outrage." What they'd do is quit and go work elsewhere because they have skills that are in demand in the labor market.

After all, it's not just working conditions. Economics professors are paid much higher wages than low-skill workers. If you tried to pay your economics professors $8 an hour with no health benefits or matching contribution to your 401(k), you'd only be "saving money" in the sense that your staff would all leave. There's absolutely no doubt that all things considered you're better off having math skills and advanced educational credentials than not having those things. Low-skill workers' lot in life could be greatly improved through full employment, so a person will at least have a range of different job opportunities available to him.

But if you're debating the question of whether it should be illegal to subject workers to mandatory searches, it doesn't get anywhere to point to the fact that some people are better off in general than others. Maybe there are two companies in town running roughly similar businesses that require the use of some unskilled labor. Both firms are concerned about the problem of employee theft, and both firms are also interested in paying their workers as little as possible. At one firm, they're offering the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and they're losing some product. At another firm, they're offering $8.25 an hour but searching employees and experiencing less loss to theft. Sometimes people get so fed up with that bullshit that they quit and go across town to the lower-paid, less pleasant job. Other times people get fed up with trying to make ends meet on a minimum wage job, so they quit and go across town and subject themselves to humiliating searches in exchange for more money. Sad stories all around, but telling the higher-paying firm that its business model is illegal and it has to switch to the lower-paying one isn't going to make the stories any less sad.

Or maybe there's an argument that I'm wrong about this. I'm open to persuasion. But you have to make the argument that tighter regulation of permissable work rules will in fact benefit the intended beneficiaries in a world where labor market regulation isn't going to suddenly increase employers' benevolence. The in-the-clouds conceptual argument about libertarianism, freedom, and coercion is semi-interesting in an academic sense, but as policy analysis it doesn't show much. In an important sense freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, but it doesn't follow that we should want everyone to be a small-holding subsistence farmer merely because that would make him hard to coerce.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.