Economics is not consequentialist

A lot of people won’t care about this post – and the ones that do will care a bit too much.  So I will keep this relatively short.  But just believe me that this post is the first in a series of three that will eventually get to the point 😉

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Automation of an economist

While undertaking some research on income inequality I could no longer help Infometrics Ltd out with forecasting.  But before I left I caught economist Mieke Welvaert working on blueprints for my replacement.

Although I’ve defended these robots in the past (here and here) it has always been with respect to being compensated for my human capital losing value.  I’ll be sure to tell you all how that is going in future posts 😉

Vertical and horizontal equity: What are they?

This post is dry.  But if we want to talk about policy and fairness we gotta do some of the hard work making sure we understand how our ethical principles can be measured.  See it as part of trying to build more measures to help us understand arguments around policy given what Sen raises here.  So with that in mind lets define equity:

Equity.  Is the word economists unjustifiably confuse with fairness in order to pay lip service to distributional concerns

Ok I’m being a bit of a dork – in all fairness equity is a good start in asking these questions, but we have to see these measures as only a start!

At the most basic level, when we think about output/income and its distribution in society we consider the average of the income distribution (the mean) and its dispersion (the variance).  If incomes are rising over time as they have been for 200 years, then the variance also rises so we normalise such measures.  This is where inequality measures like the Gini coefficient come from.

The idea of (income) equity goes a step further than just describing the general distribution of income – it considers what happens when we impose an external policy that changes that distribution.  It measures a couple of principles that we may – or may not – value when applying a policy that changes the distribution of income:

  1. Vertical equity:  Captures the proportionality of the system applied – if we introduce taxes are people with higher initial incomes paying proportionally more, if we introduce transfer payments are people with lower initial incomes receiving proportionally more?
  2. Horizontal equity:  When we have two individuals we see as “equals” does this policy system treat them the same way?

With taxes and transfers these measures involve comparing the way people are treated by the tax-transfer system based on a view on what constitutes “equals”.  Specifically, these two concept can only fit together without conflict when looking at income if equals are defined as people with the same income.

Now in this post I will concentrate only on Vertical Equity – we can do Horizontal Equity another time!  And in line with my desire to be a bit more useful I want to focus on how we might measure these concepts, and what we are assuming when we do.

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Why my work week should be shorter

People, who are in labour force, generally spend one third of their daily time at work. A lot of them find working five days a week quite stressful and there are various reasons for it. I often question myself how the counterfactual of my work-life balance might look like to keep me motivated at work as well as to allow me to spend time with family/friends and devote leisure to my favorite hobbies.

An option that recently popped-up in my mind was about having a four day work week with the remuneration staying unchanged. This idea has already been implemented by a kiwi company Perpetual Guardian which is trailing to raise their productivity.

Let’s consider why the four day work week could be beneficial for both employees and employers.

Employee benefit

An extra day off normally improves our work-life balance – or in other words it allows us to spend more time on leisure (potentially also reducing work-related stress). For some people the cost of leisure is very high. Particularly, this cost is high for sole parents who have scarcity of time and support to spend on their children compared to the couples. Sole parents are also more disadvantaged compared to singles, by having extra responsibilities on their dependents.

What about the transportation burden? For some people, commuting is a big challenge, especially for those who live far away from the workplace. An extra day off would cut the transportation costs and would allow to alternate commuting time with additional leisure time.  Daily long hours on transportation are an external cost placed on the employment process which has a dead-weight loss, which can be reduced by needing to travel less often.

We probably all agree that having an extra day off would improve our work-life balance regardless of our family composition or the length of commuting.

So what happens if “the four day work per week” policy is widely implemented?  Is it a fixed day, should it be up to the employee to choose, or should there be some type of random rotation introduced?

My view is that the weekdays that employees are off should be rotated among workers. If not, then a Friday becomes another Saturday. In this case, everybody has a day off, and problems with “dentist visits” or “children’s school visits” remain unsolved. Adding another Saturday/Sunday to an employee’s life is great, but the marginal improvement is much less than having the day off with rotation.

Employer benefit

At first glance, the approach of paying same wage for 32 hours a week instead of 40, seems expensive. But have we already considered the productivity increase of employees?

An earlier post on  TVHE has already shown that the productivity drops as the number of hours of work rises. A Scandinavian research also demonstrated how the six-hour work day increases productivity here.

“A year’s worth of data from the project, which compares staff at Svartedalens with a control group at a similar facility, showed that 68 nurses who worked six hour days took half as much sick time as those in the control group. And they were 2.8 times less likely to take any time off in a two-week period”.

As a result, higher productivity would at least reduce the cost – if not completely cancel it out.

Although this does raise the question “if firms can get the same output from you in 32 hours instead of 40, and thereby can reduce their costs of operating even keeping wage payments the same (due to other variable costs), then why aren’t they?”.  So do you think there are reasons why firms may be failing to do this, even if the cost or low or it is even in their own interest?

Conclusion

Often time costs us more than million dollars as the happiness cannot be quantified or bought by money. Any company caring to keep their trained specialists around might want to be ready to cover this cost.

A successful outcome of the Perpetual Guardian’s trial on four day work could encourage other companies in NZ to think about how to widely apply this policy among their employees.

I wonder what your thoughts on this topic are. Do you think shifting from five to four days work might impact the NZ economy significantly?

The Indicators Aotearoa public consultation

Statistics New Zealand is asking for public consultation on Indicators Aotearoa New Zealand, a consultation motivated here.

Now given my own writing on the usefulness of GDP and my concern about injustice rhetoric being used for consumption instead of facing issues that matter I would be expected to have an opinion.

Sure I do, it makes sense to ask people what outcomes they care about in order to determine what we measure and what prominence it has.  So this is very cool to see – and I’d be keen for everyone to get involved in saying what matters to them.  Let’s see what they say:

“These indicators will be designed to be independent and to paint an enduring picture of how New Zealand is tracking, and will help underpin robust decision-making for years to come,” says Ms MacPherson.

“But to shape the measures which will be included in Indicators Aotearoa New Zealand, we need your help.

“That’s why Stats NZ wants to hear from you about what you’d like to see represented in the set of indicators. You might want to see measures about the state of our health, our environment, our infrastructure, or our social connections.”

Where we have a picture we can model trade-offs, when we can discuss trade-offs between competing factors that people care about we can discuss policy.  This is useful as long as we don’t get lazy on the modelling trade-offs part of course 😉

They state that you can give a submission at the link above or email indicators@stats.govt.nz.  So why not give that a go.  I’ll be sure to think about the broad social issues that matter to me and send in my own submission at some point myself.  Neither of the links say how long we have to do this so we better be quick – quick but thoughtful of course 😉

Monopsony in the NZ labour market?

As part of catching up with what has been happening in New Zealand I am reading what I can find from New Zealand economists.  In doing so I wandered onto this piece by Shamubeel Eaqub of Sense Partners.

Firms are finding it hard to recruit, as the pool of qualified job seekers who are not already employed is so small. … (But) Wages haven’t risen in tandem. Wages have been increasing in some sectors like construction, but have been stagnant in others. … One explanation for this may be a lack of competition in a local labour market.

The increase is from a low level and evidence from the US on minimum wages suggest such increases don’t cost jobs, but improve the incomes for the working poor.

So there are two claims embedded in this that I want to think about a bit here: Competition through monopsony and the efficacy of a higher minimum wage in the NZ context.

Is there suggestive signs of monopsony in NZ’s labour market (Tl;dr is YES and NO), does this imply minimum wages could increase employment (Tl;dr is YES if monopsony holds), does this suggest higher minimum wages would increase, or at least not reduce, employment (Tl;dr is probably NO at current levels).  Although we will be going through a bit more than this in what has turned into a long post.  Let’s do this.

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