Job Quality is about Policies, not Technology

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

Nouriel Roubini posted an article titled “Where Will All the Workers Go?”. A few pulls:

“The risk is that robotics and automation will displace workers in blue-collar manufacturing jobs before the dust of the Third Industrial Revolution settles.”

“But, unless the proper policies to nurture job growth are put in place, it remains uncertain whether demand for labor will continue to grow as technology marches forward.”

“Even that may not be sufficient, in which case it will become necessary to provide permanent income support to those whose jobs are displaced by software and machines.”

The worry here is that technology will replace certain jobs (particularly goods-producing jobs) and that there will literally be nothing for those people to do. They will presumably exit the labor market completely and possibly need permanent income support.

Let’s quickly deal with the “lump of labor” fallacy sitting behind this. Technology reduces the demand for labor in some industries, so fewer workers are employed there. Which raises the supply of labor in all the other industries. For that supply shock to generate no other employment you have to assume that the $15 trillion dollar a year U.S. economy is so rigidly inflexible that it has a definitely fixed set of jobs that can be filled. That’s ridiculous.

To a rough approximation, just about the exact same number of people work in goods-producing industries in 2013 (19 million) as did in 1950 (17 million). And yet somehow the rest of us have figured out what to do with ourselves in the interim. Between 1950 and 2013 the U.S. economy expanded from 28 million service jobs to 117 million service jobs (All stats from the BLS). You think that somehow it won’t be able to figure out what to do with more workers that are displaced by technology? We’ve been creating new kinds of jobs for two hundred years.

So let’s ignore the phantom worry that tens of millions workers suddenly find themselves completely at a loss to find work. The economy is going to find something for these people to do. The question is what kind of jobs these will be.

Will they be “bad jobs”? McJobs at retail outlets, wearing a nametag? These aren’t “good jobs”, real jobs. Making “stuff” is a real job, not some made-up bullshit service job.

We can worry about the quality of jobs, but the mistake here is to confound “good jobs” with manufacturing or goods-producing jobs. Manufacturing jobs are not inherently “good jobs”. There is nothing magic about repetitively assembling parts together. You think the people at Foxconn have good jobs? There is no greater dignity to manufacturing than to providing a service. Cops produce no goods. Nurses produce no goods. Teachers produce no goods.

Manufacturing jobs were historically “good jobs” because they came with benefits that were not found in other industries. Those benefits – job security, health care, regular raises – have nothing to do with the dignity of “real work” and lots to do with manufacturing being an industry that is conducive to unionization. The same scale economies that make gigantic factories productive also make them relatively easy places to organize. They have lots of workers collected in a single place, with definitive safety issues to address, and an ownership that can be hurt deeply by shutting down the cash flow they need to pay off debt. To beat home the point, consider that what we consider “good” service jobs – teacher, cop – are also heavily unionized. Public employees, no less.

If you want people to get “good jobs” – particularly those displaced by technology – then work to reverse the loss of labor’s negotiating power relative to ownership. Raise minimum wages. Alleviate the difficulty in unionizing service workers.

You want to smooth the transition for people who are displaced, and help them move into new industries? Great. Let’s have a discussion about our optimal level of social insurance and support for training and education. But the sectors people leave or eventually enter are irrelevant to that.

You want to worry about downward wage pressure as the demand for labor falls? Great. Worry about that. See the above point about raising labor’s negotiating power relative to ownership.

Hoping or trying to recreate the employment structure of 1950 is stupid. We don’t need that many people to assemble stuff together any more because we are so freaking good at it now. The expansion of service employment isn’t some kind of historical mistake we need to reverse.

Any job can be a “good job” if the worker and employer can coordinate on a good equilibrium. Costco coordinates on a high-wage, high-benefit, high-effort, low-turnover equilibrium. Sam’s Club coordinates on a low-wage, low-benefit, low-effort, high-turnover equilibrium. Both companies make money, but one provides better jobs than the other. So as technology continues to displace workers, think about how to get *all* companies to coordinate on the “good” equilibrium rather than pining for lost days of manly steelworkers or making the silly presumption that we will literally run out of things to do.

Advertisements

Economic Dynamism and Productivity Growth

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

There’s a paper out in the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives by Decker, Haltiwanger, Jarmin, and Miranda (DHJM) on “The Role of Entrepreneurship in US Job Creation and Economic Dynamism“. They document, in more detail than an earlier Brookings report I talked about recently, that the proportion of firms that are “young” has declined over the last 30 years.

DHJM use the number of young firms – those less than 5 years old – as a proxy for entrepreneurship. And therefore the conclusion is that entrepreneurship has declined over the last 30 years. You can see this in their figure 4, below. In 1982, for example, roughly 50 percent of all firms were less than 5 years old, while by 2011 only about 35 percent of firms were under 5 years old. Similarly, the share of total employment in young firms fell from about 18 percent in 1982 to about 13 percent in 2011.

DHJM 2014 Figure 4

Perhaps most important, the share of job creation from young firms has declined over the same period. In the early 1980’s, young firms were responsible for about 40 percent of all new jobs, while by 2011 this was down to about 33 percent. In sum, there are fewer young firms, they employ fewer people, and they create fewer jobs today than they did 30 years ago.

Where is this decline coming from? DHJM show in their figure 5 that for manufacturing, the share of employment in young firms has declined very slightly over the same period, and was never very large to begin with. In contrast, in the service sector the proportion of jobs in young firms was over 25 percent in 1982, and now is around 15 percent. The shift of economic activity from manufacturing to service firms both raised the share of employment in young firms (because of the higher rate in services) and lowered the share of employment in young firms (because of the downward trend within services). On net, the downward trent in services won out, and overall the proportion of jobs in young firms has dropped.

DHJM 2014 Figure 5

There’s nothing to dispute in these numbers, and I don’t think DHJM have done anything to misrepresent what is going on. But the big question is: did this decline in the proportion of young firms lower productivity growth? The short answer is, I don’t see any evidence that it did. [Update 8/1/14: Just to be clear, DHJM are not claiming that it does lower productivity growth. This is a question I have given their data.]

Consider the figure from Fernald’s (2014) recent paper on productivity. It shows the trend of labor productivity from the late 70’s until today. There is no secular slowdown in productivity growth between 1982 and 2011. Productivity growth from 2003-2011 is just as fast as it was in the pre-1995 period. As Fernald points out, 1995-2003 is an outlier, probably associated with the IT revolution. Therefore, if the decline in the number of young firms is bad for productivity, it hasn’t been so bad that it shows up in any aggregate numbers over the last 30 years.

Fernald 2014 Figure 3

So what does the decline in young firms mean? One plausible explanation is mentioned by DHJM, which is the advance of “big box” or national stores relative to mom-and-pop operations. In 1982, if you saw a niche for a coffee shop in your town, you would open up a coffee shop. Now, a Starbucks was there three years ago. National retailers have gotten very good at identifying lucrative retail locations, and are able to move more quickly than individuals.

Note that this doesn’t imply that national retailers are any more productive than mom-and-pop stores (although they do pay higher wages than small retail establishments). If they were, then we should have seen some kind of long-run boost to productivity from 1982-2011. We don’t. My guess is that it just means national retailers have a distinct advantage in identifying and opening lucrative retail locations compared to individuals.

Of course, it could be that the loss of productivity from the drop in young firms is offset almost perfectly by the increase in productivity from having national firms more readily identify and take advantage of new retail opportunities. If so, okay. From a productivity standpoint, though, it’s a wash, and does not necessarily have any implications for future productivity growth.

DHJM 2014 Figure 3

Does it imply anything about employment? Well, as DHJM document in their figure 3, there has been a decline in the job creation and job destruction rates from 1980-2011 (don’t get too worked up about the big dip in the trend line for job creation – HP filters are sensitive to the end points you use). Both rates are declining, meaning that there is less worker churn in the economy, which is consistent with less churn in firms, which is what fewer young firms implies. Again, note that the trend of decline in job creation and destruction occurs over the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s consistently, which covers periods in which the employment to population ratio rose pretty consistently before leveling off in the last decade.

The fact that the proportion of young firms in the U.S. is declining doesn’t seem to be anything to get worked up about, and it doesn’t imply that U.S. productivity or employment are doomed to stagnate in the future. If there is some “optimal” amount of young firms to have, we have no idea what it is, and we could as easily be over that amount as under it. For now, I’m mentally filing the decline in young firms alongside the secular shift away from manufacturing and towards services. It’s one of those structural changes that occur as economies grow. But evidence from either (a) longer time periods in the U.S., or (b) across countries, could easily change my mind.