DRI-131 for week of 8-16-15: Hillary on CEO Short-Termism: Three Views

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Is the Purpose of Government to Eliminate All Sources of Discontent?

If we took every action taken by government at face value, we would be forced to conclude that its central purpose is to eliminate all sources of discontent. And that is exactly the goal set for it by a long-forgotten Labor Party parliamentarian in early 20th-century Great Britain. Is that really what motivates politicians and bureaucrats? Should it be?

Actions taken by state-government regulators in New York raise these questions. Earlier this month, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that retailer Abercrombie and Fitch was the most prominent of 13 companies to end a work practice known as “on-call scheduling.” The Attorney General (hereinafter, AG) cited pressure by his office as the motivating force behind the change. The practice requires workers to be “on-call” for work in the sense that they must be prepared to show up or stay home on very short notice of as little as one hour. As noted in The Wall Street Journal (“Abercrombie Agrees to End On-Call Scheduling,” 8/7/2015, by Lauren Weber), “workers whose shifts are canceled don’t receive pay, even if they had blocked out that time and made child-care  or other arrangements.”

Abercrombie’s general counsel, Robert Bostrom, described the company’s capitulation by stating that workers will henceforth receive their schedules one week in advance and can choose to receive word about additional shifts that become available on short notice. The new policy, intended to “create as stable and predictable a work environment as possible” for Abercrombie’s employees, will become effective in September in New York and eventually be phased in nationwide.

Why did the Attorney General of New York state choose to intervene in the work-scheduling policies of a baker’s dozen retailers? “Unpredictable work schedules take a toll on all employees, especially those in low wage sectors,” commented Schneiderman, adding that other companies should follow Abercrombie’s “important step.” In April, the AG had claimed that Abercrombie’s policy “potentially” broke a New York law. That law states that staffers who report for scheduled work must receive at least four hours’ pay at minimum wage even if sent home. (Several other states have similar laws.) As the Journal points out, the law was passed before the advent of text messaging and e-mail made it easy to reach most people on short notice. Despite its change of policy, Abercrombie admitted no violation of law.

To an economist, the regulatory action taken by the New York Attorney General’s office and the explanations accompanying it seem utterly inexplicable – unless we are willing to believe that the inherent purpose of government is to eliminate all sources of human discontent.

Why Oppose – That Is, Regulate – On-Call Scheduling?

AG Schneiderman has chosen to regulate on-call scheduling by issuing an unfavorable opinion of this particular work practice, then pressuring firms behind the scenes to drop it. The question is: Why?

According to the Journal, “a number of current and former Abercrombie store associates nationwide left complaints about the scheduling policy on the employer-review site “Glassdoor….” (Parenthetically, we should note that the ghastly use of “a number of” could denote anything from one to infinity and is the kind of elementary error that freshman journalism students are taught to avoid.) Let us stipulate that some workers find the practice of on-call scheduling objectionable. So what? Is the purpose of government to act as a sort of all-purpose complaint department? Or is there something unique, perhaps, about the situation of retail employees – or human labor in general – that requires complaints to be addressed by government rather than directed to management?

As a matter of fact, why don’t workers who find the practice of on-call scheduling objectionable adopt the great American solution open to all workers in a free society; namely, quit and find a different job with working conditions more to their liking?

The Great Fried-Chicken Dilemma

To clarify this problem, consider a much easier problem posed in a much more familiar context.

Consider the problem of consumers confronted with a product they don’t like. Suppose a diner visits a fried chicken restaurant and finds the main course unpalatable. Should the diner complain to management? Well, many restaurants encourage this; it may or may not produce a refund for the diner. Conceivably, it might even result in alteration of the restaurant’s recipe or staff. But chances are that the diner will simply shrug and go somewhere else. After all, there are untold numbers of competing fried-chicken restaurants.

Should we demand that the Federal Trade Commission monitor consumer websites for customer complaints and “crack down” on restaurants that sell “inferior” fried chicken? No, there are huge flaws with this approach to the problem of maintaining restaurant quality. One drawback is that consumer tastes in fried chicken differ; one man’s inferior chicken is another man’s delight. Requiring government to enforce a quality standard in fried chicken will inevitably result in the production of “government quality” fried chicken; that is, one kind of fried chicken that diners of all tastes will have to eat or else. In this case, “or else” means they will have to prepare their own fried chicken. Since they previously had that alternative but rejected it in favor of dining out, this clearly makes them worse off than they would be if they could find a fried chicken to their taste. Of course, we could pretend to solve this problem by having government set up a different quality standard for each different flavor of fried chicken – one for extra crispy, one for spicy, and so on. But this would only create a host of new problems. And it assumes that government is just as responsive to consumer desires as producers are in free markets, whereas our experience tells us that government is quite insensitive to the desires of constituents and tends to impose a “one-size-fits-all” standard on the public whenever it can.

Another obvious drawback is the vast number of fried-chicken restaurants and diners, which would force government to employ huge numbers of people and spend ungodly amounts of time checking out complaints. (Lack of resources also argues against having government set up multiple quality standards for fried chicken, since it would hardly have sufficient time and manpower to enforce one standard, let alone multiple ones.)

Still another drawback would be the inducement sellers would have to file complaints against their competitors. Not only would this tie up government resources in investigating bogus complaints, it would also imperil the workings of competitive markets. If sellers could use government as a tool in falsely branding their competitors’ products as inferior, this would vitiate the very purpose that regulation is intended to serve.

Just think about all the problems we don’t have because we don’t force government to regulate fried-chicken quality in free markets. We don’t have to worry about how many different flavors of fried chicken to allow – are regular, extra-crispy, spicy, and Cajun-style enough, too many or insufficient to satisfy us? Should the number vary in different cities? Counties? States? Regions? Should it change over time, and if so how often? We don’t worry about any of these things. In fact, we take the answers to these questions completely for granted without ever realizing that they might be a problem in the first place. The market takes care of the answers without any of us ever giving the matter a moment’s thought.

Upon consideration, we realize that the mere fact that somebody doesn’t like fried chicken at a restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean that a market failure calling for government regulation has occurred. It might simply mean that the consumer has tasted fried chicken prepared in one of the various ways that don’t suit him; he needs to visit a restaurant better suited to his tastes. Of course, this could be styled a failure of information, but it is certainly not clear that government regulation could have prevented it or could solve it for other consumers. Markets, not governments, are collators and transmitters of information.

If we tried hard enough, we might envision a role for government in such a situation. Maybe the consumer didn’t like the chicken because it was tainted by salmonella. But we have government regulation of health standards in restaurants and preparation standards in chicken plants – and salmonella cases still happen. In reality, markets solve the problem of food poisoning in restaurants by turning restaurants that serve tainted food into commercial pariahs – a disincentive that exceeds any penalty government offers.

The Great Fried-Chicken Dilemma offers vast insight into the problems of labor markets in general and the regulation of on-call scheduling in particular.

The Potential Efficiency Benefits of On-Call Scheduling

Neither Wall Street Journal article nor Attorney General Schneiderman – nor, for that matter, Abercrombie itself – said anything to suggest that the practice of on-call scheduling might actually be beneficial for retail sellers, for consumers and for workers themselves. That omission is startling. There was a reason why Abercrombie and 12 other retail businesses employed this business practice.

Every consumer has patronized a retail seller and knows that these businesses are sometimes bustling with business and sometimes nearly empty. At some point, every consumer has experienced the frustration of seeking a sales clerk in vain. Businesses strive to keep exactly the right number of staff on the floor – not too many, not too few. Depending on the particular good(s) sold, human labor may be the most expensive cost incurred by the business, so it behooves managers to manipulate their “inventory” of sales staff to best advantage.

Just as businesses want to manage their inventory of sales staff optimally, so they also want to keep just the right amount inventory of goods on their shelves. For centuries, this was one of the biggest headaches facing the average business. Economists even identified the phenomenon called an “inventory recession,” caused by too many businesses simultaneously overestimating the need for future inventories and producing far more goods than were needed – only to find shelves and warehouses full to overflowing when consumer demand did not keep pace with expectations. Recent technological innovations in transportation, logistics and computers have allowed business to employ an inventory scheduling practice called “just in time” inventory management. This allowed businesses to postpone restocking until the last minute, letting them gauge demand much more accurately and avoiding the necessity for accurate long-distance forecasting of inventory needs.

If we view a retail business’s roster of employees as its staffing “inventory,” it is clear that on-call scheduling is a kind of “just-in-time” program for staffing. It allows retail managers to postpone determination of their final staffing schedule until the point when they can gauge the demand for retail staffing much more accurately. This allows them to avoid paying superfluous clerks when the store is virtually empty while having extra clerks on hand when demand is unexpectedly strong. It is crystal clear that on-call scheduling is potentially very beneficial for a retail business.

Moreover, it should be equally clear that on-call scheduling benefits consumers, too. This is a case where the interests of consumers and those of the business are directly aligned. Consumers want to have extra clerks on hand at busy times but don’t benefit much, if at all, from the presence of superfluous clerks in slack times. In the long run, competition between retail businesses will insure that the benefits of lower costs are passed along to consumers in the form of lower prices, so the efficiency gains from on-call scheduling really go to consumers, even though we associate the concept of business efficiency with productive advantage and gains to business owners.

What obviously failed to occur to AG Schneiderman, the Wall Street Journal and (from outward appearances) even Abercrombie and its spokesman is that on-call scheduling is also a potential source of benefits to retail employees. Just as consumers in our fried-chicken example derive benefits from product differentiation, so also may workers derive benefits from different terms of employment and work environments. Retail sales work is generally viewed as a form of low-skilled labor. Economists treat low-skilled labor as homogeneous; that is, as indistinguishable. But on-call scheduling allows workers the chance either to accept employment or, alternatively, earn a higher wage by competing on the basis of willingness to work – or forego work – on short notice. Since the decision to work for a particular employer is voluntary, nobody is forced to take this offer – just as no consumer is forced to eat fried chicken they don’t like. There are countless retail sellers, so workers who don’t relish the practice of on-call scheduling can work for a business that doesn’t follow the practice – just as consumers who don’t like one variety of fried chicken can patronize one of the many other competing brands extant.

So Why Regulate On-Call Scheduling?

On-call scheduling offers potential benefits to retail businesses, consumers and even to retail workers – just as different types of products offer potential benefits to consumers. Nobody is forced to endure on-call scheduling if they don’t like it, since the large number of retail businesses competing for workers gives workers a wide choice of employment – just as consumers have wide choices of different products and aren’t forced to put up with a particular brand. If it would be incredibly wasteful and a huge mistake to regulate brand variety and quality of consumer goods – and it would – wouldn’t it be just as big a mistake to regulate the practice of on-call scheduling for analogous reasons?

The answer is yes. There is no earthly reason for government at any level – municipal, state or federal – to regulate the practice of on-call scheduling. Only bad can come of it. The implication of AG Schneiderman’s actions is that government has a duty to prevent human beings within its jurisdiction from experiencing even momentary discontent. The AG must consider workers to be either too stupid to act in their own interest or too helpless to do so even if they had the wit to perceive it. Left unspecified, however, is how or where the AG acquired the superior wisdom and knowledge to substitute his judgment for those of the workers whose interests he claims to represent.

Free Markets vs. Regulation

We have shown that various ways of producing goods and services (such as utilizing on-call scheduling to staff retailing establishments) and various types of goods (such as different varieties and flavors of fried chicken) offer potential benefits to consumers. How is that potential actuated; that is, how do we cross the bridge from “potential” to “actual?”

Apparently, there are two ways. We can give the processes and products a trial in the free market and see how they work, keeping the ones that succeed and discarding the ones that fail. The failures will lose money for sellers because consumers will reject them, either because they do not like them or because they are too expensive. That makes it easy for producers to discard them. Alternatively, regulators can accept or reject them on an a priori basis. In order for this method to succeed, regulators must know as much about technology and costs as the producers of the affected goods and services do. Regulators also must know as much about consumers’ tastes and preferences as the consumers themselves do – as well as knowing what is “good” for consumers to consume in a physiological and moral sense. In other words, regulators must be well-nigh omniscient. (Where input markets are directly affected, as in this case, we can treat workers as the “consumers” of the relevant process.)

Put in this way, the choice is as clear as two-way glass. Free markets work vastly better and are less expensive than regulation. Given this, why do governments leap to regulate at every opportunity?

Why Governments Almost Always Choose Regulation

The New York State Attorney General chose to regulate on-call scheduling for a reason. Based on our analysis, we might suppose him to be perverse – deliberately choosing a result that makes everybody worse off than before. But that is not so. Economics tells us that somebody has to be better off, and the first place to look for the beneficiary or beneficiaries would be the AG himself and his sponsors and constituents.

The AG is a bureaucrat, a denizen of state government. He benefits when his domain grows larger and his power over it increases. When the number of firms he regulates increases, the AG’s power increases and his budget increases or, more properly, his basis for demanding a budget and staffing increase strengthens. When the AG’s office regulates the processes employed by retail firms, preventing them from using innovative means to compete with other firms, state government is cartelizing what would otherwise be a competitive market. The result of this will be less output and higher prices in the retail-sales sector. This creates a constituency of business owners and managers who are beholden to the AG and state-government politicians. (In the broad sense, this is what happened for over four decades when the old Civil Aeronautics Board cartelized interstate airline travel in the United States between the 1930s and 1978.)

Notice that the list of beneficiaries from regulation of on-call scheduling is small compared to the roster of potential beneficiaries from unregulated on-call scheduling. Regulation benefits government bureaucrats, workers and politicians directed involved with the affected industry, along with business owners who gain from market cartelization. It harms everybody else, most notably the consumers of the good involved and (in this case) almost certainly the workers affected as well. The gains of business owners are probably temporary, but the gains accruing to government will last as long as government regulation continues.

The best way to visualize the actions of government vis a vis markets is by thinking of government as entrepreneurship in reverse. Politicians and bureaucrats are always alert for opportunities to expand their domain. But whereas the invisible hand of competition and voluntary exchange insures that free-market entrepreneurship creates broad, mutual benefits, the coercive, visible hand of government subtracts net value from almost all of its interchanges with markets.

Is the Purpose of Government to Eliminate All Sources of Discontent?

Now we understand the heretofore inexplicable contention that the purpose of government is to eliminate all sources of discontent. How could anybody be so naïve as to think that government has the ability to remedy all unhappiness? Doesn’t the speaker realize that his statement is a recipe for fiscal insolvency? Writing a blank check to government is a fruitless quest for a non-existent nirvana.

Alas, the author of those words didn’t particularly care whether government actually succeeded in eliminating any discontent or not. He was not striving for universal bliss. Rather he sought an unlimited warrant for government intrusion in order to benefit his own special interest. The more power government has, the larger it grows. The larger it grows, the more its servants prosper. And the more the servants of government prosper, the more the rest of us suffer.

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