Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Role of Work

Andrew Sullivan pointed out this fascinating article on the psychological impacts of employment (and unemployment). I take issue with many of the conclusions the author, Arthur C. Brooks, draws from the data he presents, but the data is worth taking a look at. In particular I'm drawn to the studies on the devastating impact of unemployment, as in the case of the Marienthal villagers or the University of Chicago survey that found that even a brief bout of unemployment drastically increased the tendency of respondents to feel hopeless or worthless.

Brooks concludes his survey of the data by stating that the only thing we need to do is "protect the free market so that people can find and choose the types of employment that suit each of us best." I find this conclusion difficult to reconcile with the data on unemployment. The implications of that data suggest to me that employers have a devastating non-economic advantage to wield over employees, and that normal market churn can have significant psychological externalities that aren't generally considered in economic models.

One need not be a bleeding-heart sympathizer with the poor or the unemployed to be concerned with such issues. Witness the current political dialogue on topics such as economic globalization, outsourcing, and immigration. I would suggest that the rising populist positions on all of these issues share two traits: they are motivated by fear of unemployment and all its consequent harms, and they are deleterious to the overall health of our economy. Note also that these issues tend to span across the usual political divides. You can find vehement opposition to immigration on the right, fierce opponents of globalization on the left, and distaste for outsourcing on every side. People have a tremendous fear of losing their jobs, a fear that viewed in purely economic terms may seem irrational, but taking into account the additional psychological effects perhaps it is not so irrational after all (although I guess you could conclude that the psychological impact is itself irrational).

Brooks points out that remedies such as welfare do little to address the psychological harm of unemployment. He also notes that making jobs more secure comes at a price. Brooks argues that more secure jobs tend to be less meaningful. I don't see the data for that, and I'm not sure it's right although I can see where he's coming from. In any case, certainly there is an economic price to be paid for making it more difficult for employers to adjust their workforce (European economies demonstrate this).

These considerations about welfare and job security seem to drive Brooks's conclusion that nothing should be done other than to support the market. And certainly, the market may provide enough of a remedy for some of the unemployed, particularly the highly skilled and well-educated. However, that does not address the whole of the topic. Particularly where globalization and outsourcing are concerned and where we see massive shifts in the market, people may find that skillsets in which they had invested a great deal of time, effort, and money are no longer needed, not just by their previous employer, but by any domestic employer. There is room here for the government to be involved in retraining and job placement for displaced workers. If we know that job churn is necessary and healthy for the economy, but that the impact on individuals of this churn can be severe, that seems the most sensible route to pursue. Not only can this have direct impacts on the social welfare of those affected, but the existence of such a safety net may also help reduce the fear that drives the dialogue on economic policy in the wrong direction. There is an obvious connection between this suggestion and our past discussions of Rawlsian fairness and political compromise (as seen here), but I'll leave that as an exercise for readers...

No comments: