The Problem with a ‘Defense” of Working on Holidays

It’s worth going back to Matthew Yglesias’ post on working holidays, first because that’s originally what led me to write about the issue, but also because I think it really does display the two sentiments most problematic in the discussion.

First, there’s the idea that holiday-creep is really a non-issue (and the blithe way in which Yglesias arrived at this claim I found to be really bothersome). In other words, don’t focus on Walmart and other companies’ push to make up for soft sales month over month by getting workers and consumers into their stores on Thanksgiving–the real issues remain: health care, housing, employment, wages.

As I said in the original post, but not very well, I don’t think you can successfully decouple the two. Pushing large scale economic reforms (the merits of which I’m not looking to convince anyone of at this time) through Congress requires a lot of energy from the electorate, a coalition of more radical liberals in the House, and a sustained wave of social awareness to keep the focus on them.

Perhaps Yglesias was referring only to the goal of being off on Thanksgiving, and that that as an objective was a waste of time, but I took him as implying that the entire movement as a form of protest was inconsequential and beside the point.

As I tried to better explain in a follow-up comment in Russell’s post,

“My point in the original post, contra Yglesias, and apparently Tod and others, is that while systemic conditions like these require systemic reforms (mandated PTO days, stimulus spending to increase aggregate demand, etc.) those reforms aren’t just magically going to happen–they require organizing, coalition building, campaigning, social movements, etc. So while pushing back against employer mission creep on the holiday front seems on its face to be a distraction, a side-show, my contention is that it necessarily goes hand-in-hand with pushing for these larger, structural changes.”

Part of my argument then is that if you do think there are significant issues facing the working class that need to be addressed, pushing back against individual, perhaps even trivial moves like opening on Thanksgiving is a necessary part of pushing for broader economic reforms. I would very much be interested in interrogating that claim at greater length, but it seems to have been gobbled up in different debate about the particular merits of certain low wage workers getting to have off when they want.

Second was how he framed the post: a “defense” of working on holidays. This seemed to be raising the specter of guilt tripping liberals who end up criticizing those who want to work holidays, and offering a rebuttal on their behalf. But nowhere does Yglesias link to any posts or comments where the workers who want to get an extra day’s pay are the target of liberal ire, nor am I aware of anyone who is calling for the government to mandate people be prohibited from working holidays, whether they want to or not.

In fact, I find the entire spin bizarre. It seems to confuse the particularity of the example, working on Thanksgiving, with the generalized instance of declining worker bargaining power that it represents. The point has never been that people have a right to take off on some arbitrary “holy” day, and only that day, or that the government should force them to, but rather that they should have more power to determine for themselves which days out of the year they do or don’t work (read that last part very carefully before asking me if I think no one should ever have to work on a Monday ever again if they don’t want to).

Finally, a lot of backlash seems to be stemming from the “yes, but what about ME!” instinct. I think it worth noting, first off, that so far  in the threads, both in my post, and Russell’s, I have yet to see any strong rebuke of my position from an hourly retail or food service worker, though perhaps I have missed it (there are nearly 500 comments) in which case I will gladly update this post with a direct excerpt of one.

For a number of reasons, I think it’s inappropriate to analogize between highly skilled labor, and highly unskilled labor. That’s not to say that workers of all kinds aren’t deserving of certain basic privileges in return for their labor, only that if you don’t have certain of the benefits bestowed on workers whose labor is “less valued” then yours, make sure first to check whether there isn’t something you voluntarily decided you wanted instead.

Think of the striking teacher who is scorned for being “discontented” with the pay they receive in addition to weeks and weeks of time off, or the BART employee who makes $25 an hour. Is there perhaps a reason why you have chosen not to pursue either of those occupations? If not, perhaps you would like to work toward acquiring either one before advocating their livelihoods be undercut.

This is another way of saying that if you feel the gift of one extra day off per year, with wages paid anyway, is such an undeserved bounty, I can point you in the direction of applications for any number of companies like Gap, Best Buy, and Pizza Hut.

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143 thoughts on “The Problem with a ‘Defense” of Working on Holidays

  1. Here’s a suggestion regarding the holidays themselves:

    There’s got to be a united front. The guy in the back who points out that Thanksgiving is just a day that white people use to celebrate the slaughter of Native Americans? He’s not helping. I mean, why *NOT* work on a day that white people use to celebrate the slaughter of Native Americans?

    Christmas is coming up as well. If we’re going to argue that Christmas should be a day off, we should figure out what our argument is going to be for that beforehand. We don’t want to align ourselves with the “War On Christmas” tea partiers, after all. If we can figure out an argument for why people should spend the day at home, then we should push for the day having some sort of special significance.

    And the same is pretty much true for any given Holiday. Those people who point out that “Holiday is really a dumb day for dumbs” are not helping the whole “we should treat Holidays like Holidays” argument.

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    • If we are talking religious holidays is there any doubt people absolutely can’t be forced to work unless there is some extreme circumstance. Pharmacists can’t be forced to touch a pill they have religious objections against, so how could they be made to work on a day they consider holy.

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      • The actual standard is that those with a sincerely-felt religious obligation is entitled to a reasonable accommodation that does not impose an undue burden on the employer.

        The pharmacist who can’t be forced to touch a pill can be (under Federal law; state law may vary) if there is no other pharmacist available to dispense it. The employee who wants Christmas off work to observe the religious holiday can be required to work on that day if the employer can demonstrate that religious observances are possible in a fashion consistent with a reasonable work schedule, or if again there is simply no other employee who can work on that day.

        Like a great many other holidays on our civic schedule, Thanksgiving is a secular commemoration, although I think that there is plenty of room for concepts of “reasonable accommodations” and “undue burden” in discussing working on that day as opposed to others.

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      • I understand Burt. I do think if any employer tried to make a devout Christian work on Xmas, which they are not likely to do, then a lot of people would switch their arguments.

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      • I do think if any employer tried to make a devout Christian work on Xmas, which they are not likely to do, then a lot of people would switch their arguments.

        Wait, isn’t this something that we want? Or something that we don’t want?

        Or something that we want, we just want it for Progressive Holidays rather than Stupid Backwards Tea Party Holidays?

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      • I was just noting that some people would be fine with government defending a poor oppressed worker from being forced to do something in some cases and not others. I haven’t been impressed with Ethan’s argument and i don’t really have much issue with people having to work on Tday. In fact i wish more places were open on xmas since i don’t celebrate and neither does the wife. After a nice xc ski i’d like to be able to get a snack on my way home.

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    • I agree, which is why another post trying to separate the norms associated with certain concessions given to labor over the decades and the value of the concessions themselves is warranted.

      After all, being forced to work on *a* holiday which was traditionally reserved for time with friends, family, or by your lonesome is a separate issue from the arbitrary existence of Thanksgiving itself. The deterioration of the norm is not to be confused with the deterioration of the benefit to works with which it was associated.

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    • “I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”-Will Rogers.

      Seriously, how many people listen to the people who say nay to celebrating Columbus Day and/or Thanksgiving?

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  2. The concept that to achieve greater power/benefits/rights for working class people is fostered by tackling a tangential issue that doesn’t have a lot of support as opposed to targeting primary issues with significant support seems somewhat flawed to me.

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      • Well you aim at the issues that have the most and widest support first. Since many people have had to work holidays and still managed to have time with their families and also because there are lots of jobs that require holiday work and also because some holiday work ( like restaurants, movie theaters, ski resorts, etc) is greatly enjoyed by many improving their holiday you are swimming upstream If you want more unions then you need to directly try to push for stronger unions. Let the unions bargain for what their workers want. Argue that working people should have control over their lives, so they can decide what to fight for. I’ll bet plenty of union shops would be fine with offering to work holidays for double time. You want low skill working class people to have more mobility build schools for adults to get more training or offer tuition assistance.

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      • Not having a union is a problem, certainly if they aren’t allowed to have them. How does talking about working on Tgiving change anything. You can’t even get a bunch of liberals on the LOOG to get up in arms about it, how are you going to persuade people who aren’t liberal? Part of the problem is there are to many nuances to working on Tgivign for it to be a big issue: plenty of people don’t mind it that much, plenty of people still have family time even if they have to work, not everybody even spends much time with family on Tday, lots of people like to use the services that are open on Tday and lots of people like the extra money that comes from working a holiday. Yeah some don’t want to work but for the people that are fine with it you are hurting them. This just isn’t as a clear cut an issue as you are presenting with no easy solution. Or at least any easy solution hurts plenty of workers.

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      • “…if they haven’t been able to, or wished to, up to this point?”

        Can I use one of my three wishes to make one of their three wishes the creation of a union? Otherwise, I’m not sure how to go about getting people to join a union that they don’t wish to join. Oh… maybe if we make Walmart force them to?

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      • Kazzy, how do you know that Wal-Mart’s employees or any other employee does not want to join a union? Historically, we know that many if not most employees jumped at the first chance to join a union when they could because they thought that organizing and bargaining collectively would make their lives better. The reason why workers do not organize is because employers engage in many anti-union tactics because they hate unions for various reasons and because there are governmental barriers on unionization.

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      • I was working off Ethan’s quote there. He posited that some workers do not wish to join unions. Assuming such people exist, I wonder what he would do about them.

        With regards to unions, I’m far from a labor expert, but it seems to me that employees should be free to unionize and/or collectively bargain and that employers should be free to choose if they are going to negotiate with unions or only with individuals and that the government should largely stay out of it.

        Most independent schools don’t have unions, though a few do. If a group of colleagues and I were so motivated, I suppose nothing is stopping us from gathering together and approaching the administration and saying, “We are not going to continue working here if these demands are not met.” For all intents and purposes, that would be a union… yes? If so, it only seems fair that our employer have the opportunity to accept our demands, reject them, counter them, or propose to negotiate with individual members of the union. And individual members of the union or non-member employees should be free at any time to disassociate themselves from the union. Assuming an agreement — either individually or collectively — cannot be reached, then their is nothing binding one party to the other. We owe the employer nothing and they owe us nothing.

        The extent to which any of those actions would be pro or anti-union seems unclear to me. It seems like all parties should be free to act in any of the described ways and that the government should largely stay out of it.

        Given what I’ve offered here, I’m curious how would you rate me on the pro-/anti-union spectrum.

        Note: My thinking here applies strictly to private sector unions. Public sector unions would need to function differently because of absence of a representative of the public in the negotiations.

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      • Unionization would act as a bar to employee mobility.
        If you say that all Wal-Mart employees should remain Wal-Mart employees for the duration of their lives, unionization shouldn’t be an issue.
        Secondly, you should count on the requirements for employment to become more stringent in a very short period of time. A retiree who only wants to work 20 hrs a week? Out the door. A single mother who has to work around scheduling child care? Iffy, at best. No room for them.
        Third, you should count on the bar for employment being raised higher once existing members begin to gain seniority status. And those senior members are more likely to vote down wages & benefits for new hires than for those with seniority.

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    • I’m with Ethan – this isn’t a tangential issue. It goes to the heart of the employer employee relationship, and also to the heart of what comprises both dignified and humane responses to the continued rise of inequality in this country as well as how to bring public scrutiny to the issue of inequality.

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  3. This is, I feel, a more honest and clear-thinking way of addressing the issue. The issue is not holiday-time-off. It is the differential bargaining power between workers and employers.

    In order to not obscure my position, let me state what I think the fundamental problem is: Low skill workers inherently lack economic bargaining power. Always have, always will.

    Fundamentally, unions will not help. Unless every person capable of rendering low-skill work (read, almost everyone) signs onto a collective bargaining package, employers of low-skill work will find a way around worker collective action. Current technology trends and the prospect of mass automization further exacerbate the trend.

    In my view, then, the problem isn’t the inherent relation dynamics between employee and employer. These are subject to almost infinite variability, depending on the rarity and sophistication of the employee’s skills and the criticality of his/her job. The problem, rather, is the abundance of persons whose only labor value is infinitely interchangeable with everyone elses’.

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    • I agree with Caleb.

      The problem with low skilled workers is that they have very little skills to offer employers. There are several billion people willing and able to do as much for less. This makes their labor almost but not quite worthless. Pushing for higher wages, better benefits, shorter weeks, or more time off makes a bad situation worse, and places societal burdens on the guys actually offering the jobs. (When you find your prescriptions create negative feedback loops, beware.)

      What these people need are either skills (path A), or
      Guaranteed income which doesn’t penalize employers for hiring (path B)
      Preferably both.

      By the way, why would a parent raise a non special needs kid to adulthood without instilling skills? What is wrong with us when we raise kids without skills? Is it our dysfunctional schools? Or dysfunctional parents? Or both?

      When I look at the problem, my preferred solution isn’t giving them the last Thursday in November off.

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      • It took the US nearly 100 years to move towards nearer to universal health care. The US has still not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (among other major human rights conventions that remain unratified). How long would you estimate it will take to pass guaranteed minimum income?

        For the left, there are a suite of policy options that are attainable far nearer than guaranteed minimum income. Those are: minimum wage increases, state mandated paid sick leave, state mandated paid time off, and other kinds of leave (paternity and maternity leave). Overall, adjustments to make the workplace a more humane, family friendly place. This isn’t to denigrate the idea of guaranteed minimum income, but these items are the types of issues that have successfully passed before (some universal, a federal minimum wage, and others unevenly across different states, some municipalities require paid sick leave others don’t).

        The issue raised by the original post is not merely getting the last Thursday in November off, reducing it to such is a simplification too far. The issue Ethan raises, and that has been raised by the labor movement from time immemorial is setting a floor of working conditions in the US. Currently that floor (particularly on paid time off) is well underneath the situation in most other OECD countries.

        Furthermore, where are all these negative feedback loops in all these other OECD countries? You, like , raise the prospect of a parade of horribles. Previously mentioned by reduced profits, less capital investment, fewer raises and bonuses, and now you add supposedly burdensome punishment of the employers… How do these claims stack up against the experience of comparable developed economies? Here’s the list, France, UK, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Belgium, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, Greece, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Japan.* All these other countries manage to institute more generous state mandated paid holiday/leave policies, what is so special about the US that we can’t follow their course?

        * Here, http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/07/27/the-unknown-world-2/

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      • Roger

        Agreed. Even as a libertarian, I would much rather see: 1) a basic minimum income, and 2) a basic skills training program; rather than the messy amalgamation of moralistically driven social programs we have now. If we are going to do social welfare, we might as well do it right.

        Creon Critic

        …what is so special about the US that we can’t follow their course?

        Of all the rhetorical tactics used in moderns political debate, this one is in my top five of least favorites. Just because ~200ish geographic and demographic areas are considered “nations” by human categorization does not imply the transitivity or applicability of policies from one to another. If you look at demographics, geography, economic patterns, or any other metric of national measure, you will realize that the more relevant comparison is between the US and the EU rather than any one european nation. Even then, the comparisons are of limited value.

        Just because we categorize “nations” as such does not imply transitivity of policies.

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      • Not that comment boxes on blogs are the best place to do it, but their is the whole field of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparative_politics

        Also, if someone presents the case serious disadvantages will accrue were we to adopt policy X, it seems wholly reasonable to look to the other instances where policy X has been applied. In fact, has previously touted this methods of differing political communities experimenting and people voting with their feet. Personally, I’m not into that laboratory of states method of governance, but the underlying logic undergirds this look to the natural experiments based methods.

        And the lastly, I’ll quote Justice Breyer, his observations on constitutional interpretation have some parallels on the point you raise over examining policies across the OECD,

        Well, it’s relevant in the sense that you have a person who’s a judge, who has similar training, who’s trying to, let’s say, apply a similar document, something like cruel and unusual or — there are different words, but they come to roughly the same thing — who has a society that’s somewhat structured like ours. And really, it isn’t true that England is the moon, nor is India. I mean, there are human beings there just as there are here and there are differences and similarities. And so one is not trying to figure out the meaning, really, of the words “cruel and unusual punishment,” one is trying to deal with their application.

        And it isn’t some arcane matter of contract law, where a different legal system might have given the same words totally different application. If they weren’t dealing with words like “liberty” — and in areas where we’re not dealing with words like “liberty” and “cruel and unusual punishment,” by the way, we look all the time to foreign things. Nobody objects. I mean, those are the contract cases, et cetera.

        So here you’re trying to get a picture how other people have dealt with it. And am I influenced by that? I am at least interested in reading it. And the fact that this has gone on all over the world and people have come to roughly similar conclusions, in my opinion, was the reason for thinking it at least is the kind of issue that maybe we ought to hear in our court, because I thought our people in this country are not that much different than people other places.

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      • I remember going to a talk about labor issues in Texas at the capitol, maybe a year ago, discussing among other things why, despite the fact that jobs are popping up in Texas at a record rate (with Eagle Ford shale in the West and the tech booms in Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio and even in friggin’ Waco… friggin’ Waco), unemployment rates in Texas remained well above 2007 levels. One of the major findings was that the unemployment was largely structural: after the initial jump in unemployment following the crisis of fall 2008, which hit a lot of middle and upper middle class workers (anyone in the financial industry, along with a lot of people in support industries for companies like Dell, which could no longer afford to contract out “non-essential” services like usability or parts for products they had to scrap), things settled down and long-term unemployment remained primarily for low wage earners and the working class. The problem was that there was simply a mismatch between the human capital of the unemployed and what employers wanted. Specifically, employers were increasingly demanding certifications and/or associates degrees for the jobs that might previously have been available to people with only high school diplomas.

        The obvious solution is to provide associate degree and/or certificate programs to the unemployed for free, at seriously reduced rates, with deferred payments (perhaps with the possibility of loan forgiveness if certain conditions are met, like public employment), or in some other way that makes training and education a feasible route. And most, if not all states have such programs through the Workforce Investment Act and related federal laws, almost entirely federally funded (though administered by the state or by state-contracted local/regional agencies that are monitored by the state, also via federal funding), but the number of people eligible for such training, and the number of people that state governments and the federal government are able to fund, fall well below the need. And the federal government, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to reduce Workforce Investment Act funding, in one of the “compromises” between Democrats and Republicans (I believe the biggest cuts were in the compromise that ended the first debt limit extension battle, but I could be mis-remembering), so that the available funds for training are even lower than they were pre-2008 (relatively speaking).

        Short of needing to scrap the system altogether (tear it all down), the problem, it appears to me, is that the political climate is such that, even as unemployment was rising, policy-makers, particularly on the “right,” felt that the solution was to reduce the funding to programs specifically aimed at increasing and speeding up reemployment. This as part of the larger fetishization of a reduction in government spending with no view to the actual short or long-term consequences of blind reduction rather than, if reduction is needed, targeted reduction (stop chasing after sunk costs, like the F22 program, for example).

        Anyway, tear it all down!

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      • ,

        One of the major findings was that the unemployment was largely structural: …there was simply a mismatch between the human capital of the unemployed and what employers wanted.

        Careful, dude, you’re stepping out of Keynesian/monetarist territory into Austrian territory. Paul Krugman and Scott Sumnef will put aside their differences and join forces to beat you senseless with their genetal equilibrium models.

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      • Eh, Keynes talked about structural unemployment, and dealing with it directly (which I take government funded education and training to be), and I can’t imagine that he’d disagree that with the confluence of factors beginning in ’08 — the severe damage to the economy, emanating from the financial sector, globalization, loss and change in the manufacturing sector, and an increasingly high tech economy — have led to levels of structural unemployment that we don’t usually see.

        Did/do the Austrians talk about human capital a lot (obviously the early ones would have called it something else)? I wouldn’t have thought of Lewis as an Austrian, but then I haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to the Austrians.

        I can’t remember if it was at that same talk, or the one I went to a year prior (I think it was the previous one), but another speaker from the same firm that Texas contracts to do most of its economic research argued that in large part because of unprecedentedly high structural unemployment, the nationwide unemployment rate won’t fall to 2007 levels again until at least 2017 (he had a rather disturbing graph), despite the fact that in other areas the economy was and continues to recover.

        In Texas what’s happened is that the new jobs have been taken by transplants who came here specifically for such jobs, bringing with them the education/training the employers required. To some extent, this means that other states have subsidized the Texas (relative) economic boom of the last few years.

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      • Chris, you describe a pretty common dynamic with boom states and states with educated and skilled workforces. I never got around to writing my “brain drain/gain” post, but in it I was going to basically talk about how in “Arapaho” (the state I lived at the time) the state spent a whole lot of money educating people for Seattle’s and Colorado’s and Utah’s and Portland’s benefit. Probably Texas’, too (my neighbors’ kids both moved to Texas).

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      • Chris,

        Standard New Keynesian and monetarist models assume homogeneity, so simply pumping money into the economy, whether via new money (monetarism) or borrowed money (fiscal policy) the economy will make good use of it and grow. Austrians are more apt to point to disjunctures in the way the pieces fit together. Arnold Kling, for example, has been arguing a “patterns of sustainable specialization and trade” model.

        I made that comment half tongue-in-cheek (I’m fairly monetarist myself), but not wholly so. I don’t think one needs to go “full Austrian” to see these types of disjunctures and wonder seriously whether the monetarist emphasis on just adding liquidity or the Keynesian emphasis on just increasing demand isn’t glossing over important structural details of the economy.

        Or, shorter version, macroeconomics is such a mess of a field that nobody should have any confidence in any overly confident macro claims from anybody.

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      • This is very off-topic, but what do monetarists think of the movement in the late 1800s US to inflate the currency by replacing the gold standard with a bimetallic (silver and gold) standard? The push for bimetallism strikes me as not too far akin from some of what monetarists argue for, but they’d seem to me to be strange bedfellows. Not that I really understand monetarism (or bimetallism), so I may be off base here.

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      • Pierre,

        I haven’t read anything about that so I can only speculate here.

        Gold standard types tend to dislike monetarism, so at a first pass monetarism and bimetallism would seem to have at least a marginally closer affinity. But monetarists come in at least two categories, those who believe in non-discretionary monetary policy (i.e., a fixed rate of increase in the money supply year over year, not to be changed in reaction to economic fluctuations) and those who believe in discretionary policy, using changes in the money supply as a counter-cyclical tool. I’m not sure either type would really like bimetallism, although I suppose it depends how it works out in practice. If there was enough gold and silver to allow for increases in the money supply I suppose either group could accept it in practice–the non-discretionists if the supply of metal grew at a fixed rate, the discretionists if there was enough metal to allow for expansion and the policy was to pull back when the economy warmed up instead of having continual expansion (i.e., keeping some metal in reserve). But for either group a limited amount of metal could act as an unwanted constraint on the money supply, I would think.

        But I think monetarism really was an intellectual replacement of bimetallism. Bimetallists wanted an expansion of the money supply, but given the times couldn’t go all the way to fiat money. Once we became comfortable with fiat money (most of us anyway; some folks still rail against it), bimetallism became rather archaic, a more limited and less functional means of expanding the money supply.

        Of course that limit, constraint, imposed by metal is exactly what’s desired by some folks, most notably the goldbugs. But notice that the non-discretionary monetary theorists also want constraint; they just want constraint imposed by a fixed growth rule rather than by the supply of a particular limited metal.

        On a side note, I find it interesting that one of James Madison’s criticisms of the states under the Articles of Confederation was that they were making paper money (by which I believe he meant fiat money; paper not backed by actual gold reserves). I wonder what he’d think of the U.S. today? Would he be aghast, or would he be persuaded/persuadable that it wasn’t such a bad thing after all?

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      • Creon,

        The wealthiest country with the highest standard of living has the fewest mandated paid vacation days. OK. I don’t find that too surprising do you?

        There are two different mentalities here, one of which you seem blind to. One is we can mandate and force additional time off. The other is we can allow employees and employers to self select the package of responsibilities, obligations and benefits. Obviously the country which took the lead dog role on the sled of worldwide improvements in economic advance chose the latter path.

        Personally, I think mandates to not work is rather absurd. My employer offered two weeks off after the first year along with holidays. This increased over time to reward employee retention, effectively discouraging job hopping. That is part of why I chose them and why I stayed for almost thirty years.

        Other employers offer a higher salary and less time off. Some don’t reward seniority. Viva la choice.

        I am sure you know that total worker benefits and wages paid is set by marginal productivity –supply and demand — not mandates from above? Thus more days paid not working leads to lower pay and lower productivity and thus even lower pay, all else equal.

        Arguing for more paid days of not producing seems like a weird concern considering it will either lead to lower wages or more unemployment, probably both.

        One further comment. This concern is not relevant to the true plight of lower income people in the US. Past data I have supplied shows the problem with the lowest quintiles is not too much work. It is too much leisure. I seem to recall the average poor family works a total of 14 hours per week all members of the household combined (about one fifth of what top quintile families work). Your “solution” is to mandate more hours not worked?

        Can we call it the “let’s make low skilled workers even less valuable while lowering national productivity initiative?”

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      • The wealthiest country with the highest standard of living has the fewest mandated paid vacation days. OK. I don’t find that too surprising do you?

        Heh, that made me chuckle. But I don’t think it’s accurate. How are we measuring standard of living? The easiest measure is GDP per capita by purchasing power parity, in which case the U.S. ranks 7th. Of the countries above us, Luxembourg requires 25 working days and 10 public holidays, Norway 21 working days plus 5–12 public holidays*, and Switzerland 20 work days, plus 12–16 public holidays. Hong Kong and Singapore are less, and the others don’t have data (but include oil wealthy Brunei and Qatar, where the wealth is not at all evenly distributed and I doubt there’s much concern about ensuring the working poor have paid vacation days). (Source: wikipedia List_of_statutory_minimum_employment_leave_by_country)

        But of course GDP is a very rough and imperfect measure of standard of living. Vacation time, particularly paid vacation, is valuable–as evidenced by the fact that it’s a regular demand of unionized and higher salary folks–and so a person can reasonably count that in among the elements of standard of living that GDP doesn’t capture.

        The Human Development Index (also available via wiki) lists the U.S. third in the world in standard of living, but above it are Norway (which we’ve already seen has more mandated vacation days than the U.S.) and Australia, which requires 20 working days plus 10 paid public holidays. Immediately following the U.S. are the Netherlands (4 weeks plus 9 paid public holidays) and Germany (4 working weeks plus 9 to 13 bank holidays).

        So in spirit and general theory I’m with you, but the data don’t really support the specific claim. My guess is that while the theory is not wrong, the effects of the mandated holidays are swamped by other factors.
        ___________________________
        * It appears that for most countries, the public holidays are only compensated if they fall in the regular work week, and not when they fall on a weekend.

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      • ,
        The wealthiest country with the highest standard of living

        In addition to the points James has made, I’d add the picture looks even worse when looking at the inequality adjusted human development index. Those ranking above the US (which places at #16) in order from #1 to #15 Norway, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Slovenia, Finland, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Belgium.* Quite a few of these countries show up on the OECD state mandated holidays/leave list.

        This is related to the reason for preferring inequality HDI to James’ use of standard HDI, but have you seen the child poverty figures for the US lately? Again, this underperformance on the United States’ part undercuts this “highest standard of living” stuff. Highest standard of living for whom? Certainly not for the 20% of children in poor homes (stats.oecd.org “Child well-being” figures). A figure that only gets more abominable when you disaggregate the child poverty data by individual US state.

        allow employees and employers to self select the package of responsibilities, obligations and benefits

        I am not blind to this perspective. What I believe this perspective fails to take into account is the the substantial power imbalance between employer and employee. For instance, on the one side you have a Wal-Mart associate, on the other side you have China’s eight biggest trading partner.

        Additionally, the state can enforce values that are unlikely to get a hearing in the amoral market sphere. Values like egalitarianism for instance.

        Obviously the country which took the lead dog role on the sled of worldwide improvements in economic advance chose the latter path.

        Wow, the US certainly won’t win any awards for humility in this assessment. This kind of claim is of a piece with American exceptionalism claims that I find thoroughly unconvincing. The US is a country like any other, with people like any other country. As Justice Breyer says, the UK isn’t the moon. Contra , I think we can examine the consequences of a given policy across the developed world and draw conclusions about likely consequences. The parade of horribles on offer for mandatory leave just have not shown up by my reading of the experience of these other OECD countries.

        Thus more days paid not working leads to lower pay and lower productivity and thus even lower pay, all else equal.

        You know what’s doing the work in this sentence (perhaps that the whole paragraph and the paragraph immediately following): “all else equal”.

        This concern is not relevant to the true plight of lower income people in the US….

        I’ll begin by saying it is going to be difficult for me to concisely state all the ways I object to this and to that paragraph. I’ll simply present one observation. Low income people are more exposed to risks. Any given exogenous shock is going to have greater consequences. Illness, a car breakdown, a family member in distress and so forth will create a greater crisis when, in addition, your job is at stake without some cushion of paid time off. That is one facet of the problem paid time off is meant to address. (I’ll add, if people become ill, maybe it is better for them to take some time off to get better rather than coming into work and spreading their illness – not an insubstantial observation in flu season.)

        * Here, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_inequality-adjusted_HDI

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      • Yes, I’m well aware of the study of comparative politics. I place myself firmly in the “skeptic” camp when it comes to asserting the value of proposed policies by comparing them with current enactments. Not that comparative analysis is useless; I simply think its realm of relevance is very limited. There are simply too many variables across different societies to accurately predict outcomes.

        Ironically, I’m a very big proponent of “laboratory of states method of governance,” simply because I believe that the best way to discover optimal policies is to try them out. However, local experiments with similar societies who have not enacted the policy are necessary as a baseline. What I balk at are nation-wide policies which are enacted universally, with no feedback other than the factions who benefit directly or incidentally. These factions will not provide accurate measurements.

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      • I will be more careful next time. I certainly wasn’t trying to compare a diverse and large country like the US to a bunch of oil states or rich little city states.

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      • The problem with low skilled workers is that they have very little skills to offer employers

        But that’s completely different from calling them “dregs”.

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      • Why would I look at an inequality adjusted index? This assumes inequality of outcome is a bad thing. Don’t confuse this with mobility, where we already agree the US matches up fine with other nations with the exception of lower class males (your data)

        Creon, I have asked this before of other leftists but have never seen an answer. Do you have actual data on average income after taxes and transfers of our poor vs other real large, diverse countries?

        Not that this has anything to do with the mandatory vacation day thing. Considering they work an average of 14 hours a week per household, I don’t see this as being a priority for the poor.

        On power imbalance, I flat out don’t get it. What the hell does power imbalance have to do with the average wages of unskilled labor? As i wrote above, the reason the unskilled are not paid well is because they got no skills. When a billion people can do your job and are willing to do so on the cheap, you are not worth much to an employer. If we gave every unskilled laborer the personal gift of a best in class negotiator, the average wage of unskilled labor would probably not change a lick. The obvious ways to get higher wages is to increase skill levels or form a cartel which excludes people we don’t like. I am fine with the former, and consider the latter immoral.

        Giving people that are worth very little to an employer mandated days off makes them even less valuable and even less productive. The choice of tradeoffs on time off vs wages or benefits should be ours not yours. I don’t want some elitist know it all telling me that I have to trade a higher base salary (of an already too low wage rate) for mandatory days off.

        The net effect of mandatory paid don’t work days is lower productivity, less demand for low skilled labor and fewer choices for the poor.

        On the lead husky comment, I don’t want to hijack the conversation, but I am referring to the historical pattern where a country or two lead the economic progress and other countries draft off the momentum (Italian City States, Holland and the Netherlands, England/Great Britain, then The US) Catch-up is relatively easy once someone else has blazed the economic trail.

        The US has been leading the economic wave, not Norway or Luxembourg.

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      • Way to advance the discussion Mike. Are you arguing the unskilled do have skills? Are you arguing they are underpaid? What is your justification for this? Or are you just trying to sound profound?

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      • “The problem with low skilled workers is that they have very little skills to offer employers”

        But that’s completely different from calling them “dregs”.

        Yeah, it is, Mike. Because saying low skilled people have few skills to offer is descriptive (in fact redundantly so). Calling them “dregs” brings in other connotations than just being unskilled, such as scum, worthless humans, of no redeeming value. And it seems to me that your purpose in introducing that word is to try to smear others by imputing to them connotations they never intended.

        You asked me just yesterday to stop accusing you of ignorance and/or dishonesty. As long as you do that kind of thing, I see no reason to not point out that you clearly are being either ignorant or dishonest, if not both.

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      • Why would I look at an inequality adjusted index?

        You’d want to look to the inequality-adjusted human development index to capture a more accurate picture of the standards of living in a country. The averages can be misleading because they can obscure significant intra-population differences. Think about it as similar to the “when Bill Gates walks into a bar”* scenario. Or how differing standard deviations can leave you with a more complete picture of a situation when relying on averages.

        the US matches up fine with other nations with the exception of lower class males

        We disagree. The US lags behind other developed nations along consequential lines like intergenerational income elasticity.** That OECD report I referenced in discissions past (Intergenerational transmission of disadvantage) includes a similar table that show the difference between the US and peers on this metric (Figure 1 “Intergenerational Earnings Elasticity estimates from various studies”).

        Do you have actual data on average income after taxes and transfers of our poor vs other real large, diverse countries?
        Here’s what you might be looking for, but you may have to do some rummaging around stats.oecd.org to find the precise figures you had in mind. The data that comes close to what I think you’re asking are: “poverty rate after taxes and transfers, poverty line 50%” and “all working-age household types: poverty rate after taxes and transfers”. Links don’t seem to be working, so here’s how I got to it. Stats.oecd.org , on the navigation pane on the left go to “Social Protection and Well-Being” , then “Social Protection”, then “Income Distribution and Poverty”, then “by measure – all definitions”. That’s all on the navigation tab at the left. So you’re main pane should say “Income Distribution and Poverty: by measure – all definitions”. There’s a drop down panel by “Measure” that provides further sorting options, and the one’s I identified (“poverty rate after taxes and transfers, poverty line 50%”, “all working-age household types: poverty rate after taxes and transfers”) and several more may be what you’re looking for.

        Hope that helps.

        Considering they work an average of 14 hours a week per household, I don’t see this as being a priority for the poor.
        Poverty represents a diverse experience. So that average you cite (could you provide a source), doesn’t seem to take account of the low income and working poor. People who have full time jobs but are likely to be impacted by the exogenous shocks I mentioned earlier: illness, family emergency, etc.

        On power imbalance, I flat out don’t get it. What the hell does power imbalance have to do with the average wages of unskilled labor?

        The government being the government, it has the power to set a floor beneath which no one falls by fiat. Liberals tend to advocate that floor including paid time off, and a number of other benefits. That’s the most straightforward terms I can put it. Absent the use of that government power, private sector actors (like multi-billion dollar multinationals) can extract substantial concessions from the low skilled. (Also, it isn’t clear to me that the US performs particularly well in guaranteeing certain benefits to workers with higher skill levels. For instance, compare maternity/paternity leave in the US to nearly every other developed country and the US comes up short***)

        The choice of tradeoffs on time off vs wages or benefits should be ours not yours.

        Well, it is not me as emperor dictating to the world. Were these measures passed, it would be the US Congress and POTUS, or state legislature and governor, instituting the change in the employer-employee relationship. It would be the community acting through government the same way the government acted through the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Given that some time has passed and society has advanced, change the parameters of what’s normal in the employer-employee relationship to include: paid time off, maternity/paternity leave, etc. like nearly every other developed nation on earth. This kind of standard setting is well within line with what the US government already does: policing the employer-employee relationship for abuse and inserting provisos that accord with public policy choices.

        * here, introductorystats.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/when-bill-gates-walks-into-a-bar/
        ** here http://www.treasury.govt.nz/publications/research-policy/wp/2010/10-06/05.htm
        *** pdf here, “Parental Leave Policies in 21 Countries”
        http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/parental_2008_09.pdf

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      • ,

        Sorry I have been too busy to respond. I still plan to dig into the OECD data base, but it wouldn’t open for me this AM. I promise to get to it.

        My brief reply is that higher minimum wages, more benefits, subsidized health care, twenty days of mandatory vacation, mandatory time off for moms and dads and similar actions are best left to the voluntary agreements between employer and employee. If they are something which we deem so important than everybody should receive, then I think it should be paid via transfer payments rather than buried into the cost of employment.

        The reason is that this distorts employment markets. For skilled workers, it doesn’t as much. But these are the kind of things skilled workers want and are willing to personally trade off for. I haven’t worked anywhere in thirty plus years that didn’t offer good medical care, plenty of vacation, maternity leave, and profit sharing. But, of course I was a skilled worker, and these are the types of benefits I wanted and expected and was willing to trade away for an otherwise lower salary.

        With low skilled workers with extremely low marginal productivity, this type of good intention leads to perverse results. It makes the worker even less productive, and adds enormously to their expense. In addition it eliminates their choice in the matter on whether to trade off wages for benefits (total compensation costs are not arbitrary numbers and in some cases the mandatory benefits make up a size able piece of their total package).

        In a country where thirty six percent of black youth are unemployed, what I see in initiatives like this is an edict to get the number well over fifty. These things effectively price unskilled, inexperienced labor out of the market. In addition, it encourages employers to either outsource, hire temps, or replace low productivity workers with higher productivity machines.

        High unemployment rates lead to class immobility problems, as unskilled workers never learn skills, never enter the job market, never climb the ladder into the middle class. They become permanent underclass who raise permanent underclass kids.

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      • I’m just going to drop this in here, from economist Deirdre McCloskey:

        If all the profits of the rich in the US economy today were handed over to the workers, the workers would only be about 30% better off. But in the last two centuries we’re 3000% better off.

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      • I’m fascinated by the dismissal of slavery, worker exploitation, and imperialism as significant contributors in McCloskey’s piece. The Opium Wars and an era of gunboat diplomacy contributed to someone’s wealth. And the side fighting to preserve slavery in the US Civil War had some wealth-related considerations in mind. Also, imposing low value added resource extraction on the periphery while keeping high value added production in the metropole aided economic development at imperialisms’ core(s). I don’t see how these elements can easily be set aside. Altogether, there’s a Belgian Congo sized gaping hole in failing to recognize slavery, worker exploitation, and imperialism in the analysis McCloskey presents.

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      • Creon,

        They are zero sum actions. In an entropic world with arms races to exploit/avoid being exploited, all they are likely to do is lead to the net destruction of wealth. You can’t raise average per capita incomes and wealth by zero sum actions.

        We have four times as many people with living standards ten, twenty or thirty times as high. The only way to do so is through producing or creating additional net value.

        Btw, I love reading McCloskey but oddly don’t fully buy into her Bourgeois Dignity hypothesis.

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      • Not sure if the “they” applies to imperialism, slavery, and worker exploitation, or only one of the three. I’d observe that supposing we simplify for the sake of discussion and call imperialism unequal trade; you can still yield gains from trade while maintaining this imperialism-based inequity. It is just that the metropole takes a disproportionate share of the benefits for itself and develops the periphery only insofar as it further advantages the metropole. You could conceivably raise per capita incomes in both metropole and periphery by this course of action. Similar disproportionate claims of gains by the better situated party occur in worker exploitation.

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      • We started out making a worldwide two to four dollars per person per day worldwide. That is what the Malthusian limit has tended to hold the majority of the planet at since the agricultural revolution.

        Data here, no blame for the narrative with it:

        http://www.voxeu.org/article/accounting-great-divergence

        Certainly the exploiter class has always milked the masses. The sad thing about it is that the two to four dollar average includes what the elites and bandits skimmed off the top. We had some living in palaces and most losing kids to starvation and disease every other winter.

        But none of the exploiters used it to increase average GDP over the long haul. Now, the average is at least ten times higher worldwide. Slavery and imperialism don’t add anything to the explanation of worldwide wealth. All they did was slow the rising trend.

        Slavery and extractive empires are thousands of years old. In no case did any extremely ruthless slavers or imperialists manage to raise worldwide living standards. (In addition, the largest gains occurred post slavery and post colonialism, with the best generation actually being the most recent)

        How would you suggest we do the math differently? I guess I fail to see how you exploit people in a way which makes them ten times richer and you thirty times richer.

        Btw, I am not sure we use the word exploit the same. I mean using coercion or fraud, I suspect you mean employing someone and not paying them as much as you would like.

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      • Creon,

        Back on our original discussion…

        The fourteen hours of weekly work for the poor data came from a study by Rector and Hederman. Actually the number is thirteen.

        Here is another look at it using census data. 68% of the poor do not work. 17% work full time, with very few two income households.

        http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/cpstables/032011/hhinc/new05_000.htm

        Poor people don’t need more time away from work, they have that in abundance, being predominantly retired, students, unemployed or part time. This is why I think raising the cost of hiring low skilled employees is a bad idea for those we are wishing to help.

        By the way, I finally got to the OECD data. Thanks. It shows that the US is worse than average at after tax and transfer poverty rates. What I still have no idea of is how the absolute level (adjusted for PPP) compares between the poor in different nations. I cannot compare actual living standards from this. You are the data guru… Anything to help here?

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      • Creon,

        I really don’t know how to respond. McCloskey says those are zero-sum, “theft” interactions. They may have made the thieves richer, but not the world. That’s not so much a dismissal of them as a harsh condemnation of them.

        For that to be a hole in her argument requires, then that we assume those things are positive sum, else they could not have made the world richer. I’m sure an argument can be made that slavery and imperialism were/are positive sum. But I’m not sure if that’s the argument you’re making or an argument you want to make.

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      • and ,

        Did we get rich, as the political left says, by exploiting slaves or workers, or from imperialism? No.

        Maybe I’m not understanding who the “we” is in her analysis. My point is that the thieves were incredibly advantaged by the theft and in various ways the developed world still reaps the advantages from that past theft.

        My reply at 6:24 was largely in response to this in Roger’s comment,“You can’t raise average per capita incomes and wealth by zero sum actions.” Again, if the “we” is all of humanity, that’s more difficult. But if the “we”is England for instance, then yes, imperialism abroad can significantly improve living standards at home.

        And I also am not sure about the claim that part of the 3000% better off isn’t built on the exploitation of workers: child labor, poor safety standards, Triangle Shirtwaist…. I mean, part of the criticism of the current economic system from the left is the extent to which it takes advantage of the vulnerability of people with limited options. Thus yielding child labor, poor safety standards, and Triangle Shirtwaists in Bangladesh and Vietnam instead of New York City.

        ,

        Slavery and imperialism don’t add anything to the explanation of worldwide wealth.

        They add to an explanation of who got wealthy at whose expense. They add to a discussion about the distribution of wealth in the past and its repercussions today.

        Btw, I am not sure we use the word exploit the same.

        Yes. After one of the sweatshop discussions I looked at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s breakdown* of different interpretations of exploitation. I don’t want to paste all 16 of the accounts of exploitation SEP outlines, but even just skimming through them you’ll see there are accounts of exploitation that more clearly reflect the way you think about it and accounts of exploitation that reflect my perspective. Here’s SEP’s summary. The parenthetical numbers refer to the number of the account in the article,

        All these accounts are compatible with the view that “A wrongfully exploits B when A takes unfair advantage of B.” But there are some important differences among them. Some accounts (10, 14) are technical definitions of exploitation that are specific to a Marxist approach. Although none of the accounts denies that exploitation requires a gain to the exploiter, only some (3, 8) specifically mention that criterion. Some accounts invoke the Kantian notion that one wrongfully exploits when one treats another instrumentally or merely as a means (1, 8, 13). On some accounts, the exploited party must be harmed (1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 12), whereas other accounts allow that the exploited party may gain from the relationship (4, 7, 11, 12, 15). On some accounts, the exploited party must be coerced (2, 4, 6, 9, 15), whereas others require at least a defect in the quality of the consent (12, 16), and another maintains that exploitation can be fully voluntary (7).

        I cannot compare actual living standards from this. You are the data guru… Anything to help here?

        Offhand, I’d point to the inequality adjusted human development index.

        * Here, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/exploitation/#2

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      • Creon,

        “We” is the world, really. Global inequality is declining. The UN’s Millenium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty was met five years early (through development, not primarily through UN programs).

        The world is getting wealthier, and that wealth is getting spread around.

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      • I was just clarifying we could be using the word in very different ways. I personally like the word, and use it frequently. However, if it is like “privilege” where loose usage can imply several contradictory things, then perhaps I should either avoid it or clarify it.

        As I mentioned earlier, her book is about the ten to thirty fold (conservatively) increase in worldwide living standards, though it is based upon adopting a set of cultural norms. As places adopt the bourgeois virtues* (her term not mine) they enter into a global network of value creation, innovation and production.

        You specifically mention child labor and work safety standards. Both of these are tradeoffs. People in Bangladesh face the real tradeoff of whether to it is best to send child to work or watch her die. They decide whether to work in a more safe factory or a less safe one which puts more into wages (wishing it would come from profit is about as useful as pushing string). Unfortunately, the workers are choosing something which we find unpleasant but which they find better than the alternative. Certainly I am all for local standards on safety and child labor and for companies to obey the local standards.

        Indeed, when it comes to child labor, I would rather not buy something that used it at all. I am just not sure the parents aren’t exploiting their kid. This may mean that kids die though because I refuse to buy the products of their labor. That is just me.

        The theme running through all our disagreements is that I do not think it is a good thing to add fifteen dollars of labor expense to a ten dollar an hour job (or add an additional dime on top of a dollar an hour job). The market dynamic is to respond to this anomaly by eliminating the job. The job either moves elsewhere, or is reengineered to aim at higher skilled workers, or is automated, or is done without. Profit seeking businesses won’t hire ten dollar an hour marginal productivity workers if they can hire nine dollar an hour workers** that are just as good elsewhere, or if they are forced to pay them above ten dollars an hour.

        To me this is an iron law of business rationality. But I see you wanting to constantly go against its grain. I don’t grok it. We all agree better factory safety is a good thing, as is holidays, maternity days, paid vacation, minimum wages etc. However, forcing them upon people as a benevolent gift risks eliminating the economic need for lower skilled people. It is not benevolence. It is pathological altruism.

        * She defines it as a culture that acts as a catalyzing force that values innovation, liberty, market exchange and the suppression of privileged incumbency. I don’t fully agree with her. What I do agree with is that theft and exploitation have never and can never get you to substantially higher worldwide living standards.

        ** eventually profit seeking businesses will bid wages up toward the ten dollar mark via competition for these workers, or they will be forced to lower prices via the same mechanism. Probably both.

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      • Using the HDI, the US is right up at the top.

        I have no idea why I would want to adjust for inequality. Human prosperity depends upon inequality to propel us forward. People teach their kids productive values, people invest in education, people work hard, take risks and make investments because they wish to do better. In a world of complete equality there would be no incentive for these things, indeed people would be foolish to do them at all unless they just happened to like spending their time in that way.

        The inequality adjusted index is effectively taking a reasonable index and adding a dysfunctional egalitarian bias to it. It would be like conservatives adding in an adjustment factor for percent of population who went to church weekly. Bad form.

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  4. “I have yet to see any strong rebuke of my position from an hourly retail or food service worker.”

    You say there is no rebuke, but for me at least this is largely because I have yet to see an argument to rebuke.

    Why should a person who does X be required by law to get holidays off, paid or unpaid, and a person who does Y not? You seem to think we all understand why this is so, but frankly I do not. Frankly, I am far less sure than you are that having a mandatory “poor person’s holiday” will work out as swimmingly for those on the lower end of the economic spectrum than you do.

    If I had one criticism of this country’s conservatives when it comes to dealing with the poor, it’s that they often mistakenly think people are poor because they are immoral and need to be punished. If I had a criticism of this country’s liberals regarding the same, it’s that they often mistakenly think they’re inferior and need to be treated like invalids.

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    • “Why should a person who does X be required by law to get holidays off, paid or unpaid, and a person who does Y not?”

      Where did I say that?

      “it’s that they often mistakenly think they’re inferior and need to be treated like invalids.”

      What part of anything I said gives you that impression?

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      • “For a number of reasons, I think it’s inappropriate to analogize between highly skilled labor, and highly unskilled labor.”
        “Where did I say that?”
        I assumed that is what you implied with this:

        “For a number of reasons, I think it’s inappropriate to analogize between highly skilled labor, and highly unskilled labor. That’s not to say that workers of all kinds aren’t deserving of certain basic privileges in return for their labor, only that if you don’t have certain of the benefits bestowed on workers whose labor is “less valued” then yours, make sure first to check whether there isn’t something you voluntarily decided you wanted instead.”

        Was this not a rebuttal to the argument that Russell and other non-poor often have to work days they don’t have to?

        “What part of anything I said gives you that impression?”

        Because I kind of think you are with your entire argument.

        Look, if you had plopped me down in a Walmart job three years ago when they started their whole Thanksgiving thang, and it was important enough to me, I would have moved on by now. This, I suspect, has largely to do with things such as education, culture, expectations, etc., that I have that I know everyone doesn’t. As I said in Russell’s threads, I believe the lack of lateral and upward mobility for low-income people is a serious issue that should be addressed.

        Were I to find poor people inferior to myself, I would be all for giving them a poor person’s holiday like Thanksgiving. What the heck — it’s a kindness, really, if there’s no way they could ever be anything but a Walmart employee. Might as well.

        But I don’t, and so I have zero interest in trying to make Walmart a just slightly-less Godawful place to work so they can stay there and be slightly less miserable for their whole damn lives. I’d rather focus on trying to fix things that make it so a Walmart cashier has a sense and a blueprint for how to get the hell out of Walmart and never, ever work there again… and maybe, if enough cashiers agree, to make it so that Walmart has to completely revisit its HR policies or go out of business. And I favor this direction because I believe working class people really can do this — as I said, I don’t think they’re inferior to me, and I know I could.

        Going out and announcing to middle class America that they should buck up and work on holidays but that they should pay so that the poor can have those days off won’t have the positive effect you think it will, and it will do nothing to help the poor or communicate to the working class that there’s a better way than staying where they are.

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      • Tod, no where have I said that government should require people who make below the median income should be forced to get federal holidays off. I have advocated for an annual amount of PTO.

        “I’d rather focus on trying to fix things that make it so a Walmart cashier has a sense and a blueprint for how to get the hell out of Walmart and never, ever work there again”

        I’m offended that you think that I think that people who work at Walmart are inferior human beings. I’m still confused as to why you think that I think that?

        Also, if your agenda is to make it so some 2 million people can get better jobs than low level ones at Walmart, we clearly have a lot more in common than I thought on this issue. What’s your preferred plan for creating more better paying jobs?

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      • Seriously though Tod,

        “Going out and announcing to middle class America that they should buck up and work on holidays but that they should pay so that the poor can have those days off won’t have the positive effect you think it will, and it will do nothing to help the poor or communicate to the working class that there’s a better way than staying where they are.”

        Is there another Ethan around here writing things I don’t know about?

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      • Perhaps I am misreading you, or perhaps you are not following your own thoughts out to their end. I guess I’m not sure.

        You are saying that people below a certain income level should be given the day off by fiat, yes?

        And you’re saying that people above a certain income level shouldn’t be brought into the whole thing because they have other social and economic advantages, yes?

        So if we implement that, how do we not have a poor person’s holiday?

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      • “What’s your preferred plan for creating more better paying jobs?”

        There are a ton that I would be open to discussing, many of them involving the government: Higher minimum wage, folding some near-universal employee benefits into an actual universal system to avoid the unintended consequences of staffing all part-time or by contractor, publicly supported education (including career coaching), certain mobility subsidies for depressed areas. It’s possible all of these ideas are terrible, but I suspect all of them could work (at least to a point) and I would be happy to both entertain and champion arguments on their behalf.

        But not allowing employers to make hay while the sun shines is not a recipe for giving working class employees higher paying jobs, regardless of how you slice it. It just isn’t.

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      • no where have I said that government should require people who make below the median income should be forced to get federal holidays off. I have advocated for an annual amount of PTO.

        Then why the focus on working on Thanksgiving, and treat it as an important issue? Requiring an annual amount of PTO could still leave Thanksgiving (and Christmas) as days excluded from PTO because of employer need–“take your last PTO by Nov. 15, because there’ll be none between then and Christmas!”

        So I’m left confused by whether you see mandatory holiday work as an important issue or whether you see it as trivial compared to other, more fundamental, issues. You seem to have made both claims.

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      • James touches on the difficulty I have with this subject. Even if we had mandatory PTO, for example, it wouldn’t apply to high-volume shopping days. We could insist that people who work on holidays get paid more for doing so, but Mark says that they already are (to the extent that he thought there were actually laws on the books for it) and that has been my experience as well.

        So the solution I am seeing here is blue law equivalents, supported by some people here but disavowed by Ethan.

        So I’m a bit at a loss over what the issue here is to discuss. The closest I can come is “It sucks to work holidays but people do because they are financially desperate enough to volunteer or are unable to withstand the threat of termination for not doing so.”

        Which is such a larger issue to me that working on Turkey Day or not working on Turkey Day barely registers as worthy of discussion. Even as an example. Because that’s really not what makes these jobs undesirable, or even close to the root of the problem, because it’s something that a fair number of people (including my wife and my sister-in-law have to do). Which may be totally different than a low-rung job that requires holiday work… but those are the differences, and here we are talking about the thing that some pharmacists and retail workers actually have in common. Which is an odd place to focus. Even as an example.

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      • “And I favor this direction because I believe working class people really can do this — as I said, I don’t think they’re inferior to me, and I know I could.”

        I think it’s a mistake to think, though, that if people favor the other direction it must be because they think working class people are inferior.

        See, I remember when I was working 10 hour days of manual labor (and eventually cash register) at the bookstore, for minimum wage, and living day-to-day in the financial circumstances that we were living in then, and I didn’t have the energy for any kind of planning or foresight. NONE. Those of my coworkers who had the foresight to move *up* instead of just drifting from place to place were not too long out of college, and their parents were still supporting them financially, so they weren’t actually surviving those circumstances on their own.

        It was, from my perspective, pure luck that I ended up managing the place after the first, totally terrifying, owners decided they were sick of dealing with people and sold to someone else. (And it really was other people who pushed me into trying to manage a bookstore while theoretically only working there 15 hours a week, while simultaneously attending school full time and finishing my bachelors, it wasn’t anything I wanted to do – I did the work that was required to succeed in it, but only because other people thought I should – I thought I should, sure, but that wouldn’t ever have been enough to get me to actually do so.)

        And then I didn’t have any plans for getting out of the management job when it turned into many-more-than-40-hours, as much work as 2 people could be expected to do for what seemed like lots of money to me but would actually have put me under the poverty line if I lived alone. Even though certain aspects of it were rotting out my soul, I really doubt I would ever have left on my own, because I was working way too hard and feeling way too terrified to start imagining an alternate career path or whatever. There was one year where I took six days off all year (including sick time) and I felt guilty about it, because it was the first salaried job I’d ever had and I wasn’t used to getting PTO for anything. The next year I took fewer.

        I only started looking for other jobs because I kept getting told I was going to be laid off, and then not getting laid off (there’s a long story there), and Jay’s job was also under threat, and so I was desperate – again, that gnawing fear of falling out of the financial middle class that from my perspective we’d only just clawed up into (though it’s different for Jay – his mom was the clawer). It was *hell* (for me) to be working as hard as I was working and *also* spending 20 hours a week looking for work. I only managed it because a) again, other people expected it of me and it seemed like even MORE work to make them stop, and b) Jay had moved – as you describe people ought to be able to do – between several different jobs, being an upwardly mobile, raised middle class, white male (with all the drive and ambition and skillset that he has, also) – so our material circumstances were considerably better than when I was a kid working minimum wage.

        It was only once I got here, to this workplace, where I had sufficient time to rest, where my contributions were unambivalently valued, and where people worried about me if I worked too hard instead of threatening my job if I didn’t work too hard – it was only after a couple of *years* of that, that I was at all able to think about mobility and building options for myself and all those important things. Before then, I was educated enough, “inside” enough to fake that mindset in a job interview, but I had NO concept of it, really. the question I most hated when applying for jobs was the “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question – I universally wanted to just write “fuck you” and leave it at that, even though I knew no one meant it that way.

        My perspective on upward mobility is that the only way I had any was, first, by being pushed into it by the middle-class expectations of my husband and mother-in-law – if I’d lived alone, or with someone whose experiences more closely mirrored my own, I’d almost certainly be in the same crappy circumstances the people we are talking about are, and I would almost certainly have the same low odds of escape – and second, by lucking out into a job where they actually treated me well and gave me a lot of rest time. I applied for a lot of other jobs that I would’ve ended up just as stuck in as the jobs I had before, and didn’t get them, and was seriously considering aiming down instead of up – back to minimum wage – when I got this one. And that was at a time when the economy was booming. (Third is that I actually did have the talents and education and cultural capital and and and for luck to *work* – but that was just something that made my hard less hard than a lot of people’s, not anything that actually would’ve gotten me out on its own.)

        I didn’t identify the problems with my previous jobs in a way that would EVER have led me to escape them. So, when I don’t expect that other minimum-wage retail workers will do so, it’s not because I think they are inferior to me, it’s because I think the circumstances are almost non-escapable *based on my own experience of them, not an extrapolation*.

        And because the biggest block to my escaping was the sheer exhaustion incurred by the schedule I had to work to survive, I will *always* push for stuff like mandatory holidays AND mandatory PTO AND mandatory etc etc etc – because if you’d waited for me to ask for the things I needed to thrive, I never never would have gotten them. It was too awful too much of the time, so I spent almost all my excess energy trying not to notice the awful parts, and then when I didn’t feel awful I was busy grabbing on to the joys I had with both hands, not trying to suss out ways to actually make stuff better in the long term. Lucky for me, I had some long term thinkers in my life who wouldn’t settle for that.

        Most people who are poor don’t.

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    • ,
      I’m calling BS on this quote:

      If I had a criticism of this country’s liberals regarding the same, it’s that they often mistakenly think they’re inferior and need to be treated like invalids.

      Liberals don’t think poor people are invalids – especially those poor people who happen to be liberals. Liberals, myself included, think history shows us that poor people suffer from a series of specific economic barriers to entry and success, often imposed from above through legislation and social custom. Liberals seek to use government to overcome those barriers, and to support poor people as they transition past such barriers – particularly with economic assistance. we also believe that all humans are entitled to basic levels of dignity and a basic living standard, and we believe government is THE primary too to deliver both in societies. We reject the notion that poor people are invalids – otherwise why would we seek to educate and empower them, while also seeking to destroy economic roadblocks to their successes as dignified members of society?

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      • Please note that I’m saying it’s something liberals “often” do, not that it’s a necessary part of liberalism.

        And to your point about lower-income liberals, I agree. The phenomena I am referring to almost always comes from upper-middle class liberals.

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      • I’m an upper middle class liberal . . . . and a raised and semi-practicing Christian to boot, so perhaps I don’t fit the mold . . . . I would also, politely, argue that many people wrapping themselves in the liberal banner are in fact social centerists and fiscal conservatives – at least the ones who get a lot of air time seem to be. So extrapoliting from them to what Liberals “often” do is problematic at best.

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      • we also believe that all humans are entitled to basic levels of dignity and a basic living standard, and we believe government is THE primary too to deliver both in societies.
        That’s the part that’s Liberal.
        Personally, I have no clue as to how government could possibly deliver human dignity for persons wholly dependent on government for a basic living standard.
        It seems like an oxyliberal to me.

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      • ,
        Well do pure markets do any better at delivering human dignity and basic living standards? No, because market forces seek to maximize short-term profit for owners/investors at the cost of all other contributors to economic activity (including labor wages and materials/resource costs). Government delivers human dignity in two ways – redistributing resources to overcome basic human greed as well as significant market failures so that humans can actually live in the place they are, eat, and keep sheltered – like driving the cost of healthcare up by excluding certain persons form health insurance pools (which forces them to seek healthcare in ERs and other very expensive means); governments also remove both intentional and unintentional market barriers to economic success – like the Small Business Administration administering business start-up loans that banks can’t deliver.

        ,
        the problem with taking people at their word when they self-identify is that it diverts you from assessing actions in context. True liberals do NOT favor the ACA because it uses a market solution to fix market failures in the health insurance and healthcare delivery system. Moderates and fiscal conservatives favor such solutions. Likewise, on our topic here, true liberals favor economic policies, including minimum wages and state mandated closures of business at certain times, which recognize that labor is the most important factor in market based economic success, not profits. Wal-Mart and others open on Thanksgiving – forcing underpayed and politically ignored employees to work – because they want to make more dollars, not because they want to provide a better standard of living for their employees. Government is the human social institution that can best overcome that problem – and focusing on the tangible and present working on Thanksgiving issues is a good way to leverage social debate and drive for political action. Imagine, if you will, the backlash if these stores were open on Christmas . . .

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  5. if you do think there are significant issues facing the working class that need to be addressed, pushing back against individual, perhaps even trivial moves like opening on Thanksgiving is a necessary part of pushing for broader economic reforms.

    As a matter of strategy, I think you’re wrong. And it’s precisely because you’re focusing just on a select set of businesses that are open on Thanksgiving, and failing to find any good distinguishing principle between that set and other businesses that are open on Thanksgiving.

    And to the extent that your side belatedly decides to hurry to wrap up those other businesses into your concern, there’s still the question of why did you never pay attention to them before, why did it take retail to bring your attention to the issue, and why did it take having your critics point to these other businesses to get you to bring your attention to the fact that this has long been the situation outside of the retail sector?

    Seriously, if you’d just shuffle your feet, look down at your shoes, and mutter, “I guess we were blind, and too obsessed with our Wal Mart vendetta,” I might be inclined to back off. But as is, you’re still pretending to some kind of principled moral stance that isn’t very principled because you’ve been ignoring the issue in other sectors for your entire lifetime.

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    • Damn, didn’t complete my thought as intended.

      From the strategic perspective, you’ve left yourself open to that kind of critique, and to the questions Tod asked. And unless you have better answers than we’ve seen so far, you’re just going to get bogged down in the minutiae of this debate in a way that distracts from the bugger picture.

      In any struggle there are innumerable issues that relate and can be brought in, but some just function as distractions. There’s an important task in prioritizing issues and ensuring a coherent focus. I don’t think this issue helps with that. Or if it can, it’s going to require a lot better message development than we’ve seen do far. Don’t make the mistake of seeing news articles and protestors as evidence it’s working to your advantage–OWS had that, too, but their kack of a coherent and cohesive message doomed them.

      I’m not saying “shut up, Ethan,” and I’m not saying this is an issue not worth discussing. I’m just skeptical that it has the strategic value you see in it (skeptical, not pretending god-like omniscience on the matter).

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      • This reminds me of the language-cleansing drive that has people saying “Congresswoman,” and signs that say “Women at work” on the roadways.
        Namely, some insubstantive effort assumed to be a great victory.

        How silly do you think an effort would be to promote the pronoun of “him” in relation to sea-going vessels undertaken in the name of gender equality?

        What exactly does “achievement” imply anyway?

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    • How did this become about Walmart? I didn’t even mention Walmart in the original post.

      It was only ever supposed to be about the increasing imbalance in bargaining power between service employees and their employers leading to a degradation in norms concerning annual holidays, i.e. days of non-work, norms which weren’t important in their own right, but rather the seemingly small value they contributed to workers in the form of an extra day off, which obviously not everyone wants, but which a good many want, and wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could get what they want.

      Clearly I have bungled the message, time and again.

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      • “…and wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could get what they want.”

        AND A PONY!

        “It was only ever supposed to be about the increasing imbalance in bargaining power between service employees and their employers leading to a degradation in norms concerning annual holidays, i.e. days of non-work…”

        What evidence is there that working on Thanksgiving is indicative of an increasing imbalance? Or is the mere fact that they have to work on Thanksgiving evidence itself?

        I’m with you on preferring to see a better balance between employers and employees. But I haven’t seen much of a plan proposed as to how we get there. You seem to be banking on the fact that if you expose enough alleged atrocities committed by employers, you’ll stir up enough anger to empower radical liberals and their agenda will seize the day. Yet people aren’t as angry as you’d like them to be. Perhaps because the issue isn’t nearly as big as you’d imagine it?

        I’ve done food service work. I’ve delivered pizza. I’ve worked for a catering company. I worked in a campus dining hall. I worked at a poolside grill for a private club. Now, never was I fully dependent on these jobs to meet my basic needs, but I have been on that side of the line and worked with people who did depend on that work to meet their basic needs and still know such people and doubt that any of them are as angry about this as you are.

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      • Well, it’s about retail, since the complaint has been absent for decades of non-retail holiday labor. And it seems to have gone little noticed in retail until Wal Mart followed other store’s lead. So the complaint in general–not you in particular–seems to be driven more by Wal Mart’s presence than other factors. And you picked up on it now, not before (if you have posts from prior years, please correct me), so even though unintentionally your response is based in the anti-Wal Mart fervor.

        But even if we back off from Wal Mart, it’s still a complaint about retail*, and that limitation, though repeatedly challenged, has not been justified.
        —————-
        * Except for a couple commenters who agree it extends beyond retail, but even there none of the anti-holiday work folks mentioned anything beyond retail until I brought it up–there’s no evidence anything other than retail was on the radar of any of you prior to that. If Johanna and I have at least got folks to stop pointing fingers only at the retsil sector, well, at least openly give us eome credit for bringing other sectors to your attention.

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      • I think part of the problem is that you haven’t cited any examples of workers who in the past got holidays off but now are being forced to work holidays for regular pay.

        By and large, the changing norm seems to be that some retail employees who in the past worked for stores that were closed now may be required to work on this specific holiday (retail stores have always been open for long hours on every other holiday except for Christmas), but only to the extent insufficient numbers volunteer, and even then they get time and a half or an extra day’s pay.

        And those conditions of pay are being voluntarily offered by the employers without any apparent legal requirement and despite the fact that employers in other industries have never offered such conditions, all of which suggests that this is not a subject area where the acknowledged increase in disparate bargaining power is really taking a toll.

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      • You can get cute, , or you can actually respond to my point… something you seem increasingly loathe to do.

        You’re angry. We get it. What do you propose we do about the situation that causes you anger? And how certain are you that the solutions you seek are desired by the people they are intended to serve?

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      • Mark,

        That’s an excellent comment, but I want to pick a nit. Some of these other businesses offer extra pay on holidays. Disney Corp has contracts with both full and part time workers that guve extra holiday pay. Johanna says her grocery store did, too, which was why people there were eager to work holidays and selection went by seniority.

        But some don’t, so your statement is not wholly wrong, just overbroad.

        (Personal story time: The best holiday I ever worked was a 4th of July when I got paid time and a half to work my regular 6 am – noon shift. As if anybody was starting up the grills or fireworks before noon!)

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      • This is the story I had in mind when I wrote that: http://www.cnbc.com/id/101191279

        Walmart, Best Buy, Target, KMart, Toys R Us, and Macy’s all provide extra pay for Thanksgiving, and I assume that list is far from complete. Regardless, those six employers likely include the bulk of retail employees who were working on Thanksgiving this year but would not have done so in past years. Some quick research told me that Old Navy does as well, and it seems to be the case for Michael’s, too. Basically, I’ve yet to find a major national retailer who is not paying extra for Thanksgiving workers. I concede that may not be the case for small local retailers, but decreasing bargaining power is presumably much less of an issue in those cases anyhow.

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      • From what I can tell, it’s also true of the Gap and Banana Republic, though not for their seasonal employees. But if you’re applying for work as a seasonal employee, then you’re presumably doing so with the expectation – hope, even – that you’ll be working on holidays, since you’ve got such a limited amount of time to make your money from the job.

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      • Mark,

        I was responding to this part:
        despite the fact that employers in other industries have never offered such conditions, .

        Just saying that at least some other employers in other industries do offer bonus pay, although not all.

        Also, add Kohls to your list. One of my students works there and told me she got time and a half for working on Thanksgiving.

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      • Ok, I gotcha James. I think that sentence was poorly worded on my part – I had intended for it to be read as “some other industries,” and probably would have done better still to word it as “some business in some other industries.”

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  6. For me it’s simple, giving low-wage workers a few days of mandatory PTO essentially amounts to a slight wage subsidy. For those workers that don’t lost their jobs or lost hours, this is a net gain. For those who do lose their jobs or lose hours, it is an unambiguous loss.

    More importantly though, this does not amount to an increase in worker’s choice or in their bargaining power. It’s just imposing a top-down decision that may or may not accord to what any individual worker wants.

    If you are really interested in increasing the power of workers, then your interventions need to start much earlier in the process.

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  7. So while pushing back against employer mission creep on the holiday front seems on its face to be a distraction, a side-show, my contention is that it necessarily goes hand-in-hand with pushing for these larger, structural changes.

    and

    Part of my argument then is that if you do think there are significant issues facing the working class that need to be addressed, pushing back against individual, perhaps even trivial moves like opening on Thanksgiving is a necessary part of pushing for broader economic reforms.

    The problem is that you’re simply asserting this, rather than providing a case for it. As I said in Russell’s thread, I think it’s reasonable to use holidays as a symbolic issue, but getting employers to not force low-wage workers to work on holidays isn’t going to solve any major issues, whereas solving the major issues might give low-wage workers more of a say in whether they work on holidays. In other words, if you’re using it as an example of how low-wage workers are basically powerless, that’s cool. If you’re focusing on it as an issue in itself, which you certainly seem to be arguing, then I see it as wasted effort that’s difficult to justify.

    Let’s put it this way: if you polled 1000 Walmart employees and asked them if they could have one of the following, and only one, which do you think they’d choose:

    Not working on thanksgiving.

    Consistent hours.

    Flexibility in determining their hours.

    Better working conditions (particularly in their relationship with management).

    Better pay.

    Benefits such as medical, dental, paid vacation and sick time, etc.

    More job security.

    Hell, I’d even throw in organizing.

    How does a focus on holidays help any of those issues? Does saying, “Hey, here’s another way in which low-wage employees are getting fucked by their employers!” work? Sure, though as we’ve seen on the intertubes over the last week or so, some liberals are going to focus exclusively on that, losing sight of the underlying issues, while those who disagree are going to focus on it as the exclusive issue as well because it’s much easier to argue against than the systematic conditions that result in the powerlessness of low-wage workers.

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    • Or if you could ask them if they were fine with working on a holiday as long as they got time and half or double time plenty would say “hell yes, i want to do that” because that is how they will make extra money for xmas. Working holidays is often a boon. Not just for minimum wage workers either, plenty of middle class people like the holiday OT pay boost. It would be great if low wage workers were paid more, but nothing is going to magically change for them to the point where some extra cash flow isn’t appreciated.

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      • I know that when I was a young worker making an hourly wage, I loved the big pay check that came after working on a holiday and getting time and a half, but for workers with families this is a double edged sword. I think the most important point that Ethan made in his original post is that for a lot of workers, even if working on a holiday is voluntary, their financial situations are such that not working on a day that pays time and a half or double time (or whatever nonsense Walmart is doing, which is even more nonsensical given the way that Walmart plays with employees’ hours) is not really a choice. If you are living pay check to pay check, with little or no savings, and perhaps no medical benefits, how in the hell do you turn down time and a half or double? It may mean the difference between being able to pay a kids’ medical bills when an unexpected injury or illness pops up, or being able to get your car repaired when the damage is below the deductible or the car is not under warranty, or being able to pay for repairs to an air conditioner or plumbing, etc. But again, the problem here isn’t the holiday work, which is, as you say, a boon, but the fact that these people cannot make enough money to afford any extra expense whatsoever.

        Hell, even if they don’t get time and half, if they regularly work on Thursdays and they don’t get paid holidays/vacation days, they may not be able to afford not to work anyway, because one day’s pay can mean the difference between making rent or utilities or coming up short that month.

        I took a year off between undergrad and graduate school, and by that time I had a young child and was the sole provider for him, his mother, and myself (and sometimes his mother’s brother). I worked 6 days a week for a political consulting firm, making an hourly wage with no paid sick or vacation days (though I did make overtime, and I usually worked 45-50 hours a week at least, sometimes more when we traveled to meet with out-of-town, even out-of-state candidates). We were generally off on major holidays (including 4 days for Thanksgiving), and I hated those times, because it meant missing 1, 2, even 4 days of work, which in turn meant losing out on as much as 2/3s of a week’s pay. It was difficult to make ends meet in months with more than one day off.

        So again, I understand using holidays as symbolic, even if I am not at all interested in doing so, but I don’t understand treating holidays as an issue in themselves, which Ethan seems to be doing, and which so many liberals in the blogosphere seem to be doing as well.

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    • It seems to me that PTO falls into the following categories:
      holidays, vacation days, sick time, and personal time (usually confined to two-hour increments)

      As a union worker, I got none of those. Even working 60 to 84 hours a week for 13 months straight, the thought of vacation never occurred to anyone.
      I could have time off whenever I wanted, but it wasn’t paid. In fact, in some instances, I would be penalized on my per diem for the week for taking time off (Bechtel), among other things.

      Granted, this is an industry where people normally leave home to live out of a hotel room for several months out of the year.
      But when a holiday comes around, they typically send someone out to ask how many days each man is going to take off.
      And it’s not unusual for someone to take 10 days to 2 weeks off for Christmas.

      See this video here?
      I worked on the control huts for that launch pad. Not this occasion, but several years ago. I know that area well. You see a lot of bald eagles out there.
      That body of water is the Indian River Lagoon. I used to live three miles from there. I remember seeing a baby manatee there.
      The compensation was ok, but being there was fantastic. Good cafeteria too. Parking wasn’t bad at all.
      “Intangibles” I believe they call that.

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  8. I confess that I disagree with much of what you have written here, but I agree pretty much with the following from your OP:

    For a number of reasons, I think it’s inappropriate to analogize between highly skilled labor, and highly unskilled labor. That’s not to say that workers of all kinds aren’t deserving of certain basic privileges in return for their labor, only that if you don’t have certain of the benefits bestowed on workers whose labor is ‘less valued’ than yours, make sure first to check whether there isn’t something you voluntarily decided you wanted instead.

    I think a good rule of thumb in any of these discussions is that if someone says they feel imposed upon by having to work Thanksgiving, then I don’t have the right to say “you don’t feel imposed upon.” I might argue–and I do argue–that as a policy matter mandatory PTO, etc., would probably cause more harm than good, but I don’t have the right to say that someone in a situation I haven’t been in for more than 10 years doesn’t have the right to feel as they do.

    And above at 4:24 pm in response to Tod makes an eloquent point: there’s a lot about the lower-wage, service work experience that just doesn’t get represented in the types of discussion we’re having. It’s not because anybody is necessarily discounting it, it’s that when we talk policy and “choice” (or, in my preferred terms, “degree of choice”), the very subtle, very difficult to describe feeling of helplessness that some people in certain situations probably feel is just difficult to convey and yet is also very different from those who are fortunate, now, to have better paying jobs.

    My situation wasn’t the same as Maribou’s, but I remember feeling a very strong sense of powerlessness when I worked fast food, and I had a lot of the supports that Maribou apparently didn’t (I lived with and was partially supported by my parents, for example), but there were long hours and a very strong sense that I really couldn’t say “no” (although I sometimes did) when asked if I could come in and work or just stay a couple more hours, or stay until close.

    Again, I probably disagree with you and Maribou on the policy prescriptions, but I do think there is a little bit of over-analogizing, where some are speaking of their jobs–which are usually professional or borderline professional endeavors–where they must work on holidays, as sufficiently comparable to a low waged service worker’s job.

    And for the record, to the extent I truly am concerned about such things, it’s not new and it’s not because of some vendetta against Walmart. Ever since my first job, I became, at the very least, concerned at a visceral level about how service workers are treated. It’s possible that my concern has devolved, to some extent, into a cloying condescension because I am no longer a low-waged service worker, but they still have my sympathy.

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  9. This from @tod-kelly:

    “But I don’t, and so I have zero interest in trying to make Walmart a just slightly-less Godawful place to work so they can stay there and be slightly less miserable for their whole damn lives. I’d rather focus on trying to fix things that make it so a Walmart cashier has a sense and a blueprint for how to get the hell out of Walmart and never, ever work there again…”

    I will preface my remarks by saying my experience is anecdotal and obviously not universal. I work for a company that pays entry-level warehouse workers about $12/hour. That puts them at just under $25K per year gross. My company also prides itself for recognizing talent and promoting from within. When I started there nearly 14 years ago we had a lot of employees who were motivated and would endure a lot of sacrifices to prove themselves and move up the ladder. Most of those employees are all lower and middle management now.

    What I have found very interesting in the last year since I moved back into the operations side of our business is how un-motivated our current low-level employees are. I think part of it is that they see management putting in crazy-long hours (60+ per week) but they also seem to be very happy with their low responsibility level and will only do the bare minimum asked of them. I know people who have been there for over a decade and are still in entry-level positions. You have to be actively trying NOT to advance to stay in those spots. I don’t know what changed in the 5 years I was away from operations but something is sour. Maybe it is my company’s culture or maybe this is happening elsewhere. It’s just a completely foreign concept to me. I have always been driven to advance my career so it is so weird to see this from my coworkers.

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    • 14 years ago was a (relative) economic boom period, where for the previous six to seven years, there was at least a decent shot of moving up. For the past five years, at the very least, all your average low wage worker has seen is their friends being laid off, being laid off themselves, and when they go look for a new job, they’re likely getting less pay and fewer benefits.

      I have no doubt your specific company actually follows up on what they say. But, every company has a big ole’ speech (or training video) when you get hired about promoting from within and all that. When you’re a guy on his 4th low wage job in 6 years, that seems sort of like a false hope.

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    • Mike writes:
      I know people who have been there for over a decade and are still in entry-level positions.

      Jesse responds:
      When you’re a guy on his 4th low wage job in 6 years,

      ?

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    • Mike what else does the company offer entry level folks and how has that changed over those years? I know in federal service, we no longer have budgets for any kind of training, so that’s an added cost to our employees, and I would guess based on the anecdotes I have from private firms, similar situations abound. Given the loss of vocational education – which you often used to write about – and the diminishing of life skills education (Home ec and such) it may be your entry level workforce is 1) afraid to make waves (even for advancement) for fear of keeping a job; 2) unable to identify opportunities for advancement when they come; 3) lacking in skills to take advantage of advancement opportunities even when they arrive; 4) not encouraged as much to go for it as you were initially.

      none of this is an indictment of your firm, but with your analytical skills I’d expect a deeper probing of this issue from you.

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      • Phillip,

        In our specific case we have a open jobs board that is in the break room and our mgmt regaularly communicates the possibilty to advance to our teams. Also, these are not huge leaps forward career-wise. One step up the ladder requires very small improvements in skill and from the lowest level to the next it is really just about proving yourself to be a competent employee.

        I understand a reluctance to enter mgmt as our company is very demanding of management employees and it can affect your personal life profoundly, however slow steps up the hourly ladder should not be intimidating.

        Ironically, from what I have heard most of the employees are content to stay where they are and just think the company needs to give a cost-of-living raise.

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    • “I don’t know what changed in the 5 years I was away from operations but something is sour.”

      iPhones are cheap, food is cheap, cars are cheap, and thanks to the Internet fun is free. Why work hard? You work your ass off, your reward is more work. What, I can get promoted to management and be responsible for everyone’s screwups instead of just my own? Yeah, sign me up for that. The people who make the big money already had big money to start with, and they didn’t get it by managing warehouses.

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  10. I understand Ethan’s concern with improving pay, benefits, and working conditions for low wage employees. But I sincerely worry about the unintended consequences of his policy goals. Several of us here have argued before that higher labor costs, while benefiting those who have and keep those jobs, can push out those who are less productive. This morning I saw some data that heightens my concern. This is from Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek.

    ) In the U.S. in 1948, quoting my colleague Walter Williams, “the unemployment rate for white 16-17 year olds was 10.2 percent while that for blacks was 9.4 percent. Among white 18-19 year-olds, unemployment was 9.4 percent and for blacks it was 10.5 percent.” Today (October 2013) the unemployment rate for white 16-19 year olds is 19.4%; the unemployment rate for black 16-19 year olds is 36.0% – nearly double the rate of white teenage unemployment. (In 2006 – the year before the current recession began – the unemployment rate for white 16-19 year olds was 13.2%; the unemployment rate for black 16-19 years olds was 29.0% – slightly more than double the rate of white teenage unemployment.)

    That is, the unemployment rate of black teenagers in 1948 was comparable to that of white teenagers, and about 2.5 times higher than the overall unemployment rate of 3.8%. Today, the unemployment rate for black teenagers is much higher than that for white teenagers, and nearly 5 times higher than the overall unemployment rate of 7.3%. (In 2006, the year before the current recession began, the unemployment rate for black teenagers was 6.3 times higher than the overall unemployment rate of 4.6%.)

    How do you explain these data? Are American employers more prejudiced in 2013 than in 1948 against teenagers? More importantly, are Americans more racist in 2013 than they were in 1948?

    Is all of this difference necessarily attributable to minimum wage legislation? I wouldn’t go that far. Can we discount minimum wage legislation as a factor? I don’t see how.

    We already see an increase in part-time work as one of the responses to the Affordable Care Act, which is more empirical evidence supporting the argument that labor cost increases reflect the law of demand just as any other good or service does. It’s possible the good ACA will do will outweigh that cost, but to ignore the cost is not appropriate.

    So the important question I have is, what if our attempts to make working conditions and pay better for low wage workers really is pricing many potential low-wage workers out of jobs? What if this effect is disproportionately harming African-Americans? If poor minority teens can’t get jobs, how does that affect their future prospects? There’s already demonstrated disparities in the likelihood of equally qualified whites and blacks in getting jobs, so what if we’re actually increasing those disparities by making it more likely that the black person will be less qualified?

    This is no right wing anti-liberal screed. I’m seriously concerned that well-intentioned attempts to help the working poor will benefit a select group of somewhat more productive folks (or at least perceived by employers as more productive) while seriously damaging the employment prospects of less (or perceived as less) productive people for their entire lives.

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    • This is no right wing anti-liberal screed. I’m seriously concerned that well-intentioned attempts to help the working poor will benefit a select group of somewhat more productive folks (or at least perceived by employers as more productive) while seriously damaging the employment prospects of less (or perceived as less) productive people for their entire lives.

      ,
      I am not clear from what you’ve written why raising minimum wages would result in any one getting declared unfit for a job by an employer. Wages are compensation provided atthe beginning of employment; other then looking at employment history and seeing what salary a person was previously employed at wages themselves do not effectively demonstrate competency. Frankly, what you’ve written here seems more like a strawman for inaction then a real worry about unintended consequences.

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      • I am not clear from what you’ve written why raising minimum wages would result in any one getting declared unfit for a job by an employer.

        This isn’t a straw man at all. This is actually what the empirical literature on minimum wages says. Raising the minimum wage tends not to cause a big increase in unemployment, but the group that does take a hit are the least-skilled workers.

        Think about it this way. Bob runs a McDonald’s franchise. He manages a shift of ten employees that each word about 30 hours a week for $8 an hour. The minimum wage gets increased to $10.

        Bob cannot afford to pay ten employees $10 an hour for 30 hours a week, a increase in total wages from $2400 a week to $3000, so he lays off one of his workers and cuts everyone else’s hours to 28 a week. The workers who still have jobs are better off, because they get the same pay for 2 hours less work. However, the one worker who gets laid off is not better off and it’s more than likely that Bob is going to lay off the least productive worker.

        In real life, it probably doesn’t play out like this. Bob would probably cut hours before firing anyone. And since low-wage work tends to have high turnover, he’ll probably just wait for one of his workers to quit and just not hire a replacement. The effect is the same, however; it becomes more difficult for low-skilled workers to find jobs as where once there were ten jobs now there are nine.

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      • Bob could first cut hours, then probably cut based on seniority or whatever other criteria he had posted that would be legally appropriate (and as a franchisee he might not have an option). Trouble is Bob (and the Giganto Corp from whom he franchises) are missing another option – raising prices to accommodate the increased wages. That’s what companies USED to do in America, back when we had true shared prosperity and all. Otherwise gas woulds till be $00.99 a gallon.

        That aside, was quoting a study on rates of unemployment for African Americans and white youths, noting that disproportionate changes in unemployment rates existed in current African American communities, and then asked if this could mean that increased minimum wages were a driver in creating that disproportionate unemployment because somehow the increase rendered African Americans more unqualified to be retained then whites. Because s/he (and I apologize for not knowing which) presented nothing else other then race as the defining criteria – since the reply was written to lead me to believe the wage increases would applied across the board – I conclude that the objection to raising the minimum wage because it MIGHT disproportionately affect a single racial cohort is s strawman designed to drive us to inaction, because we as a nation do not want to make things worse for already severly disadvantaged groups.

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      • Trouble is Bob (and the Giganto Corp from whom he franchises) are missing another option – raising prices to accommodate the increased wages. That’s what companies USED to do in America,

        No, that’s not really correct. And anyway when firms do raise prices, they hurt consumers. All workers are consumers, so ultimately price increases to offset wage increases do nothing to help. If you get a 3% wage increase, but the price of goods increases on average by 3%, you’ve only gotten a nominal wage increase, not a real one.

        since the reply was written to lead me to believe the wage increases would applied across the board – I conclude that the objection to raising the minimum wage because it MIGHT disproportionately affect a single racial cohort is s strawman
        That racial cohort disproportionately attends shittier schools than the white racial cohort. They’re not inherently less productive than whites; they receive less preparation to be productive teenage employees than whites. They tend to start off with a disadvantage, and one advantage they could have–the willingness to work for less–is denied.

        You can call that a strawman if you want, but I’ll tell you I see this kids in my classroom. They* only come to college because they’re recruited for athletics, and they are terribly unprepared, some of them functionally illiterate. Most businessmen aren’t running social welfare programs, and if the wage is set by law they’re going to prefer the kid who looks better prepared.

        You say strawman; I say I fail several of these kids each year, and watch them drop out of college because they’re failing all their courses, not just mine, and I know just what lousy job prospects they’re going back to, but now with college debt they’ll not have a job to repay, and I say I’m angry about the whole ugly situation, and I’m angry at liberals who think it’s not even theoretically conceivable that their policies could be pricing these kids out of the job market, because that’s not the inconvenient truth they want to hear.

        Do I want these kids to have to settle for working for $5 hour? Hell, no, but is that worse than not having a job? As Paul Krugman once argued, “Bad jobs at bad wages are better than no jobs at all.”

        Sorry if I seem a bit grouchy, Philip. I don’t know you, and I don’t want to get overly harsh here. But when you say strawman I see the faces of kids I’ve known. They’re not abstractions to me, and I firmly believe liberal policies are making their job prospects more difficult.

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      • If blacks make up a disproportionate number of the population of least-skilled workers, then blacks will be disproportionately negatively affected by an increase in the minimum wage. Again, this is both what economic theory predicts an what the empirical evidence shows.

        As for just raising prices, that’s one work around, but it’s not without it’s own problems and it’s very difficult to enact. For instance, Bob the franchisee is operating on very slim margins, because the success of his business is predicated on McDonald’s low price point and because he has to kick up a certain percentage of his take to McDonald’s corporate. McDonald’s corporate does quite well, but if they suddenly got the gumption to raise prices or take less money from their franchisees, that would change the fundamentals of the company and shareholders would start to sell McDonald’s stock. That, in turn, would incentive them to start coming up with ways to cut costs and increase profit. So, more touch screens and less employees, which again, is not great for low-skilled workers.

        Another option is for Bob to close down his McDonald’s and open up his own Bob’s Cafe. Bob’s Cafe could charge higher prices and pay higher wages and also Bob’s employees would learn to do things like cook actual food as opposed to opening and re-heating bags of frozen crap. Personally, I would love a world with fewer McDonald’s and more Bob’s Cafes, but I’m upper middle class and can afford to spend more money on better food. It’s not clear that this new yuppie world would be unambiguously better for the poor and working class.

        The bottom line is that if we really want to help low-skilled workers, there’s no magic solution. You can’t just pass a law and viola! everything is great. The economy does not work that way.

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      • One of the odd things in Singapore is that real food in food courts are often cheaper and in many cases healthier than McDonalds. In fact, McDonalds over here tends to be at the upper ends (price wise) of low cost eating in Singapore.

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      • ,
        As I noted in a reply to you in another thread, I graduated from a 69% black highschool in a city in the south, so I am very familiar with the faces you see every day – they were and are both my friends and their kids. I also have 2 nieces and a nephew who are black – and I have seen the impacts of discriminatory attitudes on the oldest who is in highschool and actually does work at McDonalds. And as the son of a university professor, I agree that many of them are unprepared for the working world, nor are they prepared for college. Some of that is culture – in which appearing educated is STILL called “acting white”; some of that is overworked, underpaid parents who have too little left to invest in their kids. But as far as I can tell none of that is causally DRIVEN by minimum wages, and none of that is thus likely to be impacted by changes to minimum wages. Leaving our African, Latino, Asian, NAtive American and other kids of color behind is a national tragedy – but that doesn’t meant minimum wage changes CAUSED it.

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      • Philip,

        I never identified minimum wage as “the” cause. But I think it could be part of the problem. I think certainly it makes it harder to overcome those other disadvantages–all of which you and I agree on, I think–by limiting the one advantage they might bring to the table.

        I.e., just as less productive Malaysians are able to compete for jobs via lower wages, I think less productive minorities in America could do so, too (emphasizing that “less productive” is not an innate characteristic of ethnicity).

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    • I’d make the argument, without any evidence, off the top of my head, that the largest problem is probably two-fold. In 1948, black teenagers were hired by black local businesses, whether that’d be the local grocery store or whatever. After desegregation, many of those black businesses went away due to competition from white-owned businesses, even in Northern cities.

      Those black teenagers in 1948 weren’t apply to white owned businesses. And in 2013, there aren’t enough black owned businesses in their neighborhood to take care of the population.

      Secondly, and this might not me be understanding measures of teenage unemployment, that in adult unemployment, if you’re not looking for a job, either because you’re discouraged or staying at home to be a parent, you’re not counted in unemployment statistics. But, just on the pure measures, due to being poorer as a whole, more black teenagers are going to be looking for work than a white teenager. I may be wrong, just on how they measure teenage unemployment.

      Thirdly, and probably having only a minor effect, work that may have been open to teenagers who hadn’t finished high school (construction/factory work/etc.) simply isn’t as available as it was today to an unskilled 17-year-old teenager, but it doesn’t effect white teenagers for the same reasons I brought up below.

      I’d actually be interested in the levels of teenage unemployment in high poverty areas, in areas that are mainly black, white, or Hispanic just to see if there is a big difference, or if it evens out once you clear out the other reasons.

      Oh, and as a side note, the “ACA is forcing employers to cut hours” is largely a myth – see this post from that noted blogger loved by leftists everywhere, Matt Yglesias – http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/10/22/obamacare_part_timism_a_myth_debunked.html.

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      • Jesse,

        A general response:
        Is it your contention that the law of demand does not operate on labor? That price increases in labor have no effect on the demand for labor?

        A specific response on ACA:
        I’m bemused by your claim that my friends are myths. The numbers may not be huge, but this is happening, and I can vouch for it personally as someone trying to organize course schedules when my adjuncts can no longer teach as many courses. This is happening to college adjuncts across the country. I have a friend who has for years been a full time adjunct at another college, who has had her course load (and income) slashed. In my department we have an outstanding adjunct who has been teaching full time for several years, and who runs our political simulations program, which has been an award winning program in both the Michigan and the national Model Arab League programs, and which has created opportunities for some of our students to study in the Middle East, and which last year began participating in Model UN. We are probably going to lose him because without a full time load it’s not worthwhile for him to commute to work for us. This is bad for him and it’s bad for our students, as we probably cannot continue the program–certainly not anywhere near its current level–without him.

        I’m not arguing that the numbers are huge, and I didn’t argue that it was sufficient reason to repeal ACA, but to call this a myth is to wave your hands at real live people who are the working poor–the inconvenient working poor, I guess; the ones you can’t be bothered to have concern for because they don’t fit the storyline.

        You’re also glossing over the difficult question small businesses face as they try to grow–what is the real marginal cost of hiring that 50th full time employee? It’s not just that person’s salary and health care costs, but also the health care costs of all the other employees. Again, I’m not saying this means we should repeal ACA, or that the numbers are huge. But to suggest that increasing labor costs will not influence business decisions, and hence influence whether real live people get jobs, is an untenable position.

        Come visit for a day, Ethan. I’ll pay for your hotel room and introduce you to a couple of these myths.

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      • I should add that I assume you probably favor Keynesian macroeconomic theory, and one simply cannot be a Keynesian and deny the effect of labor costs on employment, because the stickiness of labor costs–their failure to decline smoothly in a recession–is one of the key points in Keynesian theory. So while I understand the concern for the working poor (the not too inconvenient ones, anyway), I’m not sure why a Keynesian would think that making labor costs even stickier is a good macroeconomic policy.

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    • Your concerns here are pretty much mine, even though I’m a little critical of those who invoke the “they can just get another job argument.” Even with that latter argument, however, there’s still a kernal of truth, and the people making it aren’t necessarily making it in such bold terms.

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      • I’ll also say I’m not a big fan of the language of compulsory nationalism some seem to use when it comes to arguing for mandatory days off Thanksgiving and (ugh!) 4th of July. Thanksgiving I don’t have any problems with, and truth be told, I enjoy 4th of July parties and getting the day off. But I’m not a big fan of celebrating an ill-conceived war to defend the actions of that gang of criminals in Boston.

        Yes, I realize there’s more to it than that, that good things, like the eventual end of slavery, came about arguably as a result of that war, and that the endeavor came to represent something a lot more than protest against luxury taxes. But the notion that nationalism must be instilled by these holidays seems a little….I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a grinch :)

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      • Pierre,

        Actually, Britain ended slavery throughout its empire in 1833, so the Revolutionary War probably extended slavery for several decades.

        But I’m right there with you on compulsory nationalism. I will not say the pledge of allegiance nor will I do anything more for the national anthem than stand quietly. (Although if we’d treat the national anthem as the bar drinking song it really is, I might be more inclined to sing along.)

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      • I really don’t think the UK would’ve been able to abolish slavery as easily if they had to appease the white North American colonists. The slaveowning class in the Caribbean, I suspect (I don’t really know), was by itself too weak to protest effectively. But then, this is all speculation. All I can really say is I should give the Boston-Philadelphia-Williamsburg junta its due when I criticize them for their unjust war.

        As for the pledge and the anthem….I wish I had your courage. When I’m in a situation where it’s expected, I usually put my hand over my heart, but I don’t mouth the words. (Especially the pledge……why would I hold my allegiance to a flag????)

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    • So the important question I have is, what if our attempts to make working conditions and pay better for low wage workers really is pricing many potential low-wage workers out of jobs? What if this effect is disproportionately harming African-Americans?

      //

      I firmly believe liberal policies are making their job prospects more difficult.

      So are you actually asking the questions, or are you actually giving the answers?

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  11. It’s worth pointing out that one result of the “mandatory time off” philosophy has been that employees who attempt to work on their mandatory scheduled break are reprimanded and, possibly, fired. Because the assumption is that if it’s possible to voluntarily give up your time off, dastardly employers will “encourage” all their employees to volunteer, and those who do not voluntarily volunteer will find themselves surplus to staffing requirements.

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    • Heh, when I worked as a stocker at the building supply store I’d always try to take my lunch as late as possible, so the second “half” of my day would go by quickly. Sometimes I managed to take it as late as 6 hours into my shift. And I kept getting yelled at by management to take my lunch break earlier. I didn’t blame them, and I don’t think requiring lunch breaks no later than X hours into an 8 hour shift is a policy worth complaining about. But even a fairly benign/positive policy like that will have some perverse effects given the inevitable heterogeneity of preferences of those weird critters we call humans.

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      • I’m also the type of guy who likes to take late lunch breaks so that the last part of my workday ends sooner. Fortunately, my current employer doesn’t really care when I take it. Of course, now, I’m salary, so I can take it whenever I want (but strangely, I sometimes choose not to take one, which probably isn’t a good thing). Still, when I was hourly (for the same employer), I had a lot of leeway, and usually took lunch about 6 hours into my shift.

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      • I take mine as late as 7 hours into my shift occassionally for the same reason. I usually just let my stomach tell me when it’s time to go. Luckily my employer is flexible on this. I also occassionally skip my lunch and leave early or take the OT. I totally understand not wanting this to be a common practice though. It would create too much confusion in much of our operation.

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      • It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

        One of the guys I worked with at that place hated his job (he wasn’t a bad guy, but I think he was just wired to be gloomy and would have hated any job), so he always took lunch as early as possible because he couldn’t wait to take a break from the work. That meant, of course, that the second half of his day was usually about 5 1/2 hours long, which just further depressed him. I kept encouraging him to wait and take lunch with me, and he understood my point, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.

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      • On Fridays, my workday is a little bit different from normal, and I have to be on a reference desk in the afternoon, which means that I have to take my lunch break at a more “normal” time about 3 hours or 3 1/2 hours into my shift. Not the end of the world by any means, but just one of those things.

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