David R. Henderson  

Daniel Hamermesh: Let's Make it Harder for Low-Skilled People

Is "spontaneous order" such a ... Ron McKinnon, RIP...

The person who wants to get you fired is not your friend.

Daniel S. Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli recently presented data showing that Americans work longer hours, and more night and weekend hours, than Europeans. I'm not familiar with Professor Stancanellia's other work, but Professor Hamermesh is a well-known American labor economist. So he understands, as does his co-author, that, just as in other markets, these results reflect the interaction of supply and demand. Here's part of one of their paragraphs, a part that shows that understanding:

Weekend and night work is not attractive to most workers. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it generates, on average, higher pay per hour than work at 'normal' times--wage differentials that compensate for the undesirability of working at unattractive hours (Kostiuk 1990). Also unsurprisingly, it attracts workers with the least human capital. In the US and Germany, young workers, those with less education, and immigrants are more likely than other employees to work at these times. In the US, minorities are also more likely to perform weekend and night work (Hamermesh 1996).

Notice their correct use of the verb "attracts." The hours themselves are often unattractive. But the higher pay compensates for this and attracts "workers with the least human capital."

But now consider the very next sentence of their paragraph:

The burden of working at unpleasant times falls disproportionately on those who have the least earning power.

Did you see their sleight of hand? After pointing out that these workers want to be in those jobs, given their low human capital, Hamermesh and Stancanelli call working at unpleasant times a "burden." But it's not a burden. It's an opportunity, as they themselves recognize.

The authors then raise a question and provide two possible answers:

Why are Americans so much more likely to work at strange times than Europeans? The results here show that it is not because Americans work more than Europeans.

. One cause might be the greater inequality of earnings in the US that induces low-skilled workers -- earning relatively less than low-skilled Europeans -- to desire more work at times that pays a wage premium.
. Another possibility is cultural, so that Americans just enjoy working at these times more than their European counterparts. But citing cultural differences is an easy way to avoid thinking or doing anything about an issue.

Notice what both explanations have in common: the supply side, that is, the desire of workers to work "at strange times."

But Hamermesh and Stancanelli don't want people who are disproportionately low-skilled to be able to act on their desires. They end with the following:

If we really want to reduce the amount of work that occurs at times that are viewed as unpleasant, the solution may be to revert to the shop-closing laws (Blue Laws) that prevailed in the US years ago. No free-marketer would like this, but it may well be worth reviving these laws in order to get the US out of what might be a low-level, rat-race equilibrium.

In other words, pass laws so that these people will be forced to give up their best of what many of us would regard as lousy options.

Their solution, for people who are suffering: Suffer more.

I've posted about Hamermesh's advocacy of more labor market regulation here.

HT to Mark Thoma

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Max M writes:

When all of someone's options are undesirable from the eyes of an outsider, prevent them from being able to take advantage of market exchange.

Sounds like another case of a non-euvoluntary exchange, as Mike Munger calls these.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Directive 2003/88/EC of the European Parliament on working time has several requirements for "night work" in Chapter 3, including:

Length of night work, Health assessment and transfer of night workers to day work, Guarantees for night-time working, Notification of regular use of night workers, Safety and health protection

Thomas writes:

Hamermesh seems to be a "life arranger," like Ezekiel Emanuel, about whom you posted a few days ago (http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2014/09/zeke_emmanuel_o.html). Hamermesh's zeal to make the world right -- as he sees the right -- is evident in his campaign to regulate against "lookism" (the subject of your earlier post about him). A good share of his published output is devoted to the subject (http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/economics/faculty/hamermes#research-books).

Daniel Kuehn writes:

That was a tremendously misleading title (and since I've got respect for Hammermesh as an economist [and Stancanelli, although I'm somewhat less familiar with her work], I suppose that's a good thing). I don't think we want to get into this game of conflating disagreement on consequences with intent.

This might not be the right solution - I'm inclined to think it isn't too and probably list many of the same problems you would with it. But I think something you're missing is that the structure of work would change too under these occupations. More work would be done during the day and demand for day labor would increase. You would not be trading off the burden of working at night (just because they willingly choose the option doesn't mean it's not burdensome - we willingly do lots of burdensome things) and the compensating differential associated with that burden. Removing that potential trade-off is going to be welfare-reducing, but you're also adding demand for a lot of that night-time work during the day time, and you're probably redistributing some of that burden from low wage workers to consumers.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Kuehn,
I don't think we want to get into this game of conflating disagreement on consequences with intent.
I agree. But because the authors are so clear on why these people work long hours, they would presumably understand that their solution would make them worse off.
It is true, as you say later in your comment, that consumers would be worse off too. I don’t think I’m missing that the structure of work would change; it would. That would mean that the loss would be less than otherwise. But it would still be a loss.

Pajser writes:

Daniel Kuehn answered the half. There is another half. Now, if nightly work is replaced with daily work, and demand stayed the same, people working in regular time will earn slightly more than before. Because people who worked at night now work in regular time and they do not have higher wage any more. It opens the possibility for increased income tax and explicit redistribution according too needs. Such distribution is probably better (utilitarian) than self-selection through willingness for night work - because some people chose to work during night not because they have greater needs, but because they are more greedy. (I'll give you distorted incentives and costs of redistribution.) All that holds only for night work which is replaceable with work in regular time with loss for consumers which is small enough. Tobacco shops. Not police.

Jay writes:


I don't believe anyone said it is without burden, but those workers who work at night are being compensated more than the work is a burden so they make the choice.

Maybe you can clarify the rest of your post because I can't understand how laws such as he proposes are anything but welfare reducing for EVERYONE not just the workers. All work done during the day increases traffic congestion for everyone and some of the work is done at night for a reason, i.e. janitorial work or other disruptive activities. Some people who need the money work part-time at night as a second occupation, will they be getting compensated for their loss in income? I doubt it.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Jay -

David said "But it's not a burden."

I agree with your point about compensation which is why I disagree with this quoted statement.

wintercow20 writes:

I look forward to the Blue laws being passed across the board - my wife's job as a night nurse in a cardiac ICU would surely be more enjoyable were she forced only to do it during daylight hours.

So, there begin the exceptions to the blue laws ... and we'd follow that first exception with more ...

Jay writes:


I think you're splitting hairs here, I took David's statement to mean "net burden". I work during the day and do not call it a burden even though there are disadvantages/burdens to working during the day. See what I did?

Jeff writes:

There are seemingly no limits to the tyranny of inequality anymore. Seeing teens and college students work a 2-10 pm shift waiting tables...heartbreaking, really. America really has lost its way when there are 16 year old kids out there who routinely miss both Sunday and Monday Night Football because they're stuck working low wage service jobs.

LD Bottorff writes:

Professor Henderson, I admire your willingness to assume the best in people. However, I think you are mistaken when you imply that labor economists understand that labor markets reflect supply and demand as do other markets. It seems to me that labor economists really do think that labor markets are different and need significantly more effort to correct. Furthermore, I don't think he would be insulted by the idea that he thinks labor markets are special.
But I agree wholeheartedly with your main point.

RPLong writes:

When I was just starting out, I relished the opportunity to work nights and weekends, because it meant that I got to earn a big, fat overtime check. Many of my other colleagues would much rather spend that time in area bars and dance clubs, so I could often make use of the opportunities they declined. Anyone who has ever worked as an hourly employee knows the value of "picking up a few extra shifts" to make a little extra money. You can buy nice guitars, or go on vacations, or save up for wedding rings that way.

I never considered that this might be a form of discrimination and that I was the victim of something. I just thought this was how things work; we make our own personal decisions based on our preferences at the margin.

Should I have been upset instead of thankful?

Daublin writes:

@Pasjer, the night workers who lose their preferred jobs aren't going to just switch to the day-time equivalent of the same job. Those slots are already taken. Instead, they'll tend to switch to an even worse job--but it's during they day, so yay? Because it looks better?

Of course, some of them will just go unemployed. That's largely what is happening in the U.S. with the under-25 crowd. Instead of taking a low-end job and getting a little experience, they are more likely to find another way to get by.

Hazel Meade writes:

I don't see how night work can simply be "replaced" with day work.

I see several main categories of night work that ought to exist:
- Security guards
- 24-hour store clerks - these provide a real service to consumers and I don't see how cutting business hours is going to increase employment.
- Night staff at hospitals - emergencies happen 24 hours a day
- Factories running at capacity - in order to shift to day work employers would have to invest heavily in capital equipment. Starting and stopping assembly lines also costs money - it is more efficient to keep factories running 24 hours in shifts.

I can't really think of ANY night work there is no good reason for really. Can anyone else think of an example of a night job that wouldn't matter to society if it was banned?

Silas Barta writes:
Did you see their sleight of hand? After pointing out that these workers want to be in those jobs, given their low human capital, Hamermesh and Stancanelli call working at unpleasant times a "burden."

This is actually a very common conflation: to ignore that someone who does something has already accounted for the costs and benefits. It comes up any time you see proposals to discourage some activity for people's own benefit.

For example "A gas tax would get people to drive less, reducing automobile injuries". But people who drive already factor in the risk of death, and find the benefit positive on net, so that will make them worse off! Saving bystanders should be treated differently from someone who knowingly took the risk.

A more common one (by far, and far more dangerous) is in expansionary monetary policy. I always heard about how the policy will get people to stop hoarding and spend more. But they were hoarding for a reason! Prodding them to dishoard can only come about by moving them lower on their preference ranking. (Ignoring synergistic effects that are rarely made explicit.)

ThomasH writes:

His proposals fail to identify the market failure or externality that the notional regulation seeks to rectify. Therefore, it appears to fail the standard liberal cost benefit test for regulation, much less any worries about government failure in its application.

Jay writes:

@Hazel Meade

Agreed, these jobs are at night for a reason and not just cause the company likes to pay people a higher wage. Add to the list a lot of high-energy metal plants who operate at full capacity at night cause the power company would have trouble handling the load at peak times.

I think academics such as Hamermesh and Stancanelli operate under unconscionable pressure to publish papers, causing them to put in long hours in their offices and at home. These hours deprive them, their wives, and children of their witty and enjoyable attention. They are likely also unaware of the damage being done to their own long term happiness by their short term pursuit of greater academic fame and their mistake of thinking that more money will make up for this addictive, self-serving behavior.

Therefore, to improve life for everyone, a new law will limit their office hours to 8.5 per day, with a mandatory 1 hour lunch and an additional 30 minutes of breaks, to be followed and recorded under strict penalty. Further, no work will be allowed at home, so to protect the well being of their families and their own psychological stability.

They may say that they are smart enough to make their own arrangements, but psychology and common sense demand that they not be allowed to injure themselves through excess ambition and pride.

Further, by their working less, other less fortunate academics will be able to work more. Some levelling of the work burden will increase earnings overall, providing for more taxes and a greater diversity of academics. Why should Hamermesh and Stancanelli hog all of the opportunity. Leave a little for the less fortunate.

This will have to suffice until there is a union to protect them.

Tracy W writes:

Daniel Kuehn:

and you're probably redistributing some of that burden from low wage workers to consumers.

And some of those consumers will be low-wage workers, and some will be unemployed, and some will be on disability. And those are the consumers who have the tightest budgets and will be hurt the most by your redistribution.
In other words, you're proposing a double-whammy policy that will hurt both low-wage workers and the poorest in society.


Now, if nightly work is replaced with daily work, and demand stayed the same, people working in regular time will earn slightly more than before.

However, we would expect demand to fall, as people would have lower incomes, because of the replacement of more-convenient nightly work with less-convenient daily work.

For example, say that maintenance work on infrastructure like roads or subways or buses could not be done at night. Therefore this would have to be done during the day, with more disruption to commuters, preventing them from doing their jobs as well, thus lowering incomes.

Or, lets say, you stop certain shops from opening at night. Thus people who are working during the day have to take time off work to do their shopping, lowering incomes again. Or, they do their shopping in more bulk, thus cutting down on the amount of fresh fruit and milk they eat.

Or, say a vaccine-making factory used to run 24-7, making great use of fixed capital, and now it only runs 7am-7pm. To produce the same amount of vaccines, the factory would have to be expanded, taking up more land and equipment, meaning less aailable for other things. Overall, less would be produced, lowering income.

David R. Henderson writes:

Going by her name, I’m going to guess that Elena does not have a wife. But other than that, your comment is dead-on.

Hazel Meade writes:

It's really a totally idiotic article.

One might as well complain that garbage disposal is a dirty unsanitary job. That it's unfair that disadvantaged minorities disproportionately take it due to it's undesirability. And that therefore we should ban garbage services and make everyone personally drive their own garbage to the dump-for the sake of equality.

Massimo writes:

Good catch. Hammermesh's point is really terrible. The Daily Show skewered Hammermesh on his book, Beauty Pays. It was actually quite funny. IIRC, Hammermesh was featured on Waiting for Superman as championing test score driven K-12 policy that was the basis for NCLB. He is a fountain of really terrible ideas.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks for the reference. I had no idea about his appearance on Waiting for Superman. It has been on my to-watch for 2 years now.

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