In the latest issue of the agricultural-economics journal “Duh!”

Climate change is a known long-term risk to crops like coffee, chocolate and wine grapes that require specific conditions to thrive.

Source: Coffee bean price spike just a taste of what’s to come with climate change | Coffee | The Guardian

News reports and social media have been full of posts alleging that enhanced unemployment benefits make it more remunerative to remain unemployed than to seek a job, and that because of this employers are having trouble filling positions. I want to make some suggestions as to how those positions could be made sufficiently attractive to employees. I will omit the obvious suggestion that employers could raise wages, because that’s the least interesting tactic.

I want to begin my analysis by suggesting that there are actually very few people who will choose to live on meager government benefits, even if slightly less meager than usual. (There are some, of course. I wrote about that in Find Work Worth Doing, back in my Wise Bread days.) Most people prefer the live at the highest standard of living they can manage. In fact, most people build an inflexible household cost structure that provides that standard of living, despite the obvious risk of financial catastrophe in the event of any glitch in income. But that too leads one to the obvious, and still not very interesting, suggestion that employers could attract employees by raising wages.

So, what are some other possibilities? How could employers make hard-to-fill positions more attractive?

Well, every job I ever worked offered a pension. That’s something that almost no private-sector jobs offer any more, so it could be a clear value-add. Related, every job I ever worked offered a retirement savings plan with a generous employer match. That’s something that’s only come back slowly since the end of the financial crisis, but it’s another possible value-add for employers seeking employees.

When talking about things like this in the past (usually about the difficulty of getting Americans to work the sorts of jobs filled by migrant labor), I always asked if the positions being offered to Americans offered health insurance (which of course they never did), and suggested doing so could be a way to make the jobs more attractive to Americans. Now that we have Obamacare that’s much less of an issue, but offering health insurance would still be a value-add.

There are many other ways a job and workplace can be made more attractive:

  • The physical space can be made clean, safe, and pleasant.
  • Managers can be courteous, kind, and respectful.
  • The position can offer paths toward better jobs (promotions, training, mentorship, money for education).
  • Allowances can be made for employee needs, such as time off to care for children or elders.

I actually wrote this post though, to talk about one specific way in which unemployment assistance and other government benefits are better than a job: They depend on the law, rather than on the whim of an employer.

The current state of employment law in the U.S. is such that having a job this morning is no assurance of having a job this afternoon. Your employer can change nearly anything about the job for nearly any reason—cut your pay rate, cut your hours, change your duties, require you to work in a hazardous environment, etc. (Of course you have the option to quit at any time, but see above about inflexible household cost structures.)

Only a small fraction of households can afford to live on unemployment insurance, even with the pandemic enhancements—but any household could rejigger their household cost structure to do so, if they cared to. But—and this is the point I’m trying to make here—an employer could easily adjust the conditions of employment that they offer so as to provide exactly the sort of certainty to an employee that government benefits do: They could offer an employee a contract.

In the U.S. almost no (non-union) employees have a contract. Instead they have a job, the terms and conditions of which are usually determined by an employer-written “employee handbook,” which has rules about procedures the employer promises to follow before firing or otherwise disciplining an employee. But they could sign contracts with their employees, committing to such things as minimum hours and term of employment.

They won’t, because they prefer to have maximum flexibility in adjusting their labor costs as circumstances change. But refusing to offer employees any sort of legally enforceable promise about the conditions of employment, makes saying “Nobody wants to work any more” mere spin.

Many people do want to work, and enormous numbers of people want to earn enough money to have a high standard of living. Employers are just playing to the crowd, hoping to maximize their flexibility, minimize their costs, and convince customers to blame “lazy workers” when the company fails at various aspects of providing good service.

Here’s a quote from a good post on the difference between “feeling broke” and “being broke,” that also touches on tactics for getting by when you’re pretty close to that latter category—topics I wrote a lot about for Wise Bread.

What made me want to comment is a bit right near the beginning where the writer talks about the discontinuity in housing prices: Down to a certain price point you can pay a little less and get a little less space and slightly downgraded amenities, but there’s a breakpoint where that quits being true:

That’s the drop-off you experience at the lower price levels – there’s nothing between “This is a tiny but acceptable apartment” and “Slum apartments in stab-ville”.

On The Experience of Being Poor-ish, For People Who Aren’t – Resident Contrarian

The point I want to make is that this is only true in general. If you had to find 100 apartments that were cheaper-than-basic but not in a slum, you’d probably be out of luck. But unless your job is to find apartments for poor people, that doesn’t really matter. For your own household you only need to find one apartment that’s cheap but not in a slum, and across your city there’s probably several of those. (Maybe a small apartment building that’s not part of a complex, maybe a three-plex or four-plex, maybe a duplex owned by a retiree who is looking for a very low-maintenance tenant, maybe a big old house that was cut up into apartments, etc.)

The author is clearly aware of this—he goes into some detail on applying similar thinking to furniture (where you only need to get a great price on a great dining room table once and it’ll last the rest of your life). Applying it to apartments is different for various reasons (mostly having to do with urgency and risk—you can’t just wait indefinitely, because being homeless is different from eating off a TV tray table while you look for a great deal on a dining room table), but it’s not completely different.

For the first decade after my former employer closed the site where I’d worked, Jackie and I did a lot of that—looking to satisfy each need we had with one instance where we could get something of very high quality at an especially good price. It’s a tactic that works great, but only in a narrow range of circumstances. It’s not so good for people working long hours at a difficult job, because they lack the time and energy to do the search. It’s also not so good for people who are really broke (not just broke-ish), because these sorts of deals often require that you have cash on hand to close the deal immediately.

Here’s one of my old Wise Bread articles applying this thinking more broadly: How to have an above-average life for below-average prices.

This from Forbes is actually a pretty good start. All media outlets should commit to such a policy:

“Trump’s liars don’t merit that same golden parachute. Let it be known to the business world: Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie… Want to ensure the world’s biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.”

Source: A Truth Reckoning: Why We’re Holding Those Who Lied For Trump Accountable

On one of my top-two issues when it comes to means-testing benefits, @interfluidity gets it just right:

“Requiring demonstration of inadequate means up-front, rather than on the back-end, creates at best a delay between when a shock is experienced and when it can be ameliorated. “Delay” can mean your kid skips meals, you start rationing your insulin, or your family is evicted from its home. It’s a big deal.”