All through the 1990s I was waiting for the labor market to punish employers for their (then new) strategy of laying people off as soon as there was 15 minutes with no work to do, intending to hire them back (or hire somebody else) as soon as they had work again.
Capital markets forced employers to go that route. Any company that tried to resist—keeping on employees beyond the bare minimum—would see its stock price fall so much that it would be taken over in a leveraged buyout, and then the new owner would cut staff to the bone.
As I wrote for Wise Bread back in the day (in What’s an employee to do), it made me sad to watch. Surely, I thought, eventually the labor market would tighten up, and employers who had kept their employees on through a rough patch would have an advantage over employers who had to go out and recruit, hire, and train new employees.
Employers traumatized by not being able to hire enough people may not be quite so quick to lay them off:
“When the job market slows, employers will have recent, firsthand memories of how expensive it can be to recruit, and train, workers. Many employers may enter the slowdown still severely understaffed, particularly in industries like leisure and hospitality that have struggled to hire and retain workers since the start of the pandemic. Those factors may make them less likely to institute layoffs.”
I’m generally unimpressed with Krysten Sinema, whose failure to support Democratic initiatives has generally been harmful. However, I kinda like the tax changes she’s forced into the climate package.
Fundamentally, I like dividends and I hate stock buybacks. So a tax on stock buybacks—even a small one—makes things better.
Now, most economists would have you believe that the two are equivalent. This is false.
Economists can gin up a model that suggests that owning a slightly larger share of a slightly smaller company is “equivalent” to getting paid a share of the company’s profits. Or that getting cashed out completely (by taking the buyback), and then finding a place to invest almost all of that cash in some new company is somehow equivalent. I don’t think either of those things is true even in an economic sense, but I think both are clearly false in a larger societal sense.
The way things used to work was that a company earned a profit, reinvested an appropriate amount of that profit in growing the business, and then paid out the balance to shareholders to do with as they pleased. (They could reinvest the money by buying more stock, they could spend it on luxuries—or necessities, they could invest it in some other company, they could donate it to charity—the possibilities are literally endless.)
This situation produces a sort of virtuous circle. A company that earns a reliable profit—and shares it with its stockholders—becomes more valuable, because people will pay more for a company that pays a reliable dividend. It’s good for the owners (their stock is worth more), it’s good for the employees (both line workers and managers), it’s good for the community (a profitable company pays taxes, their employees have money to spend, their shareholders have money to spend, etc.).
The non-dividend situation lacks all these dynamics. Instead of wanting to produce a profit, the company has all sorts of weird incentives—to maximize “growth” or “revenue” or “earnings” according to whatever weird metric appeals to Wall Street that week. Owners don’t get cash that they can spend. Instead they get the option to cash out at random intervals. The weird incentive structure encourages companies to make weird decisions regarding investing in growth (or dumping cash into buybacks). Shareholders who would otherwise be living on dividends are constantly having to make difficult decisions about selling small amounts of shares in this or that company for money to live on.
Maybe there’s some technical economic sense in which buybacks and dividends are equivalent, but they are very much not equivalent in a societal sense, producing very different results for ordinary investors and their communities.
The only reason any ordinary person would think a stock buyback was even close to equivalent is because capital gains have been tax-advantaged over dividends. So, something that reduces that tax advantage is all to the good.
A long tedious pdf from those Davos guys. Only of interest because the topic is near to my heart. I may yet manage to plow through the whole thing, looking for the good bits. Via @bruces.
“The report also sets out how public and private urban leaders can utilise nature to both reduce the impact of their cities on biodiversity, increase their climate resilience, and secure significant economic benefits.”
Some decades back I read a pretty good book that advocated for a “guaranteed job” for anyone who wanted one as a better solution to poverty than a “citizen wage” (or any sort of welfare assistance). I don’t remember all the details in the book, but the advantages primarily had to do with preserving the existing social structures around employment.
One question I always struggled with had to do with the strength of the guarantee. Suppose a few percent of the people with such jobs have (as I do) seasonal depression such that they cannot be productive during the winter months. Would the job guarantee permit them to simply show up and get paid, even though they can’t get any work done until spring?
This particular for-instance matters to me, as one who suffers from SAD, but it’s a broader problem—lots of people have some sort of condition, medical or otherwise, that makes them unproductive for long stretches of time. Do they get to keep their guaranteed job? How can you tell them from malingerers? Does it matter? How do you deal with workplace tensions when many perceive their coworkers as not doing their fair share of the work?
These sorts of issues are why I’ve always come down on the side of a universal basic income as a better way to reduce both poverty and the abuses that come along with having a few rich people and a vast class of precarious workers. But I’m willing to give alternatives serious consideration, as long as they work for people like me.
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.