May 7 JDN 2460072
Consider for a moment what it means when an economic news article reports “rising labor costs”. What are they actually saying?
They’re saying that wages are rising—perhaps in some industry, perhaps in the economy as a whole. But this is not a cost. It’s a price. As I’ve written about before, the two are fundamentally distinct.
The cost of labor is measured in effort, toil, and time. It’s the pain of having to work instead of whatever else you’d like to do with your time.
The price of labor is a monetary amount, which is delivered in a transaction.
This may seem perfectly obvious, but it has important and oft-neglected implications. A cost, one paid, is gone. That value has been destroyed. We hope that it was worth it for some benefit we gained. A price, when paid, is simply transferred: One person had that money before, now someone else has it. Nothing was gained or lost.
So in fact when reports say that “labor costs have risen”, what they are really saying is that income is being transferred from owners to workers without any change in real value taking place. They are framing as a loss what is fundamentally a zero-sum redistribution.
In fact, it is disturbingly common to see a fundamentally good redistribution of income framed in the press as a bad outcome because of its expression as “costs”; the “cost” of chocolate is feared to go up if we insist upon enforcing bans on forced labor—when in fact it is only the price that goes up, and the cost actually goes down: chocolate would no longer include complicity in an atrocity. The real suffering of making chocolate would be thereby reduced, not increased. Even when they aren’t literally enslaved, those workers are astonishingly poor, and giving them even a few more cents per hour would make a real difference in their lives. But God forbid we pay a few cents more for a candy bar!
If labor costs were to rise, that would mean that work had suddenly gotten harder, or more painful; or else, that some outside circumstance had made it more difficult to work. Having a child increases your labor costs—you now have the opportunity cost of not caring for the child. COVID increased the cost of labor, by making it suddenly dangerous just to go outside in public. That could also increase prices—you may demand a higher wage, and people do seem to have demanded higher wages after COVID. But these are two separate effects, and you can have one without the other. In fact, women typically see wage stagnation or even reduction after having kids (but men largely don’t), despite their real opportunity cost of labor having obviously greatly increased.
On an individual level, it’s not such a big mistake to equate price and cost. If you are buying something, its cost to you basically just is its price, plus a little bit of transaction cost for actually finding and buying it. But on a societal level, it makes an enormous difference. It distorts our policy priorities and can even lead to actively trying to suppress things that are beneficial—such as rising wages.
This false equivalence between price and costs seems to be at least as common among economists as it is among laypeople. Economists will often justify it on the grounds that in an ideal perfect competitive market the two would be in some sense equated. But of course we don’t live in that ideal perfect market, and even if we did, they would only beproportional at the margin, not fundamentally equal across the board. It would still be obviously wrong to characterize the total value or cost of work by the price paid for it; only the last unit of effort would be priced so that marginal value equals price equals marginal cost. The first 39 hours of your work would cost you less than what you were paid, and produce more than you were paid; only that 40th hour would set the three equal.
Once you account for all the various market distortions in the world, there’s no particular relationship between what something costs—in terms of real effort and suffering—and its price—in monetary terms. Things can be expensive and easy, or cheap and awful. In fact, they often seem to be; for some reason, there seems to be a pattern where the most terrible, miserable jobs (e.g. coal mining) actually pay the leastand the easiest, most pleasant jobs (e.g. stock trading) pay the most. Some jobs that benefit society pay well (e.g. doctors) and others pay terribly or not at all (e.g. climate activists). Some actions that harm the world get punished (e.g. armed robbery) and others get rewarded with riches (e.g. oil drilling). In the real world, whether a job is good or bad and whether it is paid well or poorly seem to be almost unrelated.
In fact, sometimes they seem even negatively related, where we often feel tempted to “sell out” and do something destructive in order to get higher pay. This is likely due to Berkson’s paradox: If people are willing to do jobs if they are either high-paying or beneficial to humanity, then we should expect that, on average, most of the high-paying jobs people do won’t be beneficial to humanity. Even if there were inherently no correlation or a small positive one, people’s refusal to do harmful low-paying work removes those jobs from our sample and results in a negative correlation in what remains.
I think that the best solution, ultimately, is to stop reckoning costs in money entirely. We should reckon them in happiness.
This is of course much more difficult than simply using prices; it’s not easy to say exactly how many QALY are sacrificed in the extraction of cocoa beans or the drilling of offshore oil wells. But if we actually did find a way to count them, I strongly suspect we’d find that it was far more than we ought to be willing to pay.
A very rough approximation, surely flawed but at least a start, would be to simply convert all payments into proportions of their recipient’s income: For full-time wages, this would result in basically everyone being counted the same, as 1 hour of work if you work 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year is precisely 0.05% of your annual income. So we could say that whatever is equivalent to your hourly wage constitutes 50 microQALY.
This automatically implies that every time a rich person pays a poor person, QALY increase, while every time a poor person pays a rich person, QALY decrease. This is not an error in the calculation. It is a fact of the universe. We ignore it only at out own peril. All wealth redistributed downward is a benefit, while all wealth redistributed upward is a harm. That benefit may cause some other harm, or that harm may be compensated by some other benefit; but they are still there.
This would also put some things in perspective. When HSBC was fined £70 million for its crimes, that can be compared against its £1.5 billion in net income; if it were an individual, it would have been hurt about 50 milliQALY, which is about what I would feel if I lost $2000. Of course, it’s not a person, and it’s not clear exactly how this loss was passed through to employees or shareholders; but that should give us at least some sense of how small that loss was for them. They probably felt it… a little.
When Trump was ordered to pay a $1.3 million settlement, based on his $2.5 billion net wealth (corresponding to roughly $125 million in annual investment income), that cost him about 10 milliQALY; for me that would be about $500.
At the other extreme, if someone goes from making $1 per day to making $1.50 per day, that’s a 50% increase in their income—500 milliQALY per year.
For those who have no income at all, this becomes even trickier; for them I think we should probably use their annual consumption, since everyone needs to eat and that costs something, though likely not very much. Or we could try to measure their happiness directly, trying to determine how much it hurts to not eat enough and work all day in sweltering heat.
Properly shifting this whole cultural norm will take a long time. For now, I leave you with this: Any time you see a monetary figure, ask yourself: “How much is that worth to them?” The world will seem quite different once you get in the habit of that.