Working from home is the new normal—sort of

Aug 28 JDN 2459820

Among people with jobs that can be done remotely, a large majority did in fact switch to doing their jobs remotely: By the end of 2020, over 70% of Americans with jobs that could be done remotely were working from home—and most of them said they didn’t want to go back.

This is actually what a lot of employers expected to happen—just not quite like this. In 2014, a third of employers predicted that the majority of their workforce would be working remotely by 2020; given the timeframe there, it required a major shock to make that happen so fast, and yet a major shock was what we had.

Working from home has carried its own challenges, but overall productivity seems to be higher working remotely (that meeting really could have been an email!). This may actually explain why output per work hour actually rose rapidly in 2020 and fell in 2022.

The COVID pandemic now isn’t so much over as becoming permanent; COVID is now being treated as an endemic infection like influenza that we don’t expect to be able to eradicate in the foreseeable future.

And likewise, remote work seems to be here to stay—sort of.

First of all, we don’t seem to be giving up office work entirely. As of the first quarter 2022, almost as many firms have partially remote work as have fully remote work, and this seems to be trending upward. A lot of firms seem to be transitioning into a “hybrid” model where employees show up to work two or three days a week. This seems to be preferred by large majorities of both workers and firms.

There is a significant downside of this: It means that the hope that remote working might finally ease the upward pressure on housing prices in major cities is largely a false one. If we were transitioning to a fully remote system, then people could live wherever they want (or can afford) and there would be no reason to move to overpriced city centers. But if you have to show up to work even one day a week, that means you need to live close enough to the office to manage that commute.

Likewise, if workers never came to the office, you could sell the office building and convert it into more housing. But if they show up even once in awhile, you need a physical place for them to go. Some firms may shrink their office space (indeed, many have—and unlike this New York Times journalist, I have a really hard time feeling bad for landlords of office buildings); but they aren’t giving it up entirely. It’s possible that firms could start trading off—you get the building on Mondays, we get it on Tuesdays—but so far this seems to be rare, and it does raise a lot of legitimate logistical and security concerns. So our global problem of office buildings that are empty, wasted space most of the time is going to get worse, not better. Manhattan will still empty out every night; it just won’t fill up as much during the day. This is honestly a major drain on our entire civilization—building and maintaining all those structures that are only used at most 1/3 of 5/7 of the time, and soon, less—and we really should stop ignoring it. No wonder our real estate is so expensive, when half of it is only used 20% of the time!

Moreover, not everyone gets to work remotely. Your job must be something that can be done remotely—something that involves dealing with information, not physical objects. That includes a wide and ever-growing range of jobs, from artists and authors to engineers and software developers—but it doesn’t include everyone. It basically means what we call “white-collar” work.

Indeed, it is largely limited to the upper-middle class. The rich never really worked anyway, though sometimes they pretend to, convincing themselves that managing a stock portfolio (that would actually grow faster if they let it sit) constitutes “work”. And the working class? By and large, they didn’t get the chance to work remotely. While 73% of workers with salaries above $200,000 worked remotely in 2020, only 12% of workers with salaries under $25,000 did, and there is a smooth trend where, across the board, the more money you make, the more likely you have been able to work remotely.

This will only intensify the divide between white-collar and blue-collar workers. They already think we don’t do “real work”; now we don’t even go to work. And while blue-collar workers are constantly complaining about contempt from white-collar elites, I think the shoe is really on the other foot. I have met very few white-collar workers who express contempt for blue-collar workers—and I have met very few blue-collar workers who don’t express anger and resentment toward white-collar workers. I keep hearing blue-collar people say that we think that they are worthless and incompetent, when they are literally the only ones ever saying that. I can’t stop saying things that I never said.

The rich and powerful may look down on them, but they look down on everyone. (Maybe they look down on blue-collar workers more? I’m not even sure about that.) I think politicians sometimes express contempt for blue-collar workers, but I don’t think this reflects what most white-collar workers feel.

And the highly-educated may express some vague sense of pity or disappointment in people who didn’t get college degrees, and sometimes even anger (especially when they do things like vote for Donald Trump), but the really vitriolic hatred is clearly in the opposite direction (indeed, I have no better explanation for how otherwise-sane people could vote for Donald Trump). And I certainly wouldn’t say that everyone needs a college degree (though I became tempted to, when so many people without college degrees voted for Donald Trump).

This really isn’t us treating them with contempt: This is them having a really severe inferiority complex. And as information technology (that white-collar work created) gives us—but not them—the privilege of staying home, that is only going to get worse.

It’s not their fault: Our culture of meritocracy puts a little bit of inferiority complex in all of us. It tells us that success and failure are our own doing, and so billionaires deserve to have everything and the poor deserve to have nothing. And blue-collar workers have absolutely internalized these attitudes: Most of them believe that poor people choose to stay on welfare forever rather than get jobs (when welfare has time limits and work requirements, so this is simply not an option—and you would know this from the Wikipedia page on TANF).

I think that what they experience as “contempt by white-collar elites” is really the pain of living in an illusory meritocracy. They were told—and they came to believe—that working hard would bring success, and they have worked very hard, and watched other people be much more successful. They assume that the rich and powerful are white-collar workers, when really they are non-workers; they are people the world was handed to on a silver platter. (What, you think George W. Bush earned his admission to Yale?)

And thus, we can shout until we are blue in the face that plumbers, bricklayers and welders are the backbone of civilization—and they are, and I absolutely mean that; our civilization would, in an almost literal sense, collapse without them—but it won’t make any difference. They’ll still feel the pain of living in a society that gave them very little and tells them that people get what they deserve.

I don’t know what to say to such people, though. When your political attitudes are based on beliefs that are objectively false, that you could know are objectively false if you simply bothered to look them up… what exactly am I supposed to say to you? How can we have a useful political conversation when half the country doesn’t even believe in fact-checking?

Honestly I wish someone had explained to them that even the most ideal meritocratic capitalism wouldn’t reward hard work. Work is a cost, not a benefit, and the whole point of technological advancement is to allow us to accomplish more with less work. The ideal capitalism would reward talent—you would succeed by accomplishing things, regardless of how much effort you put into them. People would be rich mainly because they are brilliant, not because they are hard-working. The closest thing we have to ideal capitalism right now is probably professional sports. And no amount of effort could ever possibly make me into Steph Curry.

If that isn’t the world we want to live in, so be it; let’s do something else. I did nothing to earn either my high IQ or my chronic migraines, so it really does feel unfair that the former increases my income while the latter decreases it. But the labor theory of value has always been wrong; taking more sweat or more hours to do the same thing is worse, not better. The dignity of labor consists in its accomplishment, not its effort. Sisyphus is not happy, because his work is pointless.

Honestly at this point I think our best bet is just to replace all blue-collar work with automation, thus rendering it all moot. And then maybe we can all work remotely, just pushing code patches to the robots that do everything. (And no doubt this will prove my “contempt”: I want to replace you! No, I want to replace the grueling work that you have been forced to do to make a living. I want you—the human being—to be able to do something more fun with your life, even if that’s just watching television and hanging out with friends.)

The high cost of frictional unemployment

Sep 3, JDN 2457635

I had wanted to open this post with an estimate of the number of people in the world, or at least in the US, who are currently between jobs. It turns out that such estimates are essentially nonexistent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains a detailed database of US unemployment; they don’t estimate this number. We have this concept in macroeconomics of frictional unemployment, the unemployment that results from people switching jobs; but nobody seems to have any idea how common it is.

I often hear a ballpark figure of about 4-5%, which is related to a notion that “full employment” should really be about 4-5% unemployment because otherwise we’ll trigger horrible inflation or something. There is almost no evidence for this. In fact, the US unemployment rate has gotten as low as 2.5%, and before that was stable around 3%. This was during the 1950s, the era of the highest income tax rates ever imposed in the United States, a top marginal rate of 92%. Coincidence? Maybe. Obviously there were a lot of other things going on at the time. But it sure does hurt the argument that high income taxes “kill jobs”, don’t you think?

Indeed, it may well be that the rate of frictional unemployment varies all the time, depending on all sorts of different factors. But here’s what we do know: Frictional unemployment is a serious problem, and yet most macroeconomists basically ignore it.

Talk to most macroeconomists about “unemployment”, and they will assume you mean either cyclical unemployment (the unemployment that results from recessions and bad fiscal and monetary policy responses to them), or structural unemployment (the unemployment that results from systematic mismatches between worker skills and business needs). If you specifically mention frictional unemployment, the response is usually that it’s no big deal and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.

Yet at least when we aren’t in a recession, frictional employment very likely accounts for the majority of unemployment, and thus probably the majority of misery created by unemployment. (Not necessarily, since it probably doesn’t account for much long-term unemployment, which is by far the worst.) And it is quite clear to me that there are things we can do about it—they just might be difficult and/or expensive.

Most of you have probably changed jobs at least once. Many of you have, like me, moved far away to a new place for school or work. Think about how difficult that was. There is the monetary cost, first of all; you need to pay for the travel of course, and then usually leases and paychecks don’t line up properly for a month or two (for some baffling and aggravating reason, UCI won’t actually pay me my paychecks until November, despite demanding rent starting the last week of July!). But even beyond that, you are torn from your social network and forced to build a new one. You have to adapt to living in a new place which may have differences in culture and climate. Bureaucracy often makes it difficult to change over documentation of such as your ID and your driver’s license.

And that’s assuming that you already found a job before you moved, which isn’t always an option. Many people move to new places and start searching for jobs when they arrive, which adds an extra layer of risk and difficulty above and beyond the transition itself.

With all this in mind, the wonder is that anyone is willing to move at all! And this is probably a large part of why people are so averse to losing their jobs even when it is clearly necessary; the frictional unemployment carries enormous real costs. (That and loss aversion, of course.)

What could we do, as a matter of policy, to make such transitions easier?

Well, one thing we could do is expand unemployment insurance, which reduces the cost of losing your job (which, despite the best efforts of Republicans in Congress, we ultimately did do in the Second Depression). We could expand unemployment insurance to cover voluntary quits. Right now, quitting voluntarily makes you forgo all unemployment benefits, which employers pay for in the form of insurance premiums; so an employer is much better off making your life miserable until you quit than they are laying you off. They could also fire you for cause, if they can find a cause (and usually there’s something they could trump up enough to get rid of you, especially if you’re not prepared for the protracted legal battle of a wrongful termination lawsuit). The reasoning of our current system appears to be something like this: Only lazy people ever quit jobs, and why should we protect lazy people? This is utter nonsense and it needs to go. Many states already have no-fault divorce and no-fault auto collision insurance; it’s time for no-fault employment termination.

We could establish a basic income of course; then when you lose your job your income would go down, but to a higher floor where you know you can meet certain basic needs. We could provide subsidized personal loans, similar to the current student loan system, that allow people to bear income gaps without losing their homes or paying exorbitant interest rates on credit cards.

We could use active labor market programs to match people with jobs, or train them with the skills needed for emerging job markets. Denmark has extensive active labor market programs (they call it “flexicurity”), and Denmark’s unemployment rate was 2.4% before the Great Recession, hit a peak of 6.2%, and has now recovered to 4.2%. What Denmark calls a bad year, the US calls a good year—and Greece fantasizes about as something they hope one day to achieve. #ScandinaviaIsBetter once again, and Norway fits this pattern also, though to be fair Sweden’s unemployment rate is basically comparable to the US or even slightly worse (though it’s still nothing like Greece).

Maybe it’s actually all right that we don’t have estimates of the frictional unemployment rate, because the goal really isn’t to reduce the number of people who are unemployed; it’s to reduce the harm caused by unemployment. Most of these interventions would very likely increase the rate frictional unemployment, as people who always wanted to try to find better jobs but could never afford to would now be able to—but they would dramatically reduce the harm caused by that unemployment.

This is a more general principle, actually; it’s why we should basically stop taking seriously this argument that social welfare benefits destroy work incentives. That may well be true; so what? Maximizing work incentives was never supposed to be a goal of public policy, as far as I can tell. Maximizing human welfare is the goal, and the only way a welfare program could reduce work incentives is by making life better for people who aren’t currently working, and thereby reducing the utility gap between working and not working. If your claim is that the social welfare program (and its associated funding mechanism, i.e. taxes, debt, or inflation) would make life sufficiently worse for everyone else that it’s not worth it, then say that (and for some programs that might actually be true). But in and of itself, making life better for people who don’t work is a benefit to society. Your supposed downside is in fact an upside. If there’s a downside, it must be found elsewhere.

Indeed, I think it’s worth pointing out that slavery maximizes work incentives. If you beat or kill people who don’t work, sure enough, everyone works! But that is not even an efficient economy, much less a just society. To be clear, I don’t think most people who say they want to maximize work incentives would actually support slavery, but that is the logical extent of the assertion. (Also, many Libertarians, often the first to make such arguments, do have a really bizarre attitude toward slavery; taxation is slavery, regulation is slavery, conscription is slavery—the last not quite as ridiculous—but actual forced labor… well, that really isn’t so bad, especially if the contract is “voluntary”. Fortunately some Libertarians are not so foolish.) If your primary goal is to make people work as much as possible, slavery would be a highly effective way to achieve that goal. And that really is the direction you’re heading when you say we shouldn’t do anything to help starving children lest their mothers have insufficient incentive to work.

More people not working could have a downside, if it resulted in less overall production of goods. But even in the US, one of the most efficient labor markets in the world, the system of job matching is still so ludicrously inefficient that people have to send out dozens if not hundreds of applications to jobs they barely even want, and there are still 1.4 times as many job seekers as there are openings (at the trough of the Great Recession, the ratio was 6.6 to 1). There’s clearly a lot of space here to improve the matching efficiency, and simply giving people more time to search could make a big difference there. Total output might decrease for a little while during the first set of transitions, but afterward people would be doing jobs they want, jobs they care about, jobs they’re good at—and people are vastly more productive under those circumstances. It’s quite likely that total employment would decrease, but productivity would increase so much that total output increased.

Above all, people would be happier, and that should have been our goal all along.