Overtime

Like most economists, I was a bit baffled by the Administration’s announcement of stricter overtime rules. The WSJ, and Jonathan Hartley and many others cover the obvious consequences on jobs, business formation and destruction, and so forth. A bit less mentioned, it reduces employee flexibility. If you like working more hours one week and less the next — perhaps you have child or parent care responsibilities — you’re going to be stuck working an 8 hour day.  It’s part of the general regulated ossification of American employment. Or, it could be one more inducement to substitute machines for people or make people independent contractors.

Why are they doing it? The government says it wants more jobs, yet there is no area in American life with larger impediments between a willing employer and employee than labor.

I’m trying to bend over backwards to understand a worldview under which this is a sensible idea.

One possibility. Suppose this is your image of work: Take as given that a person has a job, and the employer will keep that job going, and won’t change the terms of the job — lower the base wage, allow people to take overtime, etc. Take as given that the terms of the job are a pure bilateral negotiation, and there is money somewhere to absorb extra costs without raising prices.  Take as given also that the worker is in a bad negotiating position, and you, the benevolent central department of labor, care about moving this negotiation in the worker’s way. Then, a rule like this is a way of strengthening the worker’s bargaining position and driving some resources the worker’s way out of the employer’s pocket.

The counterargument is really just that all this “take as given” is false.

Here is an effort to put that debate in econ 101 supply and demand diagrams. Let’s think of the rule as a mandated higher wage, like a minimum wage. The classic analysis says you get fewer jobs.

Now, how might you not lose jobs? The implicit assumption in my paragraph above is that the labor demand curve is vertical. Employers will hire the same number of people for the same hours no matter how much they have to pay. And they’ll all stay in business too.

If that were the case, as you see, we wouldn’t lose any jobs. There would be some unemployment, as more people want to work or employees want more hours than they can get. But I think advocates of these policies don’t mind. Getting people to go out and look for jobs might not be so terrible.

Another way to apply econ 101 is to think of the new rules as new costs imposed on the employer. If employers have to bear more costs, their demand for workers drops down by the amount of the extra costs. Again, adding costs reduces employment. Once again, what are they thinking?

Well, again, suppose that the demand curve is vertical. Now employers simply bear the cost, grumble, but there is no reduction in the number of employees and hours.

Of course, with the assumptions made bare, we can think of lots of reasons that demand curves do slope, employers cut down on workers if they have to pay more direct or indirect costs, and companies don’t have infinite funds coming from nowhere. But perhaps by showing implicit assumptions, there is some room for discussion that gets somewhere. I would be interested in hearing serious defenses of the vertical demand curve assumption.

Update: Good grief, Noah,  of course “to understand the true impact of overtime rules, we probably have to include more complicated stuff!” Who ever said otherwise? Isn’t “econ 101” clear enough that this is a an extremely simple starting place? And aren’t you the guy complaining about excess mathiness,  big black boxes in economics, and people who don’t even try to understand the opposing arguments?

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