Thursday, June 8, 2017

Labour Abundance is Impacting Middle Class Dynamics

Even though the reality of labour abundance has been noted in recent years, this problem has yet to be productively addressed. For the most part, full time employees are doing well, with sufficient salaries for both basic needs and discretionary consumption. However, employees working on contract - especially in firms that are subsidiary to core activity - sometimes lack the salaries to purchase basic needs on today's non tradable sector terms.

The growing use of contract labour in the 21st century, with its associated lack of benefits or job certainty, is one of the more prominent examples of labour abundance. While one can point to earlier examples of labour abundance, some societal developments (at least in the U.S.) are becoming more obvious as unemployment related, in retrospect. Until recently, unemployment was closely associated with one's personal shortcomings - whether perceived or real. Indeed, the correlation of many societal burdens with a declining labour force participation rate, is one of the few economic associations that is obvious.

And the U.S. in particular, benefited from relatively low unemployment statistics for decades, in part due to the ramped up use of imprisonment. Another institutional response has been disability assistance, which individuals with health issues sometimes turn to, after a protracted struggle to maintain steady employment. More recently, zoning restrictions and the costs of scarce productive agglomeration, have contributed to both reduced internal migration and long term unemployment. Excessive labour abundance can also be traced to homelessness, drug overdose deaths, and the black markets which include slave and sex trafficking. Often, the latter is perpetuated through dubious enticements, for what the victims believe to be legitimate jobs.

In "The Wealth of Humans", Ryan Avent stressed the fact that labour abundance would continue impacting middle class dynamics, well into the foreseeable future. He noted that while formal education was once an appropriate response to labour abundance (when people left the farms for the cities), education could no longer be expected to to work the same magic, in the 21st century. Even if everyone "miraculously" gained a college degree, today's institutions would not be able to hire everyone, on the same middle class income terms.

Nevertheless, policy discussions have yet to truly focus on Avent's warnings. Instead, policy makers tend to double down on the earlier recommendations of "more education" and additional income support. Alas, in his book, Avent explained how responses such as these were insufficient for the present.

Fortunately, there are strategies to counter labour abundance, which could prove more productive than preparing ever more skills for the institutions which presently need less of our skills, in aggregate. Education in particular, needs a strong reorientation. Educational input, as human capital investment, could become part of an institutional process which measures both input and output for mutually desired time based services. Both local infrastructure and building components need extensive improvements in the decades ahead. This last measure is especially important, if citizens are to regain their confidence in the capacity of their own income potential.

Granted, it's not easy to focus on the need for institutional adjustment and structural reform. But labour abundance needs to become a positive in the marketplace, so that already existing skills sets and investments will not be lost. It's important to face up to the reality of labour abundance, before the labour force participation rate trends even further downward. As Avent emphasized in "The Wealth of Humans, history is not always kind, when labour is abundant. It's time to put our present day abundance to good use.

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