Jobs are bad, it is much better to get stuff for free

It really is hard to get ones mind wrapped around the idea that jobs are bads*, not goods, simply the price we pay for the things we want. This is one of the great and counter-intuitive lessons of studying economics.

Free Exchange at The Economist has learned this hard to internalize lesson:

Factories in China are winners from the apparel trade, eh? Consider two points. First, apparel manufacturing jobs are low-skill positions, and for Americans to staff them without government support in the form of subsidies or tariffs would necessitate massive wage cuts. Average pay in Chinese cities is perhaps 10% of the American level, and still China is losing textile industry jobs to lower cost competition elsewhere in Southeast Asia. When those jobs move abroad, to places with lower labour costs, that enables Americans to buy those goods more cheaply, which is agood thing. Now, if high-cost American workers struggle to transition into new industries, that’s a problem. But it’s a problem with America’s labour market policies, not with the consumption of goods from abroad.

Mr Mandel doesn’t begin to explain why America ought to want textile factories in the first place, other than as a source of employment. The economics suggest it would be cheaper, easier, and more pleasant for the workers to hire them to sit around and do nothing.

Does America suffer from consumption?

*- Sure, one can love their job. I sure do. I’d be happier doing it for more money, and free trade is just like that for me. If I could live in complete material and service plenty but had to study economics for free, I’d certainly prefer that to my current situation. That’s like being independently wealthy and getting do spend your waking hours on your hobbies.

Superficially it is actually much worse

…[M]any Americans get less than two weeks a year while the average European gets five or six weeks.
Our Crisis of Well-Being
Actually, it is a starker difference than Ms. Leonard’s comment suggests.

The following is the average number of paid vacation days per year employees receive (by country).

Italy 42 days
France 37 days
Germany 35 days
Brazil 34 days
United Kingdom 28 days
Canada 26 days
Korea 25 days
Japan 25 days
U.S. 13 days

Paid Vacation Around the World
It seems  paid vacation is actually on average (and not just for many) less than 2 weeks in America. Of course, we don’t know about unpaid vacation, and wages are much higher in the US, so you could conceivably work less and buy more vacation. If an American household earning median income could take all the unpaid leave they want, if they were willing to make what the median French household makes, they could afford 19 weeks vacation ((1 – 19,615/31,111) * 52 > 19 ) to France’s 7.5 weeks. In fact, it would be even better because we have steeply increasing marginal tax rates, so Uncle Sam would pick up some the  bill for that vacation. I for one love my work, and I would not want that much vacation from it, but perhaps I’m an odd duck.

Does Stuyvesant do anything?

Everyone (Fight Entropy: The causal effect of going to my high school, It doesn’t matter where your kid goes to school, Education, Correlation, Causation – Megan McArdle – Business – The Atlantic) seems to be talking about a new paper The Elite Illusion: Achievement Effects at Boston and New York Exam Schools by Abdulkadiroglu Angrist, and Pathak. I went to two of these schools; Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. My alternative school if I didn’t get into them was not safe and my family would have had to move or send me to private school if I didn’t get in. I agree that I didn’t have much additional learning over going to another school. In general, I believe that most so called school quality reflects average student ability (and race and socio-economic class) anyway, so I lose no sleep over that. In any case, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant actually spend less, not more per student than non-magnet NYC schools, so they aren’t even expensive. I like that they provide a safe environment. I also like that they provide an environment where smart kids can have smart friends. If all schools educate pretty much the same way, then those are important goals with little additional cost.

I may not have learned more than I would have elsewhere, but I certainly learned to work hard at these schools. I went to college with rural kids who were as smart as I was but the smartest person in their school. They didn’t have to do much to get better grades than I did. That proved terrible preparation for a top-20 academic college when being smart was no longer enough.

A nation of laws and not of men

One reason why I favor shall issue concealed gun permit systems, where objective criteria are met and the then the permit is granted, is that there is so much abuse in the discretionary systems where people like the local police are able to choose. I just read a stunning example of that abuse:

Civil-rights activists, even those committed to nonviolent resistance, had long appreciated the value of guns for self-protection. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed. His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as “an arsenal.” William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil-rights movement, almost sat on a loaded gun in a living-room armchair during a visit to King’s parsonage.

The Secret History of Guns – Magazine – The Atlantic

I also thought this quotation from the same article was intriguing but not relevant to current policy discussions:

In the 1920s and ’30s, the NRA was at the forefront of legislative efforts to enact gun control. The organization’s president at the time was Karl T. Frederick, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer known as “the best shot in America”—a title he earned by winning three gold medals in pistol-shooting at the 1920 Summer Olympic Games. As a special consultant to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, Frederick helped draft the Uniform Firearms Act, a model of state-level gun-control legislation. (Since the turn of the century, lawyers and public officials had increasingly sought to standardize the patchwork of state laws. The new measure imposed more order—and, in most cases, far more restrictions.)
Frederick’s model law had three basic elements. The first required that no one carry a concealed handgun in public without a permit from the local police. A permit would be granted only to a “suitable” person with a “proper reason for carrying” a firearm. Second, the law required gun dealers to report to law enforcement every sale of a handgun, in essence creating a registry of small arms. Finally, the law imposed a two-day waiting period on handgun sales.
The NRA today condemns every one of these provisions as a burdensome and ineffective infringement on the right to bear arms.

The Science of Selling

From Why There Are 13 (Shopping) Seasons – By SARAH NASSAUER:

Spring, summer, fall, winter… storage and organization? Most shoppers see the seasons change four times a year. Retailers see anywhere from 13 to 20 and all those seasons are designed to get shoppers into their stores.”Storage and Organization” comes the first weeks in January at Target Corp. It’s a chance to display products that might appeal to shoppers’ New Year’s resolutions like exercise equipment. Sam’s Club, part of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., celebrates “Fall Gatherings” in October with displays of rakes, sweaters and comfort food. Late fall at Supervalu brings the less-than-celebratory “Cough, Cold and Flu” season, not to be confused with late spring’s “Allergy Season.” In stores now: “Back to School/Back to College.”

A key goal is to get people to buy impulsively, something they do less of these days. The number of impulse purchases fell to 15% of purchases in 2010, from 29% in 2008, according to market-research firm NPD Group.

The true art of the seasonal display is to trick out products that don’t seem like obvious impulse buys—like vacuum cleaners or tissue boxes—in a way that makes shoppers grab first and think later

Last month, Supervalu employees worked to create the perfect fall endcap, the shelves that anchor the end of the typical grocery store aisle. The goal—easy meals for parents pressed for time at the start of the school year.

Problems quickly became apparent. After setting up tuna in pouches, mayonnaise, peanut butter and bread on the lunch endcap, employees saw that the tuna pouches tilted slightly backwards. The tuna “didn’t present itself well to customers,” says Chris Doeing, a director of merchandising for Supervalu, which owns chains including Albertsons and Cub Foods. Tuna was booted from the endcap to a nearby shelf.

On endcaps, best-selling items often go on the larger shelves near the floor to grab people’s attention from farther away. Employees experiment with which size and shape products look best together.

Two comments. First, this shows you that retail isn’t just a matter of selecting the right products and having the right prices. It also requires careful presentation and timing. Retailers add more value than most people realize. Second, this makes it sound a bit nefarious and manipulative when it really isn’t. People don’t always know what to buy until they see what is for sale and at what prices. Our attention is limited and there are fifty thousand products for sale at a typical supermarket. The store itself is 46,000 square feet. Well done curation, inspiring people to visualize how a product can improve their lives is good for consumers. It is also difficult to distinguish from tricking customers into buying junk they don’t need. We don’t have to assume worst interpretation by default and without distinguishing evidence.  I suspect there is more money in figuring out what people will want and use. Things you use wear out and are repurchased, with the promise of future sales (if they purchased the first one from you aren’t they likely to purchase the next one too?).  Tricking customers  into buying they won’t use seems like a short term strategy unlikely to lead to repeat sales. At worst, I think stores and consumers can only noisily predict what products customers will actually like. A good store inspires you to buy products that that on average you enjoy and will buy repeatedly. You won’t like everything, but in some aggregate sense you like the package. I remember my uncle saying that Sam’s Club didn’t work for him, they ended up buying food in too large quantities and it went to waste at great expense. They don’t belong to Sam’s club anymore.