A Labor Economist Goes to Washington: Bring Your Questions for Betsey Stevenson

DESCRIPTIONBetsey Stevenson

Regular readers of the blog will be familiar with economist Betsey Stevenson, a sometimes contributor and frequent topic of discussion. Betsey’s research focuses on a wide range of topics: happiness, marriage, divorce, and labor economics, among other things.

The Freakonomics blog will have to do without Betsey for the next year, however, as she’ll be serving as the Chief Economist of the Department of Labor (DOL). Officially, the DOL is charged with “foster[ing] and promot[ing] the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for profitable employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, strengthening free collective bargaining, and tracking changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements.” In plain English, Betsey will be helping out with everything from unemployment insurance to job creation, job training and readiness, the minimum wage and retirement security. It’s hard to think of a more interesting time to be working on these issues, and it’s hard to imagine the DOL won’t benefit from Betsey’s expertise.

Betsey has agreed to answer your questions about her new position so fire away in the comments section below. As always, we’ll post her answers shortly.


Ms. Stevenson, what are the three most important things that can be done to make the U.S. a hospitable place for companies to do business again?

old guy

what is your stance on augmenting social security to a basket that more resembles what senior citizens purchase?


if the DOL is charged with "strengthening free collective bargaining", then why has it failed so miserably?- that is, why has the union movement evaporated in the us, while it has not in Europe, and what are the political machinations that serve this end in Europe, which don't exist here?

rob k

#DaveyNC - I would think the US is and has always been a very hospitable place for companies to do business (relative to other countries that is).

Ms. Stevenson, how may we increase incentives in offering employment opportunities among those who have been chronically discriminated against -- namely the deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind, and older workers? And how may we protect existing retirement plans (defined benefit) by not having companies change plan benefits after it was being contributed to.

Michael W Baker

The Bush tax cuts, we were told, would provide incentive to companies and the rich to create jobs and stimulate economic growth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bush tax cuts had a net job production of 1.9 million in 8 years, when 19.2 million were needed to sustain a vibrant economy, and the top 1% now has 23.3% of the nations' wealth. Given the fact that the tax cuts were not used to create job growth and stimulate the economy, should tax cuts be extended to the top 2%?


How can the DOL create a job?


Millions of recent college graduates are having trouble entering the workforce, with many spending several years in low paying internships or taking jobs which do not require a college education to pay the bills and gain experience. How can the DOL incentivize companies to hire recent graduates and to transition interns into permanent positions?


What do you make of the argument that the long-run, structural level of unemployment has increased because of the economic crisis? If so, what is the main cause(s)? Some explanations I'v heard: geographic shift in available jobs, extended unemployment benefits, and "regulatory uncertainty" on the part of businesses.


Ms. Stevenson,

As a former recipient of Unemployment, I am wondering if you have any bright ideas about how to make it truly "work." Let me explain....

Very simply, after being laid off, I received just enough from Unemployment to barely get by. If it had not been for my wife's good job, we could not have paid the mortgage, etc.

However, while it was too little to get by on, it was too much to ignore in return for a part-time job. That is, if I had gotten a part-time job (I could not find a full-time one), I might have received the same amount as from Unemployment, but I would have had to work half the week for it, spend money on gas to get there, perhaps buy a uniform, etc. Further, by working, it would take away time from looking for a full-time job.

Is there not some balance that can be struck? A balance that allows/encourages people to take on part-time work without undermining the little they are getting from Unemployment? If I could have added a part-time job to my Unemployment, I could have paid certain bills that I was no longer able to pay, etc. But why take a part-time job when it was in my interest (it seemed) to just collect Unemployment?

Do you have any ideas on how to make Unemployment serve as a better INCENTIVE to obtain at least some sort of employment (since I assume that is better for the economy than otherwise)?

Thank you!


Joshua Gans

What are your thoughts on how to improve parental leave prospects in the United States without causing further gender discrimination in labor markets? I'm assuming here that whatever one might do to encourage parental leave will still not change the fact that it is likely that women will take it up more than men.


What's the smartest take against outsourcing?


What are some of the more promising topics for future research in labor economics? Any advice for PhD students specializing in labor?

Jon M

Paul Krugman has spent a lot of time recently discussing the notion that our unemployment problems are "structural unemployment" as incorrect. For example, "Structural unemployment is invoked by Fed presidents who want to raise rates, not cut them, by economists who want austerity now now now, and in general by almost everyone in the pain caucus."

Please respond to this statement and Krugman's arguments against the notion of structural unemployment being the main indicator of unemployment today. Do you feel this is the case? If so, why? If not, why not?



What data do you wish you had to help your work as a labor economist?


What can the DOL do now to stop companies from underbidding the labor cost of Davis Bacon projects (funded through ARRA or otherwise)?

How can the DOL bridge the gap between the agencies who contract work, but are not enforcing labor law, and the wage and hour division who is supposed to investigate the lack of compliance. That is, unless there is someone brave enough to jeopardize her job by filing a complaint, the job will not be investigated.

Why is there such a disconnect between the policies of the DOL in DC, and the local offices who are supposed to carry them out?

What are the macro effects on the economy when agencies and contractors circumvent labor law?


When are you going to get rid of the "right to work" stuff and make states, like UTAH, pay wages the way they are supposed to, like TIME AND A HALF FOR OVERTIME, since they claim their laws are in compliance with FEDERAL LAW where overtime is concerned?


It's been reported that part of the reasons for our stubborn unemployment problem is a disconnect between the skills employers need and the skills that people have. How will you close that gap?

And rob k. @4, given the comments recently made by people like Paul Otellini of Intel (see here: http://www.businessinsider.com/intel-ceo-blasts-obama-administration-says-anti-business-policies-are-killing-the-country-2010-8 ; sorry, couldn't get the URL shortener to work) and Arthur Blank, one of the founders of Home Depot, the US isn't a very inviting place to do business these days.


Will your new position involve providing perspective to the debate between the data needs of the states vs. the federal government? Specifically, the eroding of the historic relationship within the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) whereby state's were once equal partners. The monthly jobs survey used to be produced by state analysts, using local knowledge and local data to supplement inadequate sample data, as a value added approach. Under the auspices of the budgeting process (to provide a cloak of secrecy) the BLS proposes to produce the data centrally, with statistical margins of error that are unacceptable to data users. This is being done in the name of fixing the "sum of states vs. national" problem where the state numbers do not precisely match the national numbers, especially during economic turning points. In other words the quality of state data is being sacrificed so that the BLS do not have to answer any more embarrassing questions. Might you want to look at alternate approaches to fix the problem without making state data unusable?



Can the Department of Labor do some research and come up with a way to measure and correct hidden age discrimination for job applicants? Can it measure job destruction and show a pattern of age discrimination (where layoffs affect a disproportionate number of workers who are older and often replace those jobs with entry-level positions)?

Can DOL require companies to disclose the ratio of the CEO's wage to the base pay of the lowest-paid worker to every job applicant the company interviews?

Could DOL mandate a shorter work week, such as 35 hours, to help job creation?

Could DOL explicitly tighten regulations about white-collar overtime and "exempt" jobs so that productivity could not be continuously inflated by lengthening the work week of salaried employees? As part of this, for instance, would employers have to show that after a layoff, no duties from laid-off employees were transferred to salaried workers -- that all work that was shifted was going to hourly staff members?

Can DOL ban the practice of asking for salary history when people apply for jobs? This brings down the cost of labor for companies and provides them with free, valuable data about their labor markets. Can DOL require job listings to provide the salary range for the job so employers have to decide what the job is worth before trying to low-ball all the applicants?

Is there any one clearinghouse either nationally or in each state where all job openings must be posted, and would such a clearinghouse help consumer confidence by showing the real number and type of jobs available?

Can DOL advocate for or block the direct or indirect use of federal funds to incentivize employers to move jobs from one state to another inside the U.S.?



Will social security still exist 30 years from now?