Religion, Labor Supply, and Happiness

SuperFreakonomics looked at research by Douglas Almond and Bhashkar Mazumder on the birth effects of prenatal exposure to Ramadan. A new paper by Filipe Campante and David Yanagizawa-Drott looks at the economic effects of religious practices, a particularly relevant question this month:

We study the economic effects of religious practices in the context of the observance of Ramadan fasting, one of the central tenets of Islam. To establish causality, we exploit variation in the length of the fasting period due to the rotating Islamic calendar. We report two key, quantitatively meaningful results: 1) longer Ramadan  fasting has a negative effect on output growth in Muslim countries, and 2) it increases subjective well-being among Muslims.

Paying Kids to Go to School Instead of Working

A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Eric V. Edmonds and Maheshwor Shrestha analyzes whether schooling incentives (in the form of conditional cash transfers) effectively reduce child labor, which is a persistent problem in developing countries.  Their conclusion: you get what you pay for.  From the abstract: 

Can efforts to promote education deter child labor? We report on the findings of a field experiment where a conditional transfer incentivized the schooling of children associated with carpet factories in Nepal. We find that schooling increases and child involvement in carpet weaving decreases when schooling is incentivized. As a simple static labor supply model would predict, we observe that treated children resort to their counterfactual level of school attendance and carpet weaving when schooling is no longer incentivized. From a child labor policy perspective, our findings imply that “You get what you pay for” when schooling incentives are used to combat hazardous child labor.

What Happens When You Teach Parents to Parent?

A new working paper (abstractPDF) by Paul Gertler, James Heckman, and several other co-authors examines the impressive long-term effects of a Jamaican program that taught low-income parents better parenting skills.  Here's the abstract:

We find large effects on the earnings of participants from a randomized intervention that gave psychosocial stimulation to stunted Jamaican toddlers living in poverty. The intervention consisted of one-hour weekly visits from community Jamaican health workers over a 2-year period that taught parenting skills and encouraged mothers to interact and play with their children in ways that would develop their children's cognitive and personality skills. We re-interviewed the study participants 20 years after the intervention. Stimulation increased the average earnings of participants by 42 percent. Treatment group earnings caught up to the earnings of a matched non-stunted comparison group. These findings show that psychosocial stimulation early in childhood in disadvantaged settings can have substantial effects on labor market outcomes and reduce later life inequality.

Kerwin Charles, Erik Hurst, and Matt Notowidigdo on the U.S. Labor Market

Three of my colleagues and friends at the University of Chicago -- Kerwin Charles, Erik Hurst, and Matt Notowidigdo -- recently presented some new research that aims to understand the ups and downs in the U.S. labor market.  It’s more serious and important than the usual stuff we deal with on the blog, but every once in a while we deviate from trivialities when something really good comes along. 

They’ve been kind enough to put together a layperson’s version of the research below.  For those looking for the full-blown academic version, you can find that here.

A Structural Explanation for the Weak Labor Market
By  Kerwin Charles, Erik Hurst, and Matt Notowidigdo

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the labor market has remained anemic.  Between 2007 and 2010, the employment-to-population ratio of men between the ages of 21 and 55 with less than a four-year degree fell from 82.8 percent to 73.8 percent.  As of mid-2012, the employment-to-population ratio for these men remained depressed at 75.6 percent.[1] 

In our new working paper (abstract; full PDF), we show that the recent sluggish labor market in the U.S. - particularly for prime age workers without a college degree - can be traced back to the large sectoral decline in manufacturing employment that occurred during the 2000s.  After decades of relative stability, total manufacturing employment in the U.S. fell by 3.5 million jobs between the beginning of 2000 and the end of 2007 (see chart below).  These manufacturing jobs were lost even before the Great Recession started.  During the recent recession, another 2 million manufacturing jobs were lost.  While there is talk of a recent manufacturing rebound in the U.S., the recent increase is only a tiny fraction of the total manufacturing jobs lost during the 2000s.

Could Accelerated Learning Mean Big Bucks?

Reuven Brenner of The American explores the economic benefits of shortening college to three years:

Assume that after graduation the average salary would be just $20,000 and remain there. With 4 million students finishing one year earlier, this would add $80 billion to the national income during that year. Or at an average annual income of $40,000, it would add $160 billion. Assume now that the additional $80 billion in national income would be compounding at 7 percent over the next 40 years. This would then amount to an additional $1.2 trillion of wealth – for just one generation of 4 million students joining the labor force a year earlier at a $20,000 salary. At $40,000, this would amount to $2.4 trillion by the fortieth year – again, for just one generation of 4 million people joining the labor force a year earlier. The added wealth depends on how rosy one makes the assumptions about salaries or compounding rates. Add 10, 20, or 30 generations, each starting to work a year earlier, and the numbers run into the tens of trillions of dollars.

The indirect impacts may be as significant. One or two years of additional, compounding earnings could do a lot to shore up entitlement programs, with a more positive impact than requiring people 65 and older to stay in the labor force much longer: the magic of resulting compounding would start earlier.

(HT: The Dish)

Worried About Unemployment? Find a "High Touch" Profession

Writing for Slate, Ray Fisman (who's been on the blog before) explains why "the bottom 20 percent of American families earned less in 2010 than they did in 2006, the year before the recession began":

There are two broad shifts that account for much of this decline: globalization and computerization. From T-shirts to toys, manufacturing jobs have migrated to low-wage countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and of course China. Meanwhile, many of the tasks that might have been done by middle-income Americans employed as bookkeepers or middle managers have been replaced by spreadsheets and data algorithms.

Fisman argues that in order to succeed in the new economy, American workers need to shift away from construction and manufacturing jobs to "high touch" professions. "If jobs are being lost to low-wage Indians and computer programs, then what today’s worker needs is a set of skills that offers the personal touch and judgment that can’t be provided by a machine or someone 12 time zones away," writes Fisman.

A Cheap Employee Is … a Cheap Employee: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called "A Cheap Employee Is ... a Cheap Employee." 

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

It's about the question of whether low-paid employees are indeed a good deal for a retailer's bottom line as the conventional wisdom states.

The piece begins with a couple of stories from blog readers, Eric M. Jones and Jamie Crouthamel, which were solicited earlier here. (One of the true pleasures of operating this blog is having a channel by which to turn readers into radio guests -- thanks!)

Why It Pays to Pay Employees More

We blogged a while back about how some retail firms succeed by hiring more, not fewer, floor employees, and by treating them particularly well. Among the examples: Trader Joe's and Whole Foods; among the counterexamples: Michael's.

This prompted an e-mail from Hal Varian, Google's chief economist. (If you don't know of Hal you should, as he's an impressive and fascinating guy -- check out the Q&A he did here a few years back.) His e-mail reads:

Saw your piece about Trader Joe's et al.  Here's one reason to pay people more than their market wage (from my textbook):

Gabor Varszegi has made millions by providing high-quality service in his photo developing shops in Budapest. (See Steven Greenhouse, "A New Formula in Hungary: Speed Service and Grow Rich," New York Times, June 5, 1990, A1.)

Varszegi says that he got his start as a businessman in the mid-sixties by playing bass guitar and managing a rock group. "Back then," he says, "the only private businessmen in Eastern Europe were rock musicians." He introduced one-hour film developing to Hungary in 1985; the next best alternative to his one-hour developing shops was the state-run agency that took one month.

How Many Workers Is the Right Number for a Retailer? Stories from Trader Joe's, Michaels, and Whole Foods

A reader named Quinton White points us to an interesting article by Jim Surowiecki in The New Yorker about how retails firms are succeeding by hiring more workers and spending more money training and rewarding them. Surowiecki writes:

A recent Harvard Business Review study by Zeynep Ton, an M.I.T. professor, looked at four low-price retailers: Costco, Trader Joe’s, the convenience-store chain QuikTrip, and a Spanish supermarket chain called Mercadona. These companies have much higher labor costs than their competitors. They pay their employees more; they have more full-time workers and more salespeople on the floor; and they invest more in training them. (At QuikTrip, even part-time employees get forty hours of training.) Not surprisingly, these stores are better places to work. What’s more surprising is that they are more profitable than most of their competitors and have more sales per employee and per square foot.

Work: 12% Monday, 5% Friday?

The picture on this t-shirt is a joke. It states: “Always give 100% at Work: 12% Monday; 23% Tuesday; 40% Wednesday; 20% Thursday; 5% Friday.”

But it’s interesting that its creator chose not to spread the work evenly across the week. His/her view of labor supply suggests a temporal dimension that seems sensible:  More work on Monday than on Friday, more on Tuesday than on Thursday, with peak work effort on Wednesday.  In terms of labor productivity, this does not seem very far wrong.