Sick Pay Pays

On Labor Day, President Obama issued an executive order mandating that federal contractors offer paid sick leave to their employees. Such mandates serve as a back-door means of improving labor standards, albeit for a relatively small number of workers.

Most countries make paid sick leave mandatory for full-time employees. The US is alone among developed countries is not doing so. Outside of a few American cities and states that legally require paid sick leave, most Americans are at the mercy of their employer.

One can fairly ask why we shouldnt simply leave it to the markets. If paid sick leave is really so desirable, one can argue, laborers will ask for it, and employers will offer it. But the problem is that paid sick leave – like paid maternity leave – is a lot like insurance, and beset by the same problems. Chief among them is that insureds typically have better information on their own circumstances than might a would-be insurer. And so when someone asks for insurance, an insurer can reasonably infer that that person – for reasons that may be undetectable – is more likely to be a bad risk than someone taken at random.

That simple fact naturally leads to a feedback loop, whereby insurance gets pricier, making the people who are willing to pay that price even worse risks; which in turn makes insurance pricier still, and so on and so on until the market fails – with many people who want insurance, and firms who would provide it, unable to come to terms.

This dynamic was famously observed in the market for used cars, in a piece entitled “The Market for Lemons,” which won for its author, George Akerlof, the Nobel Prize for economics. People are suspicious about used cars because some defects are readily known to the seller, but are exceedingly difficult for a buyer to ascertain. Because of the buyer’s perception of risk, his offer price drops. As a consequence, sellers of good used cars cant get fair compensation, making them less likely to bring them to market. This dynamic feeds on itself until the market contains only the worst used cars.

You can readily envision the same problem occurring in the market for unemployment insurance, if it werent mandatory. A worker asking for such insurance at the time of hire would flag himself as a bad risk – one who is likely to be let go. He might be passed over for a position simply for asking! Consequentially, we should expect unemployment insurance to get more and more expensive; and as it does, only the most at-risk employees would be willing to pay for it – and so on and so on, as the market fails.

This same problem befalls virtually every form of insurance – including disability, old age, and health. The cure is to make insurance mandatory, so that people cant “self-select” into or out of insurance. Insurers are then better able to estimate the risks, because they can look at the population as a whole.

Once you solve the “adverse-selection” problem (also known as the “asymmetrical information” problem), you run into the next big issue in insurance markets: moral hazard, which we’ll take up when the Field Guide returns next week.

 

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