Sick Pay Pays II

Last week we discussed how the problem of “adverse selection” works to undermine insurance markets, including the market for paid sick leave and unemployment insurance. We noted that the cure is to make insurance mandatory for all – as President Obama did recently, by making paid sick leave mandatory for employees of federal contractors. In developed countries, many forms of insurance are mandatory: disability, unemployment, old age, auto, and health are among the most common.

But even universal insurance faces the “moral hazard” problem. That’s the fact that people, for good and bad, behave differently when they have insurance. Old age insurance (like social security) may diminish your incentive to save for retirement. Auto insurance may facilitate riskier driving. Unemployment insurance may make you less deferential to your boss. And indeed, all else being equal, people with paid sick leave should be expected to miss work more often than people without it.

But the key insight about moral hazard, is that we are still better off with insurance than without it. In other words, while it imposes a cost, that cost is almost invariably exceeded by the benefits. For example, it’s been suggested that unemployment insurance and social security have the combined effect of allowing people to take riskier decisions on where to work – giving a hi-tech start-up a chance, for example, instead of playing it safe with an established firm. In the aggregate, such risk-taking may be a significant boost to a modern economy dependent upon constant innovation.

Auto insurance makes transportation risks more manageable, letting people commute to their job of choice; while also facilitating distribution networks, giving consumers more options. Health insurance correlates with better health, and can reduce costs when people make use of preventive care before a problem gets out of hand and lands them in the ER.

There is no free lunch. Paid sick leave, ultimately, is paid for by employees, reducing their wage compensation, leaving total compensation (including benefits) unchanged. The same is true for paid maternity leave, unemployment insurance and even social security. While an employer nominally pays out for those items, direct employee compensation is reduced by the same amount.

Taken together, benefits like paid sick leave confer a further benefit: they seem to make employment more desirable, such that more people offer themselves on the labor markets. This is seen in higher labor-force participation rates in the working-age population of countries that have liberal labor standards; and in relatively low labor-force participation rates in the US.

Most people want benefits with employment – including caps on hours, unemployment insurance, paid holiday and vacation time, and paid sick and maternity leave. But the market has no route from this equilibrium (their absence) to another equilibrium (their ubiquity), without help from legislation.

The point is not that a central planner knows better than individuals at the point of contract. Rather, we must recognize that there are obstacles that prevent market participants from coming to terms. Well-tailored labor regulations can ameliorate these obstacles, to let the market work its magic.

 

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