The Survival of the Safest - Commentary by Robert J. Shiller
The Survival of the Safest
By Robert J. Shiller
Published in the New York Times on October 3, 2010
Read the article in its original context on the New York Times website.
Corporate managers struggling to preserve their companies and protect their core employees have inadvertently contributed to a vicious cycle of rising unemployment and plummeting national morale. If we are to break out of this downward spiral, we first need to understand the problem, then deal with it on a huge scale.
Itís no surprise that business confidence has been shaken over the last few years. Executives are unwilling to take on new risks, and people in all walks of life are nervous about trusting in one another. In a broad sense, damage to morale ó which John Maynard Keynes called ďanimal spiritsĒ ó surely ranks as one of the most important reasons for the American economyís persistent weakness.
Yet professional managers throughout the business world see it as their job to keep work-force morale high. But, paradoxically, the actions they take for their own workplaces often make the overall crisis more severe.
A remarkable book by Truman Bewley, titled Why Wages Donít Fall During a Recession (Harvard, 1999), provides insights into the current situation, even though it focuses on the recession of 1990-91 and the long "jobless recovery" that followed it.
The title derives from a puzzle that has troubled economists for more than a century: Why doesnít the labor market "clear"? If demand falls in markets for other productive factors ó say, wheat as an ingredient in the baking of bread ó the price usually drops until the excess supply is mostly gone. What is unusual about the market for labor is that excess supply, which shows up as unemployment, can be prominent and persistent.
Why? In short, the difference is morale. Factors of production like wheat or trucks or pumps donít have morale issues. Human beings do.
How these issues affect the labor market is a major focus of the research of Professor Bewley, who is a colleague of mine at Yale. He has developed an idiosyncratic approach, interviewing hundreds of corporate managers at length about the driving forces for their actions. The managers consistently told him that they are concerned about the emotional state of their core employees. They said that their companiesí continued success depends on the positive feelings and loyalty of these workers ó and lamented the hard choices that would need to be made in a severe downturn.
Keeping all employees relatively idle while reducing their pay or cutting their working hours will hurt everyone. Managers say they usually consider it better to protect the crucial workers ó and to engage in sudden mass layoffs of others. The idea is to clear out the less essential people at once, ushering them out the door quickly so their complaining doesnít spoil the atmosphere. Then managers can make sure that remaining employees receive their full wages and can pay their household bills.
"Losing a job is close to a death in the family," one manager said. But in a tough economy, when managers view the very survival of their enterprise as in jeopardy, they steel themselves against sentimentality, believing that layoffs are needed to keep the business going with their most loyal and effective people.
Unemployment, in this context, is like battlefield triage, leaving some severely injured soldiers to die so that medics can keep as many as possible in fighting condition. But, of course, such a harsh practice may not contribute to the best morale among those chosen to survive.
Unfortunately, managers often lay off more people than necessary, to ensure that they donít have to repeat the ordeal anytime soon. The remaining workers must work harder, taking on some of the work of their missing colleagues, and productivity rises. (The economy today shows both increasing productivity and increasing corporate profits.)
Those relegated to unemployment canít directly "poison the atmosphere" in their former workplaces. But they remain friends and neighbors of the employed, and their anger and distress, repeated in thousands of communities, contribute to a poisoning of the atmosphere of the entire nation.
Moreover, managers interviewed by Professor Bewley in the 1990s said that employees who hold onto jobs often suffer "survivorsí guilt." They are genuinely pained, experiencing empathy with the less fortunate. In this troubled state, they donít think about taking extravagant vacations, or buying new houses or fancy new cars. And this frugality detracts from demand that might produce jobs for others.
Similar thinking underlies the relatively low level of business expenditures today on buildings, equipment and software. Lower-level managers wonít ask for scarce resources for such things, because those items look like luxuries to fellow employees, who worry that there wonít be enough in the company budget for them to keep their jobs.
One top manager told Professor Bewley that he had to compensate for the reticence of lower-level managers, who wonít ask for anything. "I tell them to put in a few dreams for equipment they would like, because if they donít try, theyíll never get what they want," this manager said.
Of course, while that reticence may preserve jobs in oneís own company, it works against job growth elsewhere. A result is a loss of vigor in the aggregate economy, and the sapping of the very kind of creativity that might spur a recovery.
Professor Bewley shared with me a passage from an interview in July with a manager of a large manufacturing company. "There is more uncertainty, and everybody is afraid," this manager told him. "Do your job. Keep employed. Donít come up with a new idea." In his own company, the manager said, "Everybody is doing the same thing."
Sometimes the private sector needs help from the government, and this is one of those times. We need to break the cycle of protracted unemployment and sagging morale through big government programs to create millions of jobs.
Robert J. Shiller is professor of economics and finance at Yale and co-founder and chief economist of MacroMarkets LLC.