Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Danger of Boilerplate

by the Sandwichman

Sandwichman cries "Foul!" on the Economist and its blogger, Charlemagne, for perpetrating a LUMP OF CRAP hoax on its readers.
Back then [the 1980s and 1990s] many politicians, unions and workers also fell for the "lump of labour" fallacy, which suggests that there is a fixed amount of work to be done at any given time, available for slicing up and sharing out according to policymakers’ will.
As longtime Sandwichman followers know, the alleged fallacy is a canard, one that the Economist trotted out 17 times between 1993 and 2005, giving rise to the following satire, composed entirely from sentences from the magazine:

[UPDATE: Dean Baker agrees that The Economist Gets the Arithmetic of Shorter Work Time Wrong.]

"The idea that a fixed quantity of work exists, to be parcelled out among workers, is the so-called lump-of-labour fallacy. It is depressing that supposedly responsible governments continue to pretend to be unaware of the old 'lump of labour' fallacy: the illusion that the output of an economy and hence the total amount of work available are fixed.

"The notion that there is a fixed amount of work to be shared out, so that shorter hours for all must mean more jobs, is widely derided by economists as the 'lump of labour' fallacy. The idea of the 35-hour week, derided by many economists as the 'lump-of-labour fallacy', is that if employees work less, companies, spurred by tax concessions, will hire more. Although mocked by economists as a prime example of the 'lump-of-labour' fallacy – the idea that there is only so much work to go around – the government claims that it had created 240,000 jobs by the end of 2000. But to conclude from this that overall employment will decline is to succumb to the lump-of-labour fallacy: the long-disproved idea that there is only a fixed amount of output (and hence work) to go round.

"France's own Frédéric Bastiat had pointed out two centuries ago that there is no limit to the work that needs doing. Debunking the 'lump of labour fallacy' before it was even given that label, he suggested that to parcel out the limited amount of work available, people should be required to use only one hand, or even to have a hand chopped off. But -- the lump of labour fallacy strikes again -- the amount of work to be done is not fixed. The quantity of work is not fixed: such a notion is known to economists as the 'lump-of-labour' fallacy.

"The lump of labour fallacy also lies behind paranoia about jobs being 'stolen' by low-wage countries. The accusation that migrants steal jobs is a version of the 'lump of labour' fallacy -- that there is only so much work to go around. In effect, export pessimism involves a fallacy of its own -- a 'lump-of-trade' fallacy, akin to the idea of a 'lump of labour' (whereby a growing population is taken to imply an ever-rising rate of unemployment, there being only so many jobs to go round).

"This is a classic lump-of-labour fallacy (the idea that there is a fixed quantity of work and that if you take a job it is at my expense). Economists call this the 'lump-of-labour' fallacy. Economists call this the lump of labour (or sometimes the lump of output) fallacy.

"The lump of labour fallacy is often to blame for confusion about whether productivity growth (due to more efficient working practices or to new technology) is a good or bad thing. Luddism is also commonly linked to the lump-of-labour fallacy in economics, which first-year students are taught to refute and according to which, as the demand for labour is fixed in the short run, labour-saving machinery is bound to 'kill jobs'. But the assumption that this results in fewer jobs rather than more output (and hence more goods, and more job-stimulating demand, in a beautifully virtuous circle) is based on an economic fallacy known as the 'lump of labour': the notion that there is only a fixed amount of output (and hence work) to go round.

"If new technology or foreign competition do lead to net job losses it will not be because the lump of labour has become a fact rather than a fallacy, but because labour is not sufficiently mobile between sectors and regions, or because relative wages have failed to adjust. Nearly all of these mistakes boil down in the end to the most enduring of all economic fallacies: the idea that there is only so much output to be produced, or capital to be invested. (Europe is currently preoccupied with the 'lump of labour' version of this mistake, see page 18.)

"A recent piece accused conservatives of embracing the 'lump of labour fallacy', the mistaken claim that there is a fixed quantity of work which governments must strive to allocate equitably. Hmm. Are those arguments entirely incorrect? Yes, entirely. The first is a myth. In fact, the paper he cited did not commit the lump of labour fallacy."


Anonymous said...

Not to worry.

Soon they will have a choice: embrace this "fallacy," or, ignore thirty million unemployed on the Washington Mall.

This is one of those time when idle theories shall be critiqued by reality...

Paul said...

I have always read the Economist critically. Read their coverage of the 19th Century's Great Irish Famine!