French Labor Law Reduces Firm Innovation

I heard an intriguing paper at the January 2020 AEA meetings in San Diego. It shows that a French labor market regulation discourages firm innovation. The abstract of the working paper version of the paper appears below.

We study the impact of labor regulation on innovation. We exploit the threshold in labor market regulations in France which means that when a firm reaches 50 employees, costs increase substantially. We show theoretically and empirically that the prospect of these regulatory costs discourages firms just below the threshold from innovating (as measured by patent counts). This relationship emerges when looking nonparametrically at patent density around the regulatory threshold and also in a parametric exercise where we examine the heterogeneous response of firms to exogenous market size shocks (from export market growth). On average, firms innovate more when they experience a positive market size shock, but this relationship significantly weakens when a firm is just below the regulatory threshold. Using information on citations we also show suggestive evidence (consistent with our model) that regulation deters radical innovation much less than incremental innovation. This suggests that with size-dependent regulation, companies innovate less, but if they do try to innovate, they “swing for the fence.”

The source of the abstract quoted above, is:

Aghion, Philippe, Antonin Bergeaud, and John Van Reenen. “The Impact of Regulation on Innovation.” 2019.

Bay Area Californians Moving to Where Living Costs Less

(p. A1) SAN FRANCISCO — Christine Johnson, a public-finance consultant with an engineering degree, was running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

She crisscrossed her downtown district talking about her plans to stimulate housing construction, improve public transit and deal with the litter of “needles and poop” that have become a common sight on the city’s sidewalks.

Today, a year after losing the race, Ms. Johnson, who had been in the Bay Area since 2004, lives in Denver with her husband and 4-year-old son. In a recent interview, she spoke for millions of Californians past and present when she described the cloud that high rent and child-care costs had cast over her family’s savings and future.

“I fully intended San Francisco to be my home and wanted to make the neighborhoods better,” she said. “But after the election we started tallying up what life could look like elsewhere, and we didn’t see friends in other parts of the country experiencing challenges the same way.”

. . .

(p. A12) Greg Biggs is adding more machines and moving jobs to cheaper locations. Mr. Biggs is the chief executive of Vander-Bend Manufacturing, a company in San Jose that makes metal products including surgical components and racks where data centers store computer servers. Vander-Bend has doubled its head count over the past five years, to about 900 employees, and pays $17 to $40 an hour for skilled technicians who need training but not a college degree.

This is precisely the sort of middle-income job needed in the Bay Area, which like many urban areas is bifurcating into an economy of high-wage knowledge jobs and low-wage service jobs.

The problem is he can’t find enough workers. The unemployment rate in San Jose is around 2 percent, and many of Vander-Bend’s employees already commute two or more hours to work. To compensate, Mr. Biggs has bought several van-size robot arms that pull metal panels from a pile then stamp them flush, bend their edges and assemble them into racks. He has opened a second location 75 miles away in Stockton, where labor and housing costs are a lot lower.

This is in most ways a success story. Vander-Bend is raising wages and training workers. The machines aren’t replacing jobs but instead make them more efficient, and the company is bringing higher-wage positions to a region that needs more of them. But for workers, even substantial income gains are being offset by rising costs.

For the full story, see:

Conor Dougherty. “True, California Is Booming. Also True: California’s a Mess.” The New York Times (Monday, December 30, 2019): A1 & A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 29, 2019, and has the title “California Is Booming. Why Are So Many Californians Unhappy?”)

At-Home Workers Are Leaving Costly Largest Cities

(p. A1) Kelly Swift grew tired of the Los Angeles area a few years ago so she decided to leave—and take her job with her.

Ms. Swift kept her role in health-care information-technology consulting, and her California salary, when she and her family settled in a suburb of Boise, Idaho. Her employer didn’t mind that she started working from home.

Ms. Swift joined a group of workers fueling a renaissance in U.S. cities that lie outside the major job hubs. People who do their jobs from home, freelance or constantly travel for work are migrating away from expensive urban centers such as Los Angeles and San Francisco toward cheaper cities including Boise; Denver; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore., according to economists and local residents.

For the full story, see:

Ben Eisen. “Workers Leave Largest Cities, Taking Their Jobs With Them.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Sept. 9, 2019): A1 & A4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 7, 2019, and has the title “Workers Are Fleeing Big Cities for Smaller Ones—and Taking Their Jobs With Them.”)

Wisconsin May Have a Robustly Redundant Labor Market

From Nathan Wiese’s description, below, Wisconsin is described in as what I call a “robustly redundant labor market” in my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism.

(p. A1) ROSENDALE, Wis.—Nathan Wiese, a third-generation dairy farmer who is struggling to get by, says even if he has to close his family’s farm, he feels confident he could hire on as a truck driver and take home more money.

“If you want a job, you can get a job,” said Mr. Wiese, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again. “I could probably get one in one day.”

. . .

. . . in an era of severe worker shortages, people losing jobs when a plant or a farm closes are quickly getting scooped up by others. This provides a safety net in the broader economy by keeping incomes and consumer spending strong.

For the full story, see:

Shayndi Raice and Jon Hilsenrath. “In Wisconsin, Demand for Workers Buffers a Slowdown.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, November 29, 2019): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses added.]

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 28, 2019, and has the title “How a Strong Job Market Has Proved the Experts Wrong.”)

My book, mentioned at the top, is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Economists Surprised by Strength of Economy

(p. B3) There are a lot of good things to say, and few bad things to say, about the November [2019] employment numbers that were published Friday morning.

Employers added 266,000 jobs, a blockbuster number even after accounting for the one-time boost of about 41,000 striking General Motors workers who returned to the job.

. . .

Still, there is a bigger lesson contained in the data, one that is important beyond any one month’s tally of the job numbers: that the American economy is capable of cranking at a higher level than conventional wisdom held as recently as a few years ago. As the economy continues to grow well above what once seemed like its potential, without inflation or other clear signs of overheating, it’s clearer that the old view of its potential was an extremely costly mistake.

The mainstream view of the economics profession — held by leaders of the Federal Reserve, the Congressional Budget Office, private forecasters and many in academia — was that the United States economy was at, or close to, full employment.

. . .

People often say that this expansion, now in its 11th year, is growing long in the tooth, or that we are late in the economic cycle. And maybe that’s right. But the biggest lesson when you contrast where the labor market stands at the end of 2019, versus where smart people thought it would stand just a few years ago, is that there’s a lot we don’t know about just what is possible and how strong the United States economy can get.

For the full story, see:

Neil Irwin. “In Hindsight, Economy Is Stronger Than It Looks.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 7, 2019): B3.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.]

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 6, 2019, and has the title “How a Strong Job Market Has Proved the Experts Wrong.”)

Local Chinese Governments, Buried in Debt, Ask Citizens for Loans

(p. B1) RUZHOU, China — When the call came for local doctors and nurses to step up for their troubled community, the emergency wasn’t medical. It was financial.

Ruzhou, a city of one million people in central China, urgently needed a new hospital, their bosses said. To pay for it, the administrators were asking health care workers for loans. If employees didn’t have the money, they were pointed to banks where they could borrow it and then turn it over to the hospital.

China’s doctors and nurses are paid a small fraction of what medical professionals make in the United States. On message boards online and in the local media, many complained that they felt pressured to pony up thousands of dollars they could not afford to give.

“It’s like adding insult to injury,” a message posted to an online government forum said. Others, speaking to state and local media, asked why money from lowly employees was needed to build big-ticket government projects.

Ruzhou is a city with a borrowing problem — and an emblem of the trillions of dollars in debt threatening the Chinese economy.

Local governments borrowed for years to create jobs and keep factories humming. Now China’s economy is slowing to its weakest pace in nearly three decades, but Beijing has kept the lending spigots tight to quell its debt problems.

For the full story, see:

Alexandra Stevenson and Cao Li. “China’s Complex Debt Problem.” The New York Times (Monday, November 11, 2019): B1-B2.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 10, 2019, and has the title “How Bad Is China’s Debt? A City Hospital Is Asking Nurses for Loans.”)