Friday, July 8, 2011

The 'Lump of Labor' Fallacy Revisited

There's a little newspaper up in Waterbury, Connecticut, the "Republican American" with a feisty, conservative editorial page that I generally enjoy. But this week, in an article on Medicare reforms that might include raising the eligibility age, the paper went off the rails.

But of greater concern are the unintended consequences attending a policy that would induce millions of Americans to continue working into their late 60s rather than retiring at 65. What would this mean in terms of workplace productivity and opportunity for younger workers? Nobody has given it much thought.

Nor should they. This is an example of the old "lump of labor" fallacy which holds that there is a fixed amount of work and, therefore, a fixed number of jobs to do it. It's false because, in normal times, the economy grows. Profits are saved and become the capital which is reinvested in the business improving productivity and profitability thus paving the way for new and expanded production requiring more workers.

Older workers contribute to that process of wealth creation and capital accumulation, too. In fact, with labor participation at its lowest since 1984, we need everyone working who wants to -- no matter their age.

Back in the seventies, I recall pundits worrying that there wouldn't be enough jobs for all the young Baby Boomers then entering the workforce (some were even concerned there weren't enough shares of stock for the young to invest in). They were speculating that the government might have to step in and make the older workers retire to provide room for the kids. And presumably be forced to sell their investment portfolios, too.

Of course, there was no problem. The economy grew and grew and, not only did it absorb the baby boomers, it made room for millions of women who had previously stayed at home to raise families. If we can get rid of the current administration in Washington, there's no reason to believe that it won't happen again either.

Otherwise, with current policies in place, we may have to start calling it the "lump of labor truism".

1 comment:

  1. The fallacy claim is itself a fallacy (ignoratio elenchi).