Posts

No One Wants to Work [For You] Anymore: The End of Oligopsony

[NB: Note the byline above, thanks. /~Rayne]

There are few ways faster to piss me off than to say, “Slackers don’t want to work” in response to the lack of candidates for low-wage jobs.

This is what it looks like when a monopsonic or oligopsonic labor market is broken. It looks like workers can pick and choose the opportunity which best suits their needs rather than grabbing the first opportunity offered them because they are in precarity.

An oligopsony (from Greek ὀλίγοι (oligoi) “few” and ὀψωνία (opsōnia) “purchase”) is a market form in which the number of buyers is small while the number of sellers in theory could be large. This typically happens in a market for inputs where numerous suppliers are competing to sell their product to a small number of (often large and powerful) buyers. … [Wikipedia]

But there are more than one buyer (monopsony) or even very few buyers (oligopsony) of labor, you might say. Superficially you’d have a point.

Inside a one-mile stretch of the main thoroughfare where I live in Midwestern Suburbia, I can find 8-12 signs advertising job openings right now. I’ve lived here since the late 1970s and I’ve never seen this many postings for jobs.

Every single one of these jobs pays between $3.67 (Michigan’s minimum tipped hourly wage) and $15.00 an hour. None of them are full time, most have variable schedules, and only one place assures workers one weekend day off every week. None of them offer health care or childcare assistance of any kind. None of them offer enough hours regularly with enough compensation to pay for a one-bedroom apartment within walking distance, and likely not within a 10-mile radius.

Until the pandemic, these employers were able to tell workers what they’d pay, take it or leave it. They could act in concert without having to coordinate to set market pricing because it was simply understood by workers that hourly workers’ pay fell in this range and it was an employers’ market.

Employers have acted like a cartel, with collusion on price fixing for labor enabled by other monopolistic entities like Facebook and Google.

Workers may have thought they had some inside information through access to technology, but the same resources which informed them what to expect for compensation also told employers what to indicate as expected compensation. It told them what their competitors were paying.

Further, employers could buy the continuation of their high profits, I mean, low wage environment, simply by donating to a member of Congress directly or through a business association like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These same purchased entities also did their best over the last several decades to reduce workers’ rights and suppress unionization.

It’s been cheaper and more reliable to buy a GOP member of Congress than to increase automation or to pay workers a living wage.

It’s also worked so well for so long that idiots like Sen. Marco Rubio unquestioningly parrot employers’ complaints as plain fact, ignoring how many voters are workers while sucking up to potential business donors:


Never mind the cost of living for low-wage workers, though.


Seriously, Marco Rubio is a bought-and-paid-for moron who, along with the rest of the GOP, could give a shit about the lives of the working class.

What the pandemic has done is broken the undocumented employer cartel and exposed the lack of bargaining power low-wage employees have had for decades. That unemployment compensation — a ridiculously low figure which doesn’t truly provide subsistence income — is more than what employers have paid these workers is revealing. They’ve gotten away with forcing precarity on workers to keep profits up, distorting whether their business models were legitimate. Some of the precarity is bound up in deliberately unlawful behavior including wage theft.

With a bare minimum of unemployment and pandemic aid, these workers have had breathing room to decide whether to go back to work and risk their health, or wait for more people to be vaccinated. They’ve had financial space to stay with their kids who still don’t have adequate childcare available or adequate support should schools need to transition back to remote classes on short notice.

These workers have also simply had enough — enough putting themselves at risk, jeopardizing their families’ health, enough of being bullied by employers and customers alike.




This is just pathetic — a sandwich? Employers are going to respond to all that’s wrong with current working conditions by chumming applicants with sandwiches?


McDonald’s franchises have been offering cash ranging from $50 in Florida to $500 in Pennsylvania to applicants who showed up for an interview. At least one franchise is alleged to have called the state’s unemployment bureau to turn in applicants who didn’t accept their employment offer, in an effort to terminate their unemployment benefits.

All these nasty anti-worker machinations just to avoid paying a living wage, which employers know is the reason they aren’t landing applicants:

So, in an effort to attract new employees, a Tampa McDonald’s is now promising $50 to anyone who just shows up for an interview.

Local McDonald’s franchise owner Blake Casper, who also owns Oxford Exchange, told Business Insider that a manager at his Dale Mabry and Chestnut location came up with the idea, but far so it hasn’t really yielded much success. …

Of course, one way to attract new employees is to just pay them more, and while he hasn’t done it yet, Casper told Business Insider he’s now considering raising starting wages to $13. As of now, according to a job posting on Indeed.com for the same Dale Mabry McDonald’s location, new employees can make up to $11.50 an hour.

Last year, more than 60% of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to raise Florida’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by the year 2026.

Workers clearly believe 2026 is too long to wait for a living wage — and $15 an hour in 2026 may not be a living wage by then, given the rate at which real estate investors have forced rental prices out of reach for low-wage workers.

Employers know better, and yet they have the goddamned balls to ask for more free labor:


Mind you, no more than three free days a month or the company might get in trouble — oh, and do be sure to dress like you’re being paid for it.

Workers would rather bust hump on their own, eat deterioration of their own vehicle and amortize it rather than take a minimum wage hourly job:


When they work as a contractor on a gig job, it pays better and their boss isn’t a bullying asshole who puts their safety at risk.

But of course the GOP has a problem with helping these small business persons with their tiny entrepreneurial aspirations who are trying to earn a living wage while not risking their physical and mental health:


Meanwhile, journalists aren’t asking key questions, rolling over and playing dead for the likes of Marco Rubio when he trots out the fascist conventional wisdom that workers are lazy. They aren’t asking businesses if they’re re-examining their business model the way workers have had to re-examine their priorities.


The least we and journalists should be doing: asking business-owned chumps like Rubio more pointed questions about employers, especially when they’re buying support yachts for their mega-yachts:

Goodbye, American Dream: The Unaffordability of American Life

My oldest sent me a text this past weekend:

Also houses down here are going for 1.5x value. [Friend] put an offer in at 200k for house selling for 160k and it ended up selling for 240k. There’s no way it’ll appraise that high but EVERY house is selling like that.

Folks in big coastal metro areas will laugh at these prices, but until recently $160,000 bought a 900-1200 square foot home, three bedrooms and two bathrooms, a basement and a two-car garage in a suburban setting here in Michigan. At this price one wouldn’t find a brand new home but one between 10 to 50 years old, with a medium sized suburban lot. If one was really lucky, the house would be move-in ready, the yard would be fenced, and there might be a shed in the backyard for the lawn mower.

A young professional earning $80 to $100,000 a year could afford this and a family and still have a tiny bit left over to put in retirement savings.

But it’s a stretch at $200,000, and absolutely out of their range at $240,000. They may not even have the 20-25% down payment for this larger price, and the housing market has tightened so quickly they certainly haven’t been able to come up with an additional $20 to $40,000 to put down.

Wall Street Journal reported last week that as much as a third of single-family residential housing is now being snapped up by investors.

Big foreign investment firms that buy office buildings, hotels and shopping centers around the world have a new favorite real-estate play: single-family homes in American suburbs.

These institutions are partnering with U.S. housing companies to buy or build rental homes by the thousands. In suburban neighborhoods near cities such as Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix, blocks of families are sending monthly rent checks to ventures backed by Canadian pension funds, European insurers, and Asian or Middle Eastern government-run funds.

The overseas investors are following in the footsteps of many big U.S. investment firms and pension funds, which started buying single-family homes on a large scale in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

This may well explain the huge jump in prices over the last 12-18 months.

The situation is so bad it’s become a joke on TikTok and Twitter:

Speculation is doing to residential property what it did to oil prices before June 2008 when Congress passed legislation requiring an increase from 10% to 30% margin on options. Oil prices then dropped greatly, but not enough fast enough to prevent economic Jenga – many mortgages failed because homeowners had to choose between a tank of gas to get to work or making their house payment.

~ ~ ~

Now imagine the frustration of a prospective house buyer like [Friend] above. They’re a two-career household with a small family, which means they have car payments, childcare expenses which likely exceed car payments, and student loans they’ll be paying down for at least another decade if they are trying to juggle all these expenses.

They’ve scrimped and saved, kept their lifestyle minimal – not hard to do if you’ve had to weigh going to the movies on a date night against the cost of a babysitter and movie tickets – and they’ve amassed enough cash to put down 20% on a house and been pre-approved for a mortgage between $120,000 and $160,000. The higher end would be a push for them but sometimes the right house is a little pricier.

And then the dream for which they’ve scrimped and saved is gone in a heartbeat. As soon as they see the house on market they bid but they couldn’t counteroffer enough money fast enough and it’s gone.

Even in a pandemic with so many people out of work, the right house is gone.

It’s probably been sold to a speculator who will put it up for rent at a price which is the same as [Friend]’s mortgage payment would have been, but at that price there’s no room to save any extra money.

And that’s what it’s like in the Midwest. What’s it like in more densely-populated coastal states?

How do young people who are competing for jobs on a national basis, earning pay which doesn’t adjust all that much for location, buy a home and attain the American Dream?

They’re giving up children to do this, we can see that by the flat to falling birth rates.

A major one. The National Bureau of Economic Research says that the largest component of child-rearing costs is housing. And the cost of housing in America has skyrocketed. The median U.S. home in 1953 cost $18,080, or about $177,000 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars. Today, the median home price is $301,000. Young people who cannot afford homes or even a two-bedroom apartment are less inclined to marry and to have children. One 2014 study published in the Journal of Public Economics explicitly linked housing costs to fertility, suggesting that for every $10,000 jump in housing values, fertility among nonowners fell 2.4 percent. Economists also point to the fact that the fertility rate has fallen every year since 2007, and suggest that the Great Recession compelled many Millennials to put off child-rearing for years. “What we learned from the Great Recession is that every 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate reduces births by 1 percent,” said Wellesley College economics professor Phil Levine.

And in places like the greater San Francisco area they go homeless, living in their vehicles because they can’t afford rent *if* there’s rental housing available.

~ ~ ~

One solution to this mess is reducing student loan burdens. Getting tens of millions of young people out from underneath $50,000 and a decade or more of payments would free them to have children and/or buy a home.

I hesitate to say they may also save for retirement but it’s possible they’re not able to until they are out from under their student loans.

This problem may explain why so many young people have jumped at online trading apps like Robinhood, causing increased volatility in the stock market. They can get in with very little money, get out quickly, and do it all over again rapidly. It offers them a chance to increase their asset value though it does nothing for the overall stock market while compromising their personal data privacy.

But putting some portion of their meager savings in the stock market isn’t a solution — it’s far too risky, too easily gamed (hah, GameStop, get it?). It’s not a prudent approach to funding necessities.

Getting out from under student loan debt, though, would be a doable help with very little downside.

~ ~ ~

Removing at least part of student loan debt from younger consumers’ shoulders will act as an economic stimulus, too. Those who are able to end their loan payments will be able to spend more of their income on expenses they’ve deferred in addition to housing.

Employment should rise as demand increases, and a tighter employment market will help boost some if not all wages.

Which brings us to the section of the market which may not benefit directly from canceling student debt. Workers who make minimum wage or are employed in tipped hourly jobs can’t afford to buy the average home in the U.S.; they are struggling to pay rent let alone save a down payment. Many of them are students.

Do the math:

Minimum federal wage $7.25  x  40 hour week  x  52 weeks  =  $15,080 a year.

That’s nowhere near enough to make a payment on the median home priced at $301,000. It’s not enough for a tiny dump of a house at one-third of median price.

The equation above already contains numerous generous assumptions: the employee makes 1) minimum federal wage, 2) at a full-time job, 3) for the entire year. For most minimum wage workers, at least one of these three points doesn’t apply. Most employers who hire minimum wage workers avoid paying unemployment taxes by employing workers less than full time, which means a minimum wage worker must work two jobs (or more) to make $15,080.

Forget about it if the worker holds down a tipped hourly job; while in some cases tips can be quite good, the base wage in at least 16 states is $2.13 an hour. On a bad day it may cost a worker more to show up than they make if they pay for any form of transportation besides shoe leather or a bicycle.

The minimum wage must be raised if roughly 1.8 million Americans have any chance at saving a down payment on a house, let alone buying one. And if businesses aren’t already increasing wages now during pandemic market conditions, they’re not likely to do so unless they’re forced to by law.

~ ~ ~

Canceling a big chunk of student loan debt and raising the minimum wage will still not be enough to help tens of millions of Americans afford to buy their own home.

Once these folks have more disposable income and increase demand on the housing market, speculators will swamp the market even more so than they are right now.

(Domestic policy aside, it’s a marvelous way to ratchet up class conflict by locking out a couple generations of potential homebuyers if a hostile country’s sovereign fund was looking to both invest and destabilize the U.S. at the same time.)

Canada’s domestic housing policy encourages home owner occupancy of single family homes; speculative investment is far less than it is in the U.S. It hasn’t solved their housing market problems — Toronto housing is incredibly expensive — but it does reduce competition for homes.

There must be some form of legislation which reduces market demand by speculators so that the only participants in the single-family home market are single families.

There should be some limitation on speculation for multi-family housing so that rental properties remain affordable. Eliminating overseas buyers or funds is one possibility.

~ ~ ~

We’ll hear all kinds of caterwauling about how unfair it is that some students will have all their debt paid for them by canceling $50,000  while they had to pay for all their student’s education.

Bah. They can suck it up.

This month I finished shelling out a total of $200,000 for two kids to go to college. This doesn’t include what I’ve paid for their cell phone, health care insurance, and for the vehicles and auto insurance they’ve needed.

$200K covered tuition, books, fees and some of the housing and food for one kid on a half ride to a private school, and a kid at a Big 10 public university. Both kids worked throughout their four-year programs and paid for their own gasoline and rent off campus, along with some sundries.

Because of this investment in them I’ve got to come up with income for another seven-plus years to pay for my health care, but at least my kids have a fighting chance right now that most of their cohort don’t have. They don’t need to live at home with me to scrimp and save. They can move out out state and chase a better job.

But even with this investment in both of my kids it will take years for them to save enough to make a down payment on a home and have a 6-month cushion in the bank.

I don’t resent the fact they don’t have school loans which might be canceled. What I resent is that they don’t have the kind of world I had as a young adult, where if one worked hard they could make enough money to get ahead and expect a better life. (I do resent having to pay through the nose, five to ten times over what I paid for college, but that’s another matter.)

If housing prices jump 20-60% almost overnight, my kids don’t have that chance. They can’t expect their friends to uniformly have that chance, either, as [Friend]’s situation demonstrates.

If their entire cohort is stifled by student loan debt, wages stagnant for decades, and competition for housing from speculation, even steep parental investment isn’t enough to help them tread water.

And if all of their cohort of 20-somethings are stuck in the same boat, the entire economy is deeply skewed and screwed. Whatever assessment analysts are making of the stock market and the economy is manipulated by this iceberg of frozen, frustrated demand which cannot remain in stasis forever.

Something has to give.

We can start with canceling $50,000 student debt, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and eliminating overseas speculation from the housing market while limiting single-family homes to sales between occupants and their heirs.