On Monopsony and Legal Surroundings

A few days ago, in reply to this December NBER study, David Henderson at EconLog questioned the idea that labor market monopsonies matter to explain sluggish wage growth and rising wage inequality. Like David, I am skeptical of this argument. However, I am skeptical for different reasons.

First, let’s point out that the reasoning behind this story is well established (see notably the work of Alan Manning). Firms with market power over a more or less homogeneous labor force which must assume a disproportionate amount of search costs have every incentive to depress wages. This can lead to reductions in growth as, notably, it discourages human capital formation (see these two papers here and here as examples). As such, I am not as skeptical of “monopsony” as an argument.

However, I am skeptical of “monopsony” as an argument. Well, what I mean is that I am skeptical of considering monopsony without any qualifications regarding institutions. The key condition to an effective monopsony is the existence of barriers (natural and/or legal to mobility). As soon as it is relatively easy to leave a small city for another city, then even a city with a single-employer will have little ability to exert his “market power” (Note: I really hate that word). If you think about it simply through these lenses, then all that matters is the ability to move. All you need to care about are the barriers (legal and/or natural) to mobility (i.e. the chance to defect).

And here’s the thing. I don’t think that natural barriers are a big deal. For example, Price Fishback found that the “company towns” im the 19th century were hardly monopsonies (see here, here, here and here). If natural barriers were not a big deal, they are certainly not a big deal today. As such, I think the action is largely legal. My favorite example is the set of laws adopted following the Emancipation of slaves in the United States which limited the mobility (by limiting the chances of Northerners hiring agents to come who would act as headhunters in the South). That is a legal barrier (see here and here). I am also making that argument regarding the institution of seigneurial tenure in Canada in a working paper that I am reorganizing (see here).

What about today? The best example are housing restrictions? Well, housing construction and zoning regulations basically make the supply of housing quite inelastic. The areas where these regulations are the most severe are also, incidentally, high productivity areas. This has two effects on mobility. The first is that low-productivity workers in low-productivity areas cannot easily afford to move to the high-productivity area. As such, you are reducing their options of defection and increasing the likelihood that they will not look. You are also reducing the pool of places to apply which means that, in order to find a more remunerative job, they must search longer and harder (i.e. you are increasing their search costs). The second effect is that you are also tying workers to the areas they are in. True, they gain because the productivity becomes capitalized in the potential rent from selling any property they own. However, they are in essence tied to the place. As such, they can be more easily mistreated by employers.

These are only examples. I am sure I could extend the list to reach the size of the fiscal code (well, maybe not that much). The point is that “monopsony” (to the extent that it exists) is merely a symptom of other policies that either increase search costs for workers or reduce the number of options for defections. And I do not care much for analyzing symptoms.