Paid Sick Leave and Schelling Focal Points

Paid sick leave is something I want more people to have. Of course it’s a good thing. Sick leave is valuable, but it’s not free so we have to ask it it’s worth it.

Right around the 11:30 mark is a tragic and hilarious line: “Dildos are not essential items. Books for kids, yes, but dildos? … No!” Good for John Oliver noting that deciding what is essential isn’t straight forward–apparently frivolous things might keep people inside and so serve the public health.

This is a classic Austrian point: prices (are supposed to) communicate information about how urgently people want a product. We run into trouble trying to prevent prices from reflecting the underlying economic crappiness of a crisis. Price gouging should be allowed for toilet paper and especially for grocery/Amazon workers. And the price of grocery workers should be passed on to consumers.

What we’ve got now requires each of us to not only ask “am I willing to pay this price?” but also engage in a moral calculus that is hard. I have to ask (as a person striving to be moral) if it’s really worth ordering X, Y, and Z from Amazon. But as a person who has to strive to be moral, it’s entirely too easy to fall for bad rationalizations.

So how do we help these essential-yet-replaceable* workers? Paid sick leave sure sounds good. And given the externalities involved in a pandemic, there’s a strong argument for mandating it.

But it’s worth remembering (particularly as a long run policy) that if we push on one part of a compensation bundle, something’s going to give. If we require employers to provide a company car (or simply encourage company cars through preferential tax laws), we shouldn’t be surprised to see monetary compensation fall. The same logic applies to paid sick leave.

But I’m my own devil’s advocate, so let me make a counter argument. I rarely use my sick days. I think I’ve taken 2 or 3 in the last 6 years. (I’m absolutely reevaluating that position now!) There’s this idea floating around in the back of my head that tells me to just tough it out and keep working. This isn’t because I carefully weighed pros and cons, it’s just received “wisdom” picked up by osmosis from the broader culture.

American culture values work over value. There’s no shortage of bullshit work because we’re in a work-too-hard equilibrium. This is not to say that hard work doesn’t have benefits. I’m happy when ambitious entrepreneurs work “too” hard to provide greater value. But there are a lot of cases where we create work for its own sake (especially in the higher ed racket, but apparently we’re not alone).

Essentially, we’re all playing a coordination game where we choose between “[appear to] work to make things better” and “stay home instead of passing your illness to other people.” Given American work culture, the Schelling focal point is <work, work>.

On the compensation end of things employers have to decide between offering more sick leave or some other compensation (like money). In this end, there is some benefit to zigging where other employers zag. If I’m running the only business to offer paid paternity leave, I get my pick of the best family-oriented workers while my competitors have to outbid each other to get the best of the other workers. But any mid-level HR manager is more likely to play the risk-averse strategy of following “best practices.”

So we’re in an equilibrium that underrates sick leave. We want to be in an equilibrium where it’s just good business sense to offer sick leave during a global pandemic. But coming from our current equilibrium, offering sick leave is a costly decision to privately provide a public good; it’s unlikely to happen unless the culture already promotes it.

I think we can get that equilibrium. I think we’re already moving towards it (ask yourself: would the board of the East India Company be more likely to offer sick leave than Amazon?). But we’re not there yet.

Paid sick leave should be good business sense right now**. But it depends on a culture where such behavior is widespread. I’m not convinced we could flip a switch and get that culture over night. Given that, I’m at least somewhat okay with contradicting my libertarian priors and calling for emergency mandates for paid sick leave. 2020 America isn’t likely to coordinate on the “right” short-term solution and coercion is probably the most efficient*** way to deal with this common pool problem. But outside of a public health emergency we shouldn’t allow top down mandates about the mix of compensation offered in markets (certainly not with the sort of people we elect to be on top).


(A couple rhetorical points: First, John Oliver isn’t speaking the language of those on the right. They won’t even be convinced that the issues he’s talking about are important. I think that’s a shame. Second, this is a tough time to try to argue against paid sick leave. In 2020 America, mandatory paid sick leave is probably required because we’re at the wrong Schelling point. Again, I don’t think conservatives or right-libertarians will find Oliver’s motivations convincing, but I believe that they could be persuaded. But that’s another blog post.)

(Two important counterpoints to the above: first, price increases hurt the poor. The way to solve that is to give charity money to the poor, not to try to make markets communicate information about relative scarcity and act as charity–that’s half-assing twice and it’s bound to be more inefficient than the charity would be costly. Second many people categorized as “essential” aren’t in a position to demand higher wages*. I don’t have an easy solution to this issue. Let’s talk about it in the comments.)

*Which is to say, workers who are in the same position as water in the diamond-water paradox.
**Not to say it would be cheap or easy.
***There you go. Now my friends on the left can accuse me of being a bloodless economist for opposing paid sick leave in general, and my friends on the right can accuse me of being a bloodless economist for supporting