With Due Respect to the Economists

As a former blue collar worker, I am always interested to hear from economists. As an undergraduate student, I sometimes scratched my head while ruminating over production possibility curves, measures of price elasticity, and consumer market baskets. Essentially, I thought I understood what the study of economics was attempting, and had no quarrel with the overall mission.

As a supporter of the labor movement, I sat through my academic study of labor law and was well-behaved through lectures on organized labor’s “inefficient cartels.” I was equally respectful (I’m my parents’ child) as other statistically-driven, social scientists explained the kinds of statements that employees found coercive in the context of labor organizing campaigns (I did not hold it against the scientists that practically everything they said ran roughshod over my private intuitions emerging from 15 years as a blue collar worker prior to attending law school).

And in the realm of workers’ compensation, my patience is similarly tested by the economists. First, I am told that the more generous workers’ compensation benefits are, the more injured workers will be encouraged to “malinger.” I cannot say that this is impossible, though I wonder what commentators think injured workers are doing when malingering. There are only so many Judge Judy episodes one can watch, after all. It would be a truly interesting social science experiment to survey what in the world the “injured-workers-as-malingerers” crowd imagines injured workers are doing while basking in the sun with the princely sum of 2/3 of the pre-injury weekly wage and level 8 back pain. Despite all of this I say, I can let it slide, and maintain my nearly perfect record of being patient with economists. Some employees malinger. Some maintain businesses on the side or work under the table while receiving benefits. Some eat potato chips and smoke unfiltered cigarettes. Some . . some . . . some.

Yet all good things must come to an end. Here is a proposition I can’t let go: “As injured workers receive higher levels of benefits they tend to engage in riskier behavior.” Oh please . . .     I will be less cautious with MY BODY if I know I can receive 2/3 of my gross average weekly wage (or 80% of my net or available earnings) for a longer period of time? Only someone who has never done a day’s dangerous work in his or her life could think such a thought. I have worked around heavy construction equipment, in warehouses, and on airport tarmacs. The thought that could mitigate my instinct to keep my arm from being hacked off?  There is no such thought. Could I find some deranged individual somewhere who thought like that?  No doubt. But please . . . please do not show me a chart purporting to prove this is generally true. I like “freakonomics” as much as the next curious observer — but this is a bridge too far. And when you try to convince me of such an absurdity, I am left to wonder about your actual motivations across the board.

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