Populism, Fairness and Competition: Should We Care and What Could We Do?

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The rise of populism in a number of countries is one of the most visible signs of the weakening of enthusiasm for trade liberalization and market competition. Market competition is increasingly denounced as leading to unfair results by those who lose jobs, and in some cases risk losing their employment prospects because of the pressure of competition, or those who see their wages stagnate or be reduced. Their perception is that pro‐competitive policies benefit capitalists and a small coterie of highly skilled workers to the detriment of the low‐skilled majority. In a number of countries there have been calls by politicians to reconsider the trade liberalization policy which was actively pursued in recent decades and to change the standard applied by competition law enforcers from a strict consumer welfare standard to a consideration of the trade‐off between efficiency and fairness. The competition community has, to a large extent, strongly resisted such possibilities, arguing that protectionist policies had failed in the past and that the concept of fairness is at best vague, lack economic foundation, and could lead to a weakening of incentives to achieve efficient static and dynamic performances. The article examines three issues related to this debate. First, we examine the theoretical and practical reasons for which some categories of workers lose in the competitive process. Second, we discuss the relationship between inequality and fairness and the contribution of behavioural economics to the exploration of what people consider to be fair or unfair in vertical relationships (i.e. between employees and employers or between consumers and suppliers). Third, we discuss alternative ways in which competition authorities could reconcile fairness and efficiency in their advocacy or enforcement activities.

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Equity concerns in antitrust could justify market power in return for a fairer allocation by weighing the consumer welfare of certain disadvantaged groups more heavily. A simple example of an equity-justified agreement illustrates how seeking distributive justice through relaxed antitrust enforcement is ineffective and inefficient. Permitting competitors to jointly set prices gives them the power to price discriminate, which they could use to redistribute wealth by overcharging the rich and giving lower than competitive prices to the poor. Provided society values redistribution enough, such a ‘Robin Hood cartel’ is profitable, despite losing money on the poor and creating deadweight losses. Yet the poor will be given only what is minimally required in return for permission to take from the rich. Without conditions, the joint-profit maximizing wealth redistribution is nothing more than alms for the poor. They receive more under a full-payout plan, but total deadweight losses remain high. In essence, assigning a larger relative consumer welfare weight to the poor discounts the inefficiencies on the rich.
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Significance Unemployment has devastating effects on people’s economic and social circumstances. Its negative effects on mental health and subjective well-being are also well documented. However, until now, there has been no quantitative evaluation of the moral consequences of unemployment. Here, using behavioral experiments and an unusual subject engagement strategy, we present evidence that becoming unemployed erodes the extent to which a person acknowledges earned entitlement, i.e., acknowledges an individual’s right to that gained through his or her own effort or endeavor. This finding has important implications for the way we should think about economic and political systems. It indicates that, in addition to a causal link running from preferences to outcomes, there exists a feedback loop from outcomes to preferences that needs to be taken into account when considering system dynamics.
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China’s emergence as a great economic power has brought an epochal shift in patterns of world trade. This shift has toppled much of the received empirical wisdom about how labor markets adjust to trade shocks. Alongside its heralded consumer benefits, trade has both significant distributional costs, which theory has long recognized, and substantial adjustment costs, which the literature has tended to downplay. These adjustment costs mean that trade impacts are most visible not in national-level outcomes for broad skill types, as canonical theory would suggest, but in the local labor markets in which the industries most exposed to foreign competition are concentrated. Adjustment in local labor markets is remarkably slow, with wages and local laborforce participation rates remaining depressed, local unemployment rates remaining elevated, and public transfer benefits take-up rising across a spectrum of programs for at least a full decade after trade shocks commence. Within impacted localities, the workers who are most affected by rising trade exposure are those initially employed in firms that compete most directly with China. These workers, and in particular those in lower earnings deciles, experience greater job churning and reduced lifetime income. Recent literature also addresses the aggregation of local-level impacts of trade shocks into national-level outcomes. Employment has fallen in U.S. industries more exposed to import competition, as expected. So too has overall employment in the local labor markets in which these industries were concentrated. Offsetting employment gains in non-tradables, export-oriented tradables, or imported-input-using industries have yet to materialize. Better understanding when and where trade is costly, and how and why it may be beneficial, are key items on the research agenda for trade and labor economists.
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In this paper, we argue that important labor market phenomena can be better understood if one takes (i) the inherent incompleteness and relational nature of most employment contracts and (ii) the existence of reference-dependent fairness concerns among a substantial share of the population into account. Theory shows and experiments confirm, that even if fairness concerns were only to exert weak effects in one-shot interactions, repeated interactions greatly magnify the relevance of such concerns on economic outcomes. We also review evidence from laboratory and field experiments examining the role of wages and fairness on effort, derive predictions from our approach for entry-level wages and incumbent workers' wages, confront these predictions with the evidence, and show that reference-dependent fairness concerns may have important consequences for the effects of economic policies such as minimum wage laws.
Nel corso degli ultimi anni, il tema della disuguaglianza economica ha assunto una particolare rilevanza, anche in ragione degli effetti prodotti dalla crisi economica. L'articolo esamina il modo in cui le preoccupazioni pubbliche circa la crescente disuguaglianza possono stimolare proposte di modifica dell'antitrust e della politica della concorrenza. Inoltre, esso delinea i canali attraverso i quali il potere di mercato contribuisce al divario economico, prospettando un ventaglio di possibili aggiustamenti della politica antitrust che potrebbero essere considerati quale risposta al potere di mercato e, piu in generale, al problema dalla disuguaglianza.
An interview survey was designed to explore how personnel managers and senior wage negotiators respond to popular models of the labor market. As in A. S. Blinder and D. H. Choi (1990), the authors' results indicate that relative wages and notions of fairness are important, and that this may explain nominal wage rigidity. The authors find much evidence of efficiency wage mechanisms. The reactions to some questions also point to theories based on rent-sharing. Moreover, while underbidding is not that uncommon, firms seem quite unwilling to hire underbidders. The authors also obtain indications of adverse selection problems. Copyright 1995 by The editors of the Scandinavian Journal of Economics.
We document the results of a repeat survey, which updates Agell and Lundborg (1995) , on wage rigidity in a sample of 159 Swedish manufacturing firms, conducted during the severe Swedish recession of the 1990s. It is found that not even a prolonged period of very high unemployment and quite low inflation softened workers' resistance to wage cuts. We discuss possible reasons for this. In addition, we report new evidence on underbidding, efficiency-wage mechanisms, and unemployment persistence. Copyright The editors of the "Scandinavian Journal of Economics", 2002 .
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