“Quiet Quitting” And Labor Day

Happy Labor Day! On this day set aside to celebrate working people–and give them a day off, too–it’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about work and jobs and a supposedly recent development in the labor sector: “quiet quitting.”

“Quiet quitting” has been the subject of a lot of discussion recently, in articles like this one. It’s a seemingly elastic concept that can mean different things to different people. For some, the notion is all about setting boundaries; you will work hard during the normal workday but not take on additional responsibilities that would intrude into your private life and produce burnout. For others, it means doing the least amount of work needed to avoid getting fired by an employer who recognizes that, in the current labor market, it may not be able to find someone better to fill the position. “Quiet quitting” evidently got that name on TikTok, where “quiet quitters” have been posting videos about their decisions.

Of course, “quiet quitting” might have a modern brand, but the underlying idea is nothing new. Anyone who has worked for any length of time has had “quiet quitters” as co-workers. I remember some from my first job, as a “bag boy” at the Big Bear grocery store in Kingsdale Shopping Center circa 1973. They were the guys you didn’t want to get matched up with on a project, like retrieving abandoned carts from the parking lot so the in-store supply was fully stocked. You knew they would retrieve a few carts at a deliberate pace, but you would do most of the work so the two of you wouldn’t get reprimanded by the boss. I quickly decided that I didn’t want to be a “bare minimum” guy, always at risk of getting canned, but since then I’ve also been fortunate to have jobs in my working career that I found interesting and well worth the investment of some extra, “off the clock” time.

Is “quiet quitting” a bad thing? I don’t think it is, but in any event it is a reality. The labor market, like the rest of the economy, is subject to the law of supply and demand. “Quiet quitting” is a product of the invisible hand at work; it reflects the fact that the demand for workers right now exceeds the supply. There is nothing wrong with sending a message to an employer that employees won’t put up with having new responsibilities piled on their plate without fair compensation–that’s one of the signals that allows the invisible hand to work.

But “quiet quitting” also has a potential cost, and a potential risk. The cost might be the impact on your self perception and your reputation among your co-workers, as well as the chance you might be developing the habit of settling rather than going out and finding a new job that is better suited to your interests. The risk is that the balance of supply and demand in the labor market shifts–giving the employer the option of upgrading the workforce, leaving the “quiet quitters” without a job and, perhaps, without a recommendation as they look for a new one.

Stimulation Follies

High gas prices these days are a continuing shock to drivers. But what’s even more shocking, in my view, is the fact that some lawmakers propose to deal with the skyrocketing pump prices by sending more “stimulus” checks to residents, who can then use the money to pay for the expensive gas.

In Congress, Democratic lawmakers have proposed a bill that would send as much as $300 per month to families as long as the average price for gas in the country exceeds $4 a gallon. And in California, which has the highest average gas prices in the nation, Governor Gavin Newsom proposes to send $400 in direct payments per vehicle, capped at two vehicles, to all Californians.

We’ve apparently gotten to the point where the reflexive political response to every problem is to send checks to people. You can argue about whether such “stimulus” checks make sense in the face of a recession, or when people lose their jobs due to government-ordered pandemic shutdowns, but does any rational person actually think they are a sensible way of dealing with high gas prices?

Elementary economics teaches that commodity prices respond to the law of supply and demand and are a classic example of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that guides the setting of prices. The best way to deal with high gas prices is to increase the supply (something that will necessarily happen, in the absence of restraints on production, as producers seek to cash in on high prices) while letting the high prices have their inevitable dampening effect on demand. Consumers can modify their behavior to minimize their need for gas–by car pooling, by using public transportation, by consolidating their trips to the store, and by cancelling that driving vacation this summer, among others–and if they do so the “demand” side of the equation will fall. With increased supply and reduced demand, the “invisible hand” will move prices lower.

Stimulus checks to deal with high gas prices therefore are a colossally bad idea, because they artificially interfere with the “demand” part of the pricing equation. Consumers who get the checks will be less likely to engage in those possible methods of minimizing their use of gas, demand for gas will remain high as a result, and the demand pressure will help to keep gas prices at an elevated level. Sending stimulus checks as a way of dealing with gas prices is akin to smashing the fingers of the “invisible hand.”

Outside of California, it isn’t clear that the gas price-stimulus check proposal will get much traction; there are signs that Congress may recognize that such spending makes no sense under the circumstances. It remains to be seen whether Governor Newsom can convince the California legislature to adopt his approach–but if he does, Californians can expect to be dealing with high gas prices a lot longer than the rest of us.