The Next Social Science Firestorm

You might not take much notice—in fact you’d be at risk of falling asleep—if you stumbled across this abstract of a recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research by three highly regarded labor economists:

Not Working at Work: Loafing, Unemployment and Labor Productivity

Michael BurdaKatie R. GenadekDaniel S. Hamermesh

We use the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) 2003-12 to estimate time spent by workers in non-work while on the job. Non-work time is substantial and varies positively with the local unemployment rate. While average time spent by workers in non-work conditional on any positive amount rises with the unemployment rate, the fraction of workers reporting positive values varies pro-cyclically, declining in recessions. These results are consistent with a model in which heterogeneous workers are paid efficiency wages to refrain from loafing on the job. That model correctly predicts relationships of the incidence and conditional amounts of non-work with wage rates and measures of unemployment benefits in state data linked to the ATUS, and it is consistent with estimated occupational differences.

As you can imagine, the paper is full of lots of data analysis, advanced math, and dense prose.

Okay, still awake? If not, this will wake you up: the three authors have a second version of this paper out through the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), which strikes a rather different tone:

Racial/Ethnic Differences in Non-Work at Work


Evidence from the American Time Use Survey 2003-12 suggests the existence of small but statistically significant racial/ethnic differences in time spent not working at the workplace. Minorities, especially men, spend a greater fraction of their workdays not working than do white non-Hispanics. These differences are robust to the inclusion of large numbers of demographic, industry, occupation, time and geographic controls. They do not vary by union status, public-private sector attachment, pay method or age; nor do they arise from the effects of equal-employment enforcement or geographic differences in racial/ethnic representation. The findings imply that measures of the adjusted wage disadvantages of minority employees are overstated by about 10 percent.

The conclusion of this study includes the following:

We rejected a large range of explanations for the differences in effort based on incentives at work facing minorities. Similarly, they are not explained by differences in the amounts and kinds of activities undertaken outside the workplace. Rather, they are consistent with cultural differences that lead minorities to be more relaxed about life, including life in the workplace, than are non- minority workers, and to be more willing to mix non-work with work.

Uh oh. Can you say anything about “cultural differences” with adverse economic effects in an academic publication, even with social science regressions? The three authors are apparently liberals, as The Economist‘s write up of the study reports:

Acutely aware of the sensitivity of these findings, the professors delayed publication until after the presidential election. “I knew full well that Trump and his minions would use it as a propaganda piece,” says Mr Hamermesh, a colourful and respected labour economist. The paper may yet be seized on by those who are keen to root out “political correctness” and are perennially unhappy with current anti-discrimination laws.

But being a good liberal offers no immunity for crossing a taboo line:

Uncomfortable though the topic may be, the authors have attempted a rigorous analysis. Denunciations came quickly, however. Within hours of publication, Mr Hamermesh received vitriolic messages and was labelled a racist in an online forum popular among economists. Mr Hamermesh, an avowed progressive, who refers to Donald Trump only by amusing nicknames and resigned from a post at the University of Texas over a state law permitting the open carrying of firearms, finds this unfair. He notes that Americans work too much. His preferred solution would not be for some groups to work more, but for others to work less.

Before long I expect Prof. Hamermesh will wish he’d taken his own advice, and worked less hard on this project. Stay tuned. . .