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The Economics of Asymmetric Information

In many situations in life, information is asymmetric: One person in a transaction knows more about what is going on than the other person. This possibility raises a variety of interesting problems for economic theory. Some of these problems were highlighted in our description of the theory of efficiency wages. These problems, however, go beyond the study of unemployment.

The worker-quality variant of efficiency-wage theory illustrates a general principle called adverse selection. Adverse selection arises when one person knows more about the attributes of a good than another and, as a result, the uninformed person runs the risk of being sold a good of low quality. In the case of worker quality, for instance, workers have better information about their own abilities than firms do. When a firm cuts the wage it pays, the selection of workers changes in a way that is adverse to the firm.

Adverse selection arises in many other circumstances. Here are two examples:

♦ Sellers of used cars know their vehicles' defects, whereas buyers often do not. Because owners of the worst cars are more likely to sell them than are the owners of the best cars, buyers are correctly apprehensive about getting a "lemon." As a result, many people avoid buying cars in the used car market.

♦ Buyers of health insurance know more about their own health problems than do insurance companies. Because people with greater hidden health problems are more likely to buy health insurance than are other people, the price of health insurance reflects the costs of a sicker-than-average person. As a result, people with average health problems are discouraged by the high price from buying health insurance.

In each case, the market for the product—used cars or health insurance—does not work as well as it might because of the problem of adverse selection.

Similarly, the worker-effort variant of efficiency-wage theory illustrates a general phenomenon called moral hazard. Moral hazard arises when one person, called the agent, is performing some task on behalf of another person, called the principal. Because the principal cannot perfectly monitor the agent's behavior, the agent tends to undertake less effort than the principal considers desirable. The term moral hazard refers to the risk of dishonest or otherwise inappropriate behavior by the agent. In such a situation, the principal tries various ways to encourage the agent to act more responsibly.

In an employment relationship, the firm is the principal and the worker is the agent. The moral-hazard problem is the temptation of imperfectly monitored workers to shirk their responsibilities. According to the worker-effort variant of efficiency-wage theory, the principal can encourage the agent not to shirk by paying a wage above the equilibrium level because then the agent has more to lose if caught shirking. In this way, high wages reduce the problem of moral hazard.

Moral hazard arises in many other situations. Here are some examples:

♦ A homeowner with fire insurance buys too few fire extinguishers. The reason is that the homeowner bears the cost of the extinguisher while the insurance company receives much of the benefit.

♦ A babysitter allows children to watch more television than the parents of the children prefer. The reason is that more educational activities require more energy from the babysitter, even though they are beneficial for the children.

♦ A family lives near a river with a high risk of flooding. The reason it continues to live there is that the family enjoys the scenic views, and the government will bear part of the cost when it provides disaster relief after a flood.

Can you identify the principal and the agent in each of these three situations? How do you think the principal in each case might solve the problem of moral hazard?

This story illustrates a general phenomenon. When a firm faces a surplus of workers, it might seem profitable to reduce the wage it is offering. But by reducing the wage, the firm induces an adverse change in the mix of workers. In this case, at a wage of $10, Waterwell has two workers applying for one job. But if Waterwell responds to this labor surplus by reducing the wage, the competent worker (who has better alternative opportunities) will not apply. Thus, it is profitable for the firm to pay a wage above the level that balances supply and demand.


Henry Ford was an industrial visionary. As founder of the Ford Motor Company, he was responsible for introducing modern techniques of production. Rather than building cars with small teams of skilled craftsmen, Ford built cars on assembly lines in which unskilled workers were taught to perform the same simple tasks over and over again. The output of this assembly process was the Model T Ford, one of the most famous early automobiles.

In 1914, Ford introduced another innovation: the $5 workday. This might not seem like much today, but back then $5 was about twice the going wage. It was also far above the wage that balanced supply and demand. When the new $5-a-day wage was announced, long lines of job seekers formed outside the Ford factories. The number of workers willing to work at this wage far exceeded the number of workers Ford needed.

Ford's high-wage policy had many of the effects predicted by efficiency-wage theory. Turnover fell, absenteeism fell, and productivity rose. Workers were so much more efficient that Ford's production costs were lower even though wages were higher. Thus, paying a wage above the equilibrium level

Workers outside an early Ford factory

was profitable for the firm. Henry Ford himself called the $5-a-day wage "one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made."

Historical accounts of this episode are also consistent with efficiency-wage theory. An historian of the early Ford Motor Company wrote, "Ford and his associates freely declared on many occasions that the high-wage policy turned out to be good business. By this they meant that it had improved the discipline of the workers, given them a more loyal interest in the institution, and raised their personal efficiency."

Why did it take Henry Ford to introduce this efficiency wage? Why were other firms not already taking advantage of this seemingly profitable business strategy? According to some analysts, Ford's decision was closely linked to his use of the assembly line. Workers organized in an assembly line are highly interdependent. If one worker is absent or works slowly, other workers are less able to complete their own tasks. Thus, while assembly lines made production more efficient, they also raised the importance of low worker turnover, high worker quality, and high worker effort. As a result, paying efficiency wages may have been a better strategy for the Ford Motor Company than for other businesses at the time.

I QUICK QUIZ: Give four explanations for why firms might find it profitable to pay wages above the level that balances quantity of labor supplied and quantity of labor demanded.

In this chapter we discussed the measurement of unemployment and the reasons why economies always experience some degree of unemployment. We have seen how job search, minimum-wage laws, unions, and efficiency wages can all help explain why some workers do not have jobs. Which of these four explanations for the natural rate of unemployment are the most important for the U.S. economy and other economies around the world? Unfortunately, there is no easy way to tell. Economists differ in which of these explanations of unemployment they consider most important.

The analysis of this chapter yields an important lesson: Although the economy will always have some unemployment, its natural rate is not immutable. Many events and policies can change the amount of unemployment the economy typically experiences. As the information revolution changes the process of job search, as Congress adjusts the minimum wage, as workers form or quit unions, and as firms alter their reliance on efficiency wages, the natural rate of unemployment evolves. Unemployment is not a simple problem with a simple solution. But how we choose to organize our society can profoundly influence how prevalent a problem it is.

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