Thursday, January 17, 2013

Safety Nets and Canada

Dean Dad has an interesting observation:

I was reminded of that a few days ago, in a discussion with a Canadian colleague.  We have similar senses of humor, so we got to talking about The Kids In The Hall, SCTV, and national styles of humor.  (For my money, “Brain Candy” is a neglected classic of dark, dark, dark comedy.)  She offered the theory that Canada punches above its weight culturally because its social safety net -- health care most conspicuously -- makes it possible for people to take chances on creative careers.  As a result, they get Holly Cole, and we’re left with Adam Sandler. 

That was then expanded on in the comments

While I disagree with the specific point about Canada punching above its weight culturally (quick name a great Canadian film that's not "Strange Brew"), I do think that a robust safety net does make entrepreneurial risk taking more likely because people can afford to take the risk of starting a business without having to worry about losing health insurance or other benefits.
I used to have a state government job where this dynamic was apparent: the secretaries in the agency were fairly low paid, but had very good benefits. 3/4 of the secretaries in my officer were married to husbands who had their own small contracting or (vaguely) construction related business. They made much more than their wives made, but had no independent health benefits of their own  
I think that this is a neglected conversation.  The ability to take risks is not just driven by rewards but also by the costs of failure.  If you make the rewards extreme and failure punishing then you create incentives for cheating and "doing anything to win".

This effect shows up in a number of areas -- imagine you are a high school teacher diagnosed with a major illness.  In the real world, COBRA is unaffordable and unemployment is over eight percent.  You are teaching less well due to health issues.  One can see a lot of pressure to find a way -- any way -- to keep test scores above the retention threshold.

You can also see this with small businesses.  The reforms of bankruptcy law (making it harder to go bankrupt) and the cost of health care for those without insurance makes starting up a small firm really risky.  It makes a lot more sense to stay in your sub-optimal office job with the result that you have less innovation and dynamism in the economy.

These effects are just as predictable as free markets are and it can make a lot of sense to invest in ways to pool or mitigate the risk associated with being an innovator.

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