Shocking News: Union Guy Favors Occupational Licensure

The Google LFOD news alert rang for an article in the Boston Business Journal by one Lou Antonellis ("business manager/financial secretary at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 in Boston"). His goal is to tell readers that Mass. is right to play it safe on professional licenses. It is a screed in favor of occupational licensure. And it kind of pissed me off, and I've decided to look at it in a little more detail than usual.

We'll get to the LFOD part in a minute, but Lou's article begins… unpromisingly:

As licensed electricians, our jobs have always been risky. Construction is one of the most dangerous jobs around, with 12.5 deaths for every 100,000 workers. Electrocutions kill an average of 143 construction workers each year. Steep falls kill even more of us.

When we touch a live wire, we are relying on the years of training, and the continuing education, required by our licenses. We are also relying on the licenses of the electricians who worked on the worksite before us. The clients we work for, and passersby on the street, are all relying on those licenses, too.

Note the explicit assumption: licensure leads to increased safety.

Because it's not just electricians who are harmed by shoddy electrical work by unlicensed workers. Electrical hazards cause more than 300 deaths and 4,000 injuries each year among the U.S. workforce. Electrocution is sixth among causes of all workplace deaths in America, according to OSHA.

According to OSHA's 2018 accounting electrocution was the number three cause of fatalities in private industry ("excluding highway collisions" for some reason).

But even that high ranking resulted in "only" 86 deaths, not 300. A recent report issued by the National Fire Protection Association on fatal workplace electrical injuries provides historical numbers. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it found a total of 1651 worker deaths from electrical injuries over the 11-year period 2007-2016, an average of about 150/year.

"Even one death is too many" of course. But (if you would like) read it yourself for what's not there: there's no indication whatsoever that "shoddy electrical work by unlicensed workers" is a major factor in those deaths. Instead the major problem seems to be lack of proper precautions: not turning off the power to hot wires before working around them, for example.

So Lou is (at best) exaggerating. Let's move on. His real gripe is against people advocating licensure reform. And the contempt simply oozes:

The Pioneer Institute has released a so-called report by a college undergraduate student, arguing that burdensome Massachusetts licensure regulations are stifling the economy. But the study itself concluded that Massachusetts is actually in the bottom half of states when it comes to the number of professions that it regulates through licenses.

The report is not "so-called"; you can easily find a November 2019 Pioneer Institute blurb about it, which links to the (PDF) report (actually it calls itself a "white paper"). The author is one Alex Muresianu, (indeed) a junior econ student at Tufts.

Alex refers to an Institute of Justice (IJ) study License to Work. True enough, for that study, Massachusetts ranked 29th out of the 50 states plus D. C. in terms of number of occupations licensed. So, yeah, technically in the bottom half on that score. But also in the top 60%.

But what Lou doesn't mention is that the IJ study looked at lower-income occupations only. No doctors, lawyers, or even electricians.

Another thing Lou doesn't mention (but Alex's white paper does): the IJ study also found that Massachusetts' licensing requirements for those lower-income occupations were the tenth most burdensome in the nation.

And finally, Alec's report has actual numbers showing the economic impact of licensure. These are not rebutted by cherry-picking (and misrepresenting) a single factoid out of it.

So before Lou looks down his nose at a mere undergrad's white paper, maybe he could quote it fairly.

The Pioneer Institute advocates "license reform," but which jobs should go unlicensed? Certainly not pilots or doctors or nurses or lawyers. In these professions, everyone agrees that unskilled, unscrupulous workers have the opportunity to do real harm, physically or otherwise. This is equally true, of course, when it comes to the licensed construction trades.

Sigh. The "Conclusions" section of Alex's report has a number of specific recommendations for Massachusetts, which Lou ignores. Specifically, there's no recommendation that electricians go unlicensed.

In fact Alec's sole mention of electricians [footnote converted to link] contradicts Lou's fundamental assertion that we're all gonna die unless electricians are licensed:

While data about the impact of occupational licensing on public health or consumer welfare is scarce, existing literature indicates that stronger licensing requirements do not improve public health.

For example, a [Bureau of Labor Statistics] study of electricians from 1992 to 2007, during which time occupational licensing in the profession expanded dramatically across the country, found that these stricter regulations did not reduce workplace injuries and accidents.

And the LFOD that brought me to Lou's article? Ah, here tis:

How about "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire? Yes. Even New Hampshire has decided that it's better to regulate electricians than to risk deaths of workers and members of the public.

Well, yeah. New Hampshire is pretty free overall, but falls down generally in terms of occupational licensure.

Bottom line: the facts don't support Lou's argument; he doesn't deal fairly with opposing views. But (I guess) it would be silly to expect otherwise from a union guy.

Strictly Ballroom

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A Netflix streamer (which they do not offer, inexplicably, on DVD). For some reason, we didn't connect with this 1992 movie until now. And it hit all the right notes for me. (Can't believe the relatively mediocre IMDB rating.)

I notice that it was Baz Luhrmann's first effort as a screenwriter and director. He went on to other, better-known projects like Moulin Rouge! and the Leonardo DiCaprio version of The Great Gatsby.

But this is a relatively small movie, set inside the cutthroat world of … Australian competitive ballroom dancing! Young Scott is on his way to winning the big prize, but he's frustrating his handlers, his mom, and the (corrupt and stodgy) powers-that-be with his free-spirited dance moves. His dance partner is also dismissive, because she sees being paired with Scott as her shot at the Big Time! Scott feels a lot of pressure to conform to what everyone expects.

But lurking in the shadows is Fran, an admirer from afar. Glasses and a poor complexion make her an unlikely dance star, she's just a beginner, but Scott notices something about her. And the unlikely partnership takes shape. It helps that she takes off her glasses and her skin seems to clear up too.

You can probably sketch out the rest of the plot yourself. But there's a fantastic side trip when Scott travels to the Wrong Side of the Tracks to encounter Fran's Spanish immigrant family. And they turn out to be pretty good dancers themselves.