Why paying less (sometimes) buys you more


Suppose you’re an employer trying to hire for an important position. Maybe your organization is (or seems) socially beneficial, so some people genuinely care about your mission, or maybe the role is quite enjoyable for some. Either way, the position provides potential employees something they care significantly about beyond the pay.

Still, no one is going to do it for free, and you have to decide how much compensation to offer. The naive, Econ 101-strawman thing to do is to choose the salary that will just barely attract one qualified person to fill the role.

But, obviously, “qualified” is doing a lot of work here. There’s a reason that real firms interview dozens of candidates for a single slot, even though they could save money and make hiring easier by offering less. Namely, higher wages attract more qualified and experienced candidates, increase employee satisfaction (and thus productivity), and decrease turnover. In general, above-market-clearing wages offered for these reasons are known as “efficiency wages.”


At first glance, it seems that higher wages attract better candidates, who in turn make for better employees. In general, I think this is correct. However, employers face the timeless challenge of selecting from a pool of candidates with only a few pieces of information about each, none of which are exceptionally indicative of future job performance. Attracting more candidates isn’t always a good (or even neutral) thing - you might accidentally hire someone who performs worse than his resume and interview indicated.

Basically everyone cares about money, but not everyone cares to the same degree. So, offering a nicer salary will attract better candidates, but it will also attract candidates who generally care more about money relative to the intrinsic value of the job itself - whether contributing to a mission they care about or having fun at work.

When placing high relative value on the position itself is a strong, positive indicator of future job performance, offering more money can make for worse hiring decisions. Likewise, even when the net effect of offering more money is positive, it might be less beneficial than you’d first expect.

A few examples:

Public defenders

Public defenders make an average of about $61,000 annually. Not nothing, but far less than the ~$120,000 among lawyers at large cited even by this very pessimistic article. Public defending is notoriously demanding and time-consuming as well, so the discrepancy is unlikely to reflect more pleasant work.

So, are public defenders the runts of the legal profession - those unable to secure more lucrative positions? I doubt it. The position is considered noble and praiseworthy, even among laypeople like myself. I am quite confident that its function as a barrier, however insufficient, between the poor and mass incarceration at least partially motivates many who serve.

But my point is not merely that states get away with paying public defenders so little. Holding salary constant, there is probably a correlation between being one’s willingness to forego monetary compensation for the greater good and the skill and effort one will dedicate to the work itself.

In other words, public defenders will probably tend to be better and harder-working than the typical lawyer who gets paid $61,000 to do what is perceived as morally-neutral work. A lawyer who chooses to become a public defender must (generally) want to actually do the job well. If not, why forego a higher salary in the first place?

To be clear, I am not claiming that states should maintain the salaries of public defenders. Pay should increase, both because the attorneys deserve greater remuneration and because (I’d guess) that the talent-attracting power of greater pay would more than compensate for the benefit provided by this correlation. However, this effect likely somewhat offsets what a more standard model would predict.


I said that “basically everyone” likes money, but a solid everyone hates Facebook. Whether you care most about its hosting of far-right misinformation, dragging millions into hours of mindless newsfeed scrolling, or facilitating a genocide in Myanmar, it’s probably not high on your ethical all star list.

Software engineers and data scientists are no different, and most would probably prefer not to work for a firm they think to be bad for the world. More cynically, maybe some just don’t like the social stigma associated with their employer, especially after the release of the documentary linked above.

Either way, most of these folks probably need pretty decent monetary compensation in return. Indeed, it’s safe to say that the data scientists making well over $100k, and sometimes close to $400k in total compensation are doing okay. (As an aside, I honestly don’t blame any sub-management employee for the harms I’ve described, and think that any employee could easily compensate for her individual impact by donating a bit of her salary to fight malaria or something).

It’s just the opposite of the public defender case above; by paying more in compensation, Facebook is attracting a lower proportion of applicants who genuinely care about the company, or who find their work fascinating and delightful. Once again, it’s not that they’d do better by paying less. It’s just that paying less might not be as bad as straightforward economic modeling would suggest.

The unifying principle is this: paying less means that the candidates you attract are more likely to be motivated by the firm or the work itself, and therefore tend to be better at what they do.

A Distinction

There’s nothing original in the claim that firms can pay less for desirable work and have to pay more for unpleasant work. This principle, however, would exist even in a market with perfect information - that is, even if employers could predict exactly how well each prospective employee would perform.

What I’m describing though, is a product of employers’ lack of information about each job candidate. Applying for a job despite relatively low pay is a credible signal that a candidate intrinsically values the work itself. This is information that is difficult to convey on a resume, and is easily faked in an interview or on a cover letter.

So, should anyone actually reduce pay to get better workers?

Well, maybe, but probably not. Like the theoretically-possible-but-probably-nonexistent “Giffen good,” I think that the competence-signalling effect of “reverse efficiency wages” almost always mitigates but does not overcome the disincentive effect of lower pay.

But, here are some conditions in which I’d expect this phenomenon to have a large positive effect relative to the negative disincentive effect:

  1. High baseline pay (since it requires that a worker “indulge” his moral beliefs and personal preferences, I’m guessing it’s stronger when he or she has more financial flexibility).
  2. It is difficult to ascertain future job performance from standard indicators like resume, college transcript, and interview.
  3. Performance is a strong positive function of effort and/or desire to do the job well.
  4. Hiring and firing are relatively difficult, slow, and/or expensive (increasing the value of credible signals of future performance).
  5. The position is morally or personally appealing for some but not all applicants.

To be honest, I have a hard time thinking of a stronger case than of public defenders: lawyers make a lot of money, it’s difficult to measure performance, effort seems likely to boost performance, and only part of the population thinks trying to keep poor people out of jail is a good thing to do.

What other professions might be similar? Many in the public sector, I suspect: teachers and social workers, perhaps. Demanding nonprofit work as well: Doctors Without Borders fieldworkers make less than $25,000 a year, and that’s for demanding work overseas. It looks like that’s for physicians, who have a median salary of over $200,000. No one does takes such an offer without strong motivation to serve the public good.


I think the Doctors Without Borders case illustrates a general point: volunteering takes this “reverse efficiency wage” to its extreme; even with its resume-building and social acclaim benefits, the intrinsic value of volunteer work is likely volunteers’ main form of “compensation.” With an insane 1:8 ratio between compensation and physicians’ median pay, it might be more fair to characterize DWB field work as half “work” and half volunteerism.

Even among those Machiavellian enough to do spend dozens of hours volunteering primarily as a means of getting “Eagle Scout” on their resume (yes, that’s a joke about myself), one often has some latitude in choosing particular projects, so will pick those one he thinks most socially beneficial and enjoyable. So, volunteers’ lack of pay is a quite important, credible signal that they will try to do their job well.

I think most people have a pretty intuitive grasp of this phenomenon as it applies to volunteer work; in the world of salaries and full-time jobs, “reverse efficiency wages” are a sort of volunteering-lite. The same phenomena are at play for underpaid public defenders and unpaid food-pantry-stockers alike.

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:07 AM

Yes. This is an argument for paying legislators nothing. New Hampshire has the second largest legislature on the the planet. The pay for members of the NH House of Representatives is $100/year, plus mileage. (it's not a full-time job). 

New Hampshire is a pretty well-run place.

And for paying bureaucrats, esp. senior ones, more. Far more. In Singapore the PM is paid $3M/year, cabinet ministers $2.5M/year (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_of_Singapore). Lower level bureaucrats are paid like corporate managers with similar scale of responsibility (they don't have large numbers of these people, but the ones they do have are very competent).

Singapore is a pretty well run-place.

I agree, but I think the converse point is also true: employers will attempt to pay you less (under industry standards) if the job incurs any kind of side-effect that you might be proud about, or is in a glamorous industry.

I think this is a more important point.

The "it's not just about the money, but also about X, Y, Z" (freedom, cool working conditions, social impact, ...) is almost a platitude. I've had multiple employers using on me, and it really it wasn't warranted at all (the jobs were in niche sectors, but weren't glamorous, impactful to society, nor did they have extremely desirable working conditions).

The argument you make has been completely co-opted by HR departments.

The truth is that the job market is a market. It is a function of supply and demand. Jobs that are glamorous (in which I include impactful job) face more labor supply compared to other jobs, and so wages can be lower.

These jobs will naturally be picked by people whose utility function values the glamour highly compared to money. So your point remains true (they might be more motivated).

Will your high-glamour low-wages job seeker will be more productive than your low-glamour high-wages job seeker? Maybe, but I'm not so convinced. I think a key different is that glamour-preference is relatively inelastic, and there are fewer venues to gratify it. Whereas it's easy to jump ship when money is your only object, just find a company that pays more (not that this is a great strategy for money maximization, but it's easy). Another fact to consider is that there aren't that many truly high-paying job (or at least, high-paying enough such that the utility of the high-wage seeker would equal the utility of the glamour-seeker).

I also think a key driver of this "drive" in glamour-seeker is that, beyond low wages, employers tend to press their advantage by wringing out more from the employees. The video game industry is a prime example of this. I've also heard that many non-profits have notoriously bad working conditions. Mostly anecdotal evidence, but it adds up.

Finally, I doubt public defenders are more skilled than other lawyers - but they did clearly pick a different trade-off.

Upvoted for interesting modeling and reasoning.   

But I think it's missing at least a few key elements around diversity of employee skills and motivations.  There's no reason to believe that ability and motivation are particularly correlated (in some conceptions, they may be anti-correlated).  So we need to think of these jobs as having a MIX of people who just got the best job/career they could (lawyers with no serious option at better than $61K/yr) and people who are foregoing a more financially lucrative option in order to feel good (and/or signal to their friends/family).  Also missing is the ability to fire/replace a sub-marginal employee.  In a high-paying, competitive job, there are lots of candidates ready to step in if someone isn't pulling (more than) their weight.   In a low-paying job, it's less likely that the replacement is significantly better.

I have a few close friends who've found work in nonprofits (paid work - accounting and CRM aspects of development), and it seems consistent that the pay is on the low end of the normal range for the type of work, and that the quality of management and knowledge worker is a bit low as well (with notable exceptions - some are higher-quality than industry; maybe I should just say more variable).  I have a friend who founded a nonprofit, and this does NOT apply - he does employ people, but is hands-on enough to keep quality high and focused on impact. 

I think it's also missing a bunch of complexity in value of benefits and job-protection value from some lower-direct-salary jobs.  A public defender is a government job.  I have no idea if it's true, but my perception is that it's a far more secure job, with a much better pension after a shorter time, than a private-sector associate position.  

I also suspect your perception of the universal hatred of Facebook is ... quite skewed.  It's just not true.  Many people dislike many aspects of facebook, but still spend many hours on it and love it for it's ability to connect them with near and distant family and friends.  Many techies really appreciate FB's contributions to open-source, and give a lot of credit to FB employees for their skill in running such a large system.  I know a bunch of FB employees (tech, not content side, so my views are skewed too), and I don't know anyone who doesn't appreciate what they do.

All very valid points. To be sure, my model is only valid when there is good reason to expect competence and motivation to correlate and when firing is relatively difficult. My only (possible?) disagreement is that I think "lawyers with no serious option at better than $61K/yr" wouldn't generally become public defenders unless they also happen to be very motivated by the position itself, because other law positions paying $61k have a lower workload, stress, etc. 

It's true that government jobs tend to be more secure, but I don't think this fully explains the low salaries of public defenders (though this is just an intuition).

I didn't want to like this argument but I think you have at least partially convinced me. I often feel like one of the bad parts of society is that people doing good work are paid less, but you have made a strong argument that this would be difficult to correct, since people with less moral guidance and more love of money would be more interested in high paying jobs and far less likely to take lower paying jobs that do great good.

The question then becomes how can we structure society to better align money with doing good? Or is that a lost cause?

Hmm, I don't entirely see it that way. I think in the vast majority of cases, the talent-attracting effect of more money overpowers the benefits offered by competence signalling. That's why I think public defenders should be paid more both as a matter of justice and because it would increase average performance on net

This brings up another very important aspect of it: the divergence of monitoring and evaluation of skill (and calculating the value of a marginal worker) between for-profit and public or non-profit work.  Even for superficially similar work, the success metrics are very often different between the two styles of employment.  For attorneys, the ability to attract clients and bill hours is king in the private sector, and ... I'm not sure for the public sector.  Probably not win rate, but more likely subjective evaluation of more senior attorneys and politicians.

It's much clearer (still opaque for most, but somewhat less opaque) that private-sector employees are generating or protecting revenue that outstrips their compensation.  Public and charity employees don't have that scalar measure - they're paid in a different dimension (money) than the value they generate (public goods).