The high cost of frictional unemployment

Sep 3, JDN 2457635

I had wanted to open this post with an estimate of the number of people in the world, or at least in the US, who are currently between jobs. It turns out that such estimates are essentially nonexistent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains a detailed database of US unemployment; they don’t estimate this number. We have this concept in macroeconomics of frictional unemployment, the unemployment that results from people switching jobs; but nobody seems to have any idea how common it is.

I often hear a ballpark figure of about 4-5%, which is related to a notion that “full employment” should really be about 4-5% unemployment because otherwise we’ll trigger horrible inflation or something. There is almost no evidence for this. In fact, the US unemployment rate has gotten as low as 2.5%, and before that was stable around 3%. This was during the 1950s, the era of the highest income tax rates ever imposed in the United States, a top marginal rate of 92%. Coincidence? Maybe. Obviously there were a lot of other things going on at the time. But it sure does hurt the argument that high income taxes “kill jobs”, don’t you think?

Indeed, it may well be that the rate of frictional unemployment varies all the time, depending on all sorts of different factors. But here’s what we do know: Frictional unemployment is a serious problem, and yet most macroeconomists basically ignore it.

Talk to most macroeconomists about “unemployment”, and they will assume you mean either cyclical unemployment (the unemployment that results from recessions and bad fiscal and monetary policy responses to them), or structural unemployment (the unemployment that results from systematic mismatches between worker skills and business needs). If you specifically mention frictional unemployment, the response is usually that it’s no big deal and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.

Yet at least when we aren’t in a recession, frictional employment very likely accounts for the majority of unemployment, and thus probably the majority of misery created by unemployment. (Not necessarily, since it probably doesn’t account for much long-term unemployment, which is by far the worst.) And it is quite clear to me that there are things we can do about it—they just might be difficult and/or expensive.

Most of you have probably changed jobs at least once. Many of you have, like me, moved far away to a new place for school or work. Think about how difficult that was. There is the monetary cost, first of all; you need to pay for the travel of course, and then usually leases and paychecks don’t line up properly for a month or two (for some baffling and aggravating reason, UCI won’t actually pay me my paychecks until November, despite demanding rent starting the last week of July!). But even beyond that, you are torn from your social network and forced to build a new one. You have to adapt to living in a new place which may have differences in culture and climate. Bureaucracy often makes it difficult to change over documentation of such as your ID and your driver’s license.

And that’s assuming that you already found a job before you moved, which isn’t always an option. Many people move to new places and start searching for jobs when they arrive, which adds an extra layer of risk and difficulty above and beyond the transition itself.

With all this in mind, the wonder is that anyone is willing to move at all! And this is probably a large part of why people are so averse to losing their jobs even when it is clearly necessary; the frictional unemployment carries enormous real costs. (That and loss aversion, of course.)

What could we do, as a matter of policy, to make such transitions easier?

Well, one thing we could do is expand unemployment insurance, which reduces the cost of losing your job (which, despite the best efforts of Republicans in Congress, we ultimately did do in the Second Depression). We could expand unemployment insurance to cover voluntary quits. Right now, quitting voluntarily makes you forgo all unemployment benefits, which employers pay for in the form of insurance premiums; so an employer is much better off making your life miserable until you quit than they are laying you off. They could also fire you for cause, if they can find a cause (and usually there’s something they could trump up enough to get rid of you, especially if you’re not prepared for the protracted legal battle of a wrongful termination lawsuit). The reasoning of our current system appears to be something like this: Only lazy people ever quit jobs, and why should we protect lazy people? This is utter nonsense and it needs to go. Many states already have no-fault divorce and no-fault auto collision insurance; it’s time for no-fault employment termination.

We could establish a basic income of course; then when you lose your job your income would go down, but to a higher floor where you know you can meet certain basic needs. We could provide subsidized personal loans, similar to the current student loan system, that allow people to bear income gaps without losing their homes or paying exorbitant interest rates on credit cards.

We could use active labor market programs to match people with jobs, or train them with the skills needed for emerging job markets. Denmark has extensive active labor market programs (they call it “flexicurity”), and Denmark’s unemployment rate was 2.4% before the Great Recession, hit a peak of 6.2%, and has now recovered to 4.2%. What Denmark calls a bad year, the US calls a good year—and Greece fantasizes about as something they hope one day to achieve. #ScandinaviaIsBetter once again, and Norway fits this pattern also, though to be fair Sweden’s unemployment rate is basically comparable to the US or even slightly worse (though it’s still nothing like Greece).

Maybe it’s actually all right that we don’t have estimates of the frictional unemployment rate, because the goal really isn’t to reduce the number of people who are unemployed; it’s to reduce the harm caused by unemployment. Most of these interventions would very likely increase the rate frictional unemployment, as people who always wanted to try to find better jobs but could never afford to would now be able to—but they would dramatically reduce the harm caused by that unemployment.

This is a more general principle, actually; it’s why we should basically stop taking seriously this argument that social welfare benefits destroy work incentives. That may well be true; so what? Maximizing work incentives was never supposed to be a goal of public policy, as far as I can tell. Maximizing human welfare is the goal, and the only way a welfare program could reduce work incentives is by making life better for people who aren’t currently working, and thereby reducing the utility gap between working and not working. If your claim is that the social welfare program (and its associated funding mechanism, i.e. taxes, debt, or inflation) would make life sufficiently worse for everyone else that it’s not worth it, then say that (and for some programs that might actually be true). But in and of itself, making life better for people who don’t work is a benefit to society. Your supposed downside is in fact an upside. If there’s a downside, it must be found elsewhere.

Indeed, I think it’s worth pointing out that slavery maximizes work incentives. If you beat or kill people who don’t work, sure enough, everyone works! But that is not even an efficient economy, much less a just society. To be clear, I don’t think most people who say they want to maximize work incentives would actually support slavery, but that is the logical extent of the assertion. (Also, many Libertarians, often the first to make such arguments, do have a really bizarre attitude toward slavery; taxation is slavery, regulation is slavery, conscription is slavery—the last not quite as ridiculous—but actual forced labor… well, that really isn’t so bad, especially if the contract is “voluntary”. Fortunately some Libertarians are not so foolish.) If your primary goal is to make people work as much as possible, slavery would be a highly effective way to achieve that goal. And that really is the direction you’re heading when you say we shouldn’t do anything to help starving children lest their mothers have insufficient incentive to work.

More people not working could have a downside, if it resulted in less overall production of goods. But even in the US, one of the most efficient labor markets in the world, the system of job matching is still so ludicrously inefficient that people have to send out dozens if not hundreds of applications to jobs they barely even want, and there are still 1.4 times as many job seekers as there are openings (at the trough of the Great Recession, the ratio was 6.6 to 1). There’s clearly a lot of space here to improve the matching efficiency, and simply giving people more time to search could make a big difference there. Total output might decrease for a little while during the first set of transitions, but afterward people would be doing jobs they want, jobs they care about, jobs they’re good at—and people are vastly more productive under those circumstances. It’s quite likely that total employment would decrease, but productivity would increase so much that total output increased.

Above all, people would be happier, and that should have been our goal all along.

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