What do we do about unemployment?

JDN 2457188 EDT 11:21.

Macroeconomics, particularly monetary policy, is primarily concerned with controlling two variables.

The first is inflation: We don’t want prices to rise too fast, or markets will become unstable. This is something we have managed fairly well; other than food and energy prices which are known to be more volatile, prices have grown at a rate between 1.5% and 2.5% per year for the last 10 years; even with food and energy included, inflation has stayed between -1.5% and +5.0%. After recovering from its peak near 15% in 1980, US inflation has stayed between -1.5% and +6.0% ever since. While the optimal rate of inflation is probably between 2.0% and 4.0%, anything above 0.0% and below 10.0% is probably fine, so the only significant failure of US inflation policy was the deflation in 2009.

The second is unemployment: We want enough jobs for everyone who wants to work, and preferably we also wouldn’t have underemployment (people who are only working part-time even though they’d prefer full-time or discouraged workers (people who give up looking for jobs because they can’t find any, and aren’t counted as unemployed because they’re no looking looking for work). There’s also a tendency among economists to want “work incentives” that maximize the number of people who want to work, but I think these are wildly overrated. Work isn’t an end in itself; work is supposed to be creating products and providing services that make human lives better. The benefits of production have to be weighed against the costs of stress, exhaustion, and lost leisure time from working. Given that stress-related illnesses are some of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States, I don’t think that our problem is insufficient work incentives.

Unemployment is a problem that we have definitely not solved. Unemployment has bounced up and down between peaks and valleys, dropping as low as 4.0% and rising as high as 11.0% over the last 60 years. If 2009’s -1.5% deflation concerns you, then its 9.9% unemployment should concern you far more. Indeed, I’m not convinced that 5.0% is an acceptable “natural” rate of unemployment—that’s still millions of people who want work and can’t find it—but most economists would say that it is.

In fact, matters are worse than most people realize. Our unemployment rate has fallen back to a relatively normal 5.5%, as you can see in this graph (the blue line is unemployment, the red line is underemployment):

All_Unemployment

However, our employment rate never recovered from the Second Depression. As you can see in this graph, it fell from 63% to 58%, and has now only risen back to 59%:

Employment

How can unemployment fall without employment rising? The key is understanding how unemployment is calculated: It only counts people in the labor force. If people leave the labor force entirely, by retiring, going back to school, or simply giving up on finding work, they will no longer be counted as unemployed. The unemployment rate only counts people who want work but don’t have it, so as far as I’m concerned that figure should always be nearly zero. (Not quite zero since it takes some time to find a good fit; but maybe 1% at most. Any more than that and there is something wrong with our economic system.)

The optimal employment rate is not as obvious; it certainly isn’t 100%, as some people are too young, too old, or too disabled to be spending their time working. As automation improves, the number of workers necessary to produce any given product decreases, and eventually we may decide as a society that we are making enough products and most of us should be spending more of our time on other things, like spending time with family, creating works of art, or simply having fun. Maybe only a handful of people, the most driven or the most brilliant, will actually decide to work—and they will do because they want to, not because they have to. Indeed, the truly optimal employment rate might well be zero; think of The Culture, where there is no such concept as a “job”; there are things you do because you want to do them, or because they seem worthwhile, but there is none of this “working for pay” nonsense. We are not yet at the level of automation where this would be possible, but we are much closer than I think most people realize. Think about all of the various administrative and bureaucratic tasks that most people do the majority of the time, all the reports, all the meetings; why do they do that? Is it actually because the work is necessary, that the many levels of bureaucracy actually increase efficiency through specialization? Or is it simply because we’ve become so accustomed to the idea that people have to be working all the time in order to justify their existence? Is David Graeber (I reviewed one of his books previously) right that most jobs are actually (and this is a technical term), “bullshit jobs”? Once again, the problem doesn’t seem to be too few work incentives, but if anything too many.

Indeed, there is a basic fact about unemployment that has been hidden from most people. I’d normally say that this is accidental, that it’s too technical or obscure for most people to understand, but no, I think it has been actively concealed, or, since I guess the information has been publicly available, at least discussion of it has been actively avoided. It’s really not at all difficult to understand, yet it will fundamentally change the way you think about our unemployment problem. Here goes:

Since at least 2000 and probably since 1980 there have been more people looking for jobs than there have been jobs available.

The entire narrative of “people are lazy and don’t want to work” or “we need more work incentives” is just totally, totally wrong; people are desperate to find work, and there hasn’t been enough work for them to find since longer than I’ve been alive.

You can see this on the following graph, which is of what’s called the “Beveridge curve”; the horizontal axis is the unemployment rate, while the vertical axis is the rate of job vacancies. The red line across the diagonal is the point at which the two are even, and there are as many people looking for jobs as there are jobs to fill. Notice how the graph is always below the line. There have always been more unemployed people than jobs for them to fill, and at the worst of the Second Depression the ratio was 5 to 1.

Beveridge_curve_2

Personally I believe that we should be substantially above the line, and in a truly thriving economy there should be employers desperately trying to find employees and willing to pay them whatever it takes. You shouldn’t have to send out 20 job applications to get hired; 20 companies should have to send offers to you. For the economy does not exist to serve corporations; it exists to serve people.

I can see two basic ways to solve this problem: You can either create more jobs, or you can get people to stop looking for work. That may be sort of obvious, but I think people usually forget the second option.

We definitely do talk a lot about “job creation”, though usually in a totally nonsensical way—somehow “Job Creator” has come to be a euphemism for “rich person”. In fact the best way to create jobs is to put money into the hands of people who will spend it. The more people spend their money, the more it flows through the economy and the more wealth we end up with overall. High rates of spending—high marginal propensity to consumecan multiply the value of a dollar many times over.

But there’s also something to be said for getting people to stop looking for work—the key is do it in the right way. They shouldn’t stop looking because they give up; they should stop looking because they don’t need to work. People should have their basic needs met even if they aren’t working for an employer; human beings have rights and dignity beyond their productivity in the market. Employers should have to make you a better offer than “you’ll be homeless if you don’t do this”.

Both of these goals can be accomplished simultaneously by one simple policy: Basic income.

It’s really amazing how many problems can be solved by a basic income; it’s more or less the amazing wonder policy that solves all the world’s economic problems simultaneously. Poverty? Gone. Unemployment? Decimated. Inequality? Contained. (The pilot studies of basic income in India have been successful beyond all but the wildest dreams; they eliminate poverty, improve health, increase entrepreneurial activity, even reduce gender inequality.) The one major problem basic income doesn’t solve is government debt (indeed it likely increases it, at least in the short run), but as I’ve already talked about, that problem is not nearly as bad as most people fear.

And once again I think I should head off accusations that advocating a basic income makes me some sort of far-left Communist radical; Friedrich Hayek supported a basic income.

Basic income would help with unemployment in a third way as well; one of the major reasons unemployment is so harmful is that people who are unemployed can’t provide for themselves or their families. So a basic income would reduce the number of people looking for jobs, increase the number of jobs available, and also make being unemployed less painful, all in one fell swoop. I doubt it would solve the problem of unemployment entirely, but I think it would make an enormous difference.