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.

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.