Thursday, June 13, 2013

Job market doldrums

Three recent views on the dismal labor market pose an interesting contrast.

Alan Blinder wrote a provocative WSJ piece on 6/11, Fiscal Fixes for the Jobless Recovery. A week prviously, 6/5, Ed Lazear wrote about The Hidden Jobless Disaster. And John Taylor has a good short blog post Job Growth–Barely Keeping Pace with Population

All three authors emphasize that the unemployment rate is a poor measure of the labor market. Unemployment counts people who don't have a job but are actively looking for one. People who give up and leave the labor force don't count. Employment is a more interesting number, and the employment-population ratio a better summary statistic than the unemployment rate. After all, if unemployment falls because everyone who is looking for a job gives up, I don't think we'd see that as a good sign.

Source: Wall Street Journal
Ed Lazear made this interesting chart. As he explains,

Every time the unemployment rate changes, analysts and reporters try to determine whether unemployment changed because more people were actually working or because people simply dropped out of the labor market entirely... The employment rate—that is, the employment-to-population ratio—eliminates this issue by going straight to the bottom line, measuring the proportion of potential workers who are actually working.

While the unemployment rate has fallen over the past 3½ years, the employment-to-population ratio has stayed almost constant at about 58.5%, well below the prerecession peak. Jobs are always being created and destroyed, and the net number of jobs over the last 3½ years has increased. But so too has the size of the working-age population. Job growth has been just slightly better than what it takes to keep the employed proportion of the working-age population constant. That's why jobs still seem so scarce.

The U.S. is not getting back many of the jobs that were lost during the recession. At the present slow pace of job growth, it will require more than a decade to get back to full employment defined by prerecession standards....

Why have so many workers dropped out of the labor force and stopped actively seeking work? Partly this is due to sluggish economic growth. But research by the University of Chicago's Casey Mulligan has suggested that because government benefits are lost when income rises, some people forgo poor jobs in lieu of government benefits—unemployment insurance, food stamps and disability benefits among the most obvious. The disability rolls have grown by 13% and the number receiving food stamps by 39% since 2009.
John Taylor makes the point nicely with another graph, which contrasts the labor force participation rate to the BLS' forecast of what should have happened from demographic effects.

The graph comes from a recent paper Chris Erceg and Andrew Levin.

I part company a bit with Lazear on his conclusions
... the various programs of quantitative easing (and other fiscal and monetary policies) have not been particularly effective at stimulating job growth. Consequently, the Fed may want to reconsider its decision to maintain a loose-money policy until the unemployment rate dips to 6.5%.
If low employment is "structural," resulting from the worker-side disincentives as well as employer-side disincentives -- policy uncertainty, regulatory threats, NLRB, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, EPA, and so on -- then the problem isn't lack of "demand" in the first place. If the problem has nothing to do with the Fed, and if $2 trillion of QE didn't do anything to help it, why does the solution have anything to do with the Fed?

The greater surprise is to hear so much agreement from Alan Blinder:
The Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project, with which I am associated, estimates each month what it calls the "jobs gap," defined as the number of jobs needed to return employment to its prerecession levels and also absorb new entrants to the labor force. The project's latest jobs-gap estimate is 9.9 million jobs. At a rate of 194,000 a month, it would take almost eight more years to eliminate that gap.

.... policy makers should be running around like their hair is on fire.
Lazear said "a decade."  More suprising agreement on the impotence of monetary policy:
The Federal Reserve has worked overtime to spur job creation, and there is not much more it can do.
As you might imagine, I'm not such a fan of Blinder's suggested fixes. He starts with traditional simple Keynesian recommendations that  the government should hire people and "spend" more. No need to refight that here. The more interesting recommendations follow as he warms up to his latest clever scheme.
... the basic idea is straightforward: Offer tax breaks to firms that boost their payrolls.

For example, companies might be offered a tax credit equal to 10% of the increase in their wage bills over the previous year. ...

Another sort of business tax cut may hold more political promise....Suppose Congress enacted a partial tax holiday that allowed companies to repatriate profits held abroad at some bargain-basement tax rate like 10%. The catch: The maximum amount each company could bring home at that low tax rate would equal the increase in its wage payments as measured by Social Security records.

For example, if XYZ Corporation paid wages covered by Social Security of $1 billion in 2012 and $1.1 billion in 2013, it would be allowed to repatriate $100 million at the superlow tax rate. The reward for boosting its payroll by $100 million would thus be a $25 million tax saving. That looks like a powerful incentive.

...companies could claim the tax benefit only for individual earnings below the Social Security maximum ($113,700 in 2013). No subsidies for raising executive pay.
I find this most interesting at the level of basic philosophy; how we think about economic policy.

There are huge, longstanding, tax and regulatory disincentives to hiring people. Income tax, payroll taxes, health care and other mandates, and NLRB, OSHA, and so on. There are the high marginal taxes to labor implied by social insurance programs, as Mulligan points out.  If we want to increase the incentive for companies to hire people and people to take the jobs, why add another tax break to an obscenely complex tax code, rather than fix some of the existing disincentives? 

Is this really the right way to run a country? When "policy makers" want more employment, they slap on a complex, tax break on top of a mountain of disncentives. Presumably they then will remove this tax break, and pages 536,721 to 621,843 of the tax code describing it, despite the lobbying by large corporations who have figured out how to exploit it for billions of dollars, once the Brookings Institution decides that there is "enough" employment (!), and "policy-makers" no longer need to encourage it? 

How are the existing hundreds of bits of social engineering in the tax code working out? Do we really need more of this?  Isn't it time to return to a tax code that raises money for the government at minimal distortion?

The contrast between the benevolent "policy-maker" (no dictator ever had such power) and the reality of how the tax code in this country is actually enacted is pretty striking.

I have to say, I'm a bit disappointed in the end by both. They agree that the US economy is about 10 million jobs short. Something big is in the way. Lazear at least mentions some candidates, though many are long-standing. But the stirring conclusion from Lazear is only to continue a loose monetary policy that he says has been ineffective so far, and the conclusion from Blinder is the sort of clever scheme that economists cook up in late-night cocktail parties piling one more quickly-exploitable bit of social engineering on top of a tax code rife with them. Neither recommendation comes close to 10 million jobs, or addressing any sort of clear story why those jobs have vanished.