On December 3 the President will convene a "jobs summit" to consider what if anything to do about the dismal employment picture. And dismal it is. The figure of 10.2 percent unemployment in October understates the problem because people who have given up on seeking a job, or who are involuntarily working part-time rather than full-time, are not counted as unemployed. They are, however, included with the unemployed in the statistics of underemployment, and the underemployment rate has reached 17.5 percent. These rates may continue to rise. And more than in previous downturns, employers have been cutting wages and benefits, which from a worker's standpoint is a form of quasi- or partial unemployment.
At the end of the summer there was some hope for a rapid economic recovery, but that has faded. Recovery from a recession or depression precipitated by a collapse of the banking industry secondary to a housing collapse tends to be slow. Weakened banks are hesitant to lend, and because housing is a big part of household wealth a collapse of housing prices tends to inhibit spending, or alter spending patterns, and especially to inhibit borrowing: debt is a fixed cost, so when household wealth declines people find themselves overindebted. With the supply of and demand for credit weak, economic activity slows. The banks' reluctance to lend, which expresses itself in stricter credit standards, is especially hard on small business, which depends on bank loans for credit; small businesses unlike big cannot finance themselves by issuing bonds or commercial paper or using retained earnings in lieu of credit. And small businesses in the aggregate are big employers. The Administration's ambitious health-care reform is inhibiting hiring by small business by creating uncertainty about the health-insurance costs that employers will bear. Mounting concern with our rapidly growing national debt is a further damper on investment and hence employment.
There is even concern that we may be in a trap in which rising unemployment feeds on itself. Credit defaults are highly correlated with the unemployment rate, so as unemployment rises, defaults rise, and defaults impair bank capital, causing a further tightening of credit, which by hurting small business pushes unemployment up.
All this is speculation and for all I know the unemployment rate will start falling soon and rapidly. But most forecasters think not, and so it is understandable that the Administration would like to do more than it is doing to curb unemployment. But what is there to do? In part because of mistakes in the design, implementation, and explanation of the $787 billion stimulus program enacted last February, and in part because of concern with the rapidly growing federal deficit, the stimulus has become extremely (I think undeservedly) unpopular, and Congress will not enact another stimulus program as urged by left-wing economists.
What then can be done? One possibility, which has been tried in Europe recently, apparently with some success, is to pay employers, through tax credits or otherwise, to hire workers. This is fiscal stimulus--Keynesian deficit financing--by another name. It is like the government's paying a construction company to build a highway, which will require the company to enlarge its workforce. All that might seem to distinguish the job subsidy is that the link between funding and jobs is more direct, which increases its political appeal.
A common objection is that it will encourage fraud--employers will fire workers and then rehire them, to obtain the subsidy. Or, less transparently, it will fire workers and hire replacements, again in order to obtain the subsidy. But a bigger objection, which is also an objection to the original stimulus program, is that it's not targeted on industries or areas of above-average unemployment. Even in an area of low unemployment. an employer will have an incentive to hire workers in order to obtain the subsidy, but he may do this by hiring workers who already have a job, and the net effect on unemployment will therefore depend on what the hired worker's former employer does--maybe just pay him to stay.
There are other ways of stimulating employment, at lower cost and probably with greater impact. One would be to reduce the federal minimum wage, which over a three-year period beginning in 2007 will have risen from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour--a 40 percent increase. As time passes, unemployment becomes less a matter of layoffs and more a matter of failing to provide jobs for new entrants to the workforce, and a reduction in minimum wage would make these new entrants--inexperienced workers with modest wage expectations--far more employable.
Another way to reduce unemployment would be to amend the stimulus law to redirect the remaining unspent funds to areas and industries of high unemployment. Another would be to reduce payroll taxes, including the unemployment-insurance tax and the employer's share of the social security tax; for payroll taxes are part of the cost of labor. The effect on the employer would be similar to that of a wage cut, and would increase the demand for labor. Since social security and unemployment benefits (as opposed to taxes) would be unaffected, the reduction in the taxes would not reduce the employees' full wages and so induce a demand for higher wages. So the employer's net labor cost would fall and his demand for labor rise. The problem is that the government's deficit would increase, but that would also be true of a subsidy for hiring, though it would not be true of a reduction in the minimum wage.
During this "Great Recession", unemployment has risen from under 5% at the beginning of the recession in December of 2007 to more than double that rate to reach its highest level so far in October of 10.2%. This is the second highest unemployment rate in the postwar period, surpassed only by the 10.8% rate in December of 1982. In light of such rather dismal employment figures, it is not surprising that the President will have a "jobs summit" in a few days to consider how to improve the employment market.
Posner correctly indicates that the unemployment rate understates the employment problem since some men and women have left the labor force after giving up finding work, or they are working part time when they would like to work full time. The so-called "underemployment" rate is estimated to be 17.5%, much higher than the unemployment rate. Note, however, that the underemployment rate is far harder to estimate accurately than is the unemployment rate, which itself is difficult to measure.
I have responded to Posner's emphasis on the underemployment rate in previous posts that apples have to be compared with apples. If the underemployment rate, not the unemployment rate, is used to measure the severity of this recession, than the underemployment rate also has to be used for past recessions. Not surprisingly, underemployment was also considerably higher in these recessions than was unemployment. The underemployment rate for December of 1982 is estimated at about 17.1%, also much above the high unemployment rate at that time. Yet while the unemployment rate has not yet reached the rate obtained in 1982, for the first time the estimated underemployment rate has slightly surpassed the rate for that earlier recession.
In addition, while this recession ended during the third quarter (I believe), unemployment usually lags any pickup in the overall economy, so that the unemployment rate is likely to continue to rise further. However, there are signs of a pickup beginning in the labor market: hours worked of those working have been rising, and wage rates rose by about 2% during the past year. The rise in wages-which is uncommon during recessions- also casts doubt on claims of extensive wage cutting during this recession. Yet it is an unusual combination: workers who still have a job are doing better than in other serious recessions, but the underemployment rate has grown to its highest level since the Great Depression.
Keynes and many earlier economists emphasized that unemployment rises during recessions because nominal wage rates tend to be inflexible in the downward direction. The natural way that markets usually eliminate insufficient demand for a good or service, such as labor, is for the price of this good or service to fall. A fall in price stimulates demand and reduces supply until they are brought back to rough equality. Downward inflexible wages prevents that from happening quickly when there is insufficient demand for workers.
The usual suggested remedies are either to stimulate demand for labor, or to reduce the real cost of workers to employers. The stimulus package has tried to stimulate demand. While I believe this package has failed to stimulate demand to any significant degree (see the discussion my earlier posts on January 11, 18, and November 1, 2009), and that the claimed employment effects of the stimulus are vastly overstated, I concentrate my discussion, as Posner does, on reducing the real cost of labor to employers.
If rigid nominal wages were the culprit, inflation would reduce the real value of labor costs, and hence stimulate demand by companies for workers. But deflation rather than inflation is the greater worry now, so this approach does not seem feasible at this time. The alternative is to cut the cost of labor to employers. A frequent suggestion by economists and others is to give employers subsidies for each unemployed person that they hire, but I believe this approach has many problems of implementation. Clearly, companies would have an incentive to fire some employees and replace them with subsidized unemployed workers.
Moreover, if the unemployed hired under the subsidy program received higher pay because companies compete for the subsidy, some workers might remain unemployed rather than accepting jobs now because they expect to do better when the subsidy program is introduced. Others might even quit to become unemployed, so that they can then become employed at better wages through this program. Many other adjustments would make such a subsidy program both extremely difficult to enforce in a net job-creating way, and highly intrusive into the employment decisions of companies as the government tries to close various loopholes that are bound to be discovered.
It is wiser to cut labor costs in other ways. I fully endorse Posner's suggestions to cut the minimum wage, but I do not see that happening with the present Congress. My favorite approach it to try to stimulate the economy by cutting income taxes, especially corporate income taxes and other taxes on capital, both physical and human capital. Such tax cuts will stimulate investments in the economy, and in this way increase the demand for workers.
Of course, tax cuts at this moment would add to the deficit and increase the size of the government debt at a time when the debt has already grown rapidly. Tax cuts may also take time before they raise investments and jobs. On the other hand, tax cuts that add significantly to the growth rate of GDP will have only modest, and possibly even negative, effects on the ratio of the debt to GDP while they increase investments and the demand for workers. This seems to me to be an attractive way to approach solutions to the unemployment problem at the jobs summit this Thursday.
By all accounts, President Obama's visit to China last week was pretty much a failure on all the major issues, which include China's contributions to climate change, nuclear weapons, and various aspects of the world economy. I will concentrate my discussion on two of the most important and closely related economic issues: the valuation of the Chinese currency, the renminbi, and the huge assets accumulated by China that are mainly held in the form of US Treasury bills and other US government assets.
The Chinese central bank held the value of the renminbi fixed relative to the US dollar at a little over 8 renminbi per dollar during the 1990s, and until 2005. It then allowed the renminbi to appreciate gradually to less than 7 per dollar until 2008, when it again fixed the rate of exchange between these currencies at about 6.9 renminbi per dollar. This exchange rate is considerably above a free market rate that would be determined in a regime of flexible exchange rates. So there is no doubt that China is intentionally holding the value of its currency below the rate that would equate supply and demand.
The dollar has depreciated substantially relative to other currencies since May of 2009. Since the renminbi is tied again to the dollar, the renminbi has depreciated by the same amounts, including 16% against the euro, 34 % against the Australian dollar, 25% against the Korean won, and 10 % against the Japanese yen. This substantially depreciation of the Chinese currency has made many other countries angry at China's policy of locking it to the US dollar.
President Obama apparently complained to Hu Jintao, President of the People's Republic of China, about the low value of the renminbi, and urged China to allow it to appreciate substantially. The US and other countries worry that the undervaluation of the Chinese currencyi increases the demand for Chinese exports, and reduces China's demand for imports from countries like the US because China keeps the dollar and the currencies of other countries artificially expensive relative to their currency. America and other countries hope that greater demand from China for their exports resulting from a higher value of the renminbi will help these countries resume sizable economic growth as they recover from this severe recession. They especially want to help reduce the high levels of unemployment found in many of these nations.
Indeed, in good part due to the low value of its currency, China has run substantial surpluses on its current trade account as it imports fewer goods and services than it exports. The result is that China has accumulated enormous reserves of assets in foreign currencies, especially in the form of US government assets denominated in dollars. As of September of this year, China had the incredible sum of over 2 trillion dollars in foreign currency reserves, such as US Treasury bills. This is by far the highest reserve in the world, and it amounts to the enormous ratio of more than one quarter of China's GDP of about $8 trillion (purchasing power parity adjusted).
I am dubious about the wisdom of both America's complaints about China's currency policy and of China's responses. On the whole, I believe that most Americans benefit rather than are hurt by China's long standing policy of keeping the renminbi at an artificially low exchange value. For that policy makes the various goods imported from China, such as clothing, furniture, and small electronic devices, much cheaper than they would be if China allowed its currency to appreciate substantially in value. The main beneficiaries of this policy are the poor and lower middle class Americans and those elsewhere who buy Chinese made goods at remarkably cheap prices in stores like Wal-Mart's that cater to families who are cost conscious.
To be sure, US companies that would like to export more to China are hurt by the maintenance of the Chinese currency at an artificially low value relative to the dollar. As a result, employment by these companies is lower than it would be, so that this may contribute a little to the high rate of US unemployment. But I believe the benefits to American consumers far outweigh any loses in jobs, particularly as the US economy continues its recovery, and unemployment rates come back to more normal levels.
Since the opposite effects hold for China, I cannot justify their policies from the viewpoint of their interests. Their consumers and importers are hurt because the cost of foreign goods to them is kept artificially high. Their exporters gain, but as in the US, that gain is likely to be considerably smaller than the negative effects on the wellbeing of the average Chinese family.
I reach similar conclusions about China's accumulation of their excessive reserves. The US has little to complain if China wants to hold such high levels of low interest-bearing US government assets in exchange for selling goods cheaply to the US and other countries. China's willingness to save so much reduces the need for Americans and others to save more, but is not differences in savings rates also part of the international specialization that global markets encourage? To be sure, why China is willing to do this is difficult to understand since they are giving away goods made with hard work and capital for paper assets that carry little returns.
One common answer is that China hopes to increase its influence over economic and geo-political policies by holding so many foreign assets. Yet it seems to me just the opposite is true, that China's huge levels of foreign assets puts China more at the mercy of US and other policies than visa versa. China can threaten to sell large quantities of its US Treasury bills and other US assets, but what will they buy instead? Presumably, they would buy EU or Japanese government bills and bonds. That will put a little upward pressure on interest rates on US governments, but to a considerable extent, the main effect in our integrated world capital market is that sellers to China of euro and yen denominated assets would then hold the US Treasuries sold by China.
On the other hand, the US can threaten to inflate away some of the real value of its dollar denominated assets-not an empty threat because of the large US government fiscal deficits, and the sizable growth in US bank excess reserves. Inflation would lower the exchange value of the dollar, and also of the renminbi, as long as China keeps it tied to the dollar. That would further increase the current account surpluses of China, and thereby induce China to hold more US and other foreign assets, not a very attractive scenario to China.
So my conclusion is that the US in its own interest should not be urging China to appreciate its currency- countries like India have a much greater potential gain from such an appreciation. On the other hand, I see very little sense at this stage of China's development in maintaining a very low value of its currency, and accumulating large quantities of reserves. Paradoxically, President Obama and President Jintao should each have been arguing the others positions on these economic issues.
Becker's analysis is impressive, but I hesitate to state with confidence that China would be better off to revalue its currency. As Becker points out, China has pegged its currency to the dollar at a rate of exchange that greatly undervalues its currency relative to ours. As a result China sells goods to U.S. producers and consumers at very low dollar prices and buys goods from U.S. producers at very high prices. In consequence it exports a lot to the U.S. (and to other countries as well, for its currency is undervalued relative to other currencies besides just the dollar, notably the euro) and imports little. Since it receives more dollars than it pays, it has accumulated huge dollar reserves--accumulated them rather than giving them to its people. It has more than $2 trillion in foreign reserves, mostly U.S. dollars. The dollar has been falling lately, and the value of China's dollar reserves with it.
Could China have sensible reasons for such an odd, old-fashioned policy ("mercantilism"--the maximization of a nation's cash or cash-equivalent reserves--famously attacked by Adam Smith more than two hundred years ago)? It could. The immense exports that China's skewed exchange policy has fostered provide employment for a large number of Chinese. Their wages are low, but at least they have jobs. Of course they might have jobs if the dollar were cheaper relative to Chinese currency. China would import more and export less. It would manufacture less, because many workers would be required for the expanded system of domestic distribution that would be necessary if domestic consumption (both of Chinese manufactures diverted from export to internal markets and of imported goods). It would manufacture a different mixture of goods, because of competition from imported goods, but above all it would need a much more elaborate system of wholesale and retail distribution, and perhaps a different commercial culture. The transition to a modern consumer society with its credit cards and product warranties and malls and the rest would be difficult. In the interim there might be widespread unemployment; shifting employees from manufacturing to distribution, or from one type of manufacturing to another, doesn't happen overnight. And China doesn't have the kind of social safety net that we do, to catch the unemployed before they reach the bottom. Because of the limitations of domestic consumption, Chinese are great savers, and this relieves the pressure the government would otherwise feel to provide social services. That provision might strain the government's administrative abilities.
China has a long history of political instability, and there is tension between its dictatorial communist government and its largely free-enterprise economy. It is naturally reluctant to take chances on changing its economy from one of producing manufactured goods for export to one of manufacture and distribution primarily for domestic consumption.
And there is value to China in those trillions in foreign reserves that it has accumulated. They magnify its global power. China is our major creditor. It finances our deficit. Like any dependent debtor, we must be very careful not to offend our major creditor. It is true that our relation with China is one of bilateral monopoly: if we devalue the dollar (which we may be doing) in order to lighten our debt burden, we hurt China; but if China in retaliation stops buying our Treasury bonds, we are badly hurt.
For all these reasons, while China is likely to abandon mercantilism in the long run, it probably is sensible for it to do so gradually.
Would we benefit from China's abandoning mercantilism? As Becker points out, our consumers benefit from the artificially low prices at which Chinese goods are sold in this country. At the same time, our dependence on China's financing our public debt weakens our ability to influence Chinese policy on issues of urgent concern to us, such as the threat of nuclear proliferation posed by North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan, and the need to take effective steps to limit global warming.
Then too it seems that the only way in which we can buy those cheap goods from China is to borrow from China. We buy more from China than we sell to it and so China accumulates dollars to bridge the gap, dollars that it then lends to the U.S. Treasury. The effect is to reduce pressure on our government to pay down our immense and growing public debt either by raising taxes or by cutting spending. We cannot continue along the path of ever-growing debt unless our economy grows very rapidly, which is not assured. So I am not sure that I agree with Becker that China's policy is good for us and bad for it. The reverse may be truer.
Japan spent the 1990s unsuccessfully trying to recover from a collapse of the Japanese banking industry caused by the bursting of a housing bubble, despite aggressive monetary and fiscal policies. As a result of those policies, Japanese national debt soared, but was financed mainly internally because of the very high Japanese personal savings rate. With its large surplus of exports over inputs, moreover, Japan accumulated dollars (and other currencies), which also reduced the debt burden. Interest rates remained very low, in part because of chronic deflation. The low interest rates stimulated the "carry trade": investors would exchange Japanese yen for local currencies in countries that had high interest rates. This is a form of arbitrage, but tends not to erase international interest-rate differences, as one might expect arbitrage to do.
Japan was hard hit by the current economic crisis, in part because of its dependence on exports. It responded with aggressive monetary and fiscal measures, as before--with what appear to be potentially disastrous results, if one may judge from data in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (Richard Barley, "Japan: The Land of the Rising CDS," Nov. 11, 2009, p. C20). The International Monetary Fund predicts that next year Japan's ratio of national debt to GDP will be an astronomical 2.27, forcing Japan to continue borrowing heavily abroad. Interest rates remain very low, in part because Japan is again experiencing deflation. Rating agencies have reduced Japan's bond rating to AA-, yet the government, lulled by low interest rates, apparently has no sense of urgency about the country's mounting debt burden, a burden aggravated by the rapid aging of Japan's population. International financial markets believe that there is some probability that Japan will default on its debt. The "CDS spread" (the percentage of a debt that someone desiring insurance against the debt's defaulting must pay for the insurance) on Japanese government debt is almost 1 percent (.75 percent).
The United States differs in many respects from Japan, but is beginning to look more and more like it. We too experienced a banking collapse in the wake of the bursting of a housing bubble, and our monetary and fiscal responses, though aggressive, may not have been highly effective. The fiscal stimulus--the $787 billion federal spending program enacted in February--was enacted late and is poorly designed, and some think too small. And there is concern that, like Japan, we are babying our weak banks by allowing them to overvalue the assets and underestimate the liabilities on their balance sheets. The stress tests conducted last spring, for example, both underestimated the stress the banks were under (by assuming an unemployment rate--unemployment being highly correlated with bank-loan defaults--substantially lower than it became within a couple of months after the tests) and disregarded likely defaults of bank loans that will mature after 2010.
Our government, too, is lulled by low interest rates into believing that we can continue to run huge deficits without raising taxes or cutting spending significantly, simply by borrowing. Our public debt (the amount of federal government debt that is contractually obligated, as distinct from accounting reserves for entitlement programs such as Medicare and social security), of which almost half is owned by foreign governments and other foreign investors, has reached $7.5 trillion, which is more than half our GDP, and is on course to increase by at least a trillion dollars a year for the indefinite future. Like Japan, we have an aging population, which is pushing up entitlement costs. Our government seems not to have any economically realistic or politically feasible plans either to raise revenue or cut spending, but instead plans ambitious new spending programs (notably but not only on revamping health insurance). Proposed economies seem tokens. There is an air of complacency about deficit spending and public debt--again like Japan.
Because of our low inflation rate (it is close to zero) and the Federal Reserve's "easy money" policy (as a result of which our banks are holding a total of $1 trillion in excess reserves), the dollar has now become a favorite currency for the carry trade: dollars exchanged for local currencies earn interest more or less effortlessly, though not without risk. The carry trade may be a factor in the recent rises in commodity prices; indeed there is fear of additional asset-price inflation (bubbles) as a result of all the dollars sloshing around in the world economy.
Should the U.S. economy grow more rapidly than the public debt, we'll be okay. But the government's focus appears to be not on economic growth, but on redistribution (the major goal of health reform) and on creating at least an aura of prosperity, at whatever cost in deficit spending and future inflation, in time for the November 2010 congressional elections.
Japan has had a very slow rate of growth in its GDP since 1991, averaging just a little over 1 percent. Given this slow growth, and the government's continued failed efforts to prop up their economy by running large fiscal deficits, the ratio of government debt to its GDP has risen from only about 50% in 1995 to by far the highest ratio in the developed world, at about 170% in 2008. Estimates indicate that it could rise to over 200% by next year as the budget continues to spill red ink, and may grow even much further during the next decade. Such a large debt ratio has been manageable so far only because interest rates have been very low, at about a little over 1%. But these rates have recently been rising as concern is growing about the fiscal solvency of the Japanese government.
The danger of any explicit default on this debt is minimal since it is all denominated in the Japanese currency, the yen. Any country can reduce the real value of a debt burden in its own currency by printing money to finance a good chunk of its government spending, and thereby create inflation that destroys part of the real burden of the debt. I do not expect that to happen in Japan unless the debt burden becomes intolerable down the road.
All this is background for comparisons between Japan and the US. As Posner indicates, the American ratio of debt to GDP is now about 50%, where Japan was in 1995. It is also rising rapidly as the government continues to increase its spending on banks, the stimulus package, likely also on health care, maybe subsidizing employment of the unemployed, subsidizing mortgages, and in many other ways. The ratio of federal government spending to American GDP was quite stable at about 20% for about 40 decades, but this ratio has been rising rapidly during the past year, and it is beginning to approach 30%. The government debt is not yet a great burden because, as in Japan, interest rates are low, so that annual interest payments on the debt is not a sizable fraction of total government spending.
It is unlikely that US government spending will decline during the next decade, even though some of the short term spending on banks and stimulating the economy will probably fall sharply. Any spending declines from these directions will be more than replaced by much greater spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and other government financed health programs, on social security, and on various other entitlement programs. The direct impact on the debt burden of such budget deficits can be reduced only by higher taxes or inflation. Eventually, I do expect much greater inflation in the US. The Obama administration has also been vocal about its plan to raise taxes, especially on higher income persons, as soon as the recession is clearly over and the economy is growing again. That would be a serious mistake.
The best solution to reducing the real burden of the public debt is neither inflation nor higher taxes, but more rapid growth of the American economy. This involves lower, not higher, taxes on investments and incomes of small and large businesses. It also requires greater concern about the fact that the US is falling behind many other countries in the proportion of its young population, especially males, who receive a higher education. In addition, much greater attention needs to be paid to correcting the depressing statistic that the fraction of boys who drop out of high school has been stuck at about 25% for several decades, even though the economic and other benefits of finishing high school and going to college have risen dramatically. To its credit, the Obama administration has given high priority to improving the K-12 performance of American students, especially those from minority backgrounds.
In effect, the desirable policies to stimulate growth involve a retreat from the anti-business rhetoric that pervades Congressional Democrats and some of the top players in the executive offices, and a more pro-consumer and pro-business mentality. It is necessary to maintain the minimalist anti-trust policy that developed during the 1980s and 1990s under Democratic as well as Republican administrations, to retreat from the policy that banks and other businesses, such as GM, cannot be allowed to fail when they are mismanaged.
Desirable policies also include the elimination of efforts to restore union power in the private sector, and resistance to the desires of some members of Congress to have the US retreat from a free trade policy> They also want to impose onerous regulations on businesses of all kinds, especially the more successful ones. I am perhaps particularly disturbed by the anti-immigration rhetoric of leading members of Congress since immigrants have contributed so much to the dynamism of the American economy and society.
Sizable advances in productivity and the resulting sharp economic growth can ease the burden of growing government spending, and prevent anything like the expanding debt to GDP ratio and stagnation of the Japanese economy. Can the US do it? Certainly! Will the US do it? Not with the present composition of Congress, and with the tendency of the President to allow some of the more destructive members of his political party to get their way.
Last week two pieces of news about the American economy were disclosed, with important implications for where the economy is going. On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that during the third quarter of 2009, productivity jumped at the remarkable annual rate of 9¬Ω%. On Friday, the Labor Department also reported that the October unemployment rate in the United States increased to over 10% for the first time in more than 25 years. The productivity numbers were not entirely ignored, but were on the inside pages of the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and most other newspapers. By contrast, the unemployment numbers generally received first page coverage at all the major papers, and led to a lot of hand wringing about the economy. Yet while the figures are rather closely related, the productivity numbers in the longer run are the more important ones.
The two numbers are closely related because when productivity increases by a lot, that means much more output is being squeezed out of given inputs of labor and capital. Since during the third quarter the growth in productivity-equal to the growth rate in output minus the growth rate in hours of nonfarm workers- was over 9%, it is arithmetically necessary that hours would decline and unemployment increase since output grew "only" by about 4%. Hours worked did decline by about 5%, and unemployment grew by several percentage points. The very rapid increase in productivity during the third quarter followed a sharp growth in productivity during the second quarter of about 7%. The fast growth in American productivity toward the end of this serious recession is quite unusual because measured productivity often falls during recessions as companies are stuck with excess capacity of their capital. Companies also usually decide to hold on to their best employees, even though they are less than fully occupied with work. American productivity never fell during this recession.i
A rapid growth in productivity is generally a good sign since it means that more is being produced with fewer inputs of labor and capital- it is sort of a "free lunch". However, in a period of reduced employment and rising unemployment, many persons begin to fear that companies are advancing productivity only by laying off employees, and that this process cannot be easily reversed. Throughout history there has been a widespread fear that economies with the most rapid rates of technological progress have trouble generating full employment because jobs are lost as economies become more productive. Such an analysis considers economies to have a fixed number of jobs, so that eliminating some of these jobs reduces the number of workers who can be employed. Recall the Luddite textile workers in early 19th century Britain who attempted to destroy the textile machinery that was being introduced into their industry in an effort to protect their jobs.
Indeed, new technologies and other productivity advances often do destroy many jobs. Computers eliminated the demand for many clerical workers since they were no longer needed to store and process data since computers could do that much more efficiently. Textile machinery destroyed most of the work opportunities for women who made clothes by hand since machines could work much faster and on a much larger scale. Supermarkets helped eliminate the businesses of many small shopkeepers who sold food, and of the men who delivered milk and other foods to homes, since supermarkets sold milk and other goods much more cheaply than did small shops or through home delivery. The Internet continues to eliminate the demand for printers and reporters who work for newspapers and magazines.
Yet over periods more than a quarter of a year or a year, even rapid productivity growth has usually gone hand in hand with growing, not declining, employment. The Internet is providing many jobs, some for reporters who formerly worked at newspapers and magazines. The high tech sectors of Silicon Valley and elsewhere have become major employers of programmers, software engineers, salesmen, and many others. Large growth in employment has also occurred in the biotech field, and the health field more generally, and at other new industries. So while productivity of the global economy increased rapidly during the past century, and also during the past 15 years, world employment also rose rapidly during the past century, and during the more recent period, and world unemployment rates declined rather than increased during both periods prior to this worldwide recession. But the effects of the recession is only a temporary reversal of these longer-term trends.
Nor did the growth in employment come at the expense of earnings since hourly earnings also rose rapidly during the past century along with employment and productivity. This is not at all surprising since higher productivity means that workers and capital tend to produce more output than they did before productivity improved. At the same time that new technologies reduce the demand for worker skills and physical capital made obsolete, the increased productivity of capital raises the supply of other kinds of capital that contributes to a growth in the earnings of workers. The increased productivity of workers also increases their earnings along with their increased employment, although the skill mix of the workers demanded will differ from the mix prior to the growth in productivity.
This is why the rapid growth in American productivity during the past half year is a very good sign for the prospects of the American economy during the next several years. In the very short run, productivity improvements are associated with rising unemployment and reduced employment, but in the somewhat longer run it will raise the demand for workers and earnings. The emphasis on the very short run explains why Friday's unemployment figures received so much more attention than did Thursday's productivity figures, even though the latter are more important for the future prospects of the American economy.
Becker is certainly right that growth in productivity is an important driver of economic growth. But we must consider the source of the growth in productivity in order to understand the conjunction in the last two quarters of rapidly rising productivity with rapidly rising unemployment.
If productivity growth is the result of technological innovation (and "technology" in this context need not be limited to engineering--it could include innovations in management, marketing, inventory control, and so forth), then the effect of greater productivity on economic growth will indeed be positive. But it is unlikely that the productivity spurts in the second and third quarters of this year have been due to innovation. More likely they have been due to old-fashioned cost cutting spurred not by technological advances but by economic distress. The only explanations I have seen offered for the productivity surge is cutting wages and working the workers harder. I have found no suggestion of any technological change that might be responsible for such a large, sudden surge in productivity. Facing declining demand and a frightened work force, a firm is under pressure to reduce its costs and it can do that in a variety of ways, including laying off workers, pushing its remaining workers to work harder, reducing wages and benefits, buying cheaper inputs, slowing delivery, paying its bills more slowly, and responding more slowly to customer complaints. Some cost reductions will not increase productivity, as they will be proportional to reductions in output. But others will, such as laying off the least productive workers, or reducing quality in ways that do not show up in statistics on productivity (as they should--a reduction in quality is a reduction in the value of output).
Productivity gains that are based merely on adaptations to temporarily depressed economic conditions will be lost when conditions improve. As labor markets tighten, a firm will perforce hire workers who are less productive than the workers it had retained in a slimmed-down workforce during the depression; and so productivity will decline.
The productivity gains in the last two quarters could actually signal pessimism about the pace of the recovery. There are costs to reorganizing one's business in order to adapt to a reduction in demand. The shorter the expected reduction, therefore, the less reorganizing a firm will do. Indeed, often during a recession or depression there is the phenomenon of "labor hoarding": if a restoration of normal demand is expected in the near future, a firm may be better off with a workforce larger than it needs to meet the current demand than it would be laying off workers and having to incur the expense of rehiring them, or hiring new workers, when the downturn ends. There has been less labor hoarding in the current downturn than in previous ones, and this may be because employers do not anticipate an early return to normal demand. Their pessimism would be consistent with predictions that unemployment will continue to rise for some months, and thereafter will decline only slowly. For with such a high rate of unemployment (and underemployment--10.2 percent and 17.5 percent at this writing, respectively), demand for goods and services is likely to remain at a low level.
In October, the President announced that $13 billion (some commentators believe a more accurate estimate is $14 billion) of the $787 billion stimulus package enacted this past February would be used to pay every social security annuitant $250 in 2010, ostensibly to "compensate" for the fact that there will no cost of living (inflation) increase in social security benefits. The social security COLA for year t is based on the increase in the Consumer Price Index between the end of the third quarter of t - 1 and the end of the third quarter of t -2. (t is 2010, t - 1 2009, and t - 2 2008.) There will be no cost of living increase in 2010 for the excellent reason that as of the end of the third quarter of this year (September 30, 2009), the cost of living had fallen 1.3 percent from the end of the third quarter of 2008. Social security has a ratchet: benefits increase when the cost of living increases but do not decrease when the cost of living decreases. There is thus nothing to "compensate" social security annuitants for; on the contrary, they will be receiving a windfall in 2010 by virtue of the increase in their real (as distinct from nominal) benefits: their 2010 benefits will buy more.
Transfer payments, moreover, are a poor device for fiscal stimulus. The idea of a fiscal stimulus as an anti-depression device is to increase employment and by doing so restore business and consumer confidence; we are seeing today how high and rising unemployment is sapping that confidence and retarding recovery from the current depression (and it is a depression, not the "Great Recession" as some are calling it, though that's an issue for another day).
Transfer payments are at two removes from putting unemployed people to work. The amount of the transfer that is saved by the recipient in a savings account or other safe haven is (by definition) not spent, and so does not increase demand and therefore supply and therefore employment. And the amount of the transfer that is spent is spent at a store or other retail outlet to purchase a good that has already been produced. It is buying from inventory. Only when the store's inventory falls to a level at which the store has to order a new supply of goods from the manufacturer is there any stimulation of production, and thus of hiring; and of course the stimulation may not be of production by an industry, or in an area, of high unemployment. The dive that the economy took in the wake of the September 2008 financial collapse was unanticipated, and as a result sellers found themselves with excess inventories; until they were worked down, production would remain depressed. In sum, the effect of a transfer payment on employment may therefore be nil.
Apart from its inefficiency as a contribution to the recovery, largesse for the elderly--whose medical expenses, paid for largely by the taxpayer under the Medicare program--are threatening to bankrupt the country, sends the wrong signal: the signal of fiscal profligacy.
Lawrence Summers, the brilliant economist who heads the National Economic Council in the White House, has publicly endorsed the $250 dollar gift to social security recipients. He claims that it corrects an "anomaly." The anomaly he points is that social security recipients received only one $250 stimulus check this year and will receive no cost of living increase next year, whereas the tax benefits in the stimulus plan will be paid next year as well as this year. But social security annuitants received a 5.8 percent cost of living increase this year, whereas few workers received as large a wage increase; and they will be receiving a real as distinct from nominal increase in benefits next year. The only "anomaly" in the picture is the cynical provision of a windfall to a group that has suffered less from the depression than persons of working age, a group whose only claim to a $250 Christmas gift paid for by the federal taxpayer is that it votes more heavily than the young.
What's $13 billion at a time when trillions are spent casually? The real significance of the measure is the insight it gives into the Administration's apparent indifference to fiscal prudence. And not just the Administration. The political parties play leapfrog when it comes to spending--each trying to outdo the other in generosity to powerful voting blocs, and specifically to the elderly--the recipients of enormous social security and Medicare benefits, courtesy of the federal taxpayer. The costs of both the Medicare and social security programs are increasing rapidly as the population ages, and as the population ages the voting power of the elderly increases, placing additional pressure on a budget already disproportionately devoted to supporting the least economically productive members of society. (As a septuagenarian, I claim the right to make politically incorrect remarks about the elderly. Moreover, I am speaking of the average; many elderly people are hard-working and productive.)
The government's preliminary estimate of the growth in American GDP during the third quarter of 2009 is an impressive annual rate of 3.5%. This figure may be revised downward (or upward) as more data on the third quarter become available, but it surely definitely signals that the US recession is over. In my post on August 9th of this year I already expressed my belief that the recession in the US and the world would end during the third quarter. The end of a recession does not mean that an economy is back to where it would have been without the recession-the US economy is certainly not anywhere near that point yet- nor that the recovery from the recession will be rapid.
The rapidity of the recovery in the US or the world is not yet clear, although many economists who follow short term movements of the economy more closely than I do are predicting a slow and drawn out recovery period in the EU, Japan, and the US. I am not convinced by their forecasts because of the rapid recoveries in Asia, Brazil, and some other countries, and as long as American productivity continues to grow at a rapid rate. To be sure, unemployment is likely to continue to increase for a while since it is what is called a "lagging indicator". However, it almost surely will peak below the 10.8% reached at the end of 1982. During the past couple of years the world went through a severe recession, but it was not appreciably worse in the United States, as measured by the effects on GDP and unemployment, than during some other recession in the past 40 years. Of course, without some of the proactive policies of the Fed and the Treasury, this recession probably would have been deeper and longer.
Not surprisingly, these comments lead me to join Posner in taking a negative view of the plan to pay every social security annuitant a $250 bonus in 2010. The reason given to justify this payment is that the elderly will get no cost of living increase in their social security payments since prices fell rather than rose during the past year. As Posner indicates, this is an illogical and basically nonsensical justification for this bonus to social security recipients. Taxpayers already heavily subsidize the elderly through Medicare and to some extent social security payments, and there is little reason to use spurious arguments to add to that subsidy as part of the stimulus package.
More generally, the $787 billion stimulus-spending package of the Obama administration has made little sense since its inception, as I have argued in several blog posts and elsewhere. Business cycle analysts have long known and documented that fiscal spending programs are not very good at helping to fight recessions since they take a long time to implement. By the time fiscal spending actually occurs. the recessions they were supposed to be combating are usually over. Only about one third of the present stimulus package has yet been spent-and much of it not very well spent. Yet, the recession is already over, although to be sure, the recovery is still at the beginning stages.
I do not believe that inflation due to the Fed's rapid increase in bank reserves is yet a major worry, although it will be in a few years as banks spent these reserves by making additional loans and other investments. Nor do I believe that the huge increase in federal government spending, on the stimulus programs and to help the banks, will be a major cause for concern, as long as American GDP will grow at a much more rapid rate during the next decade than will government spending.
However, the much higher interest payments on the much larger government debt will have to be met either by raising taxes, cutting other government spending, rising tax collections from increased output, or inflation that deflates the real value of these interest payments. I am very much worried that it will be impossible to stop the growth of government spending, so that there will be an enormous, and probably irresistible, temptation to inflate to reduce the real value of the debt, and to raise taxes on higher income persons. Both of these will have negative effects on the growth rate of the American economy.