In 2007 and 2008, the U.S. unemployment rate was only 4.6 percent, though it started to rise after the financial crisis hit in September 2008, reaching 10.1 percent in October 2009. Since then it has fallen to 8.1 percent. The unemployment figure is not terribly illuminating, as it defines the unemployed as persons who are looking for a job, thus excluding those who have stopped looking because they don’t think they’ll find one; in the latest quarter, the unemployment rate fell (from 8.2 percent in the previous quarter) only because of the large number of persons who dropped out of the labor force, thus reducing the denominator in the fraction of unemployed. The 8.1 percent figure also excludes the underemployed. A further concern is that more than 40 percent of the unemployed have not been working for more than six months, and it hard to land a job after having been out of the workforce so long; work skills and attitudes tend to atrophy, making employers reluctant to hire the long-term unemployed.
The current depression (calling it a mere “recession” that ended in June 2009 when GDP stopped falling strikes me as ridiculous) began almost four years ago. That employment has not recovered is not surprising. When the financial crisis struck in September 2008 the personal savings rate of Americans was only 1 percent, the reason being that the housing bubble had inflated the apparent savings of homeowners by increasing their home equity relative to their debt. The rapid plunge in the market value of people’s personal savings caused them to reduce their consumption spending in an effort to rebuild their savings. At the same time, the uncertainty of the economic environment and the weakness of bank balance sheets caused banks to restrict lending (other than to the federal government and a handful of other reliable borrowers), so credit for consumer purchases became harder to get, and this further reduced consumption spending. The Federal Reserve flooded the banks with money, but the banks hoarded the money. With credit scarce and consumer spending down, companies reduced production and so laid off workers, which further reduced consumer spending, both directly by reducing incomes and indirectly by increasing uncertainty about the economic future.
When the downward spiral stopped, and consumer spending revived, companies were reluctant to hire back the laid-off workers because of continued uncertainty about economic conditions arising in part from the deepending economic crisis in Europe and slowing economic growth in countries like China, India, and Brazil.
I do think the government could have broken the downward spiral earlier, and had it done so unemployment would be somewhat lower today, though I doubt it would be dramatically lower. The $800 billion stimulus (Keynesian deficit spending as a depression remedy) should have been larger, should have been introduced earlier (in the fall of 2008 rather than in February 2009), should have been designed differently, with a focus on financing projects requiring labor rather than on transfer payments (since much of the transferred money could be expected to be saved rather than spent—and in a depression one wants spending not saving), and should have been executed with a greater sense of urgency, as in 1933, when literally millions of the unemployed were put to work within months and the economy began a rapid recovery, though the recovery stalled in 1937 when the government increased taxes and reduced the money supply.
In addition to restoring jobs during a depression, government can preserve jobs, as it did with the financial aid to the Detroit automakers, which saved hundreds of thousands of jobs at a particularly critical time (the first half of 2009). It now appears that the government should also have given financial aid to the states (which cannot create money to pay their obligations and thus can engage in deficit spending only with the consent of their creditors) to enable them to avoid having to lay off public workers, such as teachers, police, and firefighters—the states have laid off almost 600,000 of their employees during this depression.
I don’t think there’s much else the government could have done to arrest the depression. Attempts at fundamental economic reform should not be made during a depression, because they create uncertainty, which increases the incentive of businesses and consumers alike to hoard rather than spend; hence the Administration’s health-care reform was mistimed. The extension of unemployment benefits, along with more generous means-tested benefits programs like stamps, may also have been a mistake, by reducing economic pressures on the unemployed to find work. On the other hand, these transfer payments, although an inefficient method of promoting employment (because as I said transfer payments may to a significant extent be saved rather than spent), do increase incomes; and some—probably most—of the increased income is spent, in turn increasing demand for goods and services and so production and employment. Obviously, however, indefinite extension of unemployment benefits cannot be the solution to the unemployment problem.
A depressing possibility is that the depression has accelerated what may be a long-term trend to reduced employment in many industries. Until quite recently, the depression had fostered significant productivity gains, as employers tried to get more work out of fewer workers, as by speeding automation and adopting more efficient personnel management policies. By “accelerating” I mean adopting these measures earlier than they would have done without the spur of falling demand. So the depression may have brought forward inevitable changes in production that will result in reduced employment and earnings. Eventually the displaced workers will find jobs in industries not experiencing the same productivity advances, but the transitional period of high unemployment may be protracted.
The fact that the unemployment rate was less than 5 percent before the depression may refute the suggestion of a long-term decline in employment. But remember that the unemployment rate can be misleading. If we look instead at the percentage of the working-age population that is employed, it has declined from its peak of 67.1 percent in 2000 to 63.6 percent this year—and the decline began before the onset of the depression.