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At Roosevelt: Reimagining Full Employment

Summary:
Mike Konczal, Lauren Melodia and I have a new report out from the Roosevelt Institute, on what true full employment might look like in the United States. This is part of a larger project of imagining what an economic boom would look like. As Mike and I argued in our recent New York Times op-ed, there’s a real possibility that the coming years could see a historic boom, thanks to the exceptionally strong stimulus measures of the past year and, hopefully, the further expansions of public spending on the way. (Interestingly, the term “boom” is now making it into Biden’s speeches on the economy.) If the administration, Congress and the Fed don’t lose their nerve and stay on the path they’re currently on, we could soon be seeing economic growth and rising wages in a way that we haven’t

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Mike Konczal, Lauren Melodia and I have a new report out from the Roosevelt Institute, on what true full employment might look like in the United States.

This is part of a larger project of imagining what an economic boom would look like. As Mike and I argued in our recent New York Times op-ed, there’s a real possibility that the coming years could see a historic boom, thanks to the exceptionally strong stimulus measures of the past year and, hopefully, the further expansions of public spending on the way. (Interestingly, the term “boom” is now making it into Biden’s speeches on the economy.) If the administration, Congress and the Fed don’t lose their nerve and stay on the path they’re currently on, we could soon be seeing economic growth and rising wages in a way that we haven’t since at least the late 1990s.

This is going to call for a new way of thinking about economic policy. Over the past decade or more, the macroeconomic policy debate has been dominated by a consensus that is more concerned with the supposed dangers of public debt than stagnation, and sees any uptick in growth or wages as worryingly inflationary. Meanwhile, the left knows how to criticize austerity and bailouts for business, and to make the case for specific forms of public spending, but has a harder time articulating the benefits of sustained growth and tight labor markets.

What we’re trying to do is move away from the old, defensive fights about public debt and austerity and make the positive case for a bigger more active public sector. There’s no reason the Right should have a monopoly on promises faster growth and improvements in peoples material living standards. Post-covid, we’re looking at a new “morning in America” moment, and progressives should be prepared to take credit.

One of the great appeals of the Green New Deal framing on climate change is that it turns decarbonization from a question of austerity and sacrifice into a promise to improve people’s material well being, not decades from now but right now, and in ways that go well beyond climate itself. I think this promise is not just politically useful but factually well-founded, and could just as well be made for other expansions of the public sector.

This is an argument that I and others have been making for years. Of course, any promise of faster growth and higher living standards has to confront the argument, enshrined in macroeconomics textbooks, that the economy is already operating close to potential, at least most of the time — that the Federal Reserve has taken care of the demand problem. In that case, the Keynesian promise that more spending can call forth more production would no longer apply.

We’ve tended to respond to this argument negatively — that there is no evidence that the US now was facing any kind of absolute supply constraint or labor shortage before the pandemic, let alone now. This is fine as far as it goes, and I think our side of the debate has won some major victories — Jay Powell and Janet Yellen both now seem to agree that as of 2019 the US was still well short of full employement. Still, I think it’s legitimate for people to ask, “If this isn’t full employment, then what would be?” We need a positive answer of our own, and not just a negative criticism of the textbook view.

This new paper is an attempt to do just that — to construct an estimate of full employment that doesn’t build in the assumption that recent labor market performance was close to it. One way to do this is to compare the US to other advanced countries, many of which have higher employment-population ratios than the US, even after adjusting for age differences. We chose to take a different approach, one that instead looks at differences in employment rates within the US population.

From the executive summary:

This issue brief argues that potential employment in the US is much higher than we have seen in recent years. In addition to those officially counted in the labor force, there is a large latent labor force, consisting of people who are not currently seeking work but who could reasonably be expected to do so given sustained strong labor demand. This implies much more labor market slack than conventional measures of unemployment suggest.

An important but less familiar sign of labor market slack is the difference in employment rates between groups with more- and less-privileged positions in the labor market. Because less-favored groups—Black workers, women, those with less formal education, those just entering the labor market—are generally last hired and first fired, the gaps between more- and less-favored groups vary systematically over the business cycle. When labor markets are weak and employers can pick and choose among potential employees, the gap between employment rates for more- and less-favored groups widens. When labor markets are tight, and workers have more bargaining power, the gap shrinks.

We use this systematic relationship between overall labor market conditions and employment rates across race, gender, education, and age to construct a new measure of potential employment. In effect, since more-favored workers will be hired before less-favored ones, the difference in outcomes between these groups is a measure of how close hiring has gotten to the true back of the line.

We construct our measure in stages. We start with the fact that changes in employment rates within a given age group cannot reflect the effect of population aging. Simply basing potential employment by age groups on employment rates that have been observed historically implies potential employment 1.7 points higher than the CBO estimates.

Next, we close the employment gaps by race and gender, on the assumption that women and Black Americans are no less able or willing to work than white men of a similar age. (When adjusting for gender, we make an allowance for lower employment rates among parents of young children). This raises potential employment by another 6.2 points.

Finally, reducing the employment gap between more- and less-educated workers in line with the lower gaps that have been observed historically adds another 1.8 points to the potential employment rate.

In total, these adjustments yield a potential employment-population ratio 10 points higher than the CBO estimates, equivalent to the addition of about 28 million more jobs over the next decade.

Adding these 28 million additional jobs over the next decade would require an average annual growth in employment of 2.1 percent. The employment growth that would fully mobilize the latent labor force, as estimated here, is in line with the rate of GDP growth required to repair the damage from the Great Recession of 2007–2009 and return GDP to its pre–2007 trend.

You can read the rest here.

About JW Mason
JW Mason
Assistant professor of economics at John Jay College - CUNY, and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. RT = Read This

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