Not yet, Janet: America’s still not ready for a higher target rate

A common observation of my blog by readers is the fact that I don’t oftentimes take strong positions on the issues I discuss.  At first,  I took these comments with great pride, because being impartial and presenting multiple possibilities to a question is the defining hallmark of the economics profession.  President Harry Truman once remarked: “Give me a one-handed economist! All my economics say, ”On the one hand, on the other…”.  But, as the Truman quote suggests, this is not always a splendid thing.  People want precise answers and opinions; and although I do oftentimes think in ways that incorporates both sides of an argument, I am not without biases of my own.  So to mix it up a bit, I’m going to prominently infuse those biases into the posts I make.

And what a perfect time to do so, because policymakers (particularly of the monetary kind) have some big decisions to make soon.  The context can be painted as the following: the American economy is finally operating close to (or much closer to) its productive capacity.  Official employment is almost “full” (with U3 at 5.5% in May), and wages are finally beginning to rise at a faster clip (nominal wages are up 2.3% year-over-year in May, the fastest since 09′).  But inflation remains very subdued, with year-over-year core PCE and CPI inflation rates still hovering between 1 and 2% (below the Fed’s 2% target).  The Fed, under the direction of chair Janet Yellen, has indicated (currently and historically) that it’s target for the Federal Funds rate (the key rate on overnight bank loans) will be raised once these thresholds are approached.  But there’s a few reasons why I think it needs to wait longer:

1) Historically, inflation hasn’t spiked when unemployment fell below its estimated “NAIRU” rate.  As noted elsewhere on this blog, as the U.S. economy reaches it’s productive capacity (equilibrium), this is likely to push up wages as employers compete more for a scarcer supply of workers. This helps to produce “wage-push” inflation; businesses hike prices to pay for higher wages (at least partially), and workers use their higher wages to push up aggregate demand in an economy already producing at capacity.  These capacity constraints also help to produce the “too much money chasing too few goods” explanation of inflation.  This means that, theoretically, we should see a rise in inflation very soon.

Except we probably won’t.  Why?  Due to historical experience and the readings of several other economic indicators, I don’t think the economy is actually near full capacity yet.  In other words, our estimates of the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) are too high.  The experience of the 1990’s (as elaborated on by Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker) provides support for this view.  Near the end of the decade, unemployment plummeted – from 5.6% in 1995 all the way down to 4% by year 2000.  NAIRU estimates for the year 2000 were consistently higher than the actual unemployment rates achieved; starting at 5.4% in 1994, those estimates actually increased to 5.8% in 1996 before dropping back down to 5.2% by year 2000.  In other words, economists expected inflation to start accelerating once U3 unemployment reached and fell below these rates.  Yet, as the charts below demonstrate, inflation (especially PCE less food & energy) barely budged during the 1990s – and actual unemployment rates were far below NAIRU estimates!  Part of that was no doubt due to the late 90’s productivity spurt, but productivity is still growing at a decent (if not stellar) clip right now, meaning more output can be produced with a given (or less) amount of input.  As more output can be squeezed out of given inputs, there is less of a need to raise prices to maintain profitability.  If now is anything like the late 90’s, productivity growth can absorb wage growth/cost pressures for a while before businesses will have to raise prices to maintain profits.  In other words, unemployment could fall a ways further from its current 5.5% rate before we start to see inflationary pressures, which means that our current NAIRU estimates (around 5-5.5%) are too high.  This would make sense; I feel like, ever since the 1970s hyperinflation episode, policymakers have been overly cautious in making sure that policy tightening begins before inflation gets too high.  Thus the artificially high NAIRU estimates.

Source:

Source: “The Unemployment Rate at Full Employment: How Low Can You Go?” by Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/20/the-unemployment-rate-at-full-employment-how-low-can-you-go/?_r=1

Source:

Source: “The Unemployment Rate at Full Employment: How Low Can You Go?” by Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/20/the-unemployment-rate-at-full-employment-how-low-can-you-go/?_r=1

Additionally, there are the countless other indicators that suggest the economy is still being underutilized.  The more comprehensive U6 unemployment rate, which, as the BLS describes, measures “…total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force”, still stands at 10.8% in May 2015 (seasonally adjusted).  The employment-to-population ratio has also yet to recover from the recession, standing at 59.4% in May 2015 (down from a cyclical high of 63.4% back in December 2006).

2) It’d be good to have a long period of low unemployment after the disastrous labor market of the past few years.  As everyone (especially recent college graduates) knows, the job market hasn’t been stellar for a while; it’s only just getting back to “normal”.  U3 hit a 3-decade high of 10.0% as recently as late 2009, the U-6 measures were even higher, and worst of all, long-term unemployment as a share of the unemployed hit both a record high and stayed high for a record amount of time (see chart below).  Such high rates of unemployment for such long periods of time undoubtedly have helped destroy millions of household finances over the years while also threatening to create structural unemployment (as skills atrophy and people become less “employable”).  I think, like a yo-yo, such high and extended periods of unemployment should swing the opposite way: exceptionally low unemployment for an exceptionally long period of time.  This will aid households in naturally repairing their finances (which did appear to actually “improve” over the years, but it seems personal bankruptcy and/or exceptionally painful (destructive?) saving were the main reasons).  It will allow workers to practice their skills and boost their self-esteem (which can create a virtuous cycle of higher productivity).  Additionally, it can also help to generate wage pressures so wages can “catch up” the ground they lost (as in, the growth that would have occurred had the economy been operating at full capacity since 2007).  Some might argue that this could threaten profits too much; however, coming at the heels of several years of record profits and high volumes of cash reserves, I think employers would be able to healthy absorb wage hikes for a fairly long period of time before this became an issue.

3) Continued loose policy would help counteract an over-appreciation of the dollar.  The U.S. dollar has gained rapidly against a basket of currencies since last fall (up by a full 21% against the Euro since this time last year).  There are many reasons for its rapid rise – a collapse in oil prices, investor confidence in the strength of the U.S. economy, and – ironically enough – investor expectations of a target rate hike.  The concern is that either this appreciation continues or that its rapid rise has already done too much damage.  Stronger currencies make exports more expensive (by boosting the relative prices of exporters and decreasing their competitiveness) while simultaneously making it relatively cheaper to import.  Though the latter is good for consumers, the combination of lower exports and higher imports wreaks havoc on the trade balance (which, for America, is almost always in deficit), thereby lowering GDP growth.  Arguably one of the biggest forces restraining the dollar from rising much further is a continuation of loose monetary policy.  End it, and the dollar rise alone could stall a still rather mediocre recovery (by historical standards).  Along with the other reasons above, it’d be preferable to continue a low target rate at least until some of the other pressures are alleviated.

4) Even if it did threaten to raise inflation a bit above current targets, this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.  Look, too much inflation is bad.  Everyone knows that rising prices squeeze family budgets and distorts economic decision making (shifting future demand into the present to avoid higher future prices, leading to a negative feedback loop of higher inflation).  It’s literally a hidden (or not-so-hidden) tax that eats up the purchasing power of savings and investments.  But a little bit of inflation is not a bad thing.  Stable, fairly low inflation can actually benefit an economy.  It makes wages less sticky by placing pressure on employers to raise them (so employees can maintain cost-of-living).  By lowering the purchasing power of dollars spent on repaying fixed-amount burdens, it also reduces the real debt of indebted consumers who, after becoming extremely over-leveraged during the 2000s, could still use some relief so they can resume healthy (but moderate) spending.  This reduction in real debt burdens also goes for the federal government (whose $18 trillion tab, while manageable in a $17 trillion economy, could still use some relief).  Inflation a bit above the current target of 2% (say, 3 or 4%) would still be manageable; and in my opinion, is absolutely worth it if low unemployment can be attained.  Now, this does present a credibility problem for the Fed; it’s consistently stated that 2% target figure, and if inflation were to rise higher than that, then it could spook investors and lead to concerns that the Fed will not contain it (and that another Weimar Republic-style meltdown is on its way).  So perhaps the Fed should inform investors of a new, slightly higher target rate, while making it clear that absolutely no higher rates will ever be tolerated.  It might help to remind economic agents that these targets didn’t even exist as recently as 40 years ago, so it’s hardly like they’ve remained consistent.

5) A recession can still be handled by both fiscal and monetary policy, even if rates start out at zero.  So what if the Fed can’t lower nominal rates any further?  They have Q.E. and a general unlimited capacity to purchase securities, emergency lending capabilities, operation twist, forward guidance, etc., etc.  And there are tens of thousands of governments in the United States that theoretically have the capability to engage in expansionary fiscal policy (though the Federal government, with its unique status of having no balanced operating budget requirement, will probably remain the most potent public sector actor).  If you raised rates now and caused a recession, you probably still wouldn’t be able to cut them that far anyway (since they probably won’t reach that high before equilibrium is breached).

6) Savings rates were plummeting anyway…and the boost to equities is (arguably) still good.  Due to a myriad of factors (wage stagnation, cultural shifts, a global savings glut, etc.), Americans no longer save the way they used to.  Indeed, in 2005, the savings rate went negative for the first time since the Great Depression, and in recent years has only climbed back up to around 5%.  Too many trends outside of the Fed’s control will continue to keep downward pressure on savings rates.  And there’s no guarantee that a rise in the effective Fed Funds rate would necessarily translate into higher interest rates for savers (in savings accounts, C.D.’s, etc.)  Additionally, the effect of the Fed continue to purchase securities to maintain a low effective Fed Funds rate is to lower the yield (and boost the price) of bonds/securities, making equities relatively more attractive (for their higher returns).  This has allowed the stock market to soar, bolstering the “wealth effect” for households (prompting them to spend more) and increasing the returns to retirement accounts tied to the equity markets.  And we can’t forget the impact of low rates making long-term borrowing (e.g. for mortgages) easier, translating into higher house prices (and thus greatly boosting the wealth-effect for the middle class).

Overall, then, the argument against raising rates now is clear.  Now granted, the target rate will have to be raised eventually (probably within the next year or so) – these positive effects will not last forever, and there is a risk of overshooting targets and objectives if rates stay low too long.  But it’s time to break from the past policy hyper-conservatism and boldly declare a new approach; today’s challenging economic environment requires nothing less.

A Spring Cleaning for American Monetary Policy

The past several months have witnessed profound transformations in the state of America’s economic outlook. Output growth has accelerated, with annualized GDP growth rates of 4.6%, 5.0%, and 2.2% in Q2, Q3, and Q4 of 2014, respectively.  This has been accompanied by similarly impressive gains in the pace of job creation, with a full year’s worth of monthly net employment gains of over 200,000, and an unemployment rate increasingly dipping into “natural rate” territory (estimated to be between 5.2 & 5.5%, though recently revised to around 5.1%).  Oil prices have plunged since late 2014, helping to spur aggregate demand.  And the FY 2016 budget released by the Obama administration in early February continued the turnaround in federal fiscal policy, with large increases in proposed discretionary spending initiatives promising to accelerate (if implemented) the transition towards a more accomodative policy stance.

Real GDP Growth has trended upward in recent quarters.  Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Real GDP Growth has trended upward in recent quarters. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Monthly net payroll growth has steadily increased as output growth has accelerated

Monthly net payroll growth has steadily increased as output growth has accelerated

The U3 unemployment rate measure is slowly converging towards the estimated natural rate of unemployment (NAIRU).

The U3 unemployment rate measure is slowly converging towards the estimated natural rate of unemployment (NAIRU).

All of this points towards an economy that is rapidly strengthening and should continue to do so as the year continues.  The impacts of oil & natural gas price declines have yet to fully ripple through the economy in the form of increased manufacturing competitiveness and higher consumption.  Firming employment figures should boost aggregate demand as more earnings are recycled into discretionary household purchases.  Higher stock and housing prices will continue to translate into “wealth-effect” consumer spending.  And rising retail sales should further spur investment, boosting current and long-run growth in the process.  Ceteris paribus – all else held equal (such as geopolitical happenings) – and there is little reason to expect for strong economic growth not to continue.

With the arrival of Spring on March 20th and the accompanying wave of household cleaning, as well as this unexpected barrage of good economic news, it is a good time to take stock of the current policy trajectory.  Considering it is in the news so much, and bears so much direct import on the macroeconomy, of primary concern is the stance of monetary policy.  How soon should the Fed tighten?

Currently, the main policy tool that is modulated by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Funds Target Rate, is set in a range from 0 – 0.25% – the lowest levels in its history.  This has been the case since late 2008, and the 6+ years since then has likewise marked the longest period of accomodative policy in history.

This is set to change.

Rumor has it that a long-awaited hike in interest rates (read: Fed Funds Target Rate) will proceed by the middle to late-middle of this year, though the rate of increase will be fairly gradual, perhaps around 50 basis points to .75% by late this year.  This has been the assumption of investors for awhile now, and seems to be the likeliest course of action.  But is it a good course of action?

My views are mixed, but side with pessimists who feel that even these gradual steps are too rapid.  First among my concerns is that the American economy is still no where close to “full employment”, one of the key elements of the Fed’s dual mandate.  The Economic Policy Institute estimates that U3 rates closer to 4.0% (instead of 5 – 5.5%) are more consistent with NAIRU (n0n-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment).  This would make sense, for though unemployment is now within reach of the Fed’s estimates for NAIRU, inflation has continued to trend down (turning into outright deflation in recent months as lower oil prices feed into general prices), and wage growth remains stagnant (at 2% nominal growth, real wage growth is too low to feed into wage-push inflation).

fredgraph

Rates of inflation are well below the Fed’s 2% annual target

 

Nominal Wage Growth Tracker

As demonstrated by the Economic Policy Institute’s Nominal Wage Tracker, wages are rising too slowly to be consistent with target wage and inflation growth.

 

We would expect wage growth to strengthen as we near the natural full rate of unemployment.  Rising demand for workers while the labor supply becomes more scarce boosts the bargaining power of workers to negotiate higher wages.  This wage growth is partially a pre-requisite for higher rates of inflation (closer to the 2% target).  Higher wages means that prices usually must be increased for businesses to maintain profits, and these higher prices then necessitate further wage hikes, creating a positive upward spiral that feeds into rising inflation.  Since both nominal wage growth and inflation rates are well below target, it appears that full employment has not yet been reached.

Some will argue that the existence of monetary policy impact lags (how long it takes for a policy change to have an effect) would justify a rate increase now, as several months from now, it may well be that full employment is reached and wage and price increases are accelerating, to the point that tighter policy is needed to mitigate.  However, even if it were so that we reach full employment on current trajectory (which, if EPI is right and NAIRU is closer to 4.0%, will be a ways into the future), I still think holding off on an increase is justifiable.  For one thing, wage growth has been subpar for many years – allowing it to catch up back to pre-recession trends wouldn’t be a bad idea.  This is especially true if the Fed is worried about the sustainability of the expansion.  Wage increases are necessary for increases in consumer spending (the driving force of the U.S. economy) to be sustained.  Allowing for months, if not a few years, of above-average wage & inflation growth might not be a bad thing for the sake of sustainability.

Given the existence of multiple tools to combat inflationary pressures and to prevent higher inflation rates from being too ingrained, I think the biggest drawback of this proposal of delayed tightening is that the Fed risks overshooting its employment target (meaning that unemployment is below its natural rate for an extended period of time).  Technically, this would be a violation of its dual mandate.  However, invoking the argument about this policy helping to produce long-run economic sustainability (to maintain full employment and stable prices), a temporary overshooting of the dual mandate targets might be statutorily justified.  It all depends on the timeframe the Fed chooses to create policy, which historically has been rather short (within months/a few years).  This is the difficult balancing act the Fed must consider, and which is statutorily ambiguous.

If it were to think more of the possible long-run consequences of its policies (especially as it relates to the dual mandate), an already difficult task suddenly becomes much, much more complex.  Further thinking and a cleaning of its future policy stance is in order…

TBC

Building a New Era of Governance – Part 2

6) Continue with efforts to reform the healthcare system.  Love it or hate it, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, e.g. Obamacare) is here to stay (sorry Project 2017); at the very least, the law will not in its entirety be repealed.  The myriad subsidies, tax credits, and benefit requirements are far too popular; to repeal them would be political suicide.  What Congress needs to do now is to focus on modulating and improving upon what already exists.  Obamacare goes a ways towards addressing the pre-existing deficiencies in the system (although in an arguably inefficient and potentially self-defeating, if not destructive, manner).  These deficiencies are not hard to identify.  American healthcare is outrageously expensive (see below), and too few people have access to the system (anomalies which are very much related, via the effects of adverse selection).  Those who do have access (especially those on employer-sponsored plans) then face rigidities such as a lack of portability and increased dependency upon a single employment setting.  Obamacare generally does a pretty good job at addressing the lack of access to care; already, it has significantly boosted insurance rates via expansions of Medicaid and the provision of individual and business tax credits/subsidies.  The renewed ability of individuals to purchase insurance has also addressed the portability issue.  However, its record on holding down long-run costs appears to be more mixed.  It has provisions that simultaneously place downward and upward pressure on costs.  For the former, the individual mandate should help by increasing the pool of healthy individuals contributing to the system (countering adverse selection), offsetting the costs of newly-enrolled less-healthy individuals.  Additionally, the law contains numerous “experiments” designed to hold down costs, such as the creation of “bundled payment plans” as opposed to the traditional fee-for-service payment model (which rewards doctors on quantity, not quality, of services rendered).  At the same time, the law contains many expensive provisions, such as the prohibition of lifetime caps on benefits and new restrictions on varying premiums based on certain risk factors.  Thus far, costs have leveled off in recent years; then again, we did go through a massive recession that put a dent in demand for health services, and spending growth has been rising as of late, albeit very modestly.  Regardless of Obamacare’s impact on cost growth in particular, an ageing populace and the continued existence of marketplace distortions calls for continued efforts to make health spending more efficient and cost-effective.  I think that Republicans in Congress can pursue policy options that are both effective and politically sustainable.  They include the following:

In both relative and absolute terms, the United States spends far more resources than other countries on healthcare (source: vox.com)

 

The growth in healthcare expenditures has slowed in recent years, though its permanence has yet to be determined

The growth in healthcare expenditures has slowed in recent years, though its permanence has yet to be determined

PPACA has had a dramatic impact on the nation's uninsurance rate

PPACA has had a dramatic impact on the nation’s uninsurance rate

a) Repeal the Cadillac Tax, replace with a gradual phase-out of the tax exclusion on employer-sponsored insurance premiums.  While FDR’s World War 2 wage and price controls arguably created the present-day Employer Sponsored Health Insurance (ESHI) system, this policy has no doubt been greatly aided by the Federal government’s decision to exclude employer sponsored insurance from taxation (and kudos to Ike for making it open-ended in 1954!).  By excluding fringe benefits from taxation, the federal government has virtually subsidized the provision of employer-sponsored insurance.  From both an employer and employee perspective, $1 in healthcare is much more cost-effective than an additional dollar in wages.  This has led to costlier plans, and an increasing proportion of overall compensation being dedicated to benefits (as opposed to wages).  Adding insult to injury, the same tax benefits do not apply to individual plans, which are typically purchased using after-tax income (although Obamacare has implicitly equalized this a bit via the provision of subsidies and tax credits for individual plans).  To try and further “equalize” treatment, the authors of PPACA included the phase-in of a 40% tax on “Cadillac” insurance plans, specifically the cost of plans that exceed pre-determined thresholds (about $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family).  I see this tax as very arbitrary – 40% on randomly selected amounts, that has no guarantee of “equalizing” tax treatment between ESHI plans and individual plans.  The thing is, we already have taxes in place (federal income & payroll taxes) that could apply to these premiums; it’s just that the government has exempted them completely.  In addition to its failure to equalize treatment and how unnecessary it is, it also does not raise anywhere near as much revenue as a hypothetical full repeal of the ESHI tax exemption would.  The Cadillac tax is estimated to raise about $80 billion between 2018 and 2023 – a six-year period.  Meanwhile, the ESHI exemption in totality costs the federal government a whopping $250 billion every single year.

The tax exclusion of employer-sponsored health insurance is by far the most costly federal tax expenditure

The tax exclusion of employer contributions to ESHI is by far the most costly federal tax expenditure

I see this as a prime opportunity for Republicans to claim credit for killing a tax (the Cadillac tax) while simultaneously making the tax treatment of healthcare more sane and raising the government badly needed revenue.  What they could do is enact legislation that repeals the Cadillac tax in its entirety, but simultaneously places caps on the tax exclusion equal to the thresholds imposed by the Cadillac tax.  In this way, benefit amounts exceeding $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage will be subject to normal taxable income.  Unlike other proposals, though, I would move for these threshold amounts not to be indexed to price changes whatsoever – be it a measure of inflation, a flat rate, etc.  In this way, more and more plans will gradually be subject to the tax (much like bracket creep of the 1970s) so that the discretionary impact of the exclusion can be tempered over time.  Better yet, have the thresholds lowered on an annual basis so that eventually all “fringe” benefits will be taxed, and there will be no implicit subsidization of ESHI.  Of course, an elimination of the biggest single tax break in the federal tax code would produce enormous backlash in and of itself; indeed, it would be rather hefty tax hike.  That’s why I think the Republicans should also consider using some of the revenue generated to lower marginal tax rates (one of their favorite pastimes); any potential revenue left over could be used to lower the deficit and perhaps expand insurance subsidies for the poor and middle-class elsewhere (which would be especially appealing to Democrats).  Combined with a repeal of the (more visible and unpopular?) Cadillac tax, I think this could be a politically palpable solution.  It will help eliminate artificial demand for healthcare and give the many types of insurance options equal – as opposed to preferential – treatment.

b)  Force (or nudge) states to dismantle barriers for the purchase of insurance across state-lines.  This is an area where federalism & devolution has failed – and the federal government ought to step in.  Other than for the appeasement of insurance companies, there is no reason states should restrict consumers from purchasing policies from out-of-state companies.  This has had the effect of creating localized insurance monopolies that have artificially driven up costs.  Sure, it will take time for interstate insurance provider networks to materialize; but it’s better to start now than to continue with the status quo.  Republicans really shouldn’t encounter as much resistance from Democrats with this measure; after all, Obamacare intentionally created state-level exchanges where consumers can “shop” for different policies, with the intent that (perhaps one day) a single national exchange or market could be created.  However, Republicans may run into arguments that this will cause a decline in benefit standards as consumers seek the most cost-effective policies; however, shouldn’t Obamacare’s minimum benefit provisions (that differentiate plans into bronze, gold, silver, etc.) create a floor on a substantial portion of policies?  And if not, Congress could always mandate a bare minimum of standards to create a floor under state floors (though this would probably lead to a conservative backlash; the party establishment must proceed with caution).

c) Medical malpractice reform.  Yup, it’s a relatively small part of the overall cost picture, but even Democrats have to admit that $45 billion a year in defensive medicine is a bit much (even if a portion of it is “worthwhile”.  Although it might work better at a state-level, federal policies such as enacting caps on total payouts, raising the thresholds to file suit and concepts such as “loser pays” could all do their bit to reigning in excessive medical malpractice costs.

d) Promote cost transparency.  Obamacare has already done a wonderful thing by mandating that employers report insurance costs on employee’s W-2 forms.  This has helped in the process of getting employee’s “skin in the game”, so that they are congnizent of costs that otherwise feel disconnected  from them (what a revolutionary concept).  Congress ought to expand the variety of benefits that require W-2 reporting, and could try to find additional means for cost information to reach consumers directly.  Of course, it must be mindful of the unintended consequences of such mandates, as reporting consumes time & resources in and of itself.  Again, since transparency provisions already passed Obamacare in its original form by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress in 2010, I don’t see why further transparency provisions can’t be a bipartisan effort.

e) Temporarily increase Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments to hospitals.  Right now, hospitals across the nation are straining to provide uncompensated emergency care for millions of uninsured Americans, care that the federal government partially pays for via DSH payments.  Unfortunately, these payments are usually not enough, forcing costs onto general insurance premiums.  As Obamacare expands and insures more people, this problem should theoretically ease somewhat, and the strains on DSH should ease.  Nonetheless, this insurance expansion in incomplete (especially since not all states are on board with expanding Medicaid), and may not be enough to substantially reduce the strains on the already overburdened DSH payment system.  So why would conservative Republicans have an incentive to increase federal spending?  Quite simply, higher DSH payments could indirectly ease insurance premiums for millions of people (allowing for less private-level “redistribution” from the insured to the uninsured”, and costs could be lowered for the federal government too in a way that offsets the increased spending on DSH.  Expanded DSH would also be appealing to Democrats, as it would serve to benefit one of their core constituencies (the uninsured poor).  It is one of those times when less requires more.

f) Loosen federal restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  I see HSAs as a part of the solution to get people to have skin in the game when it comes to healthcare spending.  When combined with high-deductible health plans, HSAs establish a connection between medical spending and personal savings that can help to curb the consumption of excess medical care.  The Federal government should lift existing statutory contribution limits and abolish all taxes that apply to HSA withdrawals, including for so-called “non-qualified” withdrawals.  The latter option, in addition to being more fair, would help to eliminate distortionary tax-minimizing behavior that could actually inflate health spending.  HSAs go along with the conservative notion of individual responsibility (which might explain their strong support by Republicans), and certainly Democrats shouldn’t be opposed to an increase in savings accounts (especially considering Obama’s proposed myRA retirement accounts).

g) Eliminate the Employer Mandate.  One of Obamacare’s most controversial provisions is that employers with 50 or more “Full Time Employees” (FTEs) provide them with health insurance or pay a penalty.  An FTE is defined as someone who works 30 hours or more.  This has lead to huge disagreements over the provision’s impact on the labor market, with critics claiming that this provision is weakening the 40-hour workweek by incentivizing employers to cut back on workers’ hours to avoid the mandate and associated penalties.  Proponents have countered that most workers already work more than 40 hours a week, and thus are at little risk having their hours drastically cut to below 30/week.  In response to a recent bill to move the threshold from 30 hours to 40 hours, these proponents have also said that this bill makes cuts in workers’ hours much more likely, as so many work 40 hours (or a little more) per week.  Both sides have points; but really, it almost doesn’t matter.  The employer mandate, like much of Obamacare, creates arbitrary thresholds that threaten to severely distort the economy and strangle business decisions.  The 50 FTE threshold has already led to an increase in “49er” businesses, who artificially limit their employee count to less than 50 to avoid the mandate and payment of penalties.  Additionally, I feel the employer mandate exacerbates an existing major problem with American healthcare: the very fact that so much of it is provided by employers!  This 4th-party payment system is incredibly non-transparent and non-portable, disregarding the economies of scale it provides via pooling, and explains a major part of the cost dilemma.  As such, I think the mandate deserves repeal.  Since Republicans will obviously fail at repealing the law, they might as well go after a single provision of it to incrementally enact positive change.  Although repeal of the mandate is also likely to fail, it is still worth a shot, especially considering how the new 114th Congress has already decided that targeting the mandate will be one of its first legislative acts.  Perhaps this will also give some Democrats who are weary of the net impact of Obamacare to finally demonstrate their political independence from a surprisingly unpopular law.

Why Republicans Should Embrace Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The escalating child migrant crisis has once again brought our ailing immigration system back into the mainstream spotlight.  As usual, both sides revert back to their usual arguments.  Republicans take the migrant crisis as being a result of loose borders and lax executive enforcement, and many call for more deportation of both the child migrants and all illegal aliens within the United States.  In contrast, Democrats generally argue for making it easier and faster to become a citizen and to implement gradual amnesty. Though both sides have legitimate concerns and arguments, I (surprisingly) mostly side with Democrats on this issue, and I strongly believe that Republicans should reconsider their stance on immigration reform.  Here’s why:

  1. We need more immigrants, legal or illegal, and badly.  Contrary to the beliefs of many, virtually all types of immigrants – legal or illegal, skilled or unskilled, etc. – benefit the country economically (though legal immigrants are, of course, preferable to illegal immigrants).  Skilled immigrants make up a large proportion of  innovative business start-ups, while low-skilled immigrants lower prices for consumers & employers and take jobs that natives are less inclined to perform.  All groups add to national GDP, and (unlike in many European countries), they usually contribute more to overall tax revenues than they consume via social programs, helping to balance budgets at the federal, state, and local levels.  As such, there is a strong economic argument to expanding legal immigration and making legal naturalization avenues more efficient.  Macro-economically, more legal immigrants could serve as both a short and long-term economic stimulant to the moribound US economy, adding to short and long-term supply and demand.  Due to the retirement of the baby boomers, the US labor force will continue to contract in the coming decades, producing labor shortages that an influx of immigrants could help fill (and freeing up natives to perform other jobs, thus boosting job creation).  Additionally (and largely due to the aforementioned retirement of the baby boomers), America faces long-run fiscal challenges that more legal immigrants (with their contribution to higher GDP and higher tax revenues) could help to alleviate.  Considering that Republicans are broadly regarded as the “party of business” and of fiscal conservatism, Republicans should thus be embracing legal immigration.  Instead, though they pay lip service to legal immigration, their laser-like focus on illegal immigration and accelerating enforcement measures overshadows their support for legal immigration.  Ironically, an increasing of legal immigration via immigration reform would help to solve illegal immigration and the presence of large numbers of undocumented workers.
  2. Continued deportation of unauthorized immigrants is impractical and costly.  Currently, there are over 11 million unauthorized immigrants residing within the United States.  Many Republicans argue that deportation should be ramped up to deal with them.  I disagree.  First of all, despite the perception among many, deportation rates have stabilized at relatively high levels in recent years – rates have not fallen off a cliff, so it’s not like this strategy isn’t being actively pursued.  Second, can you imagine trying to deport all 11 million + immigrants from the US?  Deportation already costs the government quite a bit, with the Department of Homeland Security reportedly requesting approximately $230 million in budgetary authority for the deportation of undocumented immigrants just in fiscal year 2015.  That is for the current rate of about 400,000 people a year, which is, of course, partially offset by continued inflows of unauthorized immigrants.  Logistically, deportations of a larger scale would undoubtedly create massive strains on the system.  Additionally, the removal of 11 million people would be hugely destructive economically – lowering productivity, raising prices, and disrupting both the creation and operation of businesses, at a time when the US has yet to fully recover from the 2007-2009 recession.  Of course, we also cannot forget the costs of splitting up families, which imposes deep scars the social fabric of the nation.  If anything, deportation should be scaled down.
  3. Resources devoted to immigration enforcement are at historical highs – and further enforcement measures, like building a wall, will not stop illegal immigration.  As partially mentioned above, immigration enforcement (such as deportations) is hardly on decline.  Indeed, according to The Economist, border enforcement costs about $20 billion a year, which is more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.  Yet, despite all these costs, we clearly still have enforcement problems, and until we reform the immigration system, we always will.  Why?  The reason is simple: the economic incentives for people to immigrate to the United States are overwhelming.  Even for low-skilled immigrants, pay is usually several times greater in the United States than it is in their country of origin.  No matter how much the federal government devotes to border enforcement and trying to prevent people from immigrating (legally or not), people will keep trying to come here – and many will find ways to succeed.  Since these forces will not be disappearing anytime soon, it would be better to work with the force, not against.
  4. Current immigration policy is tantamount to anti-trade protectionism – the antithesis of Republican ideology.  Republicans, in accordance with their belief in free markets, tend to be much more supportive of free trade than liberal Democrats.  However, the current legal immigration system is based largely on a series of quotas.  According to Vox.com, on the employment side a maximum of 65,000 H1B visas (for high-skilled workers) and 66,000 H2B visas (for low-skilled workers) are issued by the federal government annually.  Both of these quotas are usually hit pretty quickly, indicating that employer demand in the US is far outstripping supply.  These quotas are artificially restricting the supply of workers, raising employment costs and decreasing growth prospects.  Additionally, the number of “green cards” supplied tends to be less than demanded, especially for people without US-based relatives or prospective employers.  These restrictions do not let the market to operate efficiently, which goes against Republican notions of free market capitalism.  Not to mention, these quotas help to drive the illegal immigration that everybody is so furious about.
  5. Current immigration proposals do not grant unconditional amnesty – nor should they.  Last time I checked, the current mainstream immigration reform bills passed by House committees in the summer of 2013 allowed unauthorized residents to gain citizenship only after meeting several conditions, including paying several fines and going through vigorous checks.  Republicans are right to be weary of the granting of unconditional amnesty – unauthorized immigrants did, after all, technically break the law, and the rule of law must be upheld for the republic to function properly.  However, the current bills (and any bill that is likely to be passed) will not let unauthorized immigrants  off the hook.  Now, many Republicans say that any form of amnesty, conditional or not, is both unfair (as others still had to wait to become naturalized) and undermines the rule of law.  I think the fines help to partially offset this, punishing those who broke the law.  Though it (understandably) seems unfair that immigrants would be able to gain a “special” route to citizenship this way, such a route is, on net, still much more practical than sending those residing here illegally “to the back of the immigration line”.  Doing so would be too costly economically, difficult logistically, and would overwhelm the already strained legal immigration system.
  6. Republicans could use immigration reform to their political advantage.  Everyone knows that Hispanic voters tend to lean Democratic, and that this persuasion is becoming increasingly costly for Republicans electorally.  As the Hispanic population continues to grow in influence, the political parties increasingly need their support in order to win elections.  Right now, Republican opposition to immigration reform and a perceived anti-immigrant ideology is hurting the party.  Embrace immigration reform, and the Republicans could vastly improve their political fortunes.

Considering all of the outstanding issues on the federal policy radar, it is understandable that immigration reform might not top the policy agenda at the moment.  But until Washington is ready to devote its full attention to the issue, Republicans should seriously consider revising their views on the subject.  Too much is at stake for them not to do so.

Our 5-Year-Old Recovery: A Belated Birthday Wish

So much has been happening lately that it’s hard to know what is most deserving to talk about. Outside the US, the biggest news is that the middle east is further accelerating its long post-Arab Spring slide, with Iraq plunging back into civil war and tensions between Israel and Palestine yet again escalating.  Here at home, meanwhile, the Supreme Court has ruled against the Obama Administration on issues ranging from mandated contraception vs. religious freedom to “recess” presidential appointments.

Perhaps the strangest news, however, is that the current business cycle expansion (the economic recovery” turned 5 years old in June.  This comes at the heels of revelations that just a month prior, we finally reached pre-recession levels of total employment (really no achievement at all, since growth in the potential labor force thoughout all this time still leaves a massive jobs gap.  Not only is it unprecedented that the 5th birthday of the recovery comes only one month after a return to pre-recession employment levels, but it’s also unprecedented that such a large output gap remains at a point where we’re likely closer to the next recession than the end of the last one.   At 61 months, it is now past the average of 58 months for all post-war recoveries.

Now that the party has died down, its time to face some ugly truths.  First of all, longevity does not imply good health.  Despite repeated predictions, this recovery has proven to be neither broad-based nor robust, and unfortunately, its running out of time to ever show sustained periods of health.  From indicators ranging from GDP growth to income growth to productivity growth (etc, etc), there has been sub-par performance.  There are many plausible reasons why (both supply and demand-side explanations), which have been discussed to the point of exhaustion.  I’ll re-list the main ones anyway:

  • contractionary fiscal policy
  • inadvertently contractionary monetary policy? (see Vox.com explanation)
  • lingering effects of private debt deleveraging on consumer spending
  • lack of public investment in physical & nonphysical capital
  • High energy costs
  • Business uncertainty (due to regulations, policy ambiguity, shaky macroeconomic environment, etc.)
  • High or complex taxes, especially corporate taxes

Considering that this year is shaping up to be another economic disappointment recovery-wise, and the recovery’s rapid aging, we now face the troubling prospect of entering the next recession far from having truly recovered from the last one.  By recovered, I mean not just a complete closing of the output gap.  My definition also includes labor market healing, such as a reversal of skills erosion and a return to full employment, as well as meaningful gains in median income and wealth.  Since it is increasingly likely that none of this will happen, would a small recession now be far more painful than usual?  And what will we do policy-wise?  Monetary policy is, at least in terms of fed funds targeting, is as loose as it can get, and its doubtful the federal government will be willing to pursue aggressive fiscal stimulus like they did in 2008 and 2009.

Although it is good news that the recovery is 5, and I wish it a belated happy birthday, its longevity should not make us complacent about past, present, or future performance.  Overall, past performance has been weak, present performance is weak, and it is likely that, in the near future, only more pain will appear.  It’s a rather sad, but realistic, outlook.

The clock is ticking…

Wage Hikes & Labor Strikes: A Winning Macroeconomic Scenario?

While checking the daily news late last week, the first thing to catch my eye was a CNNMoney article reporting that fast-food workers were again striking across the United States for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.  It appears that, while waiting for any forthcoming legislative changes that might never materialize (and probably won’t at the federal level, at least not soon), workers are choosing to walk off their jobs in order to pressure their employers to give them a higher wage. Currently, the Federal Minimum Wage is $7.25 an hour, where it as been for since July 24th, 2009 (although states and localities also set their own minimum wages, so the actual minimum in a given location may vary).  Workers argue that it is a matter of workers’ rights to a “decent” wage, to help them care for their families, etc.  Although I honestly do sympathize with the difficulties many lower-income people in this country face, I am not so sure that attempting to force their employers to raise the rates will ultimately benefit them and the country as a whole (although bargaining is certainly more preferable than one-size-fits all legislative mandates and price floors).

First, the usual classical liberal argument: forcing employers to raise wages could deter them from further hiring (even if worker productivity is sufficient for employers to absorb higher rates with little impact).  Even if fast food chains can technically “afford” to pay current workers more without firing anybody, the added cost of hiring could disincentivize them from doing so (or could even incentivize layoffs).  The workers that remain might benefit, but at the expense of others who are “shut out” (e.g. unemployed).  Macroeconomically, too, the costs could largely cancel out the benefits: any extra consumer demand resulting from workers receiving a higher wage would be offset by less demand from newly unemployed people (or people who otherwise would have found a job).  The effect could  be similar to the theorized outcome of above-equilibrium minimum wage hikes: higher unemployment, slower hiring, and a less flexible labor force (see first chart below).

minimum-wage

MINWAGE2

Second, if wages are bargained “too high”, this could create a dependency scenario where people continue to work in the fast food industry without any incentive to pursue higher value-added careers that require more complex skills, depriving the economy of skilled workers and limiting future potential output.  For living standards to continue rising in the long run, workers must be able to specialize in new and innovative industries, many of which never existed before.  Low wage jobs exist (or, in my opinion, should exist) merely as a stepping stone up the economic ladder; indeed, I think the low wages themselves act as a necessary disincentive from people becoming dependent upon them.

Lastly, as harsh as it sounds (and as The Economist has previously pointed out), many of the low-skilled jobs being performed by fast food workers are probably replaceable via automation and new technology.  I believe the only things holding back big fast food chains from replacing their workers with automation are:

1) a recognition of consumers’ desire for human interaction for a quality fast-food experience

2) a desire to avoid being cast as unsympathetic to the plight of fast food workers, which could hurt the corporate image if mass layoffs are announced

3) the use of some workers as an established way of doing business

What’s a policymaker to do, then?  If we really want to help workers, I think we should be aggressively training them to perform emerging higher value-added jobs (computer engineering, programming, supply-chain management, etc).  The problem is, student loans provided by the private sector are often too costly/unobtainable for low-skilled workers (as there is much more risk involved).  At the same time, having the government (or state governments) further subsidize student loans for post-secondary education might further inflate college tuition unless new measures are enacted to ensure college competitiveness to hold costs down.  The government could fund alternative forms of education (job training like apprenticeships), which are unfortunately still quite scarce in the United States.  However, as the financial crisis and countless other crises have demonstrated,  it must be ensured that beneficiaries have some skin in the game for the programs to succeed.  It must also be recognized that even with such programs, not everyone can become a high-skilled worker.  Does this mean we will have a permanent class of unemployed or underemployed people?  Maybe, though I tend to be rather optimistic: historically, the economy has tended to create unforeseen opportunities for everyone, though the transitions are often rough.

Whatever the many governments within the United States decide to do policy-wise, the question of what corporations should do in the face of striking workers and demands for wage increases must be addressed soon.  Already, several McDonalds workers have been arrested this week after protesting for a $15-an-hour wage.  Further strikes and arrests could be economically disruptive at a time of historically weak economic growth.  The question is, will companies cave in to worker demands, or continue to hold their own?  The answer could end up reshaping the norms and trends of American wages for years to come.

 

 

State of the Union Reactions, Part 2

I was talking last time (Part 1) about my immediate reactions to the State of the Union Address, particularly from a political lense.  Now I’d like to focus on the major problems the President wishes to tackle and the strength of his domestic policy recommendations, in order as they come up in the address (though, because of the length of the address, I won’t be hitting every point).

Obama is right to place heavy emphasis on equality of opportunity.  Unlike the concept of income inequality, an opportunity agenda is something that has broad support across the political spectrum and is a shared value nation-wide.  One of his best recommendations is an overhaul of the tax code, whose loopholes cause precious time and resources to be diverted away from productive activities as individuals and companies seek to minimize their burdens.  Running at an estimated cost of at least $250 billion/year in lost economic output and at least $1 trillion/year in lost revenues, the tax code is an abomination.  This lost output translates into lost job opportunities and slower job creation.  If the President fails to reform it (e.g. by cutting loopholes and lowering marginal rates), it will assume the title of Obamination.  His proposal to use some of the savings to help rebuild the nation’s infrastructure is also not a bad proposition, as the American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2013 Infrastructure Report Card estimates that America would need to allocate an extra $1.6 Trillion just to upgrade our infrastructure to a state of “good repair”.  If we continue to fail to maintain the nation’s physical capital, our competitiveness will deteriorate and the sluggishness in productivity growth that has been the norm since the 70’s will drag on.  Additionally, his idea of further connecting businesses and universities via regional hubs is also laudable.  Universities are a critical source of research and discovery; connecting them with businesses can help transform those ideas and discoveries into useful, productivity-enhancing goods and services.  All of these ideas will bolster American opportunity.

From there, his message starts to deteriorate a bit.  He mentions that his administration has made more loans to small businesses than any other, and wants to do still more.  Is this really a good thing?  State-directed lending (à la China) has had mixed results both in the past and present.  Although sometimes successful, loans tend to be politically driven and may not exhibit much, if any, return on investment.  As such, they tend to distort the market and allocate resources inefficiently, propping up businesses, ideas, and methods that aren’t economically viable in the long-run.

The address then turns back to embracing the market with his sound advocation of patent-reform and the ongoing natural gas/fracking boom.  Indeed, both are important issues; litigation has gotten out of control in many parts of the country, adding needless transactions burdens on thousands of businesses; a sounder process that reduces frivolous litigation would be welcome.  Streamlining the permitting process and reducing red tape for natural gas is also a long-needed reform; it’s good that the administration is finally realizing that fossil fuels still hold massive potential in both creating jobs and lowering American energy costs (which have dramatically increased our competitiveness relative to other developed nations, such as those in Europe).  At the same time, his mentioning of reducing fossil fuel subsidies is good as it produces problems similar to the problems small business loans produce.  Republicans would be smart to firmly stand with the President on this issue and work to get rid of the subsidies once and for all.  Corporate welfare almost never works – we have far better uses for our money.

After talking about the usual climate change mantra, he then shifts to immigration.  Personally, my views contain a mix of both Republican and Democratic thinking.  I agree with the Republicans that “blanket amnesty” would have some serious harmful effects on the country.  Specifically, I think granting illegal immigrants citizenship status who broke the law without penalty would undermine the rule of law, something that has already been undermined during this administration (think federal drug enforcement).  Not only that, it isn’t really fair to those who took the time and effort to come here illegally.  At the same time, Democrats are right in that deporting millions of illegal immigrants isn’t practical (or smart policy) either.  Not only is it extremely costly in fiscal terms, but it is damaging economically.  Like it or not, immigrants add to our GDP, lower costs for businesses and allow other citizens to specialize in higher value-added jobs.  Deporting them would raise costs, disrupt economic activity and ultimately slow growth.  Additionally, many illegal immigrants now have children – the so-called “Dreamers” – who came to this country through no fault of their own.  Deporting them or, worse, splitting up families via deportation is emotionally traumatizing and morally questionable.  As such, I think the best solution is to grant them citizenship status only after a) thorough background checks have been conducted b) high penalties (for breaking the law) have been applied, including perhaps putting them at the end of the line behind other immigrants that are attempting to get naturalized status.  Also good would be to streamline the naturalization system in a way that maintains our national security.  The President didn’t lay out the terms of his desired reform package in his address, though I’m sure that whatever he supports will contain lots of needed naturalization and far too little penalization.

The President then moves on to the importance of education, especially pre-K education.  It is true that early childhood education can improve cognitive development and boost achievement in a child’s academic career (and even later on in life), and is something the country needs to consider to bolster its human capital and even total factor productivity (the level of efficiency in turning capital and labor into economic output).  However, his advocation of “invest(ing) in new partnerships with states and communities across the country” to boost pre-K education should be approached with caution.  I believe that states and localities know best how to create competitive, high-quality educational programs.  Getting the federal government involved, even if it is “just” via funding, might not be a good idea.  Federal involvement can hinder local innovation and can make localities far too reliant on federal aid (something that can make states puppets of whatever the federal government wants – think Medicaid).  Increasing federal involvement since the 1970s, especially since the creation of the Department of Education by the Carter Administration hasn’t noticeably boosted educational access or progress; indeed, since the 1970s, progress on indicators ranging from reading and math proficiency to graduation rates have stagnated.  Let the states and localities do it on their own; no federal involvement is necessary.

Obama’s policy proposals then turn outright populist with his insistence that Congress raise the minimum wage, and lended support to Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller’s proposal to raise the federal minimum from $7.25/hour to $10.10/hour.  On net, I think this is a very bad idea.  Let’s start with the usual neoclassical argument: assuming that the current minimum wage right now is at the “equilibrium” wage (which likely is not true), a raise in the price floor would lower business demand for labor while simultaneously increasing the supply of people willing to work.  This creates a labor surplus that would translate into unemployment.  Indeed, a Congressional Budget Office estimate of the proposal’s effect on employment projected that enacting the Harkin/Miller bill would reduce employment on net, with its central estimate at about a 500,000 decrease in employed workers.  Then we hear the counterargument by left-leaning economists, such as those at the Economic Policy Institute.  They argue that an increase in the minimum wage could actually increase economic growth and job creation, counteracting any job losses.  This would be due to the “multiplier” effect of raising the wage of millions of low-income citizens, whose marginal propensity to consume (according to Keynesian theory and many studies) is high.  In other words, the newfound income these people would have would be spent almost immediately, increasing aggregate demand and generating economic activity.  That is a possibility I suppose. However, we must remember that the equilibrium wage is vastly different across the nation – different states have different price levels and levels of competitiveness; for some, raising the minimum wage could theoretically increase job creation; in others, however, raising the minimum would place it far above the current equilibrium, increasing unemployment.  As The Economist has noted, places like Puerto Rico are already suffering from high labor costs due to the current minimum wage, and economists in general have long recognized the high minimum wages of many European countries as contributing to their high long-term unemployment rates.  In places like these, the costs of further increases would far outweigh the economic “benefits”.  Additionally (as The Economist also mentioned), let’s face it: many of the jobs minimum wage workers currently perform could easily and efficiently be done by technology and automation.  I believe that the only reason many of these jobs still exist is due to cultural norms, which have a tendency to get in the way of rational economic thinking.  Raising the minimum wage could accelerate the shift towards these technologies substituting for low & medium-skilled workers, hurting them in the short term.  No matter what, the minimum wage is a command-and-control solution to tackling the problem of poverty and low-wage work that will cause more harm than good.  Other ideas (such as an increase in the earned income tax credit that the President mentioned) that reward workers without distorting the market and disincentivizing them from working (or employers from hiring) are needed.  Additionally, wages are partially a result of overall cultural norms – change the norms, and perhaps we can change the wage. 

The last big thing I wanted to address from Obama’s speech is a commendable proposal, the MyRA.  Partially due to record-low interest rates, savings rates for Americans are at an all-time low.  This is very worrying.  Savings are crucial for a good retirement (which Social Security was originally meant to compliment, not substitute) and for consumption smoothing (look up the Modgliani life cycle hypothesis).   A lack of them can put further liabilities and pressures on entitlements.  Additionally, savings help the economy to grow by boosting available financial capital for investment.  Without them, long-term economic growth is put into jeopardy.  Helping workers to put away reliable savings, especially at a time when defined-benefit pensions are dissapearing in favor of less stable 401Ks is potentially a good idea for governmental involvement.  My only caveat: should it be federal?

Overall, the speech was good, with a mixture of good and bad proposals.  The nation now needs to prioritize and, when that is done, begin to have thorough debates on these critical issues.  Forget midterms; this is among the administration’s last good chances to finally leave a positive mark on American history.

Inequality and unemployment: is there really a connection?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the connection between income distribution and unemployment, and I’ve started to question the prominent view among left-leaning economists that full employment is necessary to reduce income gaps.  Their argument is simple and understandable: during periods of high unemployment, workers’ bargaining power are reduced as there is a vast supply of workers willing to work at lower wages.  As a result, wages stagnate or decline among low and middle-skilled workers, while the owners of capital reap large profits.  Ok, that makes sense.  But take a look at the following two standard measures of income inequality and unemployment:

ImageImage

Notice something?  There seems to be little, if any, correlation between income inequality and unemployment.  The current standard definition of “full employment” among economists is an unemployment rate of between 5-5.5%.  Repeatedly during the past 30 years, the unemployment rate has dipped below this figure (indicating an economy operating at or above potential); yet the Gini coefficient continued its upward march.

Perhaps full employment is one of several different prerequisites for a narrowing of the income gap, assuming that is even a desirable policy goal.  However, I question the idea that it is an essential method to do so.

Another interesting (albeit flawed) view of the “recovery”

This graphic (courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute) shows the employment/population ratio since just before the Great Recession started. Interestingly, although the official U2 unemployment rate has fallen to 6.7% from a peak of 10% in late 2009, the E/P ratio has barely budged since the end of the recession, indicating we have a long way to go before we reach pre-recession levels of “employment saturation”. This indicates that much of the fall in U2 has been due to people exiting the labor force, not actual employment gains. However, even the arguably more reliable E/P ratio is misleading; after all, the baby boomers have begun to retire, naturally putting downward pressure on the ratio. It seems that no matter which measure we choose it is hard to find one that accurately reflects the state of the labor market.