Sep 14 2009

Jobless Growth? How could this be?

Economic Growth Yet to Hit Job Market – washingtonpost.com

In AP and IB Economics, we understand the importance of macroeconomics to policymakers, whose primary macroeconomic goal is growth. Economic Growth, defined as an increase in a nation’s total output of goods and service (and therefore the national income), is desidred not only for the sake of growth itself (producing more stuff requires more resources, and may not necessarily make the average citizen better off), rather growth is needed in order to achieve full-employment of a nation’s labor force.

Growth is good. This tenet of economics is rooted in two basic observations: 1. Growth leads to an improvement in the average standard living of a nation’s people, and 2. Growth is needed to employ the growing workforce of a nation experiencing population growth and immigration.

America’s work force is a diverse group of people of all skill levels. 150 million strong, the nation’s workforce requires a healthy national economy with strong investment and consumption to maintain enough jobs to keep unemployment low.   In the last two years, however, the prospect of employment in America has diminished as the number of people out of work has grown to nearly 15 million.

Involuntary unemployment is perhaps the most serious cost of an economic slowdown. A willing and able worker (or 15 million of them!), skilled in mind and body, unable to find prouductive work, represents a monumental failure of a nation’s economy. Policies aimed at promoting growth are in fact aimed at creating employment.

The costs of unemployment affect not only the unlucky  individuals who have have lost their job. Social costs include increased crime and poverty, psychological costs include stress, anxiety, loss of self-image and depression. The economic costs are myriad. Unemployed workers become dependent on the rest of society for support, in one way or another. Benefits for the unemployed payed by the government require greater budget deficits or increased tax burden on the employed. The large pool of jobless citizens seeking work puts downward pressure on the wages of those still working, as employers find it difficult to keep paying high wages while demand for their products has fallen and millions of job seekers are willing to work for less.

The families and friends to whom unemployed workers turn for help find their already stretched incomes spread even thinner. Without steady incomes, the unemployed consume less, putting further strain on an already depressed economy. Deflation can result from unemployment, which can lead to futher layoffs by pessimistic firms, excacerbating the situation and plunging the economy into what’s known as a deflationary spiral.

For all the reasons above, policymakers strive to promote growth. When monetary policy fails to incite spending, the government must pick up the slack, hence the stimulus package so discussed in America today. China’s stimulus of over $500 billion (twice that of the US, as a percentage of its GDP) has had a positive effect on both GDP and the job market.

Employment levels in China began to recover over the past three months in the latest evidence of the rapid rebound in the economy from the international financial crisis as a result of heavy public investment.

Yin Weimin, China’s labour minister, said there had been a modest increase in the number of jobs in the economy during June, July and August, reversing the sharp slump in employment which began last October.

America’s stimlus has also begun to restore growth, but the rise in employment has so far not occured:

Despite an emerging economic expansion, businesses were sufficiently skittish about the future that the job market continued its long, steep decline in August, according to a new government report Friday. The unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent, from 9.4 percent, as employers shed jobs for the 20th straight month, the Labor Department said.

“Our clients tell us they will not hire in anticipation

of a recovery, but will wait until they see it,” said Jonas Prising, an executive vice president at Manpower, the giant employment services firm. “In a normal recession, people would now start to feel more comfortable and start hiring, but nobody is doing that today. They’ll do it when they see real orders and real business.”

The “silver lining” of the latest unemployment figures is hardly encouraging. The rise in unemployment is not as sharp as over most of the last year. In other words, workers are definitely worse off, but not as badly as they could have been if things were as dismal as they were earlier this year.

While the unemployment rate, as seen on the graph to the right, has risen almost every month since August of 2008, the rate at which the rate has increased has begun to slow. In other words, the economy is probably close to “bottoming out”.

The tally of lost jobs now stands at 6.9 million since the beginning of the recession in December 2007. But the rate of job losses has been declining, if haltingly, since winter. The 216,000 jobs eliminated in August is down from 276,000 cut in July and a peak of 741,000 lost in January.

Here’s what I find most interesting from in the current data. The unemployment rate’s recent rise may actually be a sign that the economy is beginning to recover. Recovery means growth in output, which should mean less unemployment. However, if workers who have been unemployed for a long time, and have therefore stop seeking employment suddenly feel more optimistic about the prospects of getting a job and begin seeking work again, then the nation’s unemployment rate actually rises! How’s that for “silver lining”? The 216,000 additional people added to the list of unemployed may have already been out of work but since they were notactively seeking employment they were not included in last month’s data.

The tricky thing about macroeconomic policy is this:  Monetary and fiscal policies can put billions of dollars into the nation’s banks and households’ and firms’ pockets through tax breaks, government bailouts, subsidies, infrastructure spending and “troubled asset swaps”… but all the money and income in the world will not lead the nation towards full-employment unless the nation’s consumers and producers feel confident. I teach my students that national income is made up of the sum of wages, interest, rent and profit; its spending consists of consumption, investment, government spending and net exports… but without the “big C” of confidence, expansionary policies aimed at increasing employment will come to nought. Confidence, according to John Maynard Keynes, is an animal spirit, a trait of humans beyond the assumption of rational behavior. Until confidence is restored, America’s output and employment levels will remain low.


About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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