The Folly of Subsidizing Unemployment
My calculations suggest the jobless rate could be as low as 6.8%, instead of 9.5%, if jobless benefits hadn't been extended to 99 weeks.
By ROBERT BARRO
http://www.wsj.com/, 30 August, 2010
Congressman John Boehner recently suggested that President Obama replace his top economic advisers. I think he may have a point. The economic "recovery" has been disappointing, to put it mildly, and it has become increasingly clear that the blame lies with the policies of the Obama administration, not with those of its predecessor.
In general, the current administration has been too focused on expanding government, redistributing more from rich to poor, and stimulating aggregate demand. I have previously criticized the stimulus package as cost-ineffective. In particular, whatever tax reductions were in the package did not involve the cuts in marginal income tax rates that encourage investment, work effort and productivity growth.
Now the administration wants to kill the 2003 income-tax cuts, at least the parts that reduced marginal income tax rates for high-income earners and for all recipients of dividend income. This proposal is particularly disturbing because the 2003 law was George W. Bush's main economic achievement; unlike most of Mr. Bush's policies, this one was well-conceived and effective.
I want to focus here on another dimension of the Obama administration's policies: the expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to as much as 99 weeks from the standard 26 weeks.
The unemployment-insurance program involves a balance between compassion—providing for persons temporarily without work—and efficiency. The loss in efficiency results partly because the program subsidizes unemployment, causing insufficient job-search, job-acceptance and levels of employment. A further inefficiency concerns the distortions from the increases in taxes required to pay for the program.
In a recession, it is more likely that individual unemployment reflects weak economic conditions, rather than individual decisions to choose leisure over work. Therefore, it is reasonable during a recession to adopt a more generous unemployment-insurance program. In the past, this change entailed extensions to perhaps 39 weeks of eligibility from 26 weeks, though sometimes a bit more and typically conditioned on the employment situation in a person's state of residence. However, we have never experienced anything close to the blanket extension of eligibility to nearly two years. We have shifted toward a welfare program that resembles those in many Western European countries.
The administration has argued that the more generous unemployment-insurance program could not have had much impact on the unemployment rate because the recession is so severe that jobs are unavailable for many people. This perspective is odd on its face because, even at the worst of the downturn, the U.S. labor market featured a tremendous amount of turnover in the form of large numbers of persons hired and separated every month.
For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, near the worst of the recession in March 2009, 3.9 million people were hired and 4.7 million were separated from jobs. This net loss of 800,000 jobs in one month indicates a very weak economy—but nevertheless one in which 3.9 million people were hired. A program that reduced incentives for people to search for and accept jobs could surely matter a lot here.
Moreover, although the peak unemployment rate (thus far) of 10.1% in October 2009 is very disturbing, the rate was even higher in the 1982 recession (10.8% in November-December 1982). Thus, there is no reason to think that the United States is in a new world in which incentives provided by more generous unemployment-insurance programs do not matter much for unemployment.
Another reason to be skeptical about the administration's stance is that generous unemployment-insurance programs have been found to raise unemployment in many Western European countries in which unemployment rates have been far higher than the current U.S. rate. In Europe, the influence has worked particularly through increases in long-term unemployment. So the key question is what happened to long-term unemployment in the United States during the current recession?
To begin with a historical perspective, in the 1982 recession the peak unemployment rate of 10.8% in November-December 1982 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 17.6 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment (those unemployed more than 26 weeks) of 20.4%. Long-term unemployment peaked later, in July 1983, when the unemployment rate had fallen to 9.4%. At that point, the mean duration of unemployment reached 21.2 weeks and the share of long-term unemployment was 24.5%. These numbers are the highest observed in the post-World War II period until recently. Thus, we can think of previous recessions (including those in 2001, 1990-91 and before 1982) as featuring a mean duration of unemployment of less than 21 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of less than 25%.
These numbers provide a stark contrast with joblessness today. The peak unemployment rate of 10.1% in October 2009 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 27.2 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of 36%. The duration of unemployment peaked (thus far) at 35.2 weeks in June 2010, when the share of long-term unemployment in the total reached a remarkable 46.2%. These numbers are way above the ceilings of 21 weeks and 25% share applicable to previous post-World War II recessions. The dramatic expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to 99 weeks is almost surely the culprit.
To get a rough quantitative estimate of the implications for the unemployment rate, suppose that the expansion of unemployment-insurance coverage to 99 weeks had not occurred and—I assume—the share of long-term unemployment had equaled the peak value of 24.5% observed in July 1983. Then, if the number of unemployed 26 weeks or less in June 2010 had still equaled the observed value of 7.9 million, the total number of unemployed would have been 10.4 million rather than 14.6 million. If the labor force still equaled the observed value (153.7 million), the unemployment rate would have been 6.8% rather than 9.5%.
Consider how the prospects for Democrats in the November elections would look if the unemployment rate were now only 6.8%. Obviously, this change would make all the difference, and President Obama can reasonably blame his economic advisers. They should have protected their boss by standing firm and arguing that a reckless expansion of unemployment-insurance coverage to 99 weeks was unwise economically and politically. Congressman Boehner's advice to Mr. Obama seems correct, though possibly too late to matter.
Mr. Barro is an economics professor at Harvard University and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
2010 m. rugpjūčio 30 d., pirmadienis
2010 m. rugpjūčio 29 d., sekmadienis
Why We Need a Second Stimulus
By LAURA TYSON
OUR national debate about fiscal policy has become skewed, with far too much focus on the deficit and far too little on unemployment. There is too much worry about the size of government, and too little appreciation for how stimulus spending has helped stabilize the economy and how more of the right kind of government spending could boost job creation and economic growth. By focusing on the wrong things, we are in serious danger of failing to do the right things to help the economy recover from its worst labor market crisis since the Great Depression.
The primary cause of the labor market crisis is a collapse in private demand — the same problem that bedeviled the economy in the 1930s. In the wake of the financial shocks at the end of 2008, spending by American households and businesses plummeted, and companies responded by curbing production and shedding workers. By late 2009, in response to unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus, household and business spending began to recover. But by the second quarter of this year, economic growth had slowed to 1.6 percent, according to a government estimate issued Friday. Clearly, the pace of recovery is far slower than what is needed to restore the millions of jobs that have been lost.
Households and businesses are on a saving spree to rebuild their balance sheets. Their spending relative to income has fallen more than at any time since the end of World War II. So there is now a substantial gap between the supply of goods and services the economy is capable of producing and the demand for them. This gap is starkly reflected by the 23 million Americans who are looking for full-time jobs and the millions more who have left the labor force because they could not find one.
The situation would be even worse without the $787 billion fiscal stimulus package passed in 2009. The conventional wisdom about the stimulus package is wrong: it has not failed. It is working as intended. Its spending increases and tax cuts have boosted demand and added about three million more jobs than the economy otherwise would have. Without it, the unemployment rate would be about 11.5 percent. Because about 36 percent of the money remains to be spent, more jobs will be created — about 500,000 by the end of the year.
But by next year, the stimulus will end, and the flip from fiscal support to fiscal contraction could shave one to two percentage points off the growth rate at a time when the unemployment rate is still well above 9 percent. Under these circumstances, the economic case for additional government spending and tax relief is compelling. Sadly, polls indicate that the political case is not.
Two forms of spending with the biggest and quickest bang for the buck are unemployment benefits and aid to state governments. The federal government should pledge generous financing increases for both programs through 2011.
Federal aid to the states is especially important because they finance education. Although the jobs crisis is primarily a crisis of demand, it also reflects a mismatch between the education of the work force and the education required for jobs in today’s economy. Consider how the unemployment rate varies by education level: it’s more than 14 percent for those without a high school degree, under 10 percent for those with one, only about 5 percent for those with a college degree and even lower for those with advanced degrees. The supply of college graduates is not keeping pace with demand. Therefore, more investment in education could reduce both the cyclical unemployment rate, as more Americans stay in school, and the structural unemployment rate, as they graduate into the job market.
An increase in government investment in roads, airports and other kinds of public infrastructure would be cost-effective, too, as measured by the number of jobs created per dollar of spending. And it would help reduce the road congestion, airport delays and freight bottlenecks that reduce productivity and make the United States a less attractive place to do business. The American Society of Engineers has identified more than $2.2 trillion in public infrastructure needs nationwide, and a 2008 study by the Congressional Budget Office found that, on strict cost-benefit grounds, it would make sense to increase annual spending on transportation projects alone by 74 percent.
Over the next five years, the federal government should work with state and local governments and the private sector to finance $1 trillion worth of additional investment in infrastructure. It should extend the Build America Bonds stimulus program, which in the past year has helped states finance $120 billion in infrastructure improvement.
The federal government should also create and capitalize a National Infrastructure Bank that would provide greater certainty about the level of infrastructure financing over several years, select projects based on rigorous cost-benefit analysis, invest in things like interstate high-speed rail that require coordination among states and attract private co-investors in projects like toll roads and airports that generate dedicated future revenue streams.
But can the government afford this additional spending? The answer is yes. Despite the large federal deficit, global savers, including savings-hungry American households, are snapping up United States government securities at very low interest rates. And they will continue to do so as long as there is ample slack in the economy and inflation remains subdued. Over the next few years, there is little risk that federal deficits will crowd out private investment or precipitate a crisis of confidence in the American government, a spike in American interest rates or a sudden drop in the dollar.
On the other hand, as long as private demand remains weak, the risk is uncomfortably high that trying to reduce the deficit — by cutting spending or increasing taxes — will tip the economy back into recession or condemn it to years of faltering growth and debilitating unemployment. In fact, either outcome would depress tax revenue and could mean larger deficits.
Faced with these risks, as long as the economy is operating far below potential, policy makers should do two seemingly contradictory things. First, they should provide additional fiscal support for job creation and growth. And, second, they should enact a credible multiyear plan now to stabilize the ratio of federal debt to gross domestic product gradually as the economy recovers.
By easing capital market concerns about the government’s future borrowing needs, such a plan would permit larger deficits and slower debt reduction while unemployment is still high. The long-run debt problem — the result of imprudent fiscal decisions before the recession, escalating health care costs and an aging population — must be addressed once the economy has recovered. But for now the priorities of fiscal policy should be jobs and investment.
Laura Tyson, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, was chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Economic Council in the Clinton administration. She is a member of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.