The True Dynamic of Employment

From Deirdre McCloskey in Reason Magazine, The Myth of Technological Unemployment

In 1910, one out of 20 of the American workforce was on the railways. In the late 1940s, 350,000 manual telephone operators worked for AT&T alone. In the 1950s, elevator operators by the hundreds of thousands lost their jobs to passengers pushing buttons. Typists have vanished from offices. But if blacksmiths unemployed by cars or TV repairmen unemployed by printed circuits never got another job, unemployment would not be 5 percent, or 10 percent in a bad year. It would be 50 percent and climbing.

Each month in the United States—a place with about 160 million civilian jobs—1.7 million of them vanish. Every 30 days, in a perfectly normal manifestation of creative destruction, over 1 percent of the jobs go the way of the parlor maids of 1910. Not because people quit. The positions are no longer available. The companies go out of business, or get merged or downsized, or just decide the extra salesperson on the floor of the big-box store isn’t worth the costs of employment.

What you hear on the evening news is the monthly net increase or decrease in jobs, with some 200,000 added in a good month. But the gross figure of 1 percent of jobs lost per month is the relevant one for worries about technological unemployment. It’s well over 10 percent per year at simple interest. In just a few years at such rates—if disemployment were truly permanent—a third of the labor force would be standing on street corners, and the fraction still would be rising. In 2000, well over 100,000 people were employed by video stores, yet our street corners are not filled with former video store clerks asking for loose change.

The Unworkers

From The Wall Street Journal and Nicholas Eberstadt,The Idle Army: America’s Unworking Men

Who are America’s new cadre of prime-age male unworkers? They tend to be: 1) less educated; 2) never married; 3) native born; and 4) African-American. But those categories intersect in interesting ways. Black married men are more likely to be in the workforce than unmarried whites. Immigrants are more likely to be working or job-hunting than native-born Americans, regardless of ethnicity. High-school dropouts from abroad are as likely to be working or looking for work as native-born college grads.

Clearly big changes in the U.S. economy, including the decline of manufacturing and the Big Slowdown since the start of the century, have played a role. But something else is at work, too: the male flight from work has been practically linear over the past two generations, irrespective of economic conditions or recessions.

What we might call “sociological” factors are evident, not least the tremendous rise in unworking men who draw from government disability and means-tested benefit programs. There are also the barriers to work for America’s huge pool of male ex-prisoners and felons not behind bars—a poorly tracked cohort that accounts for one adult male in eight in the civilian population, excluding those in jail now.

Regardless of its cause, this new normal is inimical to America’s national interests. Declining labor-force participation and falling work rates have contributed to slower economic growth and widening gaps in income and wealth. Slower growth in turn reduces tax revenue and increases budgetary pressures, producing higher deficits and national debt. Unworking men have increased poverty in the U.S., not least among the great many children whose fathers are without jobs.

More ‘Slack’ than We Realize

bob samuelson_1

From Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post, Interest rates and the Fed’s great ‘slack’ debate:

Is it time to consider raising rates to preempt higher inflation? The answer depends heavily on the economy’s slack: its capacity to increase production without triggering price pressures. Although economists are arguing furiously over this, there’s no scientific way to measure slack. Economic policymaking is often an exercise in educated guesswork, built on imperfect statistics, shaky assumptions, incomplete theories and political preferences. This is an instructive case in point.

“Slack” is economics jargon for spare capacity. It means unemployed workers, idle factories, vacant offices and empty stores. Its significance is obvious. If there’s a lot of slack, inflation shouldn’t be a problem. Companies and workers will compete for sales and jobs by holding down prices and wages. By contrast, if there’s little or no slack, government efforts to stimulate the economy through low interest rates or budget deficits may backfire. Excess demand will raise wages and prices. (There are some exceptions to these maxims.)


Samuelson is correct, but I think slack is even harder to measure than he asserts.  Our productive capacity is far more than the capacity of buildings and equipment and their potential output.  It is the potential of the human mind to find new ways to cut costs, turn luxuries into necessities, and create new luxuries.  What happens to demand and output when electric cars like the Tesla reduce our fuel expense from $400 a month in gasoline to $25 a month worth of electricity?

The real cost of our poor fiscal policy is not merely high unemployment, malinvestment, and low investment, but the cap it places on human potential.  The ‘slack’ here may be staggering.

The Cost of Bad Ideas

Why Young People Can’t Find Work, by Andrew Puzder in the Wall Street Journal


Consider these grim employment numbers:

• In February the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recorded the lowest percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds working or actively looking for work (32.9%) since the bureau started tracking the data in 1948. The BLS recorded the second-lowest labor-participation rate for this group in April (33.2%) and the third-lowest in January (33.3%). May’s rate was the sixth lowest (33.8%).

• Over the past two years, the BLS has recorded some of the worst labor participation rates for 20- to 24-year-olds since 1973, when the Vietnam War was beginning to wind down. In August 2012, the 69.7% rate was the lowest since ’73. The second-lowest (70%) came in March last year. This year, the third-lowest rate came in April (70.2%). May’s rate was a still-miserable 71%.

• Looking at the seasonally unadjusted data—which is what the BLS makes publicly available—for 25- to 29-year-olds, the April 2014 labor-participation rate was the lowest the BLS has recorded since it started tracking the data in 1982 (79.8%). May’s rate was the second-lowest (79.9%). January, February and March tied with the fourth-lowest (80.3%).

These disturbing numbers raise a simple question: Where are the entry-level jobs?

Five years of 2% average yearly GDP growth simply doesn’t produce enough jobs to absorb the natural increase in the labor force, and over the past eight quarters GDP growth has averaged only 1.7%. Between May 2008 and May 2014, BLS data show that the employable population increased by 14,217,000 while the number of people employed actually decreased by 94,000 and the number of people unemployed increased by 1,404,000. It remains a bad time for young people to be looking for jobs.


In their attempt to cram Obama Care down our throats this administration sacrificed growth, at a time when the economy needed it most.  Further efforts to raise minimum wage AT THIS TIME are economically blind.  What may be more costly is not the failure of their policies but what they gave up to enact them.


Expanding Inequality is the Result of Misguided Fiscal Policy

William Galston writes in The Wall Street Journal, Soaring Profits but Too Few Jobs; (may require paid subscription- which I highly recommend)


According to a report last week from the Commerce Department, corporate profits after taxes in the fourth quarter of 2013 rose to an annual level of $1.9 trillion—11.1% of GDP, a postwar high. Meanwhile, total compensation—wages and benefits such as health insurance and pensions—fell to their lowest share of GDP in at least 50 years. From December 2007 through the third quarter of 2013, the compensation share of national GDP declined to 61% from 64%. A simple calculation shows that if compensation had remained at the 2007 share, workers would have earned $520 billion more in 2013.

There’s no end in sight. The Wall Street Journal’s Justin Lahart reported recently that analysts expect profits for the S&P 500 to grow by 7.4% in 2014, far faster than nominal GDP. So profits will once again command a larger share of national output. Some of this, he says, reflects short-term factors. Persistently low interest rates have allowed companies to refinance debt, cutting interest costs even as they have increased net debt for 14 consecutive quarters. Moreover, companies have been able to offset gains in gross profits with losses incurred during the recession, reducing their effective tax rates.

Economists don’t agree about why the recovery has been so grindingly slow. Let me offer my own non-economist’s suggestion: However necessary a low-interest-rate regime may have been at the beginning of the recovery, it has moved through a phase of diminishing returns, which have now turned negative.

The current regime has allowed the banking system to recover and spurred gains of 250% in the equities markets from their spring 2009 low. No doubt the “wealth effect” boosted consumption among those fortunate enough to hold substantial amounts of stock. Homeowners who have been able to refinance have benefited as well.

That’s the upside. But the downside has been sizable. Low interest rates have reduced the purchasing power of retirees struggling to supplement fixed incomes with decent returns on low-risk investments. And the low rates have altered business decisions, at least at the margin. Today’s interest-rate regime lowers the cost of capital—and therefore of capital investment relative to labor. To be sure, the substitution of technology for labor is a continuing process. But the pace of that substitution is crucial for the job market, and current policies are having the unintended effect of accelerating it, further retarding job creation.


The wealthy have options that others do not.  Low interest rates, and lending policies that have favored large publicly held companies over small local companies have helped improve the bottom lines of the larger public companies.  The incredibly high friction costs to hire which includes the ACA but also includes the previous threat of the card check bill and the constant threat to raise taxes on income which is how smaller businesses finance their growth retards hiring.

This administration which demonizes the rich, bemoans growing inequality,  and holds redistribution as a high value has in their stunning ignorance achieved the opposite results they claim to want.

The risk reward for an investor sharply favors buying publicly held equities over investing in a small business.  Hiring suffers from this reality.