Tag Archives: unemployment

Dirty Laundry and High Productivity

Not too long ago, on a visit to Copenhagen, I took several shirts to a laundry. The proprietor greeted me brusquely with the words, “I can’t do express.” He wanted four days to wash and press my shirts, longer than my remaining time in the city.

That evening, on my way to dinner, I walked down the same street and saw the owner still at work, surrounded by piles of clothes. Suddenly, his disinterest in my patronage made sense. Denmark’s economy is strong, unemployment is negligible, and there aren’t many workers willing to accept low-paying, low-productivity jobs in laundries.

I’ve replayed this incident lately as the I’ve heard complaint after complaint about the purported shortage of labor in the U.S. economy. Trucking companies, manufacturers, fast-food restaurants, and retailers all say they can’t hire enough help. The truth, though, is that the supply side of the labor market–prospective employees–responds pretty quickly to economic signals. The reason firms can’t hire enough help is that the compensation they offer is too low. The reason for that, simply enough, is that the way the firms plan to use those workers won’t result in sufficient productivity to justify higher wages.

As an economic matter, it’s good if those low-productivity jobs disappear. On another trip to Denmark, many years ago, a labor union leader told me, “We want to be a wealthy economy, and we can’t be a wealthy economy if we have low-productivity jobs.” It was that union leader’s view that Danish businesses should move low-paying jobs abroad and focus on providing high-wage, high-productivity jobs in Denmark.

You won’t find many union leaders suggesting that in the United States–nor business leaders or politicians. We pay far more attention to the number of jobs in our economy than to the quality of those jobs, and we’re reluctant to let low-productivity jobs vanish. Thus, debate over raising the minimum wage revolves around whether this would cause unemployment among hamburger flippers rather than whether higher labor costs would lead fast-food chains to develop new equipment that would raise productivity. Debate over immigration is colored by the assertion that we need immigrants to come and do low-wage jobs U.S. citizens don’t want, an assertion that allows us to avoid discussing why employers aren’t investing in capital equipment that might render those jobs more attractive and better-paid.

Some companies, of course, see profit in employing low-wage workers and don’t want to change that business model. But if we look deeper, tens of millions of us have selfish reasons for cherishing low-productivity work. While we give lip service to higher productivity, we also want an economy in which it’s cheap and easy to find someone to clean the house, babysit the kids, and mow the lawn. We like going out for an inexpensive dinner and paying a few bucks for an Uber ride across town, treats that would be far less affordable if there were fewer workers who have no better alternatives than taking low-productivity jobs with low pay.

If we want to raise living standards for all Americans, we can’t do it with sluggish productivity growth. That means that we may have to make some sacrifices. That’s how I solved my laundry problem in Copenhagen. I tossed my shirts in the washing machine, let them drip dry, and ironed them myself. Admittedly, my ironing skills were a bit rusty. But if having a high-productivity economy means I’ll need to keep them honed, I suppose I can manage.

Economic Illusions

In my book An Extraordinary Time, I document the hubris of economists who thought they had discovered the key to economic stability during the postwar Golden Age. Esteemed experts such as Walter Heller, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and Karl Schiller, West German economy minister and then finance minister as well, believed economists knew enough to tell presidents and prime ministers how to assure strong economic growth and low unemployment. It was a seductive vision. It also proved to be an illusion: when economic crisis arrived at the end of 1973, the experts were unable to deliver the prosperity they had promised, leaving citizens frustrated and angry.

A reader recently asked whether talk of a “Great Moderation” in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a similar display of hubris. As was the case during the boom of the 1960s, those involved in economic policy in the late 1990s seemed to think they had conquered the business cycle. They had many admirers. Journalist Bob Woodward feted Alan Greenspan, then the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, as “The Maestro” for orchestrating the economy’s smooth performance. Of course, the Great Moderation ended in the deepest economic crisis since World War II — a crisis that is long since over in the United States, but has yet to come to an end in parts of Europe.

While macroeconomists displayed no lack of hubris in boasting of the Great Moderation, I would submit that there was an important difference between the economic policies of the 1960s and early ’70s and those of the Greenspan era. Walter Heller and his contemporaries didn’t pay much attention to monetary policy. Their version of fine tuning involved manipulating instruments under direct government control, mainly taxes and government spending, to achieve a desired economic outcome. The Fed was an afterthought. This approach to fiscal policy was badly discredited by the economic failures of the 1970s and has never come back into fashion.

During Greenspan’s time at the Fed, in contrast, fiscal policy was in disarray. Deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans and between Congress and President Clinton rendered the U.S. government incapable of changing tax rates and federal spending to achieve any particular economic goal; although the federal budget went into surplus at the end of Clinton’s presidency, this was more the result of unexpectedly high tax receipts during the Internet boom than any deliberate purpose. Greenspan himself was no fan of fine tuning. Rather, he was among the very large number of economists who believed the central bank should use its control over short-term interest rates to achieve price stability, and that other important factors affecting employment, the rate of economic growth, and the prices of financial assets were beyond Fed control.

Yet this point of view involved hubris as well. Macroeconomists in the 1990s overwhelmingly believed that the prices that mattered to the economy’s performance were those paid by consumers. The Fed, they said, didn’t need to worry about certain other prices, such as those of stocks and real estate, because these would not have much effect on employment, incomes, and voters’ other economic concerns. As we learned at considerable cost, that conventional wisdom wasn’t right. The sharp drop in asset prices that began in 2008 left millions of households with depleted retirement accounts and upside-down mortgages, forcing them to pull back spending, leading in turn to a sharp rise in unemployment. By and large, economists missed this connection between the financial economy and the real economy.

Of course, saying that the Fed should worry about asset prices as well as consumer prices still leaves the central bankers to determine when stock prices are reasonable and when they are soaring unjustifiably. Either way, economists must pretend to know something that cannot possibly be known until after the fact. In his masterful biography of Greenspan, Sebastian Mallaby wrote that “The delusion that statesmen can perform the impossible—that they really can qualify for the title of ‘maestro’—breeds complacency among citizens and hubris among leaders.” Unfortunately, he’s right. One of the great challenges facing modern democracies is that their citizens expect more than their governments can possibly deliver.

 

Running Hot

This morning I had a great opportunity to discuss my new book, An Extraordinary Time, live on the C-Span program Washington Journal. The host, John McArdle, was thoroughly prepared, and I found it a great relief to be able to talk about the history of the 1970s and 1980s without ending up in a conversation about Donald Trump. You can see the program here.

Viewers phoned in with a number of good questions. A key point I tried to make in responding is that the basic economic trends I write about, the slowdown in productivity growth after 1973 and the related slowdown in income growth, occurred across all the wealthy economies in Western Europe, North America, and Japan. Every day, it seems, we hear comments from politicians that they know exactly how to make our economy grow as fast as it did in the good old days. Some of the callers to Washington Journal echoed those views, blaming slow growth on something they don’t like–President Obama’s environmental policies, high CEO pay, budget deficits, tax treatment of carried interest, and so forth. I think it’s useful to point out to such people that since the end of the Golden Age in 1973 we’ve seen slower growth and higher unemployment in countries where none of those policies are in place. You may not like the low tax rate on carried interest, but it’s a considerable stretch to claim that it is causing our economy to grow at 2% a year rather than 5%.

Sometimes we get a bit carried away with our own power and insist we can make the economy roar like we think it ought to. The current lingo for this is to “run the economy hot.” What advocates of that approach seem to mean is that we should accept a higher inflation rate as a tradeoff for lower unemployment and big wage increases. As I explain in my book, this is not a new idea. We spent most of the 1970s believing that we could keep unemployment low if we were willing to accept just a little more inflation. That ended badly, and I’m not eager to repeat the experiment.