Monday, August 29, 2011

The Economic Role of Government

As I tell my students, it is a legitimate and defensible position to argue that the government should not try to manage the macroeconomy. For a variety of reasons (such as corruption, incompetence, and the influence of special interests), it is conceivable that policy makers and implementers will make things worse, not better. If one chooses this position, however, then one cannot complain about high unemployment, high inflation, or a lack of economic growth.

Prior to the Great Depression, the predominant school of economic thought, classical economics, suggested that macroeconomic problems would correct themselves. If unemployment increased, the response would be a decrease in wages until employers were willing to hire them again. Similarly, inflation (a general increase in the level of prices) would cause people to buy less (as prices rose). Reduced demand for products then would cause prices to fall. The biggest problem with classical economic thought, however, is that it is based on assumptions that are rarely true. (For example, it assumes people have full information, which is almost never the case.) Several decades of subsequent economic thought have been devoted to explanations of flaws in the simplistic classical rationale. (The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel has been awarded 42 times to 67 Laureates between 1969 and 2010 to highlight and honor those achievements.)

John Maynard Keynes, a British economist, popularized the notion that the government can and should play an active role in managing the macroeconomy. Keynes acknowledged that classical thought might have applicability over an extremely long time period, but “in the long run we are all dead.” If people wait for the macroeconomy to correct itself, they may not live long enough to see the changes. The severity and prolonged duration of the Great Depression convinced most people of the validity of Keynes’ insights. During the Great Depression, prices were falling, but that did not motivate an increase in purchases and employment as classical economics predicts. Even if people had income, they were reluctant to spend it because of uncertainty about the future.

Mainstream economics since the Great Depression is Keynesian economics. The overwhelming majority of economists around the world believe it is appropriate for the government to take actions to promote economic growth and to maintain low unemployment and low inflation. The debate in the United States is not whether the government should try to achieve these goals. Instead, the discussion is about what the government should do. Essentially, Republicans argue that public policies should primarily benefit businesses and the wealthy because they are the job creators. Democrats respond that making the wealthy richer will not cause them to hire more workers unless there is a significant increase in the demand for goods and services. Democrats favor policies with broader benefits because they believe increasing the overall demand for products will increase employment. Very few people argue that the government should do nothing to reduce unemployment, maintain stable prices, and promote economic growth. Indeed, the mood of the country is “they have not fixed the economy, so throw the bums out.”

If President Obama loses the 2012 election, it will be because he did too little to improve the economy, not because he did too much. Reports from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a government agency whose professional economists provide non-partisan analysis to legislators, consistently confirm that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the much criticized stimulus spending program, created jobs, increased employment, and reduced the unemployment rate from what would have occurred in its absence. It is a fair criticism to say some politicians steered ARRA funds away from the most economically beneficial projects toward other favored objectives. But that is a failure of the political system and the implementation of the suggested policies, not of Keynesian economic theory.

Friday, August 5, 2011


Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 117,000 in July, and the unemployment rate was little changed at 9.1 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Job gains occurred in health care, retail trade, manufacturing, and mining. Government employment continued to trend down.

Household Survey Data

The number of unemployed persons (13.9 million) and the unemployment rate (9.1 percent) changed little in July. Since April, the unemployment rate has shown little definitive movement. The labor force, at 153.2 million, was little changed in July. (See table A-1.)

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men(9.0 percent), adult women (7.9 percent), teenagers (25.0 percent), whites (8.1 percent), blacks (15.9 percent), and Hispanics (11.3 percent) showed little or no change in July. The jobless rate for Asians was 7.7 percent, not seasonally adjusted. (See tables A-1, A-2, and A-3.)

The number of persons unemployed for less than 5 weeks declined by 387,000 in July, mostly offsetting an increase in the prior month. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and over), at 6.2 million, changed little over the month and accounted for 44.4 percent of the unemployed. (See table A-12.)

The civilian labor force participation rate edged down in July to 63.9 percent, and the employment-population ratio was little changed at 58.1 percent. (See table A-1.)

The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) was about unchanged in July at 8.4 million. These individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job. (See table A-8.)

In July, 2.8 million persons were marginally attached to the labor force, little changed from a year earlier. (These data are not seasonally adjusted.) These individuals were not in the labor force, wanted and were available for work, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months. They were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey. (See table A-16.)

Among the marginally attached, there were 1.1 million discouraged workers in July, about the same as a year earlier. (These data are not seasonally adjusted.) Discouraged workers are persons not currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them. The remaining 1.7 million persons marginally attached to the labor force in July had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey for reasons such as school attendance or family responsibilities. (See table A-16.)

Establishment Survey Data

Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 117,000 in July, following little growth over the prior 2 months. Total private employment rose by 154,000 over the month, reflecting job gains in several major industries, including health care, retail trade, manufacturing, and mining. Government employment continued to decline. (See table B-1.)

Health care employment grew by 31,000 in July. Ambulatory health care services and hospitals each added 14,000 jobs over the month. Over the past 12 months, health care employment has grown by 299,000.

Retail trade added 26,000 jobs in July. Employment in health and personal care stores rose by 9,000 over the month with small increases distributed among several other retail industries. Employment in retail trade has increased by 228,000 since a recent low in December 2009.

Manufacturing employment increased in July (+24,000); nearly all of the increase was in durable goods manufacturing. Within durable goods, the motor vehicles and parts industry had fewer seasonal layoffs than typical for July, contributing to a seasonally adjusted employment increase of 12,000. Manufacturing has added 289,000 jobs since its most recent trough in December 2009, and durable goods manufacturing added 327,000 jobs during this period.

In July, employment in mining rose by 9,000; virtually all of the gain (+8,000) occurred in support activities for mining. Employment in mining has increased by 140,000 since a recent low in October 2009.

Employment in professional and technical services continued to trend up in July (+18,000). This industry has added 246,000 jobs since a recent low in March 2010. Employment in temporary help services changed little over the month and has shown little movement on net so far this year.

Elsewhere in the private sector, employment in construction, transportation and warehousing, information, financial activities, and leisure and hospitality changed little over the month.

Government employment continued to trend down over the month
(-37,000). Employment in state government decreased by 23,000, almost entirely due to a partial shutdown of the Minnesota state government. Employment in local government continued to wane over the month.

The average workweek for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls was unchanged over the month at 34.3 hours. The manufacturing workweek and factory overtime for all employees also were unchanged at 40.3 hours and 3.1 hours, respectively. In July, the average workweek for production and nonsupervisory employees on private nonfarm payrolls was 33.6 hours for the sixth consecutive month. (See tables B-2 and B-7.)

In July, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls increased by 10 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $23.13. Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have increased by 2.3 percent. In July, average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by 8 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $19.52. (See tables B-3 and B-8.)

The change in total nonfarm payroll employment for May was revised from +25,000 to +53,000, and the change for June was revised from +18,000 to +46,000.

The Employment Situation for August is scheduled to be released on Friday, September 2, 2011, at 8:30 a.m. (EDT).