The jobless recovery

This week’s Business Week had a useful though non-revelatory feature article on the jobless recovery (note that the paper edition has much more than the link).

The bottom line? Two root causes — productivity gains and fear — appear to be causing our economy’s weak employment performance.

Rapid productivity gains mean that a business can produce the same output with fewer workers. So unless demand is truly booming, why hire more people?

At the same time uncertainties have kept business cautious. Terrorism, corporate scandals, and the bursting of the high-tech bubble all provide extra reasons to wait. Counterintuitively, largely positive changes, such as productivity boosts and their accompanying sectoral shifts, can spur caution as well. Why make your irreversible investment today when you will know more two years’ down the road?

Some research sources suggest that outsourcing has cost the U.S. only 300,000 jobs in three years, though all such figures should be taken with a grain of salt (for instance, when calculating the number, what is the relevant counterfactual?). A Wall Street Journal survey (12 March 2004) found that only sixteen percent of responding economists blamed outsourcing as a significant source of job losses. More importantly, outsourcing creates more jobs than it destroys; let us not forget the positive role of insourcing as well, the U.S. receives massive capital flows from outside.

And who is to blame for the jobless recovery? Paul Krugman finds a not unsurprising culprit:

…should we blame the Bush administration? Yes – because it refuses to learn from experience. Franklin Roosevelt, in his efforts to combat economic woes, was famously willing to try anything until he found something that worked. George Bush, by contrast, seems determined to try the same thing, over and over again.

I hope Krugman does not really mean the Roosevelt point. Recall that the Great Depression was by many measures worse in 1937-8 than in 1932. A willingness to “try anything” is hardly a recipe for economic success.

And while I buy the Krugman line on Bush’s fiscal irresponsibility, we don’t find it priced in the bond market. So why should we think those bad policies are driving the labor market?

Brad DeLong suggests that the tax cut was ill-targeted for the purposes of stimulating aggregate demand. Point granted. That being said, government is better at stimulating nominal rather than real aggregate demand. In times of structural uncertainty, often the latter is more badly needed. So I don’t blame Bush fiscal policy, whatever its flaws, for the jobless nature of recovery.

The Democrats have little to offer in the way of short-run cures. Perhaps assisting the jobless can be defended on distributional grounds, but it can delay reemployment as much as boost it. A new President, whether or not you favor the idea, would increase rather than lower uncertainty, at least at first. Greater fiscal responsibility will pay off in the future (I am all for it), but I don’t see how it will boost employment over the course of, say, two years. Most of the relevant uncertainties are real and structural in nature.

Read this post on why many people are no longer looking for jobs. Reeducation is a significant reason why many people have stopped looking for work. This might someday kick in with higher productivity. But note also that workers fear being locked into jobs that will later brand them as losers. So in times of uncertainty they, like businesses, often will simply prefer to wait.

The bottom line: There is a potential silver lining in the cloud that we call the jobless recovery. Once those people get to work, output could be especially high, provided we don’t mess up in the meantime. That being said, responsible economists all along the political spectrum remain puzzled by the jobless recovery. We can cite and roughly agree on its causes. But at the end of the day, relative to other recoveries, we all remain surprised by the slowness of employment to adjust.

Addendum: Here is Alex on productivity and employment.