A Silver Lining to Unemployment?

Friday’s labor-force data brought liberal outcries, and a comment from Ben Bernanke, that the drop in labor-force participation indicates unemployment is really much higher, and the economy in worse shape, than the 7.3 percent unemployment rate might indicate.  It is true that participation for men is at a postwar low and has decreased by 3-1/2 percentage points since the 2007 cyclical peak; and women’s participation stopped rising in 1999 and has fallen by 2 percentage points since the peak.

Is this so bad? Yes, if labor-force leavers are desperate to work and just get discouraged.  But perhaps no; perhaps it has taken the Great Recession to get Americans to realize that we shouldn’t be working harder than people in other rich countries and should be enjoying more leisure.  If this is so, perhaps there’s a silver lining in what so many people view as the economic doldrums of the last three years.

Does High Home Ownership Lead to Higher Unemployment?

That is the surprising question asked (and answered) by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald in a new working paper. If this effect is real, and if the mechanisms by which it occurs are true, then this paper is hugely important for policymakers, civic planners, and the rest of us:

We explore the hypothesis that high home-ownership damages the labor market. Our results are relevant to, and may be worrying for, a range of policy-makers and researchers.  We find that rises in the home-ownership rate in a U.S. state are a precursor to eventual sharp rises in unemployment in that state.  The elasticity exceeds unity: a doubling of the rate of home-ownership in a U.S. state is followed in the long-run by more than a doubling of the later unemployment rate.  What mechanism might explain this? We show that rises in home-ownership lead to three problems: (i) lower levels of labor mobility, (ii) greater commuting times, and (iii) fewer new businesses. Our argument is not that owners themselves are disproportionately unemployed. The evidence suggests, instead, that the housing market can produce negative 'externalities' upon the labor market. The time lags are long. That gradualness may explain why these important patterns are so little-known.

Blanchflower, a Dartmouth economist who regularly writes for the Independent (U.K.), recently published an op-ed in that paper which applied these findings to the European situation:

It's Crowded at the Top: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest podcast, "Crowded at the Top," presents a surprising explanation for why the U.S. unemployment rate is still relatively high. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

It features a conversation with the University of British Columbia economist Paul Beaudry, one of the authors (along with David Green and Benjamin Sand) of a new paper called "The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks":

Benjamin Franklin on the Minimum Wage

Benjamin Franklin apparently understood the notion that input prices affect product prices, which is a problem because product demand curves are not completely inelastic.  Discussing a minimum wage, he noted, “A law might be made to raise their [workers’] wages; but if our manufactures are too dear, they might not vend abroad.” This is one of the best arguments against a minimum wage: in an open economy, which the U.S. increasingly will be at least partly passed on in the form of higher product prices, which will in turn reduce product demand—and eventually employment.   (“On the Labouring Poor,” The Gentleman’s Magazine, April 1768.)

Research from My Favorite Economic Gabfest

I’ve just gotten back home after a terrific few days at the Brookings Panel on Economic Activity.  It’s my favorite gabfest of the year, featuring economic analysis that is both serious research, and also connected to ongoing policy debates.  (OK, I’m biased--I’m an editor, and organize the conference along with Berkeley’s David Romer.)  And while I think some of you may enjoy slogging your way through the latest papers, others may prefer your summaries simpler and lighter. So I went ahead and recorded a few short videos summarizing the papers. I hope you enjoy!

Worried About Unemployment? Find a "High Touch" Profession

Writing for Slate, Ray Fisman (who's been on the blog before) explains why "the bottom 20 percent of American families earned less in 2010 than they did in 2006, the year before the recession began":

There are two broad shifts that account for much of this decline: globalization and computerization. From T-shirts to toys, manufacturing jobs have migrated to low-wage countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and of course China. Meanwhile, many of the tasks that might have been done by middle-income Americans employed as bookkeepers or middle managers have been replaced by spreadsheets and data algorithms.

Fisman argues that in order to succeed in the new economy, American workers need to shift away from construction and manufacturing jobs to "high touch" professions. "If jobs are being lost to low-wage Indians and computer programs, then what today’s worker needs is a set of skills that offers the personal touch and judgment that can’t be provided by a machine or someone 12 time zones away," writes Fisman.

Time for a "Brave New Math"?

Channeling some of the logic in our "Health of Nations" podcast, Peter Marber argues in World Policy Journal that it's time for a "brave new math." Marber takes issue with economists' ongoing reliance on old measures of economic health -- GDP, inflation, and unemployment:

Traditional measures point to an American economy that’s up even when Americans are feeling down. Across Europe and in Japan, there is also a sense of confusion over current economic directions—a universal sense that the numbers that have been our staples are increasingly meaningless to everyday people.

Newspapers, radio, and television routinely spout headlines about key statistics on GDP, inflation, and employment—astonishingly influential indicators computed in the United States by the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and in capitals around the world. Most seem to have little correlation with the realities on the street. 

White House Economist Alan Krueger Answers Your Questions

We recently solicited your questions for Alan Krueger, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers. Below are Krueger's answers, in which he talks about the Bush tax cuts, the American Jobs Act, and why NFL coaches should go for it on fourth down. Thanks to everyone for participating.

Q. The recovery from the recent recession has been great for corporate profits, but not so great for employment. I think that this is a natural result of the fact that when demand is insufficient, corporations focus on improving productivity rather than on producing more goods and services.

What can be done to increase employment? -Adam

Of Booze and Bags

The Austin City Council is about to outlaw the paper and plastic bags you get at the grocery store. Retailers don’t like the ban. One particularly clever argument by liquor retailers is that it will encourage people to buy less — not a good thing, so they argue, when unemployment is high. 

This is a bad argument for so many reasons: 1) Booze demand and bag provision are at most only a tiny bit complementary — one can always carry the six-pack out by hand; 2) To argue that high unemployment is a reason for anything other than macro stimuli is totally self-serving.  I think all universities should hire more economists to reduce unemployment (although others may differ). The best argument against the ban is that it is not efficient—the environmental improvements don’t justify the extra resource cost of schlepping reusable bags into stores.  I don’t find even that argument to be very persuasive.

(HT to TC).

Less Work Time = More TV, Grooming Time

What would we do with our time if we suddenly didn’t have to work as much but were just as healthy and had the same income? This question is ages-old, was posed by Keynes in 1930, but is very hard to answer: sudden, permanent drops in work time that change nothing else are very rare. They did occur in Japan in the 1990s and Korea in the 2000s, when their governments induced employers to cut work hours. In a recent paper Jungmin Lee, Daiji Kawaguchi and I use time diaries from before and after the changes to see what happened. In Japan, almost half the free time was devoted to additional TV-watching, while in Korea, much was devoted to increased personal care, particularly grooming. But in neither was there any increase in home production — child care, cooking, gardening, etc. I like to think the same would occur in the U.S. — that we would use permanent cuts in work time to enjoy ourselves and take more care of ourselves. Regrettably in the workaholism champion of the Western world, these cuts don’t seem likely any time soon.