Can Unemployment Benefits Create Jobs?

At the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sociologist Michael Leachman claims “some of the most effective job-creation and job protection measures” in last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are excluded from the job figures to be released on on January 30.   He explains that, “Most of ARRA’s distributed dollars to date have gone directly to individuals (including greater jobless benefits and food stamps) and states (including greater federal support for Medicaid).  Although these dollars are likely protecting or creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, none of the aid for individuals or the Medicaid support are [sic] reflected in the January 30 jobs data release.”

In particular, Leachman claims Recovery Act funds to extend unemployment benefits from 26 to 79 weeks (and to 99 weeks since November) “produces and sustains jobs.”  For proof, he cites estimates from Mark Zandi of “that every dollar spent on extending unemployment insurance benefits produces $1.61 in economic activity.”

This analysis runs into two big problems.  The first is that it assumes that the amount of time people spend on unemployment insurance is unrelated to how long the government offers to keep paying benefits.  The second is that it assumes that the assumptions about “fiscal multipliers” built into econometric model are actually evidence rather than just assumptions.

On the first point, page 75 of the 2007 OECD Employment Outlook explains: “It is well established that generous unemployment benefits can increase the duration of unemployment spells and the overall level of unemployment… This could have a negative impact on productivity through inefficient use of resources and depreciation of human capital during long spells of unemployment. In addition, by reducing the opportunity cost of unemployment, generous unemployment benefits may lead existing employees to reduce their work effort, thereby lowering productivity (see e.g. Shapiro and Stiglitz, 1984; Albrecht and Vroman, 1996).”

As I recently noted, the overwhelming evidence that extended unemployment benefits raise the duration and rate of unemployment comes from economists in the Obama administration, Larry Summers and Treasury economist Alan Krueger, as well as many others such as Lawrence Katz of Harvard and Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago.

Contrary to Leachman, bribing people to stay on the dole for an extra 53-73 weeks leaves them with less money to spend, not more.   It also looks bad on resumes, and may cause lasting damage to future job prospects.

Leachman’s second problem concerns fiscal multipliers, such as Zandi’s astonishing 1.6 multiplier for unemployment benefits.

In a similar effort to pretend that borrowed money is free, and therefore “creates jobs,” the Council of Economic Advisers claims to use “mainstream estimates of economic multipliers for the effects of fiscal stimulus.” Yet the cited sources are not from academic research at all, but from the mysterious innards of notoriously unreliable econometric forecasting models from, Global Insight, J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

At the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, by contrast, economist Sylvain Leduc surveyed contemporary research by ten distinguished scholars, including current CEA chair Christina Romer and IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard.

“An interesting aspect of this new literature,” wrote Leduc, is that, notwithstanding their vastly different methodologies, they reach surprisingly similar conclusions. Regarding the impact of tax cuts on the level of real GDP one year after the change in taxes, the three studies predict a multiplier of roughly 1.2…  Moreover …  in contrast to theoretical predictions from the simple Keynesian framework, the analyses found that government spending had less bang for the buck than tax cuts. For instance, one year after the increase in spending, the impact on the level of real GDP is less than one-for-one, partly reflecting a decline in investment.”

In this new academic research, the estimated multiplier for deficit spending ranged from 0.4 to 0.6 — meaning a dollar of added federal debt added far less than a dollar to GDP.   Moreover, an IMF paper on “Fiscal Multipliers” adds that negative multipliers are quite possible: “fiscal expansions can be contractionary if they decrease consumers’ and investors’ confidence, especially if the fiscal expansion raises, or reinforces, fiscal sustainability concerns.”

Whether the government pays people to work or to stay on the dole, it has to get the money by taxing, borrowing or printing money — all of which reduce real income and employment opportunities in the private sector.  To imagine that borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is a way to create or save Paul’s job is to forget that Peter expects his money back with interest.

If every dollar of unemployment benefits really added $1.61 to real GDP, then putting everyone on the dole would make us all much richer