Tag: labor

The Obama Labor Market

In a recent speech on the economy at Carnegie Mellon, President Obama took great pains to remind us that he inherited an economy that was “shrinking at an alarming rate.”  Of course his implication was that everything wrong with the economy today is George Bush’s fault.  While Bush does deserve considerable blame for current recess, a new working paper by economists at the University of Michigan and the New York and San Francisco Federal Reserve Banks paints a picture of a recession that was on par with previous deep recessions until well into 2009, when the labor market started to deviate, for the worst, from past trends.

For instance the authors find that during the first part of the current recession, labor force participation remained high, despite increasing unemployment, yet starting in May 2009 the labor force participation rate fell at its steepest rate since the 1950s.

The authors also focus on what economists call “Okun’s Law” - which shows a relationship between GDP growth and employment.  Historically Okun’s Law has shown that for every 2% GDP falls below trend, unemployment increases about 1 percent.  Under the Bush half of this recession, that historical relationship continued to hold.  Yet under Obama it broke down, and not in a good way.

The paper also examines the relationship between unemployment and posted job vacancies, called the “Beveridge curve” by economists.  They also find that the Obama economy has been far outside of this historical relationship, so there has been growth in vacancies but little improvement in the unemployment numbers.

The paper offers a description of recent labor market trends, without being able to completely explain why current trends have been so different (and worse) than previous recessions.  The authors do calculate that the extensions in unemployment insurance have likely increased unemployment by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points.

The real story, however, which this working paper misses, is that in the Obama economy, massive uncertainty coming from Washington and the increasingly intrusive nature of government is keeping employers from hiring, even when they are expanding output.  President Obama needs to get past the blame game and start moving us back toward a country that rewards private enterprise and values free markets.

Mainstream Media’s Trade Gap

In a post at the Enterprise Blog two days ago, economist Mark Perry deftly parodies a typical mainstream media account of trade protectionism by editing the story in redline to contrast its original presentation with its true significance. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s the first paragraph:

WASHINGTON POST (Reuters) - A U.S. trade panel gave final approval on Wednesday to duties taxes ranging from 10 to 16 percent on cost-conscious firms in the U.S. who purchase low-priced Chinese-made steel pipe rather than high-price domestic pipe, in the biggest U.S. trade case to date against China American companies (and their shareholders, employees, and customers) who shop globally for their inputs and find the best value in China.

Perry’s point—and I share his frustration—is that the mainstream media typically fail to convey even a sense of the costs of U.S. protectionism to U.S. interests even though Americans (and non-Americans living in the U.S.) bear the greatest burden of that protectionism. When the U.S. government imposes duties on Chinese steel, it is imposing taxes on U.S. consuming industries, their employees, their shareholders, and their customers.

Considering that more than half of the value of all U.S. imports in a typical year is raw materials and intermediate goods (i.e., inputs for producers operating in the United States, who employ people, transact with other businesses, and pay taxes in the United States), the number of U.S. victims of U.S. import taxes is much larger than one can ever glean from a typical media account. Taxes on Chinese-made ”Oil Country Tubular Goods” or OCTG (the subject in the article Perry edits), which are used for oil exploration and transport, will raise costs in the energy industry, which are likely to be passed onto consumers in the form of higher energy prices.

As described in this paper, trade is no longer a competition between “Us and Them.” There is competition between entities that—because of the proliferation of cross-border investment and transnational production and supply chains—often defy any meaningful national identification. But that competition is preceded by collaboration and cooperation between entities in different countries. The factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans borders and oceans—a fact that renders U.S. workers and workers in other countries complementary in more and more cases, and a fact that amplifies the cost of trade barriers.

But media—chained to the false “Us versus Them” paradigm—describe protectionist policies as actions taken by one national monolith against another, and convey the impression that American readers should be cheering for Team America. It is a worldview that conflates the well-being of “our producers” with some homogenized conception of “the national interest.” It is the same misguided scoreboard mentality that colors reporting of the trade account, where exports are deemed “good” and imports “bad.”  And, it is this simplistic, misleading characterization that, in my opinion, is most responsible for withering public opinion about trade and globalization over the past decade.

I look forward to more of Dr. Perry’s editing projects.

Perceptions of Government Pay

A new poll by Rasmussen finds that the general public has an accurate assessment of government worker pay.

Compared to the average government worker, most Americans think they work harder, have less job security and make less money.

In fact, 59% of Americans say the average government worker earns more annually than the average taxpayer, according to the latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Just 15% don’t believe that to be true, while another 26% are not sure.

Among those who have close friends or relatives who work for the government, the belief is even stronger: 61% say the average government worker earns more than the average taxpayer.

Feeding that belief is the finding that 51% of all adults think government workers are paid too much. Only 10% say they are paid too little, while 27% say their pay is about right.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data indeed shows that government workers work fewer hours in a year and have much higher job security than private sector workers. And I’ve argued that they are generally overpaid, and by increasing amounts.

For more, check out:

California Illustrates Need to Revive Federalism

The state of California recently received $60 million in U.S. Department of Labor stimulus funds to upgrade its 23 year-old unemployment benefits system. But according to the Associated Press, California is yet to spend $66 million it received from Labor in 2002 to upgrade its system. The price tag isn’t whopping by federal standards, but it is another reminder of the need to return to fiscal federalism.

Apparently, the Department of Labor couldn’t care less:

The federal government has no plans to sanction or fine California for not completing the original technology upgrade. The Labor Department said it was more concerned that new stimulus funding is used in a way that will allow more workers to qualify for unemployment assistance.

At the same time, California’s unemployment insurance fund is $7.4 billion in the red, which has forced it to “borrow” $4.7 billion from the federal government. According to an editorial in the Oakland Tribune, California increased the generosity of its unemployment benefits when the economy was healthy, but now that the economy is stagnant spendthrift policies are creating a fiscal crisis.

Alan Reynolds reminds that the federal stimulus package “bribed states to extend benefits — which have now been stretched to an unprecedented 79 weeks in 28 states and to 46 to 72 weeks in the rest.” When you subsidize something you get more of it—federal subsidies prompt more state subsidies to the unemployed, which generates more unemployment. Alan concludes that “the February stimulus bill has added at least two percentage points to the unemployment rate.”

California’s unemployment rate of 12.5 percent is the state’s highest since the end of the Great Depression. Once again we see that when the line of responsibility between federal and state government is blurred, the result is more of both and poor policies compounded.