I read an interesting study today from the Brookings Institute (published August 29, 2012) – Education, Job Openings, and Unemployment in Metropolitan America – which aims to provide US policy makers “with a better sense of the specific problems facing metropolitan labor markets”. The paper concludes that “the fall in demand for goods and services has played a stronger role in recent changes in unemployment” than so-called structural issues (skills mismatch etc). This is an important finding and runs counter to the trend that has emerged in the policy debate which suggests that governments are now powerless to resolve the persistently high unemployment. The simple fact is that governments have the capacity to dramatically reduce unemployment and provide opportunities to the least educated workers who are languishing at the back of the supply queue in a highly constrained labour market. The only thing stopping them is the ideological dislike or irrational hatred of direct public sector job creation. Meanwhile, the potential of millions of workers is wasted every day. Sheer madness!
I was clearing out some old filing boxes today – I am moving offices soon – and came across a conference proceedings from 1976, which I had picked up somewhere in the 1980s when my own academic career really began. It was entitled: Directions for a national manpower policy : a collection of policy papers prepared for three regional conferences and published by in Washington by the US National Commission for Manpower Policy in 1976. There was a chapter in it that I recalled fondly by US economist Charles C. Killingsworth entitled Should full employment be a major national goal. He was a long-time advocate of public employment programs and understood how lacking my profession is when it comes to caring about people. In terms of public service employment programs – what really have we go to fear? Answer: not much, unless you don’t enjoy the most disadvantaged having a better life!
There was an interesting paper published by the World Bank (March 1, 2012) – Does India’s employment guarantee scheme guarantee employment? – which offers some insights into how the Indian employment guarantee works. I thought it was an odd title because by definition the NREGA scheme is an employment guarantee. The relevant issue is a guarantee to whom. The World Bank research confirms the outcomes of my own work on the Indian scheme that it’s conditionality reduces its effectiveness. Those who gain jobs benefit but there is a shortage of jobs on offer relative to the demand for them. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) shows that an unconditional, demand-driven employment guarantee, run as an automatic stabiliser, is the most superior buffer stock approach to price stability. Conditional (supply-driven) approaches not only undermine the job creating potential but also reduce the capacity of the scheme to act as a nominal anchor.
I have been digging back in time and re-reading Unemployment: a problem of industry by William Beveridge (published 1909). Beveridge is most known for his 1944 book – Full Employment in a Free Society and the related Social Insurance and Allied Services – (1942 aka the Beveridge Report). The point is that to understand the motivation for the Beveridge Report you also have to appreciate the earlier document and the role that it played in labour history in the UK (and elsewhere). Why am I considering this? The British Labour Party is appealing to the 1942 Report as a motivation to introduce radical reform to the British welfare system. They think that by attacking the most disadvantaged citizens in Britain at a time when unemployment is so high and poverty is rising that they will gain some traction with the electorate. The word despicable comes to mind. However, it is clear they are just remaining faithful to their earlier corrupt past.
Since I published Wednesday’s blog – MMT is biased towards anti-crony – there seems to have been a fair bit of commentary on other sites some bordering on personal attacks (against me). I’ll steer clear of that level of discussion. I also note that John Carney over at CNBC responded with this article – Can the Government Guarantee Everyone a Job? – saying that if the notion of employment buffers is a central aspect of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) then “it would mean that MMT is wrong”. I found his response interesting but essentially a rehearsal of the mainstream errors that arise when you haven’t really come to terms with what MMT is adding to macroeconomic theory. So today’s blog is a supplement to the Wednesday’s blog (and many others) and aims to provide some more context especially to those interested in the evolution of ideas and schools of thought. The point is that whatever else happens we are left with a choice – employment or unemployment buffer stocks. MMT provides the theoretical insights to show that employment buffers are superior whether you like them or not.
There has been a couple of interesting articles written by John Carney who is a Senior Editor at CNBC.com on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – starting with Monetary Theory, Crony Capitalism and the Tea Party (December 22, 2011) and followed up with Modern Monetary Theory and Austrian Economics (December 27, 2011). I am happy that our work is penetrating in to the mainstream business and economics commentary space. It is good that John Carney has spent some time coming to terms with MMT and its departure from the failed mainstream macroeconomics. But some problems remain with his analysis. The issues he raises relate to political matters rather than the economics of MMT. In that context, MMT is neither anti- or pro-crony. But if you delve deeper and really understand the MMT macroeconomic framework then you realise that MMT is biased toward anti-crony.
In their rush to create justifications for reducing the footprint of government on the economy (and society), economists have invented a number of new “approaches” to economic development, unemployment and poverty which rely on an increased private sector presence. Concepts such as social entrepreneurship and new regionalism emerged as the governments embraced the so-called Third Way – neither free market (right) or government regulation (left) – as a way to resolve unemployment and regional disadvantage. Microcredit was another version and the 2006 Nobel Prize was awarded to the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and its founder. The media held microcredit out in various positive ways but gave the impression that it was another solution. Insiders knew it wasn’t but the I have always argued that the best solution for poverty is to initially create decent paying jobs. I have also argued for many years that only the national government has the capacity to really intervene in this way. For it is was “profitable” in the free market sense, the private sector would have already done it.
If anybody knows David Cameron’s mobile phone number give him a call and tell him that as he scorches the British economy (more bad news about consumer sentiment yesterday) he should also introduce a Job Guarantee as a way of using the workers he declares irrelevant more productively. A Job Guarantee is the perfect accompaniment to a full-blown fiscal austerity program and will not compromise any ideological beliefs except those that say that some people should be unemployed. But how could I advocate this? Doesn’t the Job Guarantee require a demand expansion? Isn’t that the whole point of it? Answer: no! Recommendation: Austerity proponents should adopt a Job Guarantee. Am I mad? Answer: probably but read on …
A debate in development economics concerns the role of cash transfers to alleviate poverty. This was reprised again in the New York Times article (January 3, 2011) – Beat Back Poverty, Pay the Poor – which I hopefully began reading with employment creation schemes in mind. I was wrong. The article was about the growing number of anti-poverty programs in the developing world, particularly in the left-leaning Latin American nations, based on conditional cash transfers. There is no doubt that these programs have been very successful within their narrow ambit. They also are used by some progressives to argue for an extension of them into what is known as a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). For reasons that are outlined in this blog I prefer employment guarantees as the primary way to attack poverty. I think the progressives who advocate BIGs are giving too much ground to the conservatives.
In Paul Krugman’s New York Times Op Ed (January 2, 2011) – Deep Hole Economics we are advised not to get carried away with the signs that the US economy is at last showing signs of consistent growth. I discussed the positive movements in the US jobless claims data in this blog – The year is nearly done … but spending still equals income – last week. Krugman’s point is that while growth is good, the US economy has a huge aftermath (high unemployment) to deal with even once growth returns. The political imperative therefore is to ensure that growth is maximised and not to withdraw fiscal support as soon as the “green shoots” bob up. It is a point that most commentators are ignoring. So can we make sense of this caution?