The Big Question for Macroeconomic Policy: Is This Really Full Employment?

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog. This is a summary of my new paper What Recovery? The Case for Continued Expansionary Policy, also discussed in Neil Irwin’s July 26 article in the Times.


“Right now,” wrote Senator Chuck Schumer in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, “millions of unemployed or underemployed people, particularly those without a college degree, could be brought back into the labor force” with appropriate government policies. With this seemingly anodyne point, Schumer took sides in a debate that has sharply divided economists and policymakers: Is the US economy today operating at potential, with enough spending to make full use of its productive capacity? Or is there still substantial slack, unused capacity that could be put to work if someone — households, businesses or governments — decided to spend more? Is there an aggregate-demand problem that government should be trying to solve?

It’s difficult to answer this question because the economic signals seem to point in conflicting directions. Despite the recession officially ending in June 2009 and the economy enjoying steady growth for the past eight years, GDP is still far below the pre-2008 trend. If we compare GDP to forecasts made before the recession, the gap that opened up during the recession has not closed at all — in fact, it continues to get wider. Meanwhile, the official unemployment rate — probably the most watched indicator for the state of aggregate demand — is down to 4.4%, well below the level that was considered full employment even a few years ago. But this positive performance only partially reflects an increase in the number of Americans with jobs; mostly it comes from a decline in the size of the labor force — people who have or are seeking jobs. The fraction of the adult population employed is down to 60 percent from 63 percent a decade ago (and nearly 65 percent at the end of the 1990s).

Is this decline in the fraction of people employed the inevitable result of an aging population and similar demographic changes, or is it a sign that, despite the low measured unemployment rate, the economy is still far short of full employment? The Federal Reserve — one of the main sites of macroeconomic policy — has already indicated its belief that full employment has been reached by raising interest rates 3 times since December 2016. Fed Chair and Janet Yellen are evidently convinced that the economy has reached its potential — that, given the real resources available, output and employment are as high as can reasonably be expected.

Other policymakers have been divided on the question, in ways that often cut across partisan lines. Senator Schumer’s statement — that the decline in employment is not an inevitable trend but rather a problem that government can and should solve — is a sign of new clarity coming to this murky debate. Along with his call for $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending, it’s an important acknowledgement that, despite the progress made since 2008, the country remains far from full employment.

In a new paper out this week, we at the Roosevelt Institute offer support for the emerging consensus that the economy needs policies to boost demand. The paper reviews the available data on where the economy is relative to its potential. We find that the balance of evidence suggests there is still a great deal of space for more expansionary policy.

We offer several lines of argument in support of this conclusion.

GDP has not recovered from the recession. GDP remains about 10 percent below both the long-term trend and the level that was predicted by the CBO and other forecasts prior to the 2008–2009 recession. There is no precedent in the postwar period for such a persistent decline in output. During the sixty years between 1947 and 2007, growth lost in recessions was always regained in the subsequent recovery.

The aging population does not explain low labor force participation. It is true that an aging population should contribute to lower employment, since older people are less likely to work than younger people. But this simple demographic story cannot explain the full fall in employment. Starting from the employment peak in 2000, aging trends only explain about half the decrease in employment that has actually occurred. And there are good reasons to think that even this overstates the role of demographics. First, during the same period, education levels have increased. Historically, higher education has been associated with higher employment rates, just as a share of elderly people has been associated with less employment; statistically, these two effects should just about cancel out. Second, the post-recession fall in employment rates is not concentrated in older age groups, but among people in their 20s — something that a demographic story cannot explain.

The weak economy has held back productivity. About half the shortfall in GDP relative to the pre-2008 trend is explained by exceptionally slow productivity growth — that is, slow growth in output per worker. While many people assume that productivity is the result of technological progress outside the reach of macroeconomic policy, there are good reasons to think that the productivity slowdown is at least in part due to weak demand. Among the many possible links: Business investment, which is essential to raising productivity, has been extraordinarily weak over the past decade, and economists have long believed that demand is a central factor driving investment. And slow wage growth — a sign of labor-market weakness — reduces the incentive to adopt productivity-boosting technology.

Only a demand story makes sense. The overall economic picture is hard to understand except in terms of a continued demand shortfall. If employment is falling due to demographics, that should be associated with rising productivity and wages, as firms compete for scarce labor. If productivity growth is slow because there aren’t any more big innovations to make, that should be associated with faster employment growth and low profits, as firms can no longer find new ways to replace labor with capital. But neither of these scenarios match the actual economy. And both stories predict higher inflation, rather than the persistent low inflation we have actually encouraged. So even if supply-side stories explain individual pieces of macroeconomic data, it is almost impossible to make sense of the big picture without a large fall in aggregate demand.

Austerity is riskier than stimulus. Finally, we argue that, if policymakers are uncertain about how much space the economy has for increased demand, they should consider the balance of risks on each side. Too much stimulus would lead to higher inflation — easy to reverse, and perhaps even desirable, given the continued shortfall of inflation relative to the official 2 percent target. An overheated economy would also see real wages rise faster than productivity. While policymakers often see this as something to avoid, the decline in the wage share over the past decade cannot be reversed without a period of such “excess” wage growth. On the other hand, if there is still an output gap, failure to take aggressive steps to close it means foregoing literally trillions of dollars of useful goods and services and condemning millions of people to joblessness.

Fortunately, the solution to a demand shortfall is no mystery. Since Keynes, economists have known that when an economy is operating below its potential, all that is needed is for someone to spend more money. Of course, it’s best if that spending also serves some useful social purpose; exactly what that should look like will surely be the subject of much debate to come. But the first step is to agree on the problem. Today’s economy is still far short of its potential. We can do better.

Links for July 17, 2017

The action is on the asset side. Arjun Jayadev, Amanda Page-Hoongrajok and I have a new version of our state-local balance sheets paper up at Washington Center for Equitable Growth. It’s moderately improved from the version posted here a few months ago. I’ll have a blogpost up in the next day or two laying out the arguments in more detail. In the meantime, here’s the abstract:

This paper … makes two related arguments about the historical evolution of state-local debt ratios over the past 60 years. First, there is no consistent relationship between state and local budget deficits and changes in state and local government debt ratios. In particular, the 1980s saw a shift in state and local budgets toward surplus but nonetheless saw rising debt ratios. This rise in debt is fully explained by a faster pace of asset accumulation as a result of increased pressure to prefund future expenses… Second, budget imbalances at the state level are almost entirely accommodated on the asset side – both in the aggregate and cross-sectionally, larger state-local deficits are mainly associated with reduced net asset accumulation rather than with greater credit-market borrowing. …


What recovery? One of the central questions of U.S. macroeconomic policy right now is whether the slow growth of output and employment over the past decade are the result of supply-side factors like demographics and an exhaustion of new technologies, or whether — despite low measured unemployment — we are still well short of potential output. Later this month, I’ll have a paper out from the Roosevelt Institute making the case for the latter — that there is still substantial space for more expansionary policy. Some of my argument is anticipated by this post from Simon Wren-Lewis, which briefly lays out several ways in which a demand shortfall can have lasting effects on the economy’s productive capacity — discouraged workers leaving the labor force; reduced investment by business; and slower technical progress, because a slack economy is less favorable for innovation. He concludes: “There is no absence of ideas about how a great recession and a slow recovery could have lasting effects. If there is a problem, it is more that this simple conceptualization” — textbook model in which demand has only short-run effects — “has too great a grip on the way many people think.”

Along the same lines, here is a nice post from Adam Ozimek on the “mystery” of low wage growth. The mystery is that despite low unemployment, annual wage growth (as measured by the Employment Costs Index) has remained relatively low – 2 to 2.5 percent, rather than the 3 to 3.5 percent we’d expect based on historical patterns. (Ozimek doesn’t mention it, but total compensation growth — including benefits — is even lower, less than one percent for the year ending March 2017.) But, he points out, this historical relationship is based on measured unemployment; if we use the employment-population ratio instead, then recent wage gains are exactly where you’d expect historically. So the behavior of wages is another piece of evidence that the official unemployment rate is underestimating the degree of labor market slack, and that the fall in the employment-population ratio reflects — at least in part — weak demand rather than the inevitable result of worse demographics (or better video games).


The bondholders’ view of the world.  Matthew Klein has a very enjoyable post at FT Alphaville taking apart the claim (from three prominent academics) that “The French Revolution began with the bankruptcy of the ancient regime.” This is, of course, supposed to illustrate the broader dangers of allowing sovereigns to stiff bondholders. But in fact, as Klein points out, the old regime did not default on in its loans — Louis XVI went to great lengths to avoid bankruptcy, precisely because he was afraid of the reaction of creditors. Further: It was the monarchy’s efforts to avoid default — highly unpopular taxes and spending cuts, then the calling of the Estates General to legitimate them — that set in motion the events that led to the Revolution. So the actual history — in which a government was overthrown after choosing austerity over bankruptcy — has been reversed 180 degrees to fit the prevailing myth of our times: that good and bad political outcomes all depend on the grace of the bond markets. As Klein says, this might seem like a small mistake, but it is deeply revealing about how ideology operates: “ Whoever introduced it must have been working off what he thought was common knowledge that didn’t need to be checked. There is no citation.”

Klein’s piece is also, in passing, a nice response to that silly Jacob Levy post which argues that democracy and popular sovereignty are myths and that modern states have always been ruled by the bondholders. Levy offers zero evidence for this claim; his post is of interest only as a signpost for where elite discourse may be heading.


Don’t blame Germany. Here is a very useful paper from Enno Schroeder and Oliver Piceck estimating the effects of an increase in German demand on other European economies. They use an input-output model to estimate the effect of an increase in spending in Germany on output and employment in each of the other 10 largest euro-area countries. One of the things I really like about this is that it does not depend on either econometrics or on any kind of optimization; rather, it is simply based on the observable data of the distribution of consumption spending and of intermediate inputs by various industries over different industries and countries, along with the fraction of household income consumed in various countries. This lets them answer the question: If spending in Germany increased by a certain amount and the composition of spending otherwise remained unchanged, what would the effect be on total spending in various European countries? Yes, they ignore possible price changes; but I don’t think it’s any less reasonable than the conventional approach, which goes to the opposite extreme and assumes prices are everything. And even if you want to add a price story, this approach gives you a useful baseline to build on.

Methodology aside, their results are interesting and a bit surprising: They find that the spillovers from Germany to other European countries are surprisingly small.

Our main finding suggests that if Germany’s final demand were to exogenously increase by one percent of GDP, then France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal’s GDP would grow by around a 0.1 percent, their unemployment rates would be reduced by a bit over 0.1 points, and their trade balances would improve by approximately 0.04 points. The spillover effects on Greece are significantly smaller.

Given how much larger Germany is than most of these countries, and how tightly integrated European economies are understood to be, these are surprisingly small numbers. It seems that a large proportion of German demand still falls on domestic goods, while imports come largely from the euro area — particularly, in the case of intermediate goods, from the former Warsaw Pact countries. As a result, even

if a German demand boom were to materialize, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal would not benefit much in terms of growth and external adjustment. The real beneficiaries would be small neighbors (e.g. Austria and Luxembourg) and emerging economies in Eastern Europe that are well integrated into German supply chains (e.g. Czech Republic and Poland).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that more expansionary policy in Germany isn’t desirable for other reasons. (For one thing, German workers badly need raises.) But for the balance of payments problems in Southern Europe, other solutions are needed.


Today’s conventional is yesterday’s unconventional, and vice versa. Here is a useful NBER paper from Mark Carlson and Burcu Duygan-Bump on the conduct of monetary policy in the 1920s. As they point out, much of today’s “unconventional” policy apparatus was standard at that point, including large purchases of a range of securities — quantitative easing avant le lettre. As I’ve written on this blog before (here and here and here) discussion of monetary policy is made needlessly confusing by economists’ habit of treating the policy instrument as having a direct, immediate link to macroeconomic outcomes, which can be derived from first principles. Whereas anyone who reads even a little history of central banking finds that the ultimate goal of control over the pace of credit expansion has been pursued by a wide range of instruments and intermediate targets in different settings.

Also on the mechanics of monetary policy, I liked these two posts from the New York Fed’s Liberty Street Economics blog. They do something which should be standard but isn’t — walk through step by step the balance sheet changes associated with various central bank policy shifts. In my experience, teaching monetary policy in terms of balance sheet changes is much more straightforward than with the supply-and-demand diagrams that are the basic analytic tool in most textbooks. The curves at best are metaphors; the balance sheets tell you what actually happens.

At the Left Forum: What’s the Alternative to Neoliberalism?

At the Left Forum last month, I was on a panel with Miles Kampf-Lassin, Kate Aronoff and Darrick Hamilton, on “What Would a Left Alternative to Neoliberalism Look Like?” My answer was that neoliberalism is a radical, utopian project to reshape all of society around markets and property claims; if you want an alternative, just look at the world around us. This is an argument I’ve also made in Jacobin and The New Inquiry.

The panel was recorded by someone from Between the Lines. At some point there’s suppose to be a transcript. In the meantime, the audio is here: