Staring At Shoes In Regards To The Wall Street Journal Article

Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up

Robert Barro at The Wall Street Journal:

The unemployment-insurance program involves a balance between compassion—providing for persons temporarily without work—and efficiency. The loss in efficiency results partly because the program subsidizes unemployment, causing insufficient job-search, job-acceptance and levels of employment. A further inefficiency concerns the distortions from the increases in taxes required to pay for the program.

In a recession, it is more likely that individual unemployment reflects weak economic conditions, rather than individual decisions to choose leisure over work. Therefore, it is reasonable during a recession to adopt a more generous unemployment-insurance program. In the past, this change entailed extensions to perhaps 39 weeks of eligibility from 26 weeks, though sometimes a bit more and typically conditioned on the employment situation in a person’s state of residence. However, we have never experienced anything close to the blanket extension of eligibility to nearly two years. We have shifted toward a welfare program that resembles those in many Western European countries.

The administration has argued that the more generous unemployment-insurance program could not have had much impact on the unemployment rate because the recession is so severe that jobs are unavailable for many people. This perspective is odd on its face because, even at the worst of the downturn, the U.S. labor market featured a tremendous amount of turnover in the form of large numbers of persons hired and separated every month.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, near the worst of the recession in March 2009, 3.9 million people were hired and 4.7 million were separated from jobs. This net loss of 800,000 jobs in one month indicates a very weak economy—but nevertheless one in which 3.9 million people were hired. A program that reduced incentives for people to search for and accept jobs could surely matter a lot here.

Moreover, although the peak unemployment rate (thus far) of 10.1% in October 2009 is very disturbing, the rate was even higher in the 1982 recession (10.8% in November-December 1982). Thus, there is no reason to think that the United States is in a new world in which incentives provided by more generous unemployment-insurance programs do not matter much for unemployment.

Another reason to be skeptical about the administration’s stance is that generous unemployment-insurance programs have been found to raise unemployment in many Western European countries in which unemployment rates have been far higher than the current U.S. rate. In Europe, the influence has worked particularly through increases in long-term unemployment. So the key question is what happened to long-term unemployment in the United States during the current recession?

To begin with a historical perspective, in the 1982 recession the peak unemployment rate of 10.8% in November-December 1982 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 17.6 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment (those unemployed more than 26 weeks) of 20.4%. Long-term unemployment peaked later, in July 1983, when the unemployment rate had fallen to 9.4%. At that point, the mean duration of unemployment reached 21.2 weeks and the share of long-term unemployment was 24.5%. These numbers are the highest observed in the post-World War II period until recently. Thus, we can think of previous recessions (including those in 2001, 1990-91 and before 1982) as featuring a mean duration of unemployment of less than 21 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of less than 25%.

These numbers provide a stark contrast with joblessness today. The peak unemployment rate of 10.1% in October 2009 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 27.2 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of 36%. The duration of unemployment peaked (thus far) at 35.2 weeks in June 2010, when the share of long-term unemployment in the total reached a remarkable 46.2%. These numbers are way above the ceilings of 21 weeks and 25% share applicable to previous post-World War II recessions. The dramatic expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to 99 weeks is almost surely the culprit.

To get a rough quantitative estimate of the implications for the unemployment rate, suppose that the expansion of unemployment-insurance coverage to 99 weeks had not occurred and—I assume—the share of long-term unemployment had equaled the peak value of 24.5% observed in July 1983. Then, if the number of unemployed 26 weeks or less in June 2010 had still equaled the observed value of 7.9 million, the total number of unemployed would have been 10.4 million rather than 14.6 million. If the labor force still equaled the observed value (153.7 million), the unemployment rate would have been 6.8% rather than 9.5%.

Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior:

Based on Cable News and a notable NYT column one might think that economists are perpetually at one another’s throats. This is far from the truth. The hierarchical nature of the economics profession lends an ecclesiastical air to many of our interactions. Brilliant figures are treated with enormous reverence.

To wit, when an eminent figure like Robert Barro says something that strikes most of as inane the most common reaction is shoe staring

[…]

For better or worse the blogosphere has changed that. Economists of all stripes will descend upon Barro over the next 36 hours. If he replies, which I suspect he will not, this will be an interesting moment.

Scott Grannis at Seeking Alpha:

Robert Barro has a good article in yesterday’s WSJ, titled “The Folly of Subsidizing Unemployment.” In it, he argues reasonably that “the expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to as much as 99 weeks from the standard 26 weeks” has made the economy less efficient “because the program subsidizes unemployment, causing insufficient job-search, job-acceptance and levels of employment.” My chart above helps illustrate the numbers he uses in his article, making it clear that we have never before seen such a large number of people receiving unemployment compensation. The 1981-82 recession saw a higher unemployment rate than we have seen in the recent recession, but one-third fewer people were subsidized for not working. This undoubtedly helps explain why this recovery has proceeded at a very disappointing pace.

Robert Reich:

I have the questionable distinction of appearing on Larry Kudlow’s CNBC program several times a week, arguing with people whose positions under normal circumstances would get no serious attention, and defending policies I would have thought so clearly and obviously defensible they should need no justification. But we are living through strange times. The economy is so bad that the social fabric is coming undone, and what used to be merely weird economic theories have become debatable public policies.

Tonight it was Harvard Professor Robert Barro, who opined in today’s Wall Street Journal that America’s high rate of long-term unemployment is the consequence rather than the cause of today’s extended unemployment insurance benefits.

In theory, Barro is correct. If people who lose their jobs receive generous unemployment benefits they might stay unemployed longer than if they got nothing. But that’s hardly a reason to jettison unemployment benefits or turn our backs on millions of Americans who through no fault of their own remain jobless in the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Yet moral hazard lurks in every conservative brain. It’s also true that if we got rid of lifeguards and let more swimmers drown, fewer people would venture into the water. And if we got rid of fire departments and more houses burnt to the ground, fewer people would use stoves. A civil society is not based on the principle of tough love.

In point of fact, most states provide unemployment benefits that are only a fraction of the wages and benefits people lost when their jobs disappeared. Indeed, fewer than 40 percent of the unemployed in most states are even eligible for benefits, because states require applicants have been in full-time jobs for at least three to five years. This often rules out a majority of those who are jobless – because they’ve moved from job to job, or have held a number of part-time jobs.

So it’s hard to make the case that many of the unemployed have chosen to remain jobless and collect unemployment benefits rather than work.

Anyone who bothered to step into the real world would see the absurdity of Barro’s position. Right now, there are roughly five applicants for every job opening in America. If the job requires relatively few skills, hundreds of applicants line up for it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 15 percent of people without college degrees are jobless today; that’s not counting large numbers too discouraged even to look for work.

Barro argues the rate of unemployment in this Great Jobs Recession is comparable to what it was in the 1981-82 recession, but the rate of long-term unemployed then was nowhere as high as it is now. He concludes this is because unemployment benefits didn’t last nearly as long in 1981 and 82 as it they do now.

He fails to see – or disclose – that the 81-82 recession was far more benign than this one, and over far sooner. It was caused by Paul Volcker and the Fed yanking up interest rates to break the back of inflation – and overshooting. When they pulled interest rates down again, the economy shot back to life.

Alex Tabarrok:

It’s not clear to me why we should assume that the share of long-term unemployment in this recession should equal that in 1983.

Barro also argues:

We have shifted toward a welfare program that resembles those in many Western European countries.

In contrast Josh Barro, son of Robert, in How much do UI Extensions Matter for Unemployment, concluded that 0.4% was probably on the high side:

Two Fed studies suggest that [extensions of UI] may have contributed 0.4 to 1.7 percentage points to current unemployment. But a closer look at this research makes me skeptical that the effects have been so large.

…The incentive effects of UI extension must also be weighed against the stimulative effects of paying UI benefits. For some reason it’s become almost taboo to note this on the Right, but UI recipients tend to be highly inclined to spend funds they receive immediately, meaning that more UI payments are likely to increase aggregate demand. UI extension also helps to avoid events like foreclosure, eviction and bankruptcy, which in addition to being personal disasters are also destructive of economic value.

As a result, I am inclined to favor further extension of UI benefits while the job market remains so weak. I am not concerned that this leads us down a slippery slope to permanent, indefinite unemployment benefits (which historically have been one of the drivers of high structural employment in continental Europe) as the United States has gone through many cycles of extending unemployment benefits in recession and then paring them back when the economy improves, under both Republican and Democratic leadership.

I call this one on both counts for Josh.

Arnold Kling:

He claims that the unemployment rate would be much lower now if Congress had not passed any extensions of unemployment benefits. I have not gone through his analysis, but I suspect that I, like Alex Tabarrok, would not find it persuasive. Nonetheless, I think there is a case to be made for allowing people to continue to collect unemployment benefits after they find a new job, until their benefits are scheduled to expire. We can argue about how generous the unemployment benefits should be overall, but for any level of benefits it is possible to reduce the disincentive to find work.

Mark Thoma:

Calling Barro’s claim questionable, as in the title, was probably too generous.

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