The Fear of Full Employment

By George P. Brockway, originally published October 31, 1988

1988-10-31 The Fear of Full Employment title

The other day a friend sent me a clipping from the morning paper. My friend is a poet, whom I occasionally charge with deliberate obfuscation, and she was, she said, getting some of her own back. “What gives?” she asked, showing she can use ordinary speech when she wants to. “Who’s obfuscating now?”

The clipping she sent me read as follows: “Economists have become more pessimistic in recent days because the most recent batch of economic statistics, including yesterday’s strong employment report, suggests that the economy may be picking up steam and may overheat.” This was, of course, a run-of-the-mill news note of the sort we have all read many times, and I wondered why it was bothering my friend. I gave her a ring. “Surely your Webster or OED has all the words,” I remarked cuttingly, and only a couple of them have more than three syllables.”

“Yes,” she replied, “and many of my poems are made up of even shorter words. What I’d like to know is, what kinds of idiots are made pessimistic by an economy’s picking up steam? If it’s in danger of overheating, why not put more water in the boiler? I know you economists are even more devoted to metaphors than we poets are, but I thought you were all enamored of the one about a rising tide lifting all boats.”

“Don’t look at me,” I objected. “I’m not one of ‘you economists’. The pessimists of your clipping know that if business gets really good the Federal Reserve Board will get nervous about inflation and raise the interest rate, and that lowers the capitalized value of all stocks and bonds.”

“You mean, if I invest my royalties in a hundred-dollar bond that pays five dollars a year, and if the interest rate goes up to 10 percent, then my bond will be worth only fifty dollars?”

“I don’t know how a poet gets a hundred dollars in royalties,” I said, “but you’re absolutely right.”

“Eureka!” she cried. “I’ve outdone Archimedes! There’s no way the stock market can go up.”

“Keep your shirt on,” I advised.

But she paid no attention. “If business is bad,” she said, “poor earnings will send stock prices down. And if business is good, higher interest rates will send the market down. Why hasn’t anyone discovered this before? If you sell short, you can’t lose. Please give me the name of a good discount broker. I sincerely want to be rich.”

It’s a shame that my friend is merely one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world. We could use some of her guileful questioning in high places, and particularly in regard to the received doctrine that high employment makes for high inflation. Practically all economists, businessmen, bankers, politicians, and journalists are united in endorsement of this doctrine. Their unanimity is very curious – first, because few, if any, other economics propositions command such universal assent; second, because it is among the most unequivocally dismal notions in all this dismal science; and third, because there is no evidence whatever to support it. I don’t mean that no evidence is offered; I mean that the evidence offered is false or irrelevant or both.

If the proposition weren’t so dismal, it wouldn’t be worth troubling about. But look at what it means: It assumes that inflation is the worst economic misfortune that could befall us, and it asserts that in order to avoid – or simply to control – inflation, we must prevent several million people from having jobs. Even if all these millions were fully qualified and fully motivated, given the inexorable working of the system, they would still be unemployable.

Let’s think about that for a minute. It is the practically unanimous opinion of everyone who talks about the subject that our system, of which we are told to be so proud, must condemn upwards of seven million people to lives of undeserved squalor, uselessness, and hopelessness. Of course, that adds up to fifteen or twenty million men, women, and children when you count their dependents.

If I believed that our system were inevitably, necessarily, and indeed systematically that cruel, I’d be on the barricades in a minute – and I like to think I would be joined by you and by most of those who thoughtlessly repeat the dismal doctrine. My God, they’re talking about fellow human beings!

I don’t believe our system has to be that cruel. It is that cruel, but it doesn’t have to be. We’re given to understand that right now, with inflation running at about 3-5 percent and unemployment at about 6-5 percent, things are perhaps actually a little better than can be expected. Certainly our leaders consider them so good that they seem able to congratulate themselves without embarrassment.

Well, consulting Economic Report of the President[1] I find that since World War II there have been thirty-four years in which unemployment was at a lower rate, twenty-one years with lower inflation, and no fewer than twenty years where both inflation and unemployment were lower. Not only that, but in the year of lowest unemployment, inflation was lower than in all except four of the forty-odd years in question. In the year of highest inflation, unemployment was higher than in seven of the years. These figures certainly do not support the doctrine.

That may be said to be the small picture. A bigger picture is presented by the runaway inflations of our time that are regularly flashed on the screen to scare us into doing something drastic about inflation now, before we all have to get wheelbarrows to carry our worthless money to market to buy a loaf of black bread.

Besides the Weimar Republic runaway, the prime examples are Hungary after World War II and Brazil recently. If the doctrine were sound, those countries would have had full employment and overheated economies to start their runaways. Exactly the contrary, though, was the case. Each one suffered from appalling unemployment, and Brazil still does, without in any way impeding or controlling the inflation. These examples do not support the doctrine, either.

To complete the empirical record, we may note that today, of all industrialized nations, Japan has the second lowest unemployment and the lowest inflation. In short, there is no relevant evidence reliably connecting high inflation and full employment. We have not, after all, ever had full employment except in wartime, when inflation of civilian prices is to be expected because civilian production is necessarily curtailed. On the other hand, we have many times had inflation in peacetime, and we have perversely tried to control it by raising the interest rate in order to curtail production.

My poet friend asked me why, if the unemployed had jobs, they couldn’t produce goods at least equal in value to their wages. I couldn’t think why. “Then there wouldn’t be more money chasing fewer goods, would there?” she asked. “So why isn’t full employment the cure for inflation?”

Well, why isn’t it?

The New Leader


[1] The basis for this post is the re-print in the book “Economics Can Be Bad For Your Health” and the author updated the data to use the 1994 Economic Report.  The original was written in 1988. The points still hold.

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