The Assumed Employment Virus

By George P. Brockway, originally published January 29, 1996

1996-1-29 The Assumed Employment Virus Title

I SEE BY THE PAPERS that big corporations are downsizing their economics departments. IBM and GE have eliminated theirs altogether. Others are keeping a few people on for special projects, but still are outsourcing from one think tank or another when they want to know about the economy.

There is poetic justice in this, for economists have not been bashful about claiming credit (if that is the right word) for developing the theory of productivity. That allows the sensitive readers of the Wall Street Journal to call their brokers and take a position in the stock of any company announcing its intention to fire 10,000 or more employees, particularly those with 20 years of service or better.

I do not mean to gloat. Some of my best friends are economists; moreover, intellectual life in America is thin enough without sending more PhDs down to swell the ranks of telemarketers anxious to interact with me during my happy hour about a new exercise machine or a new insurance policy. No, I don’t mean to gloat, but I do intend to seize the day to fret a bit about the state of the profession.

I became concerned about the profession when I sent my brother a copy of my first book. He thanked me in due course, and congratulated me, but he didn’t pretend he had read it, nor did he promise to read it. “After all,” he wrote, “I doubt that I’ve ever in my life read an economics book straight through. You can hardly expect me to break that record now, even for my kid brother.” So far as I know, he never did.

My brother was not a dope. He was far from adopting what James Truslow Adams a half century ago called “the mucker pose.” He held both the baccalaureate and a doctorate from Harvard. He traveled widely and read widely. All his life he was involved in community affairs. But he couldn’t be bothered with economics. When I pressed him for an explanation, he said, “You people claim to be scientists, but you disagree with each other about everything. No two of you speak the same language. Some of you seem not speak any language.”

Although my brother was not a dope, I’m inclined to think that in this case he was almost precisely wrong. Economics is not a science, and the discipline’s practitioners tend to agree too much. Especially about the wrong questions.

One of the puzzles of contemporary economics is the number and variety of theories – including those most prominent in the universities today – that trace their origin to sensationally different journal articles, yet all end up advocating laissez-faire or something remarkably close to it. The puzzle is of course the greater because, not so long ago, the Great Depression and World War II seemed to have laid laissez-faire permanently to rest.

General Equilibrium Analysis, Monetarism, the Neoclassical Synthesis, and Rational Expectations are among the schools affected. In computer jargon, one might say that a virus has attacked them all, disrupting programs, infiltrating compositions, corrupting data bases.

We didn’t use to think of mathematics or logic in such highly charged terms. We were well aware that an error at any point in an exercise would render all that followed suspect; but our exercises used to be more insulated from each other, so that our assumptions were more frequently considered.

Be that as it may, I believe it can be demonstrated that something like a virus has indeed infected most contemporary models of the economy. We may give the virus a name: the Assumed Employment Virus.  For it is an assumption or presumption that the economy is operating either actually or effectively under conditions of full employment.

The Assumed Employment Virus appeared almost contemporaneously with The Wealth of Nations in 1776, but no one noticed for a century and a half. It was not until the Great Depression that providing employment was recognized as an economic problem. Adam Smith, for example, devotes a few pages to the comparative wages of different “employments” and to the “price of labor” generally. Yet the only unemployment he takes notice of is the seasonal one of bricklayers and masons. He pays some attention to the “Poor Laws” (which for 400 years were a staple of British fretfulness, the way “welfare as we know it” continues to occupy us), but seems not to have considered the possibility of, and need for, regular employment for the poor.

The “classics,” or most economists from Smith to the middle of the 20th century (except Karl Marx), presumed that all laborers could get jobs, no matter how bad the times, if they merely lowered their wage demands to what entrepreneurs offered. It was not suggested that in bad times (or at any time) entrepreneurs should pay a living wage at the expense of the going rate of profits. Bob Cratchit was a fortunate man, even though he couldn’t afford adequate medical attention for Tiny Tim. In modern jargon, entrepreneurs were forced by market discipline to cut wages. Laborers were free to accept jobs that would allow them to starve to death. As Phil Gramm and Dick Armey taught undergraduates only the other day in Texas, those who lacked jobs were unemployed because they didn’t want to work. There was no such thing as involuntary unemployment.

It remained for John Maynard Keynes to demonstrate why involuntary unemployment is a fact of laissez-faire life. He observed “that men are disposed … to increase their consumption as their income increases, but not by as much as the increase in their income.” If the resulting weakness in demand is not countered by investment (sooner or later by government investment), production will be decreased, and workers will become unemployed – involuntarily.

Laissez-faire theorists have tried to refute Keynes’ demonstration by presenting arguments that unemployment cannot be reduced to zero. The Monetarist Milton Friedman came up with the first of these -the Natural Rate of Unemployment (whatever is natural is ipso facto involuntary), now usually referred to as the Non-Accelerating-Inflation Rate of Unemployment, or NAIRU. It has also been called the Normal Rate, the Warranted Rate, and (in a triumphal oxymoron) the Full Employment Rate.

There is a sort of reason behind even that last name. All of the involuntary unemployment arguments maintain either that unemployment cannot be reduced below the mentioned rate, or that if it is temporarily reduced (and it can only be reduced temporarily), it will be followed by some unacceptable consequence, usually inflation without limit. If at some point policy forbids, for whatever reason, further reductions in unemployment, why not call that point Full Employment?

The Rational Expectationists, whose leader was recently crowned with a Nobel Memorial Prize, make the problem easy for themselves. It is, they say, rational to expect the economy to behave as the classics would have it; so involuntary unemployment doesn’t exist, and laissez-faire does.

In effect, then, for most contemporary economists both voluntary and involuntary unemployment amount to full employment. Distinguishing among the three terms would saddle scholars with two extra variables that could enormously complicate their equations. The obvious course is to simplify by using one term for three. It is with this simplification that the Assumed Employment Virus enters today’s models.

ONCE THE VIRUS is in the models, two things happen. First, since full employment is now an unequivocal term in an equation, the equation can be solved for it. Full employment is no longer a mere possibility or desideratum or dream but an eventuality, if not a determinate actuality – just as in General Equilibrium Analysis the “proof” of the possibility of an equilibrium quickly entails proof that an equilibrium exists, and that it is optimal. Second, since full employment is at last one of the prime objectives of any modern economic policy, any model containing the virus has apparently proved the achievability of the objective, and it can therefore be assumed. Whatever still remains for the economy to do can be done with comparative ease. In other words, take it easy: laissez-faire.

As might be expected, the Assumed Employment Virus, having successfully infected models of the economy as a whole, has had equal success in confusing more restricted models. Thus the proofs of Keynes and Michal Kalecki that saving equals investment have been used, and are still used, to justify the constant cries for decreased consumption and increased saving. (The proofs merely mean that whatever is invested has been saved; they do not mean that whatever is saved is invested.)

More to our present point, in the absence of truly full employment, too much saving can actually be, as Keynes was at pains to emphasize, a bar to investment as well as to consumption. Because what is saved cannot be consumed, saving reduces demand; and when demand is reduced, prudent entrepreneurs are not emboldened to invest in new production to satisfy it. Consequently, the recurrent schemes to encourage saving are generally either unproductive or counterproductive. In the 1993-94 debates over NAFTA and GATT,   Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage was similarly cited regularly without acknowledgment or recognition of its dependence on the assumption of full employment.

It is obvious enough that a nation is neither enriched nor strengthened if substantial numbers of its citizens lose their jobs and are kept unemployed while the nation imports some product these citizens once made or could now make. This manifest truth is, however, rendered irrelevant by the Assumed Employment Virus.

Those who have been downsized into joblessness (including the economists we mentioned at the start) are likewise victims of the Virus. The standard productivity index is derived by dividing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for a period by the number of hours worked during that period. The index is a common fraction, so it will naturally rise if the denominator (“hours worked”) is reduced; hence the rush to downsize everything from the Federal government to the local supermarket.

“Productivity” may thereby be improved, but production (which is not an index number but actual goods and services produced for actual people to use and enjoy) falters. The victims of downsizing, being now unemployed, necessarily reduce their consumption, that is, the demands they make upon the economy. Entrepreneurs, faced by this reduction in demand, reduce production, which of course leads to a reduction of the GDP.

It would be different if full employment were the actuality rather than a deluded assumption caused by a “virus” in economists’ models. As long as there are unemployed workers, though, the first mission of macroeconomic policy should be to increase “hours worked”-that is, employment. This is not to say that we need a return of the Luddites. It is to say that we need economists dedicated to devising policies that will make full employment a hard reality instead of an easy assumption.

The New Leader

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