Glenn on Keynes, Hayek, and What It Will Take to Return to Full Employment

   Glenn wrote the following opinion column for the New York Times.

How to Keep the Economy Booming — And Meet the Demand for Workers

In recent economic news, optimists and pessimists could both find evidence to support their outlooks.

The May jobs report showed a gain of 559,000 jobs in May and a decline in the unemployment rate to 5.8 percent. It also showed a marked improvement from last month’s weaker showing across a number of sectors, and average hourly earnings continued to rise. Ahead of the monthly report, the unemployment insurance weekly claims report on Thursday showed the number of new unemployment insurance claims fell from 405,000 the week before to 385,000 — lower than levels typically indicative of a recession (400,000). This is the first time this has happened since the pandemic-induced closures began. Further wage growth should help draw more workers back to the labor force.

Yet at the same time, the recent jobs report showed a big miss relative to the expected gain of 650,000 jobs. Constraints in supply chains and business reopenings still complicate the return to work. And workers still aren’t out of the woods: Thursday’s report indicated the total number of already unemployed individuals claiming benefits hasn’t dropped since mid-March. If job creation is robust, that contrast between falling new claims and those still on the jobless rolls is odd.

What explains these confounding tensions? To unpack them, consider the legacies of the economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek.

In his day, Keynes argued for boosting aggregate demand during a recession to keep workers afloat — a prescription that has clearly shaped the ultra-stimulative fiscal and monetary policies from both the Trump and the Biden administrations. His influence also resonates in the recent jobs reports: The coming rebound in the consumption of services — restaurant meals, entertainment and travel — will lift demand above its prepandemic level, and reopening and abundant consumer cash, bolstered by policy, will increase the demand for workers.

While Keynes may have lit the path to recovery after last spring’s cataclysmic job loss, he offers little to guide us through the coming labor-supply crunch. If policy actively disincentivizes the unemployed from returning to the fold, as recent reports suggest, there will be no one in place to meet the coming surge in demand, imperiling our economic rehabilitation.

To preserve the still-shaky recovery, we must now turn to Hayek, the godfather of free-market thinking. He argued that policy should allow workers to adjust to changes in the economy. Looking ahead, policymakers must consider curbing elevated unemployment benefits and a focus on old, prepandemic jobs in order to let workers and the economy adjust to new activities and new jobs that are more promising in the postpandemic world. We don’t want unemployed workers to find the postpandemic economy has passed them by.

As demand revives, supply will need to keep pace. Those in some industries, like carmakers, can simply sell off excess inventories, something that is already happening. Tool and machinery makers can increase imports to keep up. But eventually, demand must be met by higher domestic production from workers. Once businesses are freed from pandemic restrictions, we can expect to see some improvements in supply.

But holding back a faster improvement in employment and output are the very challenges Hayek identifies, including slowing down the process of matching dislocated workers to new, postpandemic jobs. That is to say, demand growth with supply constraints won’t produce the sustainable jobs recovery we need.

Many workers are taking their time to find a new job or are choosing to work less, thanks to their generous pandemic unemployment insurance benefits. These benefits provided extra income for those who lost their jobs early in the crisis. As a result, the economy’s adjustment to a postpandemic paradigm will be slow. These benefits also slow future gains in the form of higher wages workers might earn from a new and better job. But as Hayek tells us, the longer it takes for these workers to rejoin the work force, the longer it will take for them to gain these benefits.

In the coming months, we will be able to assess the potency of dealing with these forces of supply and demand by comparing employment gains in the 25 states choosing to end federal pandemic benefit supplements with the 25 states retaining them. While employment is likely to rise quickly as the pandemic fades and extra unemployment insurance benefits fall away, unemployment rates are still likely to remain high relative to prepandemic levels for another year.

If we look ahead, wage gains should be robust for those employed, particularly for lower-skilled service-sector workers — especially if some employees delay returning to work. Those higher real wages are good news for recipients.

A less welcome wild card would be inflationary pressures, fueled by demand outstripping supply. Those pressures could be a brief blip in an adjusting economy. Or they could suggest a reduction in purchasing power from higher inflation for an extended period. Higher recent inflation readings in consumer prices are a cause for concern.

Whether this happens hinges on whether the federal government and the Federal Reserve dial back their extra Keynesian demand support in time to avoid increases in expected inflation. Inflation risks robbing them of purchasing power gains from their higher wages.

The latest jobs report, then, favors a more Hayekian solution — with a nudge: Policy should support returning to work and matching workers to jobs by supporting re-employment and training for new skills, not just boosting demand. That shift offers the best chance for a sustained lift in jobs as well as demand as the pandemic recedes. In the matter Keynes v. Hayek, then: Let Hayek now prevail.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s