Employment Policy

Robert Waldmann

Larry Summers, who is very very good at provoking debate, said
“It may be desirable to have a given amount of work shared among more people. But that’s not as desirable as expanding the total amount of work.”

Paul Krugman responds here

True. But we are not, in fact, expanding the total amount of work — and Congress doesn’t seem willing to spend enough on stimulus to change that unfortunate fact. So shouldn’t we be considering other measures, if only as a stopgap?”

Please click the link and read Krugman’s op-ed if you haven’t already. It is excellent but limited to 700 words. Unlimited reflections on the topic after the jump.

I’m going to start with my proposal. I think that there should be a combination of subsidies for new hires funded by revenues from cap and trade (I’m a member of the Pigou club) and an increase in the progressivity of the tax system (not just because I always want to increase the progressivity of the tax system).

Second, Krugman suggests that US unemployment is not just high, but much higher than it need be given the large recession and small stimulus. Note that the evidence he presents is the change in employment and unemployment in the US and Germany. One might suspect that this amounts to the US unemployment rate rising to a level similar to the German unemployment rate – that in effect Krugman is proposing that we don’t accept unemployment that suddenly rises to around 10% in a recession but rather insist on such levels all the time.

One would be wrong (I admit I was such a one, I haven’t been following German unemployment). The OECD standardized US unemployment rate surpassed the Euro area unemployment rate in August 2009 (warning pdf) (figures for September are in the mail the August figures were released October 12). The OECD standardized US unemployment rate 9.7% was significantly higher than the German rate 7.7% in August. The decline in German GDP was, if anything, slightly larger. I find this stunning.

So how did they do it and should we do what they did?

First all Euro area countries have strong restrictions on layoffs. At least two Italy and Spain have decided not to apply the restrictions to many newly hired workers starting, in the case of Spain, almost 30 years ago. The Spanish increase in unemployment is even huger than the US increase.

It was already clear in 1980 that employment protection protected employment in recessions. It is also notable that, before their reforms relaxing restrictions, Italy and Spain managed decades with no employment growth. I very much like employment protection legislation as it changes the balance of power between workers and employers. I don’t like zero employment growth for decades. In any case, it isn’t going to happen there (in the USA).

The effect of employment protection legislation is a confounding factor not relevant to the US policy debate and a major part of the explanation of the especially bad experiences of the US, Spain and Ireland.

Second job sharing. Germans have been doing this for decades. The idea is that there is a fixed number of hours of work demanded and it is better if everyone works part time than if some are unemployed. This reasoning is like a red flag to a bull to almost all economists certainly including Larry Summers (and including Paul Krugman in the past). Krugman considers it a third best approach imposed by political limitations. I’d note that the simplest way to do this would be to make the payroll tax progressive so that less has to be paid by firms and workers if there are more workers each of whom is paid less . Also a progressive payroll tax implies increased revenues in the future even if marginal rates are a function of real wages (so inflation doesn’t cause bracket creep).

In one of my favorite papers of all time MacDonald and Solow argue that employment will be increased by a progressive payroll tax for fixed revenues (zero in their model). They consider a unionized firm (the paper is very old) but evidence on wages suggests that similar things happen without formal unions. The point is that it doesn’t really matter why a firm is spending the same money to pay 3 people a lot or 4 people a little. Whether the 3 are paid a lot because they work longer hours or because they have higher hourly wages, hiring them is still 3 jobs for the price of 4.

I don’t see any value added from applying the benefit only in cases in which one can document the splitting of a set of tasks to share jobs. This would be complicated and I don’t think there is anything especially desirable about that.

Note a historical example, the Clinton tax increase of 1993. Not all taxes were increased as the bill also expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit. Taxes were higher on average and much more progressive. The tax changes were followed not only by a huge increase in employment but also a downward shift of the Phillips curve. Theory and evidence correspond in this case. Also the proposal is wildly popular according to dozens of polls.

OK aside from that Krugman mentions hiring subsidies. Now most such subsidies would go to employers who would have hired without a subsidy. One would expect much of that money to go to the workers who would have been hired anyway (how much depends on assumptions about labor markets and/or bargaining). So ? It’s an excuse to pump more money into the economy which would be good policy.

Also such subsidies have been shown to affect employment. In particular a deadline to get the subsidy (only paid if one hires before oh say November 2 2010 just to pick a date) would have a large effect on the speed of the increase in employment. Following Greg Mankiw, I’d add it on to cap and trade as part of where the revenues go. As noted by Mankiw, this is also an excuse to start subsidizing before CO2 permits are actually sold as it takes time to set up a cap and trade system.

So I propose the Greg Mankiw/soak the rich plan to help US employment.

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