« FRBSF Economic Letter: The Effect of Immigrants on U.S. Employment and Productivity | Main | links for 2010-08-30 »

Monday, August 30, 2010

Robert Barro's Questionable Claim

Robert Reich is unhappy with Robert Barro:

The Obscenity of the Right-Wing Professoriat, by Robert Reich: ...Harvard Professor Robert Barro ... 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 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... 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. ...

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 is nowhere as high. 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. ...

A record number of Americans is unemployed for a record length of time. This is a national tragedy. It is to the nation’s credit that many are receiving unemployment benefits. This is good not only for them and their families but also for the economy as a whole, because it allows them to spend and thereby keep others in jobs. That a noted professor would argue against this is obscene.

Alex Tabarrok is unimpressed with Barro's work:

Barro v. Barro, by Alex Tabarrok: Robert Barro today in the WSJ, The Folly of Subsidizing Unemployment, estimates that UI extensions have increased the unemployment rate by 2.7 percentage points.

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 ... the unemployment rate would have been 6.8% rather than 9.5%.

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 says that if incentive problems exist for unemployment -- and he's right to be skeptical of the claim -- there's more than one way to fix them:

...Robert Barro ... 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. 

One more:

Shoe Staring: Robert Barro Edition, by Karl Smith: 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 example, Barro writes:

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%.

Upon hearing this no one wants to make eye contact for fear of revealing that he sees that the emperor – or esteemed economist in this case – is without his clothes.

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.

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

    Posted by on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 07:00 PM in Economics, Social Insurance, Unemployment | Permalink  Comments (46)

          


    Comments

    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.