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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

'Sliding Into The Great Depression'

Brad DeLong wrote this piece on the costs of long-term unemployment in 1997. (For my taste, he does not put enough emphasis on public jobs programs to bridge the gap and prevent people from becoming tainted by long-term unemployment in the first place. If we had done more, much much more, for example, to find infrastructure projects with high labor intensity and put people to work on their construction, we would have far fewer long-term unemployed to worry about. The "slide into depression" would have been far shorter, and the climb out not quite as steep. The private sector still has to find a way to employ these workers itself at some point, but that is easier -- and the costs more equitably distributed -- when people have been employed, and increasing demand as they spend their incomes.)

Sliding Into The Great Depression: At its nadir, the Depression was collective insanity. Workers were idle because firms would not hire them to work their machines; firms would not hire workers to work machines because they saw no market for goods; and there was no market for goods because workers had no incomes to spend.
Long-term unemployment means that the burden of economic dislocation is unequally borne. Since the prices workers must pay often fall faster than wages, the welfare of those who remain employed frequently rises in a depression. Those who become and stay unemployed bear far more than their share of the burden of a depression. Moreover the reintegration of the unemployed into even a smoothly-functioning market economy may prove difficult, for what employer would not prefer a fresh entrant into the labor force to someone out of work for years? The simple fact that an economy has recently undergone a period of mass unemployment may make it difficult to attain levels of employment and boom that a luckier economy attains as a matter of course. Once an economy had fallen deeply into the Great Depression, devalued exchange rates, prudent and moderate government budget deficits (as opposed to the deficits involved in fighting major wars), and the passage of time all appeared equally ineffective ways of dealing with long-term unemployment. Highly centralized and unionized labor markets like Australia's and decentralized and laissez-faire labor markets like that of the United States did equally poorly in dealing with long-term unemployment. Fascist "solutions" were equally unsuccessful, as the case of Italy shows, unless accompanied by rapid rearmament as in Germany.
Even today, economists have no clean answers to the question of why the private sector could not find ways to employ its long-term unemployed. The very extent of persistent unemployment in spite of different labor market structures and national institutions suggests that theories that find one key failure responsible should be taken with a grain of salt.
But should we be surprised that the long-term unemployed do not register their labor supply proportionately strongly? They might accurately suspect that they will be at the end of every selection queue. In the end it was the coming of World War II and its associated demand for military goods that made private sector employers wish to hire the long-term unemployed at wages they would accept.
At first the unemployed searched eagerly and diligently for alternative sources of work. But if four months or so passed without successful reemployment, the unemployed tended to become discouraged and distraught. After eight months of continuous unemployment, the typical unemployed worker still searches for a job, but in a desultory fashion and without much hope. And within a year of becoming unemployed the worker is out of the labor market for all practical purposes: a job must arrive at his or her door, grab him or her by the scruff of the neck, and through him or her back into the nine-to-five routine if he or she is to be employed again.
This is the pattern of the long-term unemployed in the Great Depression; this is the pattern of the long-term unemployed in Western Europe in the 1990s. It appears to take an extraordinarily high-pressure labor market, like that of World War II, to successfully reemploy the long-term unemployed.

    Posted by on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 at 09:45 AM Permalink  Comments (72)


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