Paul Krugman and the recoveryless job explosion


Fortunately, as I am in Iceland at the moment, I managed to miss yet another appearance on Newsnight by Paul Krugman. However, I gather that he said: ‘The British economy is somehow employing more people. That’s a puzzle, but it’s not a good thing.’

I have no idea of the context so I will not criticise Krugman for saying this. However, the statement, if it was meant to be taken at face value, is certainly very odd. I have to admit that, back in 2008-09, I thought that there would be a jobless recovery whereas, in fact, we have had a recoveryless job explosion. Though it is not what I expected, five years on it does not take a Nobel Prize winner to puzzle out the reasons.

Firstly, is it a bad thing that we are employing more people? Certainly if more people are being employed because they are being pushed out to work when they would rather not work, then it is not a good thing. For example, if childcare subsidies combined with high taxes for single-earner couples create income and substitution effects to push more mothers (or fathers) into the labour market, then the decision to work is not reflecting the underlying preferences of those involved. It is true that employment is very high in the UK and employment of second adults in households that have only one adult in work is especially high. Let us, however, leave that special case aside.

New Keynesians argue – and it is one of their stronger arguments – that labour market skills deteriorate when people are outside the labour market. Therefore employment – any employment – can be beneficial in getting the economy back on track in the long term. Yes, job creation schemes might distort the economy, but they also might prevent people from becoming detached for life from the labour market. I prefer radical supply-side and welfare reform to ensure that people remain attached to the labour market, but the New Keynesians at least make a point worthy of consideration. As such, Krugman’s concern about job creation in the UK is somewhat puzzling given his general disposition.

But the main point is that, if one looks at the condition of the economy and the main features of our labour markets, tax and welfare systems, the recoveryless job explosion is pretty easy to figure out.

Amongst other reasons, recovery has probably stalled because:

1.    There is huge policy uncertainty in the euro zone.

2.    Fewer companies at the margins of profitability are going bust because interest rates are very low and because of forbearance.

3.    The government is spending ten percentage points more of national income than ten years ago.

4.    The regulation of bank capital, other regulation of the financial and energy sectors and the running down of North Sea oil are damaging what were previously our most productive sectors.

At the same time, very high marginal tax and benefit withdrawal rates (70 per cent or more for most families with children) mean that training, longer hours and job advancement are penalised but that the impact of real wage cuts is considerably softened. This means that the labour market has adapted surprisingly quickly to a productivity shock by reducing real wages. Furthermore, basic benefit levels are very low in the UK relative to the earnings of those who are relatively well qualified so that not working at all is an unattractive option.

Indeed, if one digs deeper, you can find reasons for the more detailed pattern of labour market trends. Theory would predict that those who suffer from a minimum wage would be the long-term unemployed (whose skills deteriorate once they have lost a job) and youths (who are relatively unproductive or have difficulty demonstrating their productivity). And, sure enough, long-term unemployment is very high. Sadly, youth unemployment overtook French levels in 2011 having been half French levels when the minimum wage was brought in. Again, this is not a puzzle.

So, assuming that there was no special context to Krugman’s remark, I am puzzled as to why he is puzzled. I am even more puzzled as to why the BBC repeatedly has somebody on Newsnight so regularly when they are puzzled by what should be quite obvious.

Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also Director of the Vinson Centre and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.

5 thoughts on “Paul Krugman and the recoveryless job explosion”

  1. Posted 13/03/2013 at 18:00 | Permalink

    You should have watched the interview before commenting on it.

    Krugman’s point was that UK productivity had slumped, which is true, and that he suspected many of the new jobs were part-time, which is also true.

    In what sense is this combination a ‘good thing’?

  2. Posted 13/03/2013 at 21:16 | Permalink

    Dumb Article. Part time work.

  3. Posted 13/03/2013 at 22:41 | Permalink

    I am afraid that is old news about many of the new jobs being part-time work; full-time jobs and working hours are now increasing too -very rapidly. But the point that I was making was not to do with whether it was a good thing (that is a side issue worthy, i thought, of a couple of paragraphs): I am making the point that it is not a puzzle. Everybody is talking about the reasons! Why is Krugman puzzled?

  4. Posted 14/03/2013 at 14:02 | Permalink

    The growth in employment is a good thing, and very recently FT employment has been growing faster than PT. The UK creates jobs faster than most European countries because its labour market is not as tightly regulated: if regulation was eased, even more jobs could be created.
    Productivity is one of those difficult-to-measure concepts on which too much emphasis should probably not be placed. However in a very simple framework, the demand for labour curve slopes downwards because the marginal productivity of labour (and average productivity) falls as more labour is employed with a given capital stock. We are moving down the demand curve as real wages continue to fall. More people are employed but their marginal and average productivity are lower. What we want to do is shift the demand/productivity curves outwards by investing more. However in the current climate of uncertainty insufficient investment is occurring.

  5. Posted 15/03/2013 at 11:53 | Permalink

    The “productivity puzzle” is certainly a bad thing. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that increased employment is bad, but we should be very concerned about drops in productivity because productivity is the precursor to growth and increased affluence. I’ve read a few commentators who reckon that when the recovery actually comes and banks cut back of forbearance, we may see increased growth and increased unemployment simultaneously, with the latter potentially undercutting the former. Given the length of the depression, I think the sooner this is resolved, the better.

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