Fri, Aug 03, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The danger of hopeless unemployment

The major economic problems of the past four years could have been resolved through aggressive stimulus, but the lessons of the Great Depression show us those problems will later become structural

By J. Bradford DeLong

Illustration: Mountain People

However bad you think the global economy is today in terms of the business cycle, that is only one lens through which to view the world. In terms of global life expectancy, total world wealth, the overall level of technology, growth prospects in emerging economies and global income distribution, things look rather good, while on still other dimensions — say, global warming or domestic income inequality and its effects on countries’ social solidarity — they look bad.

Even on the business-cycle dimension, conditions have been far worse in the past than they are today. Consider the Great Depression and the implications of market economies’ inability back then to recover on their own, owing to the burden of long-term unemployment.

However, while we are not at that point today, the Great Depression is no less relevant for us, because it is increasingly likely that long-term unemployment will become a similar impediment to recovery within the next two years.

At its nadir in the winter of 1933, the Great Depression was a form of collective insanity. Workers were idle because firms would not hire them; firms would not hire them because they saw no market for their output; and there was no market for output because workers had no incomes to spend.

By that point, a great deal of unemployment had become long-term unemployment, which had two consequences. First, the burden of economic dislocation was borne unequally. Because consumer prices fell faster than wages, the welfare of those who remained employed rose in the Great Depression. Overwhelmingly, those who became and remained unemployed suffered the most.

Second, reintegrating the unemployed even into a smoothly functioning market economy would prove to be very difficult. After all, how many employers would not prefer a fresh entrant into the labor force to someone who has been out of work for years? The simple fact that an economy had recently undergone a period of mass unemployment made it difficult to recover levels of growth and employment that are often attained as a matter of course.

Devalued exchange rates, moderate government budget deficits and the passage of time all appeared to be equally ineffective remedies. Highly centralized and unionized labor markets, like Australia’s, did as poorly as decentralized and laissez-faire labor markets, like that of the US, in dealing with long-term unemployment. Fascist solutions were equally unsuccessful, as in Italy, unless accompanied by rapid rearmament, as in Germany.

In the end, in the US, it was the approach of World War II and the associated demand for military goods that led private-sector employers to hire the long-term unemployed at wages they would accept. However, even today, economists can provide no clear explanation for why the private sector could not find ways to employ the long-term unemployed in the near-decade from the winter of 1933 to full war mobilization. The extent of persistent unemployment, despite different labor-market structures and national institutions, suggests that theories that pinpoint one key failure should be taken with a grain of salt.

At first, the long-term unemployed in the Great Depression searched eagerly and diligently for alternative sources of work. However, after six months or so passed without successful re-employment, they tended to become discouraged and distraught. After 12 months of continuous unemployment, the typical unemployed worker still searched for a job, but in a desultory fashion, without much hope. And, after two years of unemployment, the worker, accurately expecting to be at the end of every hiring queue, had lost hope and, for all practical purposes, left the labor market.

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