BERKELEY – 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. But, 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 United States, 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. But, even today, economists can provide no clear explanation of 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. But, after six months or so passed without successful reemployment, 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.
This was the pattern of the long-term unemployed in the Great Depression. It was also the pattern of the long-term unemployed in Western Europe at the end of the 1980s. And, in a year or two, it will be the pattern again for the long-term unemployed in the North Atlantic region.
I have been arguing for four years that our business-cycle problems call for more aggressively expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, and that our biggest problems would quickly melt away were such policies to be adopted. That is still true. But, over the next two years, barring a sudden and unexpected interruption of current trends, it will become less true.
The current balance of probabilities is that two years from now, the North Atlantic’s principal labor-market failures will not be demand-side market failures that could be easily remedied by more aggressive policies to boost economic activity and employment. Rather, they will be structural market failures of participation that are not amenable to any straightforward and easily implemented cure.
J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant secretary of the US Treasury, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau for Economic Research.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.