James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

A case for long-term high unemployment in America

September 11, 2009

A fantastic article by Joshua Cooper Ramo looking at whether the US is doomed to years of high unemployment. Read the whole thing, but this a key bit:

Many of the ideas Summers developed were codified in a 1986 article titled “Hysteresis and the European Unemployment Problem.” Even today it’s a piece he’s proud of: “Ah, yeah, the hysteresis article,” he interjects when it’s mentioned. Hysteresis is a word that you (and the rest of us) should hope we don’t hear too much of in the coming months. It comes from the Greek husteros, which means late. It refers to what happens when something snaps in such a way that it can never be put back together. Bend a plastic ruler too far, drop that lightbulb — that cracking sound you hear is the marker of hysteresis. There’s no way to restore what has just been smashed.

The idea that hysteresis happens to economies is one that economists don’t like to think about. They prefer to consider economies as yo-yos tethered to the sturdy string of the business cycle, moving up and down from growth to slowdown and back. But from time to time, things do snap. And Summers’ argument in 1986 was that unemployment in Europe, the sort that might persist in the face of growth, was an expression of an economy that had snapped. Europe’s economy was hit not only by shocks like an oil-price spike, a productivity collapse and rocketing tax rates but also by stubborn unions that made hiring, firing and adjusting payrolls near impossible.

Hysteresis, Summers explained, could come from all sorts of shocks like this. And that may be what is playing out in the U.S. If you look at the three great job busts of the past 100 years — the 1930s, the early 1980s and today — you find an important difference. The Reagan recession ended with workers returning to jobs that were the same as or similar to the ones they had lost. But 1930s joblessness was structural. The jobs people lost — largely in agriculture — never came back. Workers had to move to the industrial sector, a transition helped by the demands of a war. It was massive national hysteresis. Sound familiar?

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •