James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Why U.S. labor markets may stay in a funk

Mar 22, 2010 18:16 UTC

“The Labor Market in the Great Recession” is an interesting new paper that looks at where the job market may be heading, as well as how it has fared the past few years. The latter points first:

Unemployment rose from a pre-recession minimum of 4.4 percent to reach 10.1 percent in October 2009. This increase—5.7 percentage points—is the largest postwar upswing in the unemployment rate. It dwarfs the rise in joblessness in the two most recent recessions in 1990 and 2001, when in each case unemployment rose by approximately 2.5 percentage points. It dominates even the severe recession of 1973/4 (4.25 percentage points) as well as the combined effects of the double recession of the early 1980s (5 percentage points). There is little doubt that the present downturn is the deepest postwar recession from the perspective of the labor market.

But will the deep downturn be followed by a rapid rise? Don’t count on it, the authors say:

The resemblance of these trends to the similar breakdown in match efficiency that accompanied the European unemployment problem of the 1980s raises the concern of persistent unemployment, or hysteresis, in U.S. unemployment going forward. We consider a range of possible sources that might lead to hysteresis, including sectoral mismatch, extension of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, duration dependence in unemployment outflow rates, and persistence in unemployment brought about by reductions in the rate of worker flows, what Blanchard (2000) has termed sclerosis.

Recent data point to two warning signs going forward. First, the historic decline in unemployment outflow rates has been accompanied by a record rise in long-term unemployment. We show that this is likely to result in a persistent residue of long-term unemployed workers with relatively weak search effectiveness, depressing the strength of the recovery. Second, conventional estimates of the impact of UI duration on the length of unemployment spells suggest that the extension of Emergency Unemployment Compensation starting in June 2008 is likely to have led to a modest increase in long-term unemployment in the recession. Nonetheless, we conclude that, despite these adverse forces, they have not yet reached a magnitude that would augur a European-style hysteresis problem in the U.S. economy in the long run.


Jimmy was picked on when he was in school. That is why he is such an angry dork.

Posted by Jimmy the Greek | Report as abusive

The cure for high unemployment

Mar 15, 2010 17:14 UTC

Gary Becker gets straight to the point:

The only real remedy for the long-term (and other) unemployed is to have the economy grow fast, as it did after the severe recession in 1982 when unemployment peaked in December of that year at 10.8%, and then fell rather rapidly. There is no magic bullet to accomplish this, but I do believe it would help a lot if the leaders in Washington did not try to radically transform various aspects of the economy while we are recovering from a serious recession, and thereby magnify the high degree of uncertainty that is typically caused by a recession. Instead, they should be concentrating on fighting the recession, and stimulating long-term economic growth.

Me: During the 1980s, the economy notched 19 quarters of 3.5 percent GDP growth or better. In the 1990s, the economy also notched 19 quarters of 3.5 percent growth or better. So far this decade before the recession? Just eight. Or look at the number of quarters of “hypergrowth”—5 percent or better. (This was JFK’s GDP goal in the 1960s, by the way.) There were 12 in the ’80s, eight in the ’90s. So far this decade? Just a single quarter, the third quarter of 2003.


The high unemployment situation will not change.The jobs lost in manufacturing is the main cause of ub-nemployment and recession.
There is no sector which will replace manufacturing jobs.The West and America are blinded by cheap imports and Free Market. China and India are growing at tremendous rate and in another year they will acquire many sucessful Companies . Still time to wake up and encourage consumer goods manufacturing.Scrap minmum wage and lets compete.Make our own goods for our own benefit .we will all be happy working again

Posted by I A | Report as abusive

US debt approaches danger zone

Mar 9, 2010 14:18 UTC

The CBO analysis of the Obama budget finds that America’s debt-to-GDP ratio will hit 90 percent in 2020. Uh-oh. Research by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart finds that level to be problematic:

We study economic growth and inflation at different levels of government and external debt. … Our main findings are: First, the relationship between government debt and real GDP growth is weak for debt/GDP ratios below a threshold of 90 percent of GDP. Above 90 percent, median growth rates fall by one percent, and average growth falls considerably more. We find that the threshold for public debt is similar in advanced and emerging economies. Second, emerging markets face lower thresholds for external debt (public and private)—which is usually denominated in a foreign currency. When external debt reaches 60 percent of GDP, annual growth declines by about two percent; for higher levels, growth rates are roughly cut in half. Third, there is no apparent contemporaneous link between inflation and public debt levels for the advanced countries as a group (some countries, such as the United States, have experienced higher inflation when debt/GDP is high.)

Me: It is the apparent WH belief that debt is a long-term problem only. But the R&R research warns that the rush to implement liberal spending priorities today risks sacrificing growth and a rising standard of living tomorrow.


Remember Ross Perots,’that huge sucking sound”, well this time it’s Entitlements,that is sucking the Life out of America.

Posted by steve | Report as abusive

The 20 Percent Solution

Mar 3, 2010 15:11 UTC

House Republicans Jeb Hensarling and Mike Pence want a constitutional amendment to limit government spending to 20 percent of GDP, its rough historical average. In their Wall Street Journal op-ed, H&P admit, significantly, that America cannot grow its way out of its debt problem:

Can we tax our way out of this problem? No. In order to pay for what we are on track to spend under current law, taxes would have to double. This would crush our economy and condemn future generations to a far lower standard of living. That is not an option. Can we grow our way out? Unfortunately, no. Although pro-growth policies like simplifying the tax code and lowering rates are critical components of any solution, they alone are insufficient. Mr. Walker estimated it would take double-digit economic growth every year for the next 75 years in order to close the fiscal gap.

Me: They don’t say how the government should hit that 20 percent goal, given the expected rise in entitlement spending. But it does provide a marker. They aren’t arguing for small government as much as typical government, at least overall. But hitting that 20 percent would require a radical transformation of US domestic economic policies. Both Social Security and Medicare would be transformed, particularly the latter. Nothing typical about that.


At least it is now possible for politicians to talk about cutting entitlement programs and not get whacked at the polls for it. Pres. Bush did one good thing; he tried to sell changes to Soc. Sec. to the American people. He failed to sell but he didn’t get clobbered at the polls so that is progress.

We’ll see if Republicans can sustain the effort. The leadership distanced itself from Rep. Ryan’s “roadmap” but its still there.

Posted by Liberty Lover | Report as abusive

Austerity makes for bad politics

Mar 1, 2010 17:19 UTC

It looks like the Conservatives in Britain are getting worried that their emphasis on deficit reduction is hurting the party with voters. Labour seems to be catching up in the polls:

The prospect of a hung parliament frightens financial markets, which fear a minority or coalition government would shy away from tough action on the deficit, which is set to exceed 12 percent of GDP this year, a level similar to that of crisis-hit Greece.

Labour plans to halve the deficit in four years with cuts starting next year but says turning off economic stimulus taps now could derail a tentative recovery from a deep recession. The Conservatives say this is too little, too late. They pledge to make an “early start” on deficit cutting if they win power, saying delay could cause a crisis of investor confidence and push up interest rates, but they have not given any figures.

The Conservatives’ uncompromising message on the need for belt-tightening may have turned off some voters, who fear public spending cuts could lead to job losses and poorer services. “The ‘age of austerity’ is a sound bite too far,” said Tim Bale, senior lecturer in politics at Sussex University and author of a recent book on the Conservatives.

Me: A Cameron loss would surely be noted in Washington as another lesson that root-canal economics doesn’t sell. Rather than a Deficit Commission, someone should suggest a Growth Commission to recommend ways to boost long-term economic growth in a fiscally responsible way.


Spending reduction may not be popular, but focusing on growth rather than reduced spending always results in not reducing spending.

Also, politicians boosted growth by lowering mortgage lending standards. That’s how we got into this financial mess. It also keeps politicians in place as social engineers, this time responsible for allocating resources so the economy grows. This government-knows-best-politicians-as-tec hnocrat is the mindset that must be broken.

Limited gov’t will by definition keep resources in the private sector with which the people can construct their own safety nets.

Posted by Liberty Lover | Report as abusive

Paul Ryan’s Long (Deficit) Goodbye

Feb 10, 2010 23:07 UTC

Why should Tim Geithner be so confident that America will “never” lose its AAA credit rating? The White House doesn’t currently have a long-term plan to stanch America’s fiscal hemorrhaging. Hoping and wishing for a successful deficit commission does not make a plan. The Treasury secretary’s statement sounds like one of those perfunctory defenses of the dollar.

But the so-called “Party of No” does have a plan. And Republicans may have a chance to sell it should they retake Congress. Yet even if the plan works, the financial bleeding wouldn’t stop for decades.

To be accurate, Rep. Paul Ryan has a plan. The Wisconsin Republican is a rising party thinker and odds-on future Budget Committee chairman if Republicans capture the lower chamber. The Ryan plan does eventually put America into the black without raising taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office. This is critical since growth-killing tax increases will only make budget balancing that much harder.

How does he do it? By sharply cutting future social insurance benefits and partially shifting Americans into private retirement and healthcare plans. The new Obama budget plan forecasts a total debt-to-GDP ratio of 77 percent in 2020 (vs. 53 percent in 2009) with an annual budget gap of around 4 percent (vs. 10 percent in 2009). Talk about a rosy scenario. It assumes brisk economic growth, atypical following financial crises. It also assumes some budget cuts and tax increases that are politically unlikely. An alternative CBO forecast using — by its own admission — more realistic policy assumptions predicts a 2020 budget gap of 7.4 percent and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 87 percent.

The Ryan plan tops both. In 2020, it would have a budget gap of 3.7 percent and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 67 percent. But notice: even a plan created by a conservative budget hawk accepts abnormally high budget deficits a full decade from now. So beware of any politico selling quick fiscal fixes.

The Obama outline ends at 2020, but the CBO and Ryan plans take their forecast decades out. By 2040, Ryan still sees annual deficits of over 4 percent of GDP (and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 99 percent) before a long decline toward annual surpluses in the 2060s as spending eventually dips below tax revenue. Those numbers seem alarmingly high — though not vs. the stunning CBO forecast of a 223 percent debt ratio in 2040 and over 400 percent by the 2060s.

One can quibble about Ryan’s policy choices. Democrats might prefer more taxes and fewer spending cuts. But the essential point is that politicians will, at best, push for a slow departure from massive deficit spending. The question is whether financial markets will be patient enough to allow such a terribly long goodbye.


This is what I heard…last year.

The plan to lower the deficit is simple.
Inflation at 100% over ten years.
The administration is engineering this
as we speak.

Posted by LP | Report as abusive

Cutting spending vs. raising taxes

Feb 2, 2010 16:45 UTC

The Washington consensus is that taxes will go up sharply because there is no will to cut spending. Yet that may not be the view outside of the 202 area code.I just got back from a wing-ding at the Hoover Institution where economist Robert Hall quite matter-of-factly assumed big future spending  cuts because, in his opinion, Washington did not have the will to broadly raise taxes. Certainly, the new Obama budget sticks to the Dem pattern of only raising investment and incomes taxes on the so-called wealthy, at least transparently.


Judging by the way they behaved during the State of The Union address, the elephants have no answers, and the donkeys are braying their usual song. So I have no confidence that the status quo will be changed anytime soon. The whole issue of spending and taxing could be rendered moot if we scrapped the whole tax code and started over. I have even written a book about it. But since I am only one person, my vote will not count, and the politicos will blithely skip off into lalaland with our tax money until the nation goes bankrupt.

5.7 percent 4Q GDP growth … then a slowdown

Jan 29, 2010 14:31 UTC

Or so says RDQ Economics:

The recovery from the Great Recession firmed in the fourth quarter as real GDP increased at its fastest rate since the third quarter of 2003.  However, also as expected, a sharp slowing in inventory liquidation accounted for 3.4 percentage points (or 60%) of the 5.7% increase in real GDP.  We are particularly impressed by the 13.3% increase in nonresidential investment (upside risk in this area was flagged by yesterday’s durable goods report).

We were also pleased that none of the growth came from government spending, which fell by 0.2%.  From the Fed’s perspective, however, this report does not bring a rate hike closer.  First, the unemployment rate rose from 9.6% in the third quarter to 10.0% in the fourth (raising upside risk to the estimates for potential growth).  Second, the GDP deflator increased by only 0.6% (although, perhaps counter-intuitively, this modest gain was due to the subtraction effect of higher import prices, which surged 16.3%—the price index for domestic purchases rose 2.1% in the fourth quarter, which is a measure of what people and businesses paid, whereas the GDP price index measures the price of what the U.S. produced).

Nominal GDP growth was a robust 6.4% in the quarter (and 0.8% year-over-year).  As the addition to growth from inventories fades somewhat, we see growth in the first quarter of 2010 at around 2½%


Laffer says the numbers will be better than expected this year because businesses will pull income into 2010 to avoid the tax hike in 2011. Then 2011 will be very bad.

It rings true.

Posted by proreason | Report as abusive

Just how bad is the US debt problem

Jan 27, 2010 19:21 UTC

Some interesting factoids over at Capital Gains and Games:

Point One:  We often hear that the US government debt load is  lower as a share of GDP than those of many other large, wealthy nations, including Japan, Germany, the UK and France. But a more apples-to-apples comparison, which combines federal, state and local government borrowing, suggests that the US is in worse shape than most other AAA-rated countries.

By that measure, the United States general government totalled 78.6 percent of GDP in 2009 and  will hit 90 percent by the end of 2010, Fitch says.  That would make us the the most highly leveraged of all AAA-rated countries — Germany, France, the UK,  as higher than that of almost all other AAA-rated nations.  (Japan’s debt is still much  higher, but it lost AAA status back in the late 90′s.)

Point Two: the  picture is even grimmer if you look at US government borrowing as a share of revenues.   US goverment debt (federal, state and local) was 330 percent of revenues in 2009 — the  highest ratio of any AAA country.   And that 330 percent doesn’t include additional trillions of dollars in new “contingent liabilities” — bank guarantees, federally insured mortgage-backed securities, and so on.


He’s just driving it up and up until he can declare a crisis.

When that happens, what do you think his “recommendation” will be?

Posted by proreason | Report as abusive

Yup, spending is the problem

Jan 27, 2010 19:19 UTC

Great point made by the Heritage Foundaiton:

After building a true budget baseline, the sobering result shows ten-year deficits of $13 trillion. The annual budget deficit never falls below $1 trillion. By 2019, the debt is projected at $22 trillion, or 98 percent of GDP.

These deficits are driven by spending. Even if all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were extended and the AMT were patched, 2020 revenues would be just 0.7 percent of GDP below the historical average. Yet 2020 spending would be 5.2 percent of GDP above the historical average. This means that 88 percent of the additional deficits would come from higher spending and only 12 percent would come from lower revenues.