Long-Term Structural Change in the US Economy: Manufacturing is Simply Following the Path of Agriculture

A.  Introduction

A major theme of Trump, both during his campaign and now as president, has been that jobs in manufacturing have been decimated as a direct consequence of the free trade agreements that started with NAFTA.  He repeated the assertion in his speech to Congress of February 28, where he complained that “we’ve lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was approved”, but that because of him “Dying industries will come roaring back to life”.  He is confused.  But to be fair, there are those on the political left as well who are similarly confused.

All this reflects a sad lack of understanding of history.  Manufacturing jobs have indeed been declining in recent decades, and as the chart above shows, they have been declining as a share of total jobs in the economy since the 1940s.  Of all those employed, the share employed in manufacturing (including mining) fell by 7.6% points between 1994 (when NAFTA entered into effect) and 2015 (the most recent year in the sector data of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, used for consistency throughout this post), a period of 21 years. But the share employed in manufacturing fell by an even steeper 9.2% points in the 21 years before 1994.  The decline in manufacturing jobs (both as a share and in absolute number) is nothing new, and it is wrong to blame it on NAFTA.

It is also the case that manufacturing production has been growing steadily over this period.  Total manufacturing production (measured in real value-added terms) rose by 64% over the 21 years since NAFTA went into effect in 1994.  And this is also substantially higher than the 42% real growth in the 21 years prior to 1994.  Blaming NAFTA (and the other free trade agreements of recent decades) for a decline in manufacturing is absurd.  Manufacturing production has grown.

For those only interested in the assertion by Trump that NAFTA and the other free trade agreements have killed manufacturing in the US and with it the manufacturing jobs, one could stop here.  Manufacturing has actually grown strongly since NAFTA went into effect, and there are fewer manufacturing jobs now than before not because manufacturing has declined, but because workers in manufacturing are now more productive than ever before (with this a continuation of the pattern underway over at least the entire post-World War II period, and not something new).  But the full story is a bit more complex, as one also needs to examine why manufacturing production is at the level that it is.  For this, one needs to bring in the rest of the economy, in particular services. The rest of this blog post will address this broader issue,

Manufacturing jobs have nonetheless indeed declined.  To understand why, one needs to look at what has happened to productivity, not only in manufacturing but also in the other sectors of the economy (in particular in services).  And I would suggest that one could learn much by an examination of the similar factors behind the even steeper decline over the years in the share of jobs in agriculture.  It is not because of adverse effects of free trade.  The US is in fact the largest exporter of food products in the world.  Yet the share of workers employed in the agricultural sectors (including forestry and fishing) is now just 0.9% of the total.  It used to be higher:  4.3% in 1947 and 8.4% in 1929 (using the BEA data).  If one wants to go really far back, academics have estimated that agricultural employment accounted for 74% of all US employment in 1800, with this still at 56% in 1860.

Employment in agriculture has declined so much, from 74% of total employment in 1800 to 8.4% in 1929 to less than 1% today, because those employed in agriculture are far more productive today than they were before.  And while it leads to less employment in the sector, whether as a share of total employment or in absolute numbers, higher productivity is a good thing.  The US could hardly enjoy a modern standard of living if 74% of those employed still had to be working in agriculture in order to provide us food to eat. And while stretching the analysis back to 1800 is extreme, one can learn much by examining and understanding the factors behind the long-term trends in agricultural employment.  Manufacturing is following the same basic path.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Indeed, that is exactly what one would hope for in order for the economy to grow and develop.

Furthermore, the effects of foreign trade on employment in the sectors, positive or negative, are minor compared to the long-term impacts of higher productivity.  In the post below we will look at what would have happened to employment if net trade would somehow be forced to zero by Trumpian policies.  The impact relative to the long term trends would be trivial.

This post will focus on the period since 1947, the earliest date for which the BEA has issued data on both sector outputs and employment.  The shares of agriculture as well as of manufacturing in both total employment and in output (with output measured in current prices) have both declined sharply over this period, but not because those sectors are producing less than before.  Indeed, their production in real terms are both far higher. Employment in those sectors has nevertheless declined in absolute numbers.  The reason is their high rates of productivity growth.  Importantly, productivity in those two sectors has grown at a faster pace than in the services sector (the rest of the economy).  As we will discuss, it is this differential rate of productivity growth (faster in agriculture and in manufacturing than in services) which explains the decline in the share employed in agriculture and manufacturing.

These structural changes, resulting ultimately from the differing rates of productivity growth in the sectors, can nonetheless be disruptive.  With fewer workers needed in a sector because of a high rate of productivity growth, while more workers are needed in those sectors where productivity is growing more slowly (although still positively and possibly strongly, just relatively less strongly), there is a need for workers to transfer from one sector to another.  This can be difficult, in particular for individuals who are older or who have fewer general skills.  But this was achieved before in the US as well as in other now-rich countries, as workers shifted out of agriculture and into manufacturing a century to two centuries ago.  Critically important was the development of the modern public school educational system, leading to almost universal education up through high school. The question the country faces now is whether the educational system can be similarly extended today to educate the workers needed for jobs in the modern services economy.

First, however, is the need to understand how the economy has reached the position it is now in, and the role of productivity growth in this.

B.  Sector Shares and Prices

As Chart 1 at the top of this post shows, employment in agriculture and in manufacturing have been falling steadily as a share of total employment since the 1940s, while jobs in services have risen.

[A note on the data:  The data here comes from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), which, as part of its National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA), estimates sector outputs as well as employment.  Employment is measured in full-time equivalent terms (so that two half-time workers, say, count as the equivalent of one full-time worker), which is important for measuring productivity growth.

And while the BEA provides figures on its web site for employment going all the way back to 1929, the figures for sector output on its web site only go back to 1947.  Thus while the chart at the top of this post goes back to 1929, all the analysis shown below will cover the period from 1947 only.  Note also that there is a break in the employment series in 1998, when the BEA redefined slightly how some of the detailed sectors would be categorized. They unfortunately did not then go back to re-do the categorizations in a consistent way in the years prior to that, but the changes are small enough not to matter greatly to this analysis.  And there were indeed similar breaks in the employment series in 1948 and again in 1987, but the changes there were so small (at the level of aggregation of the sectors used here) as not to be noticeable at all.

Also, for the purposes here the sector components of GDP have been aggregated to just three, with forestry and fishing included with agriculture, mining included with manufacturing, and construction included with services.  As a short hand, these sectors will at times be referred to simply as agriculture, manufacturing, and services.

Finally, the figures on sector outputs in real terms provided by the BEA data are calculated based on what are called “chain-weighted” indices of prices.  Chain-weighted indices are calculated based on moving shares of sector outputs (whatever the share is in any given period) rather than on fixed shares (i.e. the shares at the beginning or the end of the time period examined).  Chain-weighted indices are the best to use over extended periods, but are unfortunately not additive, where a sum (such as real GDP) will not necessarily equal exactly the sum of the estimates of the underlying sector figures (in real terms).  The issue is however not an important one for the questions being examined in this post.  While we will show the estimates in the charts for real GDP (based on a sum of the figures for the three sectors), there is no need to focus on it in the analysis.  Now back to the main text.]

The pattern in a chart of sector outputs as shares of GDP (measured in current prices by the value-added of each sector), is similar to that seen in Chart 1 above for the employment shares:

Agriculture is falling, and falling to an extremely small share of GDP (to less than 1% of GDP in 2015).  Manufacturing and mining is similarly falling from the mid-1950s, while services and construction is rising more or less steadily.  On the surface, all this appears to be similar to what was seen in Chart 1 for employment shares.  It also might look like the employment shares are simply following the shifts in output shares.

But there is a critical difference.  The shares of workers employed is a measure of numbers of workers (in full-time equivalent terms) as a share of the total.  That is, it is a measure in real terms.  But the shares of sector outputs in Chart 2 above is a measure of the shares in terms of current prices.  They do not tell us what is happening to sector outputs in real terms.

For sector outputs in real terms (based on the prices in the initial year, or 1947 here), one finds a very different chart:

Here, the output shares are not changing all that much.  There is only a small decline in agriculture (from 8% of the total in 1947 to 7% in 2015), some in manufacturing (from 28% to 22%), and then the mirror image of this in services (from 64% to 72%).  The changes in the shares were much greater in Chart 2 above for sector output shares in current prices.

Many might find the relatively modest shifts in the shares of sector outputs when measured in constant price terms to be surprising.  We were all taught in our introductory Economics 101 class of Engel Curve effects.  Ernst Engel was a German statistician who, in 1857, found that at the level of households, the share of expenditures on basic nourishment (food) fell the richer the household.  Poorer households spent a relatively higher share of their income on food, while better off households spent less.  One might then postulate that as a nation becomes richer, it will see a lower share of expenditures on food items, and hence that the share of agriculture will decline.

But there are several problems with this theory.  First, for various reasons it may not apply to changes over time as general income levels rise (including that consumption patterns might be driven mostly by what one observes other households to be consuming at the time; i.e. “keeping up with the Joneses” dominates).  Second, agricultural production spans a wide range of goods, from basic foodstuffs to luxury items such as steak.  The Engel Curve effects might mostly be appearing in the mix of food items purchased.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Engel Curve effects, if they exist, would affect production only in a closed economy where it was not possible to export or import agricultural items.  But one can in fact trade such agricultural goods internationally. Hence, even if domestic demand fell over time (due perhaps to Engel Curve effects, or for whatever reason), domestic producers could shift to exporting a higher share of their production.  There is therefore no basis for a presumption that the share of agricultural production in total output, in real terms, should be expected to fall over time due to demand effects.

The same holds true for manufacturing and mining.  Their production can be traded internationally as well.

If the shares of agriculture and manufacturing fell sharply over time in terms of current prices, but not in terms of constant prices (with services then the mirror image), the implication is that the relative prices of agriculture as well as manufacturing fell relative to the price of services.  This is indeed precisely what one sees:

These are the changes in the price indices published by the BEA, with all set to 1947 = 1.0.  Compared to the others, the change in agricultural prices over this 68 year period is relatively small.  The price of manufacturing and mining production rose by far more.  And while a significant part of this was due to the rise in the 1970s of the prices of mined products (in particular oil, with the two oil crises of the period, but also in the prices of coal and other mined commodities), it still holds true for manufacturing alone.  Even if one excludes the mining component, the price index rose by far more than that of agriculture.

But far greater was the change in the price of services.  It rose to an index value of 12.5 in 2015, versus an index value of just 1.6 for agriculture in that year.  And the price of services rose by double what the price of manufacturing and mining rose by (and even more for manufacturing alone).

With the price of services rising relative to the others, the share of services in GDP (in current prices) will then rise, and substantially so given the extent of the increase in its relative price, despite the modest change in its share in constant price terms.  Similarly, the fall in the shares of agriculture and of manufacturing (in current price terms) will follow directly from the fall in their prices (relative to the price of services), despite just a modest reduction in their shares in real terms.

The question then is why have we seen such a change in relative prices.  And this is where productivity enters.

C.  Growth in Output, Employment, and Productivity

First, it is useful to look at what happened to the growth in real sector outputs relative to 1947:

All sector outputs rose, and by substantial amounts.  While Trump has asserted that manufacturing is dying (due to free trade treaties), this is not the case at all.  Manufacturing (including mining) is now producing 5.3 times (in real terms) what it was producing in 1947.  Furthermore, manufacturing production was 64% higher in real terms in 2015 than it was in 1994, the year NAFTA went into effect.  This is far from a collapse.  The 64% increase over the 21 years between 1994 and 2015 was also higher than the 42% increase in manufacturing production of the preceding 21 year period of 1973 to 1994. There was of course much more going on than any free trade treaties, but to blame free trade treaties on a collapse in manufacturing is absurd.  There was no collapse.

Production in agriculture also rose, and while there was greater volatility (as one would expect due to the importance of weather), the increase in real output over the full period was in fact very similar to the increase seen for manufacturing.

But the biggest increase was for services.  Production of services was 7.6 times higher in 2015 than in 1947.

The second step is to look at employment, with workers measured here in full-time equivalent terms:

Despite the large increases in sector production over this period, employment in agriculture fell as did employment in manufacturing.  One unfortunately cannot say with precision by how much, given the break in the employment series in 1998.  However, there were drops in the absolute numbers employed in manufacturing both before and after the 1998 break in the series, while in agriculture there was a fall before 1998 (relative to 1947) and a fairly flat series after.  The change in the agriculture employment numbers in 1998 was relatively large for the sector, but since agricultural employment was such a small share of the total (only 1%), this does not make a big difference overall.

In contrast to the falls seen for agriculture and manufacturing, employment in the services sector grew substantially.  This is where the new jobs are arising, and this has been true for decades.  Indeed, services accounted for more than 100% of the new jobs over the period.

But one cannot attribute the decline in employment in agriculture and in manufacturing to the effects of international trade.  The points marked with a “+” in Chart 6 show what employment in the sectors would have been in 2015 (relative to 1947) if one had somehow forced net imports in the sectors to zero in 2015, with productivity remaining the same. There would have been an essentially zero change for agriculture (while the US is the world’s largest food exporter, it also imports a lot, including items like bananas which would be pretty stupid to try to produce here).  There would have been somewhat more of an impact on manufacturing, although employment in the sector would still have been well below what it had been decades ago.  And employment in services would have been a bit less. While most production in the services sector cannot be traded internationally, the sector includes businesses such as banking and other finance, movie making, professional services, and other areas where the US is in fact a strong exporter.  Overall, the US is a net exporter of services, and an abandonment of trade that forced all net imports (and hence net exports) to zero would lead to less employment in the sector.  But the impact would be relatively minor.

Labor productivity is then simply production per unit of labor.  Dividing one by the other leads to the following chart:

Productivity in agriculture grew at a strong pace, and by more than in either of the other two sectors over the period.  With higher productivity per worker, fewer workers will be needed to produce a given level of output.  Hence one can find that employment in agriculture declined over the decades, even though agricultural production rose strongly. Productivity in manufacturing similarly grew strongly, although not as strongly as in agriculture.

In contrast, productivity in the services sector grew at only a modest pace.  Most of the activities in services (including construction) are relatively labor intensive, and it is difficult to substitute machinery and new technology for the core work that they do.  Hence it is not surprising to find a slower pace of productivity growth in services.  But productivity in services still grew, at a positive 0.9% annual pace over the 1947 to 2015 period, as compared to a 2.8% annual pace for manufacturing and a 3.3% annual pace in agriculture.

Finally, and for those readers more technically inclined, one can convert this chart of productivity growth onto a logarithmic scale.  As some may recall from their high school math, a straight line path on a logarithmic scale implies a constant rate of growth.  One finds:

While one should not claim too much due to the break in the series in 1998, the path for productivity in agriculture on a logarithmic scale is remarkably flat over the full period (once one abstracts from the substantial year to year variation – short term fluctuations that one would expect from dependence on weather conditions).  That is, the chart indicates that productivity in agriculture grew at a similar pace in the early decades of the period, in the middle decades, and in the later decades.

In contrast, it appears that productivity in manufacturing grew at a certain pace in the early decades up to the early 1970s, that it then leveled off for about a decade until the early 1980s, and that it then moved to a rate of growth that was faster than it had been in the first few decades.  Furthermore, the pace of productivity growth in manufacturing following this turn in the early 1980s was then broadly similar to the pace seen in agriculture in this period (the paths are then parallel so the slope is the same).  The causes of the acceleration in the 1980s would require an analysis beyond the scope of this blog post. But it is likely that the corporate restructuring that became widespread in the 1980s would be a factor.  Some would also attribute the acceleration in productivity growth to the policies of the Reagan administration in those years.  However, one would also then need to note that the pace of productivity growth was similar in the 1990s, during the years of the Clinton administration, when conservatives complained that Clinton introduced regulations that undid many of the changes launched under Reagan.

Finally, and as noted before, the pace of productivity growth in services was substantially less than in the other sectors.  From the chart in logarithms, it appears the pace of productivity growth was relatively robust in the initial years, up to the mid-1960s.  While slower than the pace in manufacturing or in agriculture, it was not that much slower.  But from the mid-1960s, the pace of growth of productivity in services fell to a slower, albeit still positive, pace.  Furthermore, that pace appears to have been relatively steady since then.

One can summarize the results of this section with the following table:

Growth Rates:

1947 to 2015




Total (GDP)
















The growth rate of output will be the simple sum of the growth rate of employment in a sector and the growth rate of its productivity (output per worker).  The figures here do indeed add up as they should.  They do not tell us what causes what, however, and that will be addressed next.

D.  Pulling It Together:  The Impact on Employment, Prices, and Sector Shares

Productivity is driven primarily by technological change.  While management skills and a willingness to invest to take advantage of what new technologies permit will matter over shorter periods, over the long term the primary driver will be technology.

And as seen in the chart above, technological progress, and the resulting growth in productivity, has proceeded at a different pace in the different sectors.  Productivity (real output per worker) has grown fastest over the last 68 years in agriculture (a pace of 3.3% a year), and fast as well in manufacturing (2.8% a year).  In contrast, the rate of growth of productivity in services, while positive, has been relatively modest (0.9% a year).

But as average incomes have grown, there has been an increased domestic demand in what the services sector produces, not only in absolute level but also as a share of rising incomes.  Since services largely cannot be traded internationally (with a few exceptions), the increased demand for services will need to be met by domestic production.  With overall production (GDP) matching overall incomes, and with demand for services growing faster than overall incomes, the growth of services (in real terms) will be greater than the growth of real GDP, and therefore also greater than growth in the rest of the economy (agriculture and manufacturing; see Chart 5).  The share of services in real GDP will then rise (Chart 3).

To produce this, the services sector needed more labor.  With productivity in the services sector growing at a slower pace (in relative terms) than that seen in agriculture and in manufacturing, the only way to obtain the labor input needed was to increase the share of workers in the economy employed in services (Chart 1).  And depending on the overall rate of labor growth as well as the size of the differences in the rates of productivity growth between the sectors, one could indeed find that the shift in workers out of agriculture and out of manufacturing would not only lead to a lower relative share of workers in those sectors, but also even to a lower absolute number of workers in those sectors.  And this is indeed precisely what happened, with the absolute number of workers in agriculture falling throughout the period, and falling in manufacturing since the late 1970s (Chart 6).

Finally, the differential rates of productivity growth account for the relative price changes seen between the sectors.  To be able to hire additional workers into services and out of agriculture and out of manufacturing, despite a lower rate of productivity growth in services, the price of services had to rise relative to agriculture as well as manufacturing. Services became more expensive to produce relative to the costs of agriculture or manufacturing production.  And this is precisely what is seen in Chart 4 above on prices.

To summarize, productivity growth allowed all sectors to grow.  With the higher incomes, there was a shift in demand towards services, which led it to grow at a faster pace than overall incomes (GDP).  But for this to be possible, particularly as its pace of productivity growth was slower than the pace in agriculture and in manufacturing, workers had to shift to services from the other sectors.  The effect was so great (due to the differing rates of growth of productivity) that employment in services rose to the point where services now employs close to 90% of all workers.

To be able to hire those workers, the price of services had to grow relative to the prices of the other sectors.  As a consequence, while there was only a modest shift in sector shares over time when measured in real terms (constant prices of 1947), there was a much larger shift in sector shares when measured in current prices.

The decline in the number of workers in manufacturing should not then be seen as surprising nor as a reflection of some defective policy.  Nor was it a consequence of free trade agreements.  Rather, it was the outcome one should expect from the relatively rapid pace of productivity growth in manufacturing, coupled with an economy that has grown over the decades with this leading to a shift in domestic demand towards services.  The resulting path for manufacturing was then the same basic path as had been followed by agriculture, although it has been underway longer in agriculture.  As a result, fewer than 1% of American workers are now employed in agriculture, with this possible because American agriculture is so highly productive.  One should expect, and indeed hope, that the same eventually becomes true for manufacturing as well.

Strong Employment Growth Has Continued, But Must Eventually Level Off

Cumul Private Job Growth from Inauguration to June 2016

Cumul Govt Job Growth from Inauguration to June 2016

A.  Introduction

A pair of recent news releases on the job market underscore what has been a strong record on job growth during Obama’s tenure as president.  On July 8, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly employment report, while on July 14, the Department of Labor issued its regular weekly report on initial claims for unemployment insurance.  The reports show continued strong growth in employment, an unemployment rate that remains below 5%, and initial claims for unemployment insurance that are at a record low as a ratio to total employment.

This blog post will review these developments, with comparisons to the outcomes seen under recent Republican presidents.  Obama’s policies have been criticized as harmful to labor by “killing” jobs through over-regulation or by the extension of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but this is simply not true.  Employment growth has been strong, and the unemployment rate is now at a level which is at, or close to, full employment levels.  It might be able to go a bit lower, but not by much.

And because unemployment cannot go much lower, job growth going forward will necessarily slow down.  When one is at full employment, job growth cannot be greater than growth in the labor force, and growth in the labor force is primarily determined by demographic factors.  While there can be month to month fluctuations, as the number choosing to enter or remain in the labor force can fluctuate (and there will be statistical variation as well, as these figures are all based on surveys), these fluctuations will even out over time as they are fluctuations around a relatively steady long-term trend (see this earlier blog post for a discussion).

This blog post will review these figures on employment growth during Obama’s tenure, and what might now be expected going forward.

B.  Job Growth, the Unemployment Rate, and Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance

The charts at the top of this post show growth in the number of jobs, separately for private jobs and for government jobs, cumulatively from the month of inauguration for Obama and similarly for George W. Bush.

Private job growth has been strong and remarkably steady under Obama since the trough reached at start of 2010, one year after he took office.  During his first year in office, Obama’s stimulus program plus aggressive Fed actions succeeded in turning around an economy that was in full collapse as he took office.  There have been 14.8 million new private jobs gained since that turnaround.  The contrast with Bush is stark.  Private job growth under Bush was not only less in absolute amount, but also collapsed in his final year in office as the economy went into free fall following the bursting of the housing bubble.

Also in contrast to Bush (and every other recent president), government jobs have fallen during Obama’s tenure, with 460,000 less now than when he took office.  Total jobs have not grown because of additions to the public sector payroll:  There are fewer government jobs now than when Obama was inaugurated.

With the overall job growth, unemployment has fallen steadily, from a peak of 10.0% in October 2009 to just 4.9% now:

Unemployment Rates - Obama vs Reagan, up to June 2016Furthermore the unemployment rate has been at 5.0% or below since October 2015. With full employment traditionally viewed as an unemployment rate of around 5% (there is always some friction in the market), the unemployment rate cannot go much below where it is now.  And the unemployment rate is well below what it was when Reagan was in office, at the same point in their respective administrations.

Finally, the weekly report on initial claims for unemployment insurance (issued by a different unit within the Department of Labor) shows claims are now at a record low level when measured as a ratio to number employed:

Weekly Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance as a Ratio to Employment, January 1967 to June 2016

Initial claims for unemployment insurance as a ratio to employment has never been so low since at least 1967, when the data series first began to be collected.  Indeed, it has been at a record low since late 2014.  Workers are not being laid off.

This employment record is therefore strong.  Had Mitt Romney been elected president in 2012, one can imagine what he and his party would now be saying of such a record.  In May 2012 during the campaign, Romney said that his policies would get unemployment down to 6% by the end of his first term (i.e. by January 2017).  And this was viewed as a stretch.  But it was achieved under Obama by September 2014, less than half way through his term.  And unemployment under Obama has now been at 5.0% or less since October 2015.

C.  What to Expect Going Forward

While job growth has been strong under Obama, one must also be aware that this cannot go on forever.  A slowdown has to occur.  While jobs can be (and should be) added quickly when unemployment is high, so that the unemployed can gain jobs, once one is at or close to full employment, this has to slow down.  When this happens, it should not be a surprise.

When an economy is at full employment, the growth in the number of those employed can only rise with growth in the labor force.  And this depends primarily on demographic factors.  While there can be short term fluctuations (including fluctuations in the figures arising from the statistical estimates, as they are based on surveys of households), these will even out over time.

Since the trough reached in February 2010, total employment has increased by 14.4 million, while private employment has increased by 14.8 million (government jobs have been reduced).  The average increase per month over this period was 190,000 for total employment and close to 195,000 per month for private employment.  These are also not far different for the monthly averages of just the past 12 months, of 204,000 for total employment and 194,000 for private employment.

But this cannot continue.  The labor force is growing at a pace of only 0.5% per year, based on the growth over the decade of June 2006 (when unemployment was 4.6%) to June 2016 (when unemployment was 4.9%).  Applied to the current labor force of 158.9 million, growth of 0.5% per year comes to 66,200 additional workers per month.  The pace of job growth will have to fall at some point in the not too distant future to about one-third the pace it has averaged over the last year.

A couple of caveats should be noted.  First, the rate of unemployment compatible with full employment is not known with certainty, and may well have varied over time.  The unemployment rate might fall below 5%, and was indeed in the range of 3.8 to 4.1% during the last year of the Clinton administration.  Should it be possible to bring the “full employment” rate of unemployment down by a further 1% point over the course of, say, one year (i.e. from the current 4.9% to 3.9%), then monthly job growth over that year could average 200,000 per month.  An additional 1% of the current labor force of 159 million would obtain jobs (1% of 159 million equals 1.6 million, or 133,333 per month over 12 months, plus the trend growth of the labor force of 0.5% per year adds 66,200).  But there is still a limit, and while it might not be reached immediately, it is not far off.

Separately, the number in the population that choose to participate in the labor force has varied over time, and could conceivably go higher.  Some analysts have indeed argued that it is exceptionally low right now, and can be expected to go higher as the economy returns to full employment and “discouraged workers” start again to seek jobs.  But again, there are limits to this, and as I argued in an earlier blog post, I do not see that one should expect a sharp increase.  Indeed, the long term trend has followed a steady and predictable path in recent decades (when one separates out the male and female rates), and the male and female rates have both been going downward since the late 1990s.  On top of this, the aging of the baby boomers into their normal retirement age means one should expect even slower growth in the labor force over the next ten years than over the last ten years.

Finally, this slowdown in the pace of job growth is what one should expect under ideal conditions, of an economy that is at, and then remains at, full employment levels.  Under such conditions, the pace of job growth could average only around 66,000 per month. But the economic expansion under Obama has now been underway for seven full years.  Only three other business cycle expansions have lasted so long in US history.  Eventually, every expansion has come to an end, and when it does, jobs will decline.  The expansion under Obama has continued, but who knows what will happen once a new president takes office next January.

D.  Conclusion

The jobs record under Obama has been exceptionally strong.  There is no basis for the assertions made by political opponents that his regulatory and other policies have harmed job growth.  Faced with an economy in free fall when he took office, Obama was able to engineer a stabilization and then recovery that has brought employment back to full employment levels.

This is not to deny that there are important economic issues.  Most importantly, wages have been flat and income distribution has continued to worsen.  Furthermore, with the economy now at or close to full employment, the pace of job growth up to now will have to slow in the not too distant future.  When it does, one should not be surprised.

Don’t Blame a Lack of Job Growth on the Free Trade Agreements

Jobs in the Motor Vehicle Sector, 1967 to 2014, ver 2


June 20, 2016:  This is a slightly revised version of the original post, where the blue curve on the chart above has now been drawn to show solely the impact of productivity growth, rather than productivity growth and net import growth combined.  This is simply for clarity, and the points made all remain the same.  There was then minor editing of the text to reflect this new presentation. 

A.  Introduction

It has been repeatedly said in the current US presidential campaign that the various free trade agreements the US has signed in recent decades have led to a decimation of jobs in manufacturing.  And it has been largely left unchallenged.  The assertion has come not only from Donald Trump on the right (the expected Republican nominee, as the other candidates have dropped out), but also from Senator Bernie Sanders on the left.  And it has been made so often, and without a response from others, that many might well believe it to be true.  It is presented as something obvious and spoken of as “everyone knows …”.

But it is not true.  First of all, the assertion itself is confused on many levels.  If it were true that never negotiating a free trade agreement would have led to millions of more jobs than would have been the case without the trade agreements, who would have filled those jobs if the economy is at, or close to, full employment?  Second, the whole point of trading is that there will be shifts across sectors.  There may be a decline in production in a sector where imports will rise, but there will then also be a rise in production in a sector where exports will grow.  While this might not be fully off-setting, to leave out any such offset is a mistake.

But if one ignores such higher level issues, what might have happened to jobs in just one sector if imports were somehow cut off by raising trade barriers?  The prime example most often cited is the US auto industry.  This blog post will look at what has in fact happened to jobs in the sector in recent decades, what the impact would have been had there been no imports, and what happened as a result of productivity growth.

The bottom line is that even under generous assumptions of what would have happened if imports had been restricted, such cuts in imports would not have had a very big impact on jobs in the sector.  Rather, jobs in the auto industry have been largely flat over the past half century not because of imports, but because productivity has increased.  And productivity growth is a good thing.

B.  Jobs in the US Motor Vehicle Sector, and the Impact of Imports

The chart at the top of this post shows (as the curve in black) what has happened to US jobs in the motor vehicle sector since 1967.  The data comes from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, as part of its National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA), and covers the period from 1967 (the first year in this data series) to 2014 (the most recent year with job figures).  “Jobs” are defined as the number of persons engaged in production in the sector, counted in terms of full time equivalent employees and including any self-employed in the sector.  The sector is Motor Vehicles, and includes vehicle bodies, trailers, and parts.

The number of jobs in the sector was largely flat over much of the period, fluctuating generally in the range of 0.9 to 1.3 million, but somewhat less over the last decade (a consequence of the 2008 collapse of the economy and then slow recovery).  The number of jobs in the sector fell from 1,057,000 in 1967 to 872,000 in 2014, a fall of 17%.

[Technical note on the jobs data:  The BEA changed its categorization of jobs in this sector in 2000, and only provided overlapping data for the three years 1998 to 2000 for both the new and old definitions.  For the period prior to 1998, I rescaled the jobs figures to reflect the average proportional change shown in the 1998 to 2000 figures.  Strictly speaking, the earlier data is not directly comparable to the figures from 1998 onwards, but for the purposes here, the approximation is adequate.]

What would the number of jobs have been had imports been cut off?  While many things would likely change as a result of policy measures that somehow ended all imports (and would depend on precisely what measures were taken), a generous set of assumptions to make would be that all that was previously imported would now be made domestically, and that despite what would likely be higher costs, total sales from the sector would nonetheless remain unchanged.  We will make those assumptions, and also assume that average productivity would remain unchanged.  And imports will be measured by net imports, i.e. gross imports minus gross exports of the sector, as cutting off all imports would likely lead to exports from the sector being similarly cut.

Under such assumptions, the number of jobs in the sector would be as shown in the red curve on the chart at the top of this post.  By construction, there would be more jobs in the sector, as sales and productivity would be unchanged but all the production would now be domestic.  But not only would the result be a relatively modest increase in jobs in any given year, the absolute number of jobs would also be flat over the period as a whole. The number of jobs in the sector would be 1.1 million after rounding in 1967 and still 1.1 million in 2014 (although with fluctuations in the intervening years).

Cutting off imports would not have led to a big growth in jobs in the auto sector over this period.  It would not even have led to a modest growth over the period as a whole.

C.  The Impact of Productivity Growth

If not imports, why then has employment in the sector largely been unchanged for most of this close to half century, and indeed declined by 17% from the start to end points? Output grew by a lot.  Motor vehicle sector domestic output in 2014 was 4.5 times higher than what it was in 1967 (in real terms).  Yet employment was less.

The reason, of course, is productivity growth.  One needs far fewer workers now to build a car than what was needed in 1967.  There has been widespread growth in the use of robotics to substitute for many in the traditional production line, as well as other measures to reduce the number of workers needed to make each car.  The result is that output per worker (productivity) was 5.4 times higher in 2014 than what it was in 1967 (in real terms), based on the BEA figures.  Hence the number of workers needed and employed fell from the 1,057,000 in 1967 to 872,000 in 2014 (the same ratio, within roundoff, as the ratio of 5.4 to 4.5).

What if this productivity growth had not occurred?  If costs and sales had remained the same as otherwise (not likely, but assume that for the purposes here), one would then have needed a sharp increase in the number of workers to produce in 2014 what could be produced with the productivity of 1967.  The number of workers that would then have been needed is shown as the blue curve (the top one) in the chart above.

With no productivity growth, but all else the same as otherwise, one would have had to employ far more workers in the sector to produce the autos and other motor vehicles sold. Put another way, the reason there has been no growth in the number of jobs in the sector over the last half century is not because of imports, but because of productivity growth. The impact of imports, even under generous assumptions, has been minor in comparison.

And productivity growth is a good thing, not a bad.  For real incomes to improve, productivity must go up, not stagnate.  There are, however and most certainly, important issues with how the gains to that productivity growth is being distributed.  As earlier posts on this blog have discussed, median real wages have been basically stagnant since around 1980, and the gains to growth since around 1980 have gone fully to the extremely rich.

What might be done about this maldistribution of the gains to productivity growth is an extremely important, but separate, issue.  That is where the policy debate should focus.  A set of measures that might be taken to address the sharp increase in inequality in the decades since Reagan was president was discussed in this earlier post on this blog. Limiting imports is not one of them.  The most important measure for the issues here would be active fiscal policy to keep the demand for labor at close to full employment levels.  Only then will labor have the bargaining power needed to ensure wages rise in line with productivity growth.

D.  Conclusion

Free trade agreements signed by the US in recent decades have been harshly criticized in this year’s presidential campaign, by candidates both on the right (Donald Trump) and on the left (Bernie Sanders).  They take as a given that the agreements have led to a huge loss of jobs in the sectors where trade is possible.  But that is simply not the case.  The auto sector is often taken as the pre-eminent example of how American industry has been harmed by exposure to competition from imports.  But as discussed above, even under extreme assumptions on what would follow if imports were cut off, the impact on jobs would be small.  Rather, the reason there are not more jobs in the sector now than there were in 1967 is because the productivity per worker is now much higher.  And higher productivity is a good thing.

This is not to say that there are are no possible issues with the trade agreements.  There are.  But the concern I have is not with measures that move towards free (or at least freer) trade, but rather with measures that will do the opposite.  For example, a problem with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (negotiated between the US and 11 other Pacific rim countries, but which is still to be ratified or not by Congress), is the provision that would extend the patent protection enjoyed by US pharmaceutical companies to the 11 other countries, thus constraining their access to generic drugs.  This is the creation of a trade impediment, not a move towards freer trade.

But it is incorrect to blame the free trade agreements signed in recent decades for the lack of job growth in sectors such as autos.  Jobs in that sector have been flat or declining because worker productivity is now much higher than it was before.  One needs fewer workers to make each car.  There are certainly issues, extremely important issues, with how the gains to that productivity growth have been distributed, but restricting imports would not address them.

The Impact of the Reagan and Bush Tax Cuts: Not a Boost to Employment, nor to Growth, nor to the Fiscal Accounts

Private Employment Following Tax Law Changes

A.  Introduction

The belief that tax cuts will spur growth and new jobs, and indeed even lead to an improvement in the fiscal accounts, remains a firm part of Republican dogma.  The tax plans released by the main Republican presidential candidates this year all presume, for example, that a spectacular jump in growth will keep fiscal deficits from increasing, despite sharp cuts in tax rates.  And conversely, Republican dogma also holds that tax increases will kill growth and thus then lead to a worsening in the fiscal accounts.  The “evidence” cited for these beliefs is the supposed strong recovery of the economy in the 1980s under Reagan.

But the facts do not back this up.  There have been four major rounds of changes in the tax code since Reagan, and one can look at what happened after each.  While it is overly simplistic to assign all of what followed solely to the changes in tax rates, looking at what actually happened will at least allow us to examine the assertion underlying these claims that the Reagan tax cuts led to spectacular growth.

The four major changes in the tax code were the following.  While each of the laws made numerous changes in the tax code, I will focus here on the changes made in the highest marginal rate of tax on income.  The so-called “supply-siders” treat the highest marginal rate to be of fundamental importance since, under their view, this will determine whether individuals will make the effort to work or not, and by how much.  The four episodes were:

a)  The Reagan tax cuts signed into law in August 1981, which took effect starting in 1982. The highest marginal income tax rate was reduced from 70% before to 50% from 1982 onwards.  There was an additional round of tax cuts under a separate law passed in 1986, which brought this rate down further to 38.5% in 1987 and to 28% from 1988 onwards. While this could have been treated as a separate tax change episode, I have left this here as part of the Reagan legacy.  Under the Republican dogma, this should have led to an additional stimulant to growth.  We will see if that was the case.  There was also a more minor change under George H.W. Bush as part of a 1990 budget compromise, which brought the top rate partially back from 28.0% to 31.0% effective in 1991.  While famous as it went against Bush’s “read my lips” pledge, the change was relatively small.

b)  The tax rate increases in the first year of the Clinton presidency.  This was signed into law in August 1993, with the tax rate increases applying in that year.  The top marginal income tax rate was raised to 39.6%.

c)  The tax cuts in the George W. Bush presidency that brought the top rate down from 39.6% to 38.6% in 2002 and to 35.0% in 2003.  The initial law was signed in June 2001, and then an additional act passed in 2003 made further tax cuts and brought forward in time tax cuts being phased in under the 2001 law.

d)  The tax rate increases for those with very high incomes signed into law in December 2012, just after Obama was re-elected, that brought the marginal rate for the highest income earners back to 39.6%.

We therefore have four episodes to look at:  two of tax cuts and two of tax increases.  For each, I will trace what happened from when the tax law changes were signed up to the end of the administration responsible (treating Reagan and Bush I as one).  The questions to address are whether the tax cut episodes led to exceptionally good job growth and GDP growth, while the the tax increases led to exceptionally poor job and GDP growth. We will then look at what happened to the fiscal accounts.

B.  Jobs and GDP Growth Following the Changes in Tax Law

The chart at the top of this post shows what happened to private employment, by calendar quarter relative to a base = 100 for the quarter when the new law was signed. The data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (downloaded, for convenience, from FRED).  A chart using total employment would look almost exactly the same (but one could argue that government employment should be excluded as it is driven by other factors).

As the chart shows, private job growth was best following the Clinton and Obama tax increases, was worse under Reagan-Bush I, and abysmal under Bush II.  There is absolutely no indication that big tax cuts, such as those under Reagan and then Bush II, are good for job growth.  I would emphasize that one should not then jump to the conclusion that tax increases are therefore good for job growth.  That would be overly simplistic.  But what the chart does show is that the oft-stated claim by Republican pundits that the Reagan tax cuts were wonderful for job growth simply has no basis in fact.

How about the possible impact on GDP growth?  A similar chart shows (based on BEA data on the GDP accounts):

Real GDP Following Tax Law Changes

Once again, growth was best following the Clinton tax increases.  Under Reagan, GDP growth first fell following the tax cuts being signed into law (as the economy moved down into a recession, which by NBER dating began almost exactly as the Reagan tax cut law was being signed), and then recovered.  But the path never catches up with that followed during the Clinton years.  Indeed after a partial catch-up over the initial three years (12 calendar quarters), the GDP path began to fall steadily behind the pace enjoyed under Clinton.  Higher taxes under Clinton were clearly not a hindrance to growth.

The Bush II and Obama paths are quite similar, even though growth during these Obama years has had to go up against the strong headwinds of fiscal drag from government spending cuts.  Federal government spending on goods and services (from the GDP accounts, with the figures in real, inflation-adjusted, terms) rose at a 4.4% per annum pace during the eight years of the Bush II administration, and rose at a 5.6% rate during Bush’s first term.  Federal government spending since the late 2012 tax increases were signed under Obama have fallen, in contrast, at a 2.8% per annum rate.

There is therefore also no evidence here that tax cuts are especially good for growth and tax increases especially bad for growth.  If anything, the data points the other way.

C.  The Impact on the Fiscal Accounts

The argument of those favoring tax cuts goes beyond the assertion that they will be good for growth in jobs and in GDP.  Some indeed go so far as to assert that the resulting stimulus to growth will be so strong that tax revenues will actually rise as a result, since while the tax rates will be lower, they will be applied against resulting higher incomes and hence “pay for themselves”.  This would be nice, if true.  Something for nothing. Unfortunately, it is a fairy tale.

What happened to federal income taxes following the changes in the tax rates?  Using CBO data on the historical fiscal accounts:

Real Federal Income Tax Revenues Following Tax Law Changes

Federal income tax revenues (in real terms) either fell or at best stagnated following the Reagan and then the Bush II tax cuts.  The revenues rose following the Clinton and Obama tax increases.  The impact is clear.

While one would think this should be obvious, the supply-siders who continue to dominate Republican thinking on these issues assert the opposite has been the case (and would be, going forward).  Indeed, in what must be one of the worst economic forecasts ever made in recent decades by economists (and there have been many bad forecasts), analysts at the Center for Data Analysis at the conservative Heritage Foundation concluded in 2001 that the Bush II tax cuts would lead government to “effectively pay off the publicly held federal debt by FY 2010”.  Publicly held federal debt would fall below 5% of GDP by FY2011 they said, and could not go any lower as some federal debt is needed for purposes such as monetary operations.  But actual publicly held federal debt reached 66% of GDP that year.  That is not a small difference.

Higher tax revenues help then make it possible to bring down the fiscal deficit.  While the deficit will also depend on public spending, a higher revenue base, all else being equal, will lead to a lower deficit.

So what happened to the fiscal deficit following these four episodes of major tax rate changes?  (Note to reader:  A reduction in the fiscal deficit is shown as a positive change in the figure.)

Change in Fiscal Deficit Relative to Base Year Following Tax Law Changes

The deficit as a share of GDP was sharply reduced under Clinton and even more so under Obama.  Indeed, under Clinton the fiscal accounts moved from a deficit of 4.5% of GDP in FY1992 to a surplus of 2.3% of GDP in FY2000, an improvement of close to 7% points of GDP.  And in the period since the tax increases under Obama, the deficit has been reduced by over 4% points of GDP, in just three years.  This has been a very rapid base, faster than that seen even during the Clinton years.  Indeed, the pace of fiscal deficit reduction has been too fast, a consequence of the federal government spending cuts discussed above.  This fiscal drag held back the pace of recovery from the downturn Obama inherited in 2009, but at least the economy has recovered.

In contrast, the fiscal deficit deteriorated sharply following the Reagan tax cuts, and got especially worse following the Bush II tax cuts.  The federal fiscal deficit was 2.5% of GDP in FY1981, when Reagan took office, went as high as 5.9% of GDP in FY1983, and was 4.5% of GDP in FY1992, the last year of Bush I (it was 2.5% of GDP in FY2015 under Obama).  Bush II inherited the Clinton surplus when he took office, but brought this down quickly (on a path initially similar to that seen under Reagan).  The deficit was then 3.1% of GDP in FY2008, the last full year when Bush II was in office, and hit 9.8% of GDP in FY2009 due largely to the collapsing economy (with Bush II in office for the first third of this fiscal year).

Republicans continue to complain of high fiscal deficits under the Democrats.  But the deficits were cut sharply under the Democrats, moving all the way to a substantial surplus under Clinton.  And the FY2015 deficit of 2.5% of GDP under Obama is not only far below the 9.8% deficit of FY2009, the year he took office, but is indeed lower than the deficit was in any year under Reagan and Bush I.  The tax increases signed into law by Clinton and Obama certainly helped this to be achieved.

D.  Conclusion

The still widespread belief among Republicans that tax cuts will spur growth in jobs and in GDP is simply not borne out be the facts.  Growth was better following the tax increases of recent decades than it was following the tax cuts.

I would not conclude from this, however, that tax increases are therefore necessarily good for growth.  The truth is that tax changes such as those examined here simply will not have much of an impact in one direction or the other on jobs and output, especially when a period of several years is considered.  Job and output growth largely depends on other factors.  Changes in marginal income tax rates simply will not matter much if at all. Economic performance was much better under the Clinton and Obama administrations not because they raised income taxes (even though they did), but because these administrations managed better a whole host of factors affecting the economy than was done under Reagan, Bush I, or Bush II.

Where the income tax rates do matter is in how much is collected in income taxes.  When tax rates are raised, more is collected, and when tax rates are cut, less is collected.  This, along with the management of other factors, then led to sharp reductions in the fiscal deficit under Clinton and Obama (and indeed to a significant surplus by the end of the Clinton administration), while fiscal deficits increased under Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II.

Higher tax collections when tax rates go up and lower collections when they go down should not be a surprising finding.  Indeed, it should be obvious.  Yet one still sees, for example in the tax plans issued by the Republican presidential candidates this year, reliance on the belief that a miraculous jump in growth will keep deficits from growing.

There is no evidence that such miracles happen.

There is No Reason to Expect Increased Labor Force Participation Rates to be a Source of Spectacular Growth

Labor Force Participation Rate, Ages 25 to 54, All, Male, Female, Jan 1948 to Feb 2016

A.  Introduction

An important issue in the current presidential campaign, although somewhat technical, is whether one should expect that employment could jump to substantially higher levels than where it is now, if only economic policy were better.  The argument is that while the unemployment rate as officially measured (4.9% currently) might appear to be relatively low and within the range normally considered “full employment”, this masks that many people (it is asserted) have given up looking for jobs and make up a large reservoir of “hidden unemployed”.  If only the economy were functioning better, it is said, more jobs would be created and taken up by these hidden unemployed, the economy would then be producing more, and everyone would be better off.

This is important for the Republicans, not only as part of their criticism of Obama, but also as a basis for their tax plans.  As discussed in the previous post on this blog, the Republican tax plans would all cut tax rates sharply, leading to such revenue losses that deficits would rise dramatically even if non-defense discretionary budget expenditures were cut all the way to zero.  The Republican candidates have asserted that deficits would not rise (even with sharply higher spending for defense, which they also want), because the tax cuts would spur such a large increase in growth of GDP that the tax revenues from the higher output would offset the reductions from lower tax rates.  Aside from the fact that there is no evidence to support the theory that such tax cuts would spur growth by any amount, much less the jump they are postulating (see the earlier blog post for a discussion), any rise in GDP of such magnitude would also depend on there being unemployed labor to take on such jobs.  With the economy now at close to full employment (with the unemployment rate of 4.9%), this could only be achieved if a large pool of hidden unemployed exists to enter (or re-enter) the labor force.

Given the huge magnitudes involved, few economists see these Republican tax plans as serious.  One cannot have such massive tax cuts and expect deficits not to rise.  And Democrats have long criticized such Republican plans for being unrealistic (there were similar, although not as extreme, Republican tax plans in the 2012 campaign, and Paul Ryan’s budget plans also relied on completely unrealistic assumptions).

Unfortunately, the Bernie Sanders campaign this year on the Democratic side has similarly set out proposals that are economically unrealistic.  A detailed assessment of the Bernie Sanders economic program by Professor Gerald Friedman of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst concluded that the Sanders program would raise GDP growth rates by more than even the Republicans are claiming.  But even left-wing commentators have criticized it heavily.  Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, for example, said the Sanders campaign had “crossed into neverland”.

A more detailed and technical evaluation from Professors Christina Romer and David Romer of UC Berkeley (with Christina Romer also the first Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama Administration), concluded Friedman’s work was “highly deficient”, as they more politely put it.  And an open letter issued by four former Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers under Obama and Bill Clinton (including Christina Romer) said “the economic facts do not support these fantastical claims”.

This is important.  In recent decades, it was the Republican candidates who have set out economic programs which did not add up or which depended on completely unrealistic assumptions of how the economy would respond.  The analysis by Professor Friedman of the Sanders program is similarly unrealistic.  As the four former Chairs of the CEA put it in their open letter:

“As much as we wish it were so, no credible economic research supports economic impacts of these magnitudes. Making such promises runs against our [Democratic] party’s best traditions of evidence-based policy making and undermines our reputation as the party of responsible arithmetic. These claims undermine the credibility of the progressive economic agenda and make it that much more difficult to challenge the unrealistic claims made by Republican candidates.”

To be fair, the relationship of the Friedman work to the Sanders campaign is not fully clear. At least one news report said the analysis was prepared at the request of Sanders, while others said not.  But upon its release, the Sanders campaign did explicitly say it was “outstanding work” which should receive more attention.  And when the work began to be criticized by economists such as the former chairs of the CEA, the response of the Sanders campaign was that their criticism should be dismissed, as they were of “the establishment of the establishment”.  Rather than engage on the real issues raised, the Sanders campaign simply dismissed the criticisms.  This does not help.

Both the Republican plans and the Sanders program depend on the assumption that so many workers would enter or re-enter the labor force that GDP could take a quantum leap up from what current projections consider to be possible.  (Both depend on other assumptions as well, such as unrealistically high assumptions on what would happen to productivity growth.  But it is not the purpose of this blog post to go into all such issues. Rather, it is to address the single issue of labor force participation.)  Their plans depend on a higher share of the population participating in the labor force than currently choose to do so, leading to an employment to population ratio that would thus rise sharply.  We will look in this post at whether this is possible.  An earlier post on this blog examined similar issues.  This post will come at it from a slightly different direction, and will update the figures to reflect the most recent numbers.

The key chart will be the one shown at the top of this post.  But to get to it, we will first go through a series of charts that set the story.  The data all come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), either directly, or via the data set maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (FRED).

B.  Recent Behavior of the Employment to Population Ratio

Many observers, from both the left and the right of the political spectrum, have looked at how the employment to population ratio has moved in the recent downturn, and concluded that there must be a significant reservoir of hidden unemployed.  Specifically, they have looked at charts such as the following:

Employment to Popul only, Jan 2007 to Feb 2016

Employment as a share of the population fell rapidly and sharply with the onset of the economic downturn in 2008, in the last year of the Bush Administration, and reached a low point in late 2009.  From about 63% in 2007 to around 58 1/2% in late 2009, it fell by over 7%.  It then remained at such low levels until 2013, rising only slowly, and since then has risen somewhat faster.

But at the current reading of 59.8%, it remains well below the 63% levels of 2007.  And it remains even more below the peak it reached in the history of the series of 64.7% in April 2000.  If this does, in fact, reflect a pool of hidden unemployed, then GDP could be significantly higher than it is now.  Assuming for simplicity that GDP would rise in proportion to the increase in workers employed, annual GDP would be close to a trillion dollars higher if the employment to population ratio rose from the current 59.8% to the 63% that prevailed in 2007.  And annual GDP would be close to $1.5 trillion higher if the ratio could revert to where it was in April 2000.  With a share of about 25% of this accruing in taxes, this would be a significant pot of money, which could be used for many things.

But is this realistic?  The short answer is no.  The population has moved on, with important demographic as well as social changes that cannot be ignored.

C.  Adding the Labor Force Participation Rate

A problem with the employment to population measure is that people will not be employed not just due to unemployment (are looking but cannot find a job), but also because they might not want to be working at the moment.  If older, they might be retired, and happily so.  If younger (the figures are for all adults in the civilian population, defined as age 16 or older), they might be students in high school or college.  And not all those in middle age will want to be working:  Until recent decades, a large share of adult women did not participate in the formal labor force.  Women’s participation in the formal labor force has, however, changed significantly over time, and is one of the key factors underlying the rise seen in the overall labor force participation rate over time.  Such factors should not be ignored, but are being ignored when one looks solely at the employment to population ratio.

The first step is to take into account unemployment.  Unemployment accounts for the difference between the employment to population ratio and the labor force participation rate (which is, stated another way, the labor force to population ratio).  Adding the labor force participation rate to the diagram yields:

Employment to Popul and Labor Force Participation Rate, Jan 2007 to Feb 2016

Note the unemployment rate as traditionally referred to (currently 4.9%) is not the simple difference, in percentage points, between the labor force participation rate (62.9% in February 2016) and the employment to population ratio (59.8% in February 2016).  The unemployment rate is traditionally defined as a ratio to the labor force, not to population, while the two measures of labor force participation rate and employment to population ratio are both defined as shares of the population.  Note that if you take the difference here (62.9% – 59.8% = 3.1% points in February 2016), and divide it by the labor force participation rate (62.9%), one will get the unemployment rate of 4.9% of the labor force. But all this is just arithmetic.

The key point to note for the chart above is that while the employment to population ratio fell sharply in the 2008-2009 downturn, and then recovered only slowly, the labor force participation rate has been moving fairly steadily downward throughout the period.  There is month to month variation for various reasons, including that all these figures are based on surveys of households.  There will therefore be statistical noise.  But the downward trend over the period is clear.  The question is why.  Does it perhaps reflect people dropping out of the labor force due to an inability to find jobs when the labor market is slack with high unemployment (the “discouraged worker” effect)?  Some commentators have indeed noted that the upward bump seen in the figures in the last few months (since last November), with the unemployment rate now low and hence jobs perhaps easier to find, might reflect this.  Or is it something else?

D.  The Longer Term Trend

A first step, then, is to step back and look at how the labor force participation rate has moved over a longer period of time.  Going back to 1948, when the data series starts:

Labor Force Participation Rate, Overall, All Ages, Jan 1948 to Feb 2016

The series peaked in early 2000, at a rate of 67.3%, and has moved mostly downward since.  It was already in 2007 well below where it had been in 2000, and the decline since then continues along largely the same downward path (where the flattening out between 2004 and 2007 was temporary).  Prior to 2000, it had risen strongly since the mid-1960s.

One does see some downward deviation from the trend whenever there was an economic downturn, but then that the series soon returned to trend.  Thus, for example, the labor force participation rate rose rapidly during the years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in the late 1970s, but then leveled off in the economic downturn of the early 1980s during the Reagan years.  The unemployment rate peaked at 10.8% in late 1982 under Reagan (significantly more than the 10.0% it peaked at in 2009 under Obama), and one can see that the labor force participation rate leveled off in those years rather than continued the rise seen in the years before.  But these are relatively mild “bumps” in the broader long-term story of a rise to 2000 and then a fall.

The long term trend has therefore been a fairly consistent rise over the 35 years from the mid-1960s to 2000, and then a fairly consistent fall in the 16 years since then.  The question to address next is why has it behaved this way.

E.  Taking Account of an Aging Society, Students in School, and Male / Female Differences

As people age, they seek to retire.  Normal retirement age in the US has been around age 65, but there is no rigid rule that it has to be at that precisely that age.  Some retire a few years earlier and some a few years later.  But as one gets older, the share that will be retired (and hence not in the formal labor force) will increase.  And with the demographic dynamics where an increasing share of the US population has been getting older over time (due in part to the baby boom generation, but not just that), one would expect the labor force participation rate to decline over time, and especially so in recent years as the baby boom generation has reached its retirement years.

At the other end of the age distribution, an increasing share of the adult population (defined as those of age 16 or more) in school in their late teens and 20s will have a similar impact.  Over this period, the share of the population (of age 16 or more) in school or college has been increasing.

The other key factor to take into account is male and female differences in labor force participation.  A half century ago, most women did not participate in the formal labor force, and hence were not counted in the labor force participation rate.  Now they do.  This has had a major impact on the overall (male plus female) labor force participation rate, and this change over time has to be taken into account.

The impact of these factors can be seen in the key chart shown at the top of this blog. Male and female rates are shown separately, and to take into account the increasing share of the population in their retirement years or in school, the figures presented are for those in the prime working age span of 25 to 54.  The trends now come out clearly.

The most important trend is the sharp rise in female participation in the formal labor force, from just 34% (of those aged 25 to 54) at the start of 1948 to a peak of over 77% in early 2000.  The male rate for this age group, in contrast, has followed a fairly steady but slow downward trend from 97 to 98% in the early 1950s to about 88% in recent years.  As a result, the combination of the male and female rates rose (for this age group) from 65% in 1948 to a peak of 84% in 2000, and then declined slowly to 81% now.

Seen in this way, the recent movement in the labor force participation rate does not appear to be unusual at all.  Rather, it is simply the continuation of the trends observed over the last 68 years.  The male rate fell slowly but steadily, and the female rate at first rose until 2000, and then followed a path similar to the male rate.  The overall rate reflected the average between these two, and was driven mostly by the rise in the female rate before 2000, and then the similar declines in the male and female rates since then.

F.  The Female Labor Force Participation Rate as a Ratio to the Male Rate

Finally, it is of interest to look at the ratio of the female labor force participation rate to the male rate:

Ratio of Female to Male LFPR, Ages 25 to 54 only, Jan 1948 to Feb 2016

This ratio rose steadily until 2000.  But what is perhaps surprising is how steady this ratio has been since then, at around 83 to 84%.  An increasing share of females entered the labor force until 2000, but since then the female behavior has matched almost exactly the male behavior.  For both, the share of those in the age span of 25 to 54 in the labor force declined since 2000, but only slowly and at the same pace.  The male rate continued along the same trend path it had followed since the early 1950s; the female rate first caught up to a share of the male rate, and then followed a similar and parallel downward path.

Why the female and male rates moved at such a similar and parallel pace since 2000, and at a 83 to 84% proportion, would be interesting issues to examine, but is beyond the scope of this blog post.  One hypothesis is that the parallel downward movements since 2000 reflect increasing enrollment in graduate level education of men and women older than age 25 (and hence included in the 25 to 54 age span).  But I do not know whether good data exists for this.  Another hypothesis might be that very early retirement (at age 54 or before), while perhaps small, has become more common.  And the ratio of the female rate to the male rate of a steady 83 to 84% might reflect dropping out of the labor force temporarily for child rearing, which most affects women.

More data would be required to test any of these hypotheses.  But it appears to be clear that long-term factors are at play, whether demographic, social, or cultural.  And the pattern seen since 2000 has been quite steady for 16 years now.  There is no indication that one should expect it to change soon.

G.  Conclusion

The downward movement in the employment to population ratio in 2008 and 2009 reflected the sharp rise in unemployment sparked by the economic and financial collapse of the last year of the Bush administration.  Unemployment then peaked in late 2009, as the economy began to stabilize soon after Obama took office, with Congress passing Obama’s stimulus program and the aggressive actions of the Fed.  From late 2009, the employment to population ratio was at first flat and then rose slowly, as falling unemployment was offset by a steadily falling labor force participation rate.

But the fall since 2007 in the labor force participation rate did not represent something new.  Rather, it reflected a continuation of prior trends.  Once one takes into account the increasing share of the population either in retirement or in school (by focussing on the behavior of those in the prime working ages of 25 to 54), and most importantly by taking into account female and male differences, the trends are quite steady and clear.  The movement since 2007 in the recent downturn has not been something special, inconsistent with what was observed before.

The implications for the economic programs of the Republican presidential candidates as well as Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, are clear.  While there will be month to month fluctuation in the data, and perhaps some further increase in the labor force participation rate, one should not assume that there is a large reservoir of hidden unemployed who could be brought into gainful employment and allow there to be a large jump in GDP.

Economic performance can certainly be improved.  The rate of growth of GDP should be higher.  But do not expect a quantum leap.  One should not expect miracles.