How Low is Unemployment in Historical Perspective? – The Impact of the Changing Composition of the Labor Force

A.  Introduction

The unemployment rate is low, which is certainly good, and many commentators have noted it is now (at 3.7% in September and October, and an average of 3.9% so far this year) at the lowest the US has seen since the 1960s.  The rate hit 3.4% in late 1968 and early 1969, and averaged about 3.5% in each of those years.

But are those rates really comparable to what they are now?  This is important, not simply for “bragging rights” (or, more seriously, for understanding what policies led to such rates), but also for understanding how much pressure such rates are creating in the labor market.  The concern is that if the unemployment rate goes “too low”, labor will be able to demand a higher nominal wage and that this will then lead to higher price inflation.  Thus the Fed monitors closely what is happening with the unemployment rate, and will start to raise interest rates to cool down the economy if it fears the unemployment rate is falling so low that there soon will be inflationary pressures.  And indeed the Fed has, since 2016, started to raise interest rates (although only modestly so far, with the target federal funds rate up only 2.0% points from the exceptionally low rates it had been reduced to in response to the 2008/09 financial and economic collapse).

A puzzle is why the unemployment rate, at just 3.9% this year, has not in fact led to greater pressures on wages and hence inflation.  It is not because the modestly higher interest rates the Fed has set have led to a marked slowing down of the economy – real GDP grew by 3.0% in the most recent quarter over what it was a year before, in line with the pace of recent years.  Nor are wages growing markedly faster now than what they did in recent years.  Indeed, in real terms (after inflation), wages have been basically flat.

What this blog post will explore is that the unemployment rate, at 3.9% this year, is not in fact directly comparable with the levels achieved some decades ago, as the composition of the labor force has changed markedly.  The share of the labor force who have been to college is now much higher than it was in the 1960s.  Also, the share of the labor force who are young is now much less than it was in the 1960s.  And unemployment rates are now, and always have been, substantially less for those who have gone to college than for those who have not.  Similarly, unemployment rates are far higher for the young, who have just entered the labor force, than they are for those of middle age.

Because of these shifts in the shares, a given overall unemployment rate decades ago would only have happened had there been significantly lower unemployment rates for each of the groups (classified by age and education) than what we have now.  The lower unemployment rates for each of the groups, in that period decades ago, would have been necessary to produce some low overall rate of unemployment, as groups who have always had a relatively higher rate of unemployment (the young and the less educated) accounted for a higher share of the labor force then.  This is important, yet I have not seen any mention of the issue in the media.

As we will see, the impact of this changing composition of the labor force on the overall unemployment has been significant.  The chart at the top of this post shows what the overall unemployment rate would have been, had the composition of the labor force remained at what it was in 1970 (in terms of education level achieved for those aged 25 and above, plus for the share of youth in the labor force aged 16 to 24).  For 2018 (through the end of the third quarter), the unemployment rate at the 1970 composition of the labor force would then have been 5.2% – substantially higher than the 3.9% with the current composition of the labor force.  We will discuss below how these figures were derived.

At 5.2%, pressures in the labor market for higher wages will be substantially less than what one might expect at 3.9%.  This may explain the lack of such pressure seen so far in 2018 (and in recent years).  Although commonly done, it is just too simplistic to compare the current unemployment rate to what it was decades ago, without taking into account the significant changes in the composition of the labor force since then.

The rest of this blog post will first review this changing composition of the labor force – changes which have been substantial.  There are some data issues, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the source of all the data used here) changed its categorization of the labor force by education level in 1992.  Strictly speaking, this means that compositional shares before and after 1992 are not fully comparable.  However, we will see that in practice the changes were not such as to lead to major differences in the calculation of what the overall unemployment rate would be.

We will also look at what the unemployment rates have been for each of the groups in the labor force relative to the overall average.  They have been remarkably steady and consistent, although with some interesting, but limited, trends.  Finally, putting together the changing shares and the unemployment rates for each of the groups, one can calculate the figures for the chart at the top of this post, showing what the unemployment rates would have been over time, had the labor force composition not changed.

B.  The Changing Composition of the Labor Force

The composition of the labor force has changed markedly in the US in the decades since World War II, as indeed it has around the world.  More people have been going to college, rather than ending their formal education with high school.  Furthermore, the post-war baby boom which first led (in the 1960s and 70s) to a bulge in the share of the adult labor force who were young, later led to a reduction in this share as the baby boomers aged.

The compositional shares since 1965 (for age) and 1970 (for education) are shown in this chart (where the groups classified by education are of age 25 or higher, and thus their shares plus the share of those aged 16 to 24 will sum to 100%):

The changes in labor force composition are indeed large.  The share of the labor force who have completed college (including those with an advanced degree) has more than tripled, from 11% of the labor force in 1970 to 35% in 2018.  Those with some college have more than doubled, from 9% of the labor force to 23%.  At the other end of the education range, those who have not completed high school fell from 28% of the labor force to just 6%, while those completing high school (and no more) fell from 30% of the labor force to 22%.  And the share of youth in the labor force first rose from 19% in 1965 to a peak of  24 1/2% in 1978, and then fell by close to half to 13% in 2018.

As we will see below, each of these groups has very different unemployment rates relative to each other.  Unemployment rates are far less for those who have graduated from college than they are for those who have not completed high school, or for those 25 or older as compared to those younger.  Comparisons over time of the overall unemployment rate which do not take this changing composition of the labor force into account can therefore be quite misleading.

But first some explanatory notes on the data.  (Those not interested in data issues can skip this and go directly to the next section below.)  The figures were all calculated from data collected and published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  The BLS asks, as part of its regular monthly survey of households, questions on who in the household is participating in the labor force, whether they are employed or unemployed, and what their formal education has been (as well as much else).  From this one can calculate, both overall and for each group identified (such as by age or education) the figures on labor force shares and unemployment rates.

A few definitions to keep in mind:  Adults are considered to be those age 16 and above; to be employed means you worked the previous week (from when you were being surveyed) for at least one hour in a paying job; and to be unemployed means you were not employed but were actively searching for a job.  The labor force would thus be the sum of those employed or unemployed, and the unemployment rate would be the number of unemployed in whatever group as a share of all those in the labor force in that group.  Note also that full-time students, who are not also working in some part-time job, are not part of the labor force.  Nor are those, of whatever age, who are not in a job nor seeking one.

The education question in the survey asks, for each household member in the labor force, what was the “highest level of school” completed, or the “highest degree” received.  However, the question has been worded this way only since 1992.  Prior to 1992, going back to 1940 when they first started to ask about education, the question was phrased as the “highest grade or year of school” completed.  The presumption was that if the person had gone to school for 12 years, that they had completed high school.  And if 13 years that they had completed high school plus had a year at a college level.

However, this presumption was not always correct.  The respondent might only have completed high school after 13 years, having required an extra year.  Thus the BLS (together with the Census Bureau, which asks similar questions in its surveys) changed the way the question was asked in 1992, to focus on the level of schooling completed rather than the number of years of formal schooling enrolled.

For this reason, while all the data here comes from the BLS, the BLS does not make it easy to find the pre-1992 data.  The data series available online all go back only to 1992.  However, for the labor force shares by education category, as shown in the chart above, I was able to find the series under the old definitions in a BLS report on women in the labor force issued in 2015 (see Table 9, with figures that go back to 1970).  But I have not been able to find a similar set of pre-1992 figures for unemployment rates for groups classified by education.  Hence the curve in the chart at the top of this post on the unemployment rate holding constant the composition of the labor force could only start in 1992.

Did the change in education definitions in 1992 make a significant difference for what we are calculating here?  They will matter only to the extent that:  1)  the shifts from one education category to another were large; and 2) the respective unemployment rates where there was a significant shift from one group to another were very different.

As can be seen in the chart above, the only significant shifts in the trends in 1992 was a downward shift (of about 3% points) in the share of the labor force who had completed high school and nothing more, and a similar upward shift (relative to trend) in the share with some college. There are no noticeable shifts in the trends for the other groups.  And as we will see below, the unemployment rates of the two groups with a shift (completed high school, vs. some college) are closer to each other than that for any other pairing of the different groups.  Thus the impact on the calculated unemployment rate of the change in categorization in 1992 should be relatively small.  And we will see below that that in fact is the case.

There was also another, but more minor (in terms of impact), change in 1992.  The BLS always reported the educational composition of the labor force only for those labor force members who were age 25 or above.  However, prior to 1992 it reported the figures only for those up to age 64, while from 1992 onwards it reported the figure at any higher age if still in the labor force, including those who at age 65 or more but not yet retired.  This was done as an increasing share over time of those in the US of age 65 or higher have remained in the labor force rather than retiring.  However, the impact of this change will be small.  First, the share of the labor force of age 65 or more is small.  And second, this will matter only to the extent that the shares by education level differ between those still in the labor force who are age 65 or more, as compared to those in the labor force of ages 25 to 64.  Those differences in education shares are probably not that large.

C.  Differences in Unemployment Rates by Age and Education 

As noted above, unemployment rates differ between groups depending on age and education.  It should not be surprising that those who are young (ages 16 to 24) who are not in school but are seeking a job will experience a high rate of unemployment relative to those who are older (25 and above).  They are just starting out, probably do not have as high an education level (they are not still in school), and lack experience.  And that is indeed what we observe.

At the other extreme we have those who have completed college and perhaps even hold an advanced degree (masters or doctorate).  They are older, have better contacts, normally have skills that have been much in demand, and may have networks that function at a national rather than just local level.  The labor market works much better for them, and one should expect their unemployment rate to be lower.

And this is what we have seen (although unfortunately, for the reasons noted above on the data, the BLS is only making available the unemployment rates by education category for the years since 1992):

The unemployment rates of each group vary substantially over time, in tune with the business cycle, but their position relative to each other is always the same.  That is, the rates move together, where when one is high it will also be high for the others.  This is as one would expect, as movements in unemployment rates are driven primarily by the macroeconomy, with all the rates moving up when aggregate demand falls to spark a recession, and moving down in a recovery.

And there is a clear pattern to these relationships, which can be seen when these unemployment rates are all expressed as a ratio to the overall unemployment rate:

The unemployment rate for those just entering the labor force (ages 16 to 24) has always been about double what the overall unemployment rate was at the time.  And it does not appear to be subject to any major trend, either up or down.  Those in the labor force (and over age 25) with less than a high school degree (the curve in blue) also have experienced a higher rate of unemployment than the overall rate at the time – 40 to 60% higher.  There might be some downward trend, but one cannot yet say whether it is significant.  We need some more years of data.

Those in the labor force with just a high school degree (the curve in green in the chart) have had an unemployment rate very close to the average, with some movement from below the average to just above it in recent years.  Those with some college (in red) have remained below the overall average unemployment rate, although less so now than in the 1990s.  And those with a college degree or more (the curve in purple) have had an unemployment of between 60% below the average in the 1990s to about half now.

There are probably a number of factors behind these trends, and it is not the purpose of this blog post to go into them.  But I would note that these trends are consistent with what a simple supply and demand analysis would suggest.  As seen in the chart in section B of this post, the share of the labor force with a college degree, for example, has risen steadily over time, to 35% of the labor force now from 22% in 1992.  With that much greater supply and share of the labor force, the advantage (in terms of a lower rate of unemployment relative to that of others) can be expected to have diminished.  And we see that.

But what I find surprising is that that impact has been as small as it has.  These ratios have been remarkably steady over the 27 years for which we have data, and those 27 years have included multiple cycles of boom and bust.  And with those ratios markedly different for the different groups, the composition of the labor force will matter a great deal for the overall unemployment rate.

D.  The Unemployment Rate at a Fixed Composition of the Labor Force

As noted above, those in the labor force who are not young, or who have achieved a higher level of formal education, have unemployment rates which are consistently below those who are young or who have less formal education.  Their labor markets differ.  A middle-aged engineer will be considered for jobs across the nation, while someone with who is just a high school graduate likely will not.

Secondly, when we say the economy is at “full employment” there will still be some degree of unemployment.  It will never be at zero, as workers may be in transition between jobs and face varying degrees of difficulty in finding a new job.  But this degree of “frictional unemployment” (as economists call it) will vary, as just noted above, depending on age (prior experience in the labor force) and education.  Hence the “full employment rate of unemployment” (which may sound like an oxymoron, but isn’t) will vary depending on the composition of the labor force.  And more broadly and generally, the interpretation given to any level of unemployment needs to take into account that compositional structure of the labor force, as certain groups will consistently experience a higher or lower rate of unemployment than others, as seen in the chart above.

Thus it is misleading simply to compare overall unemployment rates across long periods of time, as the compositional structure of the labor force has changed greatly over time.  Such simple comparisons of the overall rate may be easy to do, but to understand critical issues (such as how close are we to such a low rate of unemployment that there will be inflationary pressure in the labor market), we should control for labor force composition.

The chart at the top of this post does that, and I repeat it here for convenience (with the addition in purple, to be explained below):

The blue line shows the unemployment rate for the labor force since 1965, as conventionally presented.  The red line shows, in contrast, what the unemployment rate would have been had the unemployment rate for each identified group been whatever it was in each year, but with the labor force composition remaining at what it was in 1970.  The red line is a simple weighted average of the unemployment rates of each group, using as weights what their shares would have been had they remained at the shares of 1970.

The labor force structure of 1970 was taken for this exercise both because it is the earliest year for which I could find the necessary data, and because 1970 is close to 1968 and 1969, when the unemployment rate was at the lowest it has been in the last 60 years.  And the red curve can only start in 1992 because that is the earliest year for which I could find unemployment rates by education category.

The difference is significant.  And while perhaps difficult to tell from just looking at the chart, the difference has grown over time.  In 1992, the overall unemployment rate (with all else equal) at the 1970 compositional shares, would have been 23% higher.  By 2018, it would have grown to 33% higher.  Note also that, had we had the data going back to 1970 for the unemployment rates by education category, the blue and red curves would have met at that point and then started to diverge as the labor force composition changed.

Also, the change in 1992 in the definitions used by the BLS for classifying the labor force by education did not have a significant effect.  For 1992, we can calculate what the unemployment rate would have been using what the compositional shares were in 1991 under the old classification system.  The 1991 shares for the labor force composition would have been very close to what they would have been in 1992, had the BLS kept the old system, as labor force shares change only gradually over time.  That unemployment rate, using the former system of compositional shares but at the 1992 unemployment rates for each of the groups as defined under the then new BLS system of education categories, was almost identical to the unemployment rate in that year:  7.6% instead of 7.5%.  It made almost no difference.  The point is shown in purple on the chart, and is almost indistinguishable from the point on the blue curve.  And both are far from what the unemployment rate would have been in that year at the 1970 compositional weights (9.2%).

E.  Conclusion

The structure of the labor force has changed markedly in the post-World War II period in the US, with a far greater share of the labor force now enjoying a higher level of formal education than we had decades ago, and also a significantly lower share who are young and just starting in the labor force.  Since unemployment rates vary systematically by such groups relative to each other, one needs to take into account the changing composition of the labor force when making comparisons over time.

This is not commonly done.  The unemployment rate has come down in 2018, averaging 3.9% so far and reaching 3.7% in September and October.  It is now below the 3.8% rate it hit in 2000, and is at the lowest seen since 1969, when it hit 3.4% for several months.

But it is misleading to make such simple comparisons as the composition of the labor force has changed markedly over time.  At the 1970 labor force shares, the unemployment rate in 2018 would have been 5.2%, not 3.9%.  And at a 5.2% rate, the inflationary pressures expected with an exceptionally low unemployment rate will not be as strong.  This may, at least in part, explain why we have not seen such inflationary pressures grow this past year.

The Economy Under Trump in 8 Charts – Mostly as Under Obama, Except Now With a Sharp Rise in the Government Deficit

A.  Introduction

President Trump is repeatedly asserting that the economy under his presidency (in contrast to that of his predecessor) is booming, with economic growth and jobs numbers that are unprecedented, and all a sign of his superb management skills.  The economy is indeed doing well, from a short-term perspective.  Growth has been good and unemployment is low.  But this is just a continuation of the trends that had been underway for most of Obama’s two terms in office (subsequent to his initial stabilization of an economy, that was in freefall as he entered office).

However, and importantly, the recent growth and jobs numbers are only being achieved with a high and rising fiscal deficit.  Federal government spending is now growing (in contrast to sharp cuts between 2010 and 2014, after which it was kept largely flat until mid-2017), while taxes (especially for the rich and for corporations) have been cut.  This has led to standard Keynesian stimulus, helping to keep growth up, but at precisely the wrong time.  Such stimulus was needed between 2010 and 2014, when unemployment was still high and declining only slowly.  Imagine what could have been done then to re-build our infrastructure, employing workers (and equipment) that were instead idle.

But now, with the economy at full employment, such policy instead has to be met with the Fed raising interest rates.  And with rising government expenditures and falling tax revenues, the result has been a rise in the fiscal deficit to a level that is unprecedented for the US at a time when the country is not at war and the economy is at or close to full employment.  One sees the impact especially clearly in the amounts the US Treasury has to borrow on the market to cover the deficit.  It has soared in 2018.

This blog post will look at these developments, tracing developments from 2008 (the year before Obama took office) to what the most recent data allow.  With this context, one can see what has been special, or not, under Trump.

First a note on sources:  Figures on real GDP, on foreign trade, and on government expenditures, are from the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) of the Department of Commerce.  Figures on employment and unemployment are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the Department of Labor.  Figures on the federal budget deficit are from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  And figures on government borrowing are from the US Treasury.

B.  The Growth in GDP and in the Number Employed, and the Unemployment Rate

First, what has happened to overall output, and to jobs?  The chart at the top of this post shows the growth of real GDP, presented in terms of growth over the same period one year before (in order to even out the normal quarterly fluctuations).  GDP was collapsing when Obama took office in January 2009.  He was then able to turn this around quickly, with positive quarterly growth returning in mid-2009, and by mid-2010 GDP was growing at a pace of over 3% (in terms of growth over the year-earlier period).  It then fluctuated within a range from about 1% to almost 4% for the remainder of his term in office.  It would have been higher had the Republican Congress not forced cuts in fiscal expenditures despite the continued unemployment.  But growth still averaged 2.2% per annum in real terms from mid-2009 to end-2016, despite those cuts.

GDP growth under Trump hit 3.0% (over the same period one year before) in the third quarter of 2018.  This is good.  And it is the best such growth since … 2015.  That is not really so special.

Net job growth has followed the same basic path as GDP:

 

Jobs were collapsing when Obama took office, he was quickly able to stabilize this with the stimulus package and other measures (especially by the Fed), and job growth resumed.  By late 2011, net job growth (in terms of rolling 12-month totals (which is the same as the increase over what jobs were one year before) was over 2 million per year.  It went to as high as 3 million by early 2015.  Under Trump, it hit 2 1/2 million by September 2018.  This is pretty good, especially with the economy now at or close to full employment.  And it is the best since … January 2017, the month Obama left office.

Finally, the unemployment rate:

Unemployment was rising rapidly as Obama was inaugurated, and hit 10% in late 2009.  It then fell, and at a remarkably steady pace.  It could have fallen faster had government spending not been cut back, but nonetheless it was falling.  And this has continued under Trump.  While commendable, it is not a miracle.

C.  Foreign Trade

Trump has also launched a trade war.  Starting in late 2017, high tariffs were imposed on imports of certain foreign-produced products, with such tariffs then raised and extended to other products when foreign countries responded (as one would expect) with tariffs of their own on selected US products.  Trump claims his new tariffs will reduce the US trade deficit.  As discussed in an earlier blog post, such a belief reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the trade balance is determined.

But what do we see in the data?:

The trade deficit has not been reduced – it has grown in 2018.  While it might appear there had been some recovery (reduction in the deficit) in the second quarter of the year, this was due to special factors.  Exports primarily of soybeans and corn to China (but also other products, and to other countries where new tariffs were anticipated) were rushed out in that quarter in order arrive before retaliatory tariffs were imposed (which they were – in July 2018 in the case of China).  But this was simply a bringing forward of products that, under normal conditions, would have been exported later.  And as one sees, the trade balance returned to its previous path in the third quarter.

The growing trade imbalance is a concern.  For 2018, it is on course for reaching 5% of GDP (when measured in constant prices of 2012).  But as was discussed in the earlier blog post on the determination of the trade balance, it is not tariffs which determine what that overall balance will be for the economy.  Rather, it is basic macro factors (the balance between domestic savings and domestic investment) that determine what the overall trade balance will be.  Tariffs may affect the pattern of trade (shifting imports and exports from one country to another), but they won’t reduce the overall deficit unless the domestic savings/investment balance is changed.  And tariffs have little effect on that balance.

And while the trend of a growing trade imbalance since Trump took office is a continuation of the trend seen in the years before, when Obama was president, there is a key difference.  Under Obama, the trade deficit did increase (become more negative), especially from its lowest point in the middle of 2009.  But this increase in the deficit was not driven by higher government spending – government spending on goods and services (both as a share of GDP and in constant dollar terms) actually fell.  That is, government savings rose (dissavings was reduced, as there was a deficit).  Private domestic savings was also largely unchanged (as a share of GDP).  Rather, what drove the higher trade deficit during Obama’s term was the recovery in private investment from the low point it had reached in the 2008/09 recession.

The situation under Trump is different.  Government spending is now growing, as is the government deficit, and this is driving the trade deficit higher.  We will discuss this next.

D.  Government Accounts

An increase in government spending is needed in an economic downturn to sustain demand so that unemployment will be reduced (or at least not rise by as much otherwise).  Thus government spending was allowed to rise in 2008, in the last year of the Bush administration, in response to the downturn that began in December 2007.  This continued, and was indeed accelerated, as part of the stimulus program passed by Congress soon after Obama took office.  But federal government spending on goods and services peaked in mid-2010, and after that fell.  The Republican Congress forced further expenditure cuts, and by late 2013 the federal government was spending less (in real terms) than it was in early 2008:

This was foolish.  Unemployment was over 9 1/2% in mid-2010, and still over 6 1/2% in late-2013 (see the chart of the unemployment rate above).  And while the unemployment rate did fall over this period, there was justified criticism that the pace of recovery was slow.  The cuts in government spending during this period acted as a major drag on the economy, holding back the pace of recovery.  Never before had a US administration done this in the period after a downturn (at least not in the last half-century where I have examined the data).  Government spending grew especially rapidly under Reagan following the 1981/82 downturn.

Federal government spending on goods and services was then essentially flat in real terms from late 2013 to the end of Obama’s term in office.  And this more or less continued through FY2017 (the last budget of Obama), i.e. through the third quarter of CY2018.  But then, in the fourth quarter of CY2017 (the first quarter of FY2018, as the fiscal year runs from October to September), in the first full budget under Trump, federal government spending started to rise sharply.  See the chart above.  And this has continued.

There are certainly high priority government spending needs.  But the sequencing has been terribly mismanaged.  Higher government spending (e.g. to repair our public infrastructure) could have been carried out when unemployment was still high.  Utilizing idle resources, one would not only have put people to work, but also would have done this at little cost to the overall economy.  The workers were unemployed otherwise.

But higher government spending now, when unemployment is low, means that workers hired for government-funded projects have to be drawn from other activities.  While the unemployment rate can be squeezed downward some, and has been, there is a limit to how far this can go.  And since we are close to that limit, the Fed is raising interest rates in order to curtail other spending.

One sees this in the numbers.  Overall private fixed investment fell at an annual rate of 0.3% in the third quarter of 2018 (based on the initial estimates released by the BEA in late October), led by a 7.9% fall in business investment in structures (offices, etc.) and by a 4.0% fall in residential investment (homes).  While these are figures only for one quarter (there was a deceleration in the second quarter, but not an absolute fall), and can be expected to eventually change (with the economy growing, investment will at some point need to rise to catch up), the direction so far is worrisome.

And note also that this fall in the pace of investment has happened despite the huge cuts in corporate taxes from the start of this year.  Trump officials and Republicans in Congress asserted that the cuts in taxes on corporate profits would lead to a surge in investment.  Many economists (including myself, in the post cited above) noted that there was little reason to believe such tax cuts would sput corporate investment.  Such investment in the US is not now constrained by a lack of available cash to the corporations, so giving them more cash is not going to make much of a difference.  Rather, that windfall would instead lead corporations to increase dividends as well as share buybacks in order to distribute the excess cash to their shareholders.  And that is indeed what has happened, with share buybacks hitting record levels this year.

Returning to government spending, for the overall impact on the economy one should also examine such spending at the state and local level, in addition to the federal.  The picture is largely similar:

This mostly follows the same pattern as seen above for federal government spending on goods and services, with the exception that there was an increase in total government spending from early 2014 to early-2016, when federal spending was largely flat.  This may explain, in part, the relatively better growth in GDP seen over that period (see the chart at the top of this post), and then the slower pace in 2016 as all spending leveled off.

But then, starting in late-2017, total government expenditures on goods and services started to rise.  It was, however, largely driven by the federal government component.  Even though federal government spending accounted only for a bit over one-third (38%) of total government spending on goods and services in the quarter when Trump took office, almost two-thirds (65%) of the increase in government spending since then was due to higher spending by the federal government.  All this is classical Keynesian stimulus, but at a time when the economy is close to full employment.

So far we have focused on government spending on goods and services, as that is the component of government spending which enters directly as a component of GDP spending.  It is also the component of the government accounts which will in general have the largest multiplier effect on GDP.  But to arrive at the overall fiscal deficit, one must also take into account government spending on transfers (such as for Social Security), as well as tax revenues.  For these, and for the overall deficit, it is best to move to fiscal year numbers, where the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides the most easily accessible and up-to-date figures.

Tracing the overall federal fiscal deficit, now by fiscal year and in nominal dollar terms, one finds:

The deficit is now growing (the fiscal balance is becoming more negative) and indeed has been since FY2016.  What happened in FY2016?  Primarily there was a sharp reduction in the pace of tax revenues being collected.  And this has continued through FY2018, spurred further by the major tax cut bill of December 2017.  Taxes had been rising, along with the economic recovery, increasing by an average of $217 billion per year between FY2010 and FY2015 (calculated from CBO figures), but this then decelerated to a pace of just $26 billion per year between FY2015 and FY2018, and just $13 billion in FY2018.  The rate of growth in taxes between FY2015 and FY2018 was just 0.8%, or less even than just inflation.

Federal government spending, including on transfers, also rose over this period, but by less than taxes fell.  Overall federal government spending rose by an average of just $46 billion per year between FY2010 and FY2015 (a rate of growth of 1.3% per annum, or less than inflation in those years), and then by $140 billion per year (in nominal dollar terms) between FY2015 and FY2018.  But this step up in overall spending (of $94 billion per year) was well less than the step down in the pace of tax collection (a reduction of $191 billion per year, the difference between $217 billion annual growth over FY2010-15 and the $26 billion annual growth over FY2015-18).

That is, about two-thirds (67%) of the increase in the fiscal deficit since FY2015 can be attributed to taxes being cut, and just one-third (33%) to spending going up.

Looking forward, this is expected to get far worse.  As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the CBO is forecasting (in their most recent forecast, from April 2018) that the fiscal deficits under Trump will reach close to $1 trillion in FY2019, and will exceed 5% of GDP for most of the 2020s.  This is unprecedented for the US economy at full employment, other than during World War II.  Furthermore, these CBO forecasts are under the optimistic scenario that there will be no economic downturn over this period.  But that has never happened before in the US.

Deficits need to be funded by borrowing.  And one sees an especially sharp jump in the net amount being borrowed in the markets in CY 2018:

 

These figures are for calendar years, and the number for 2018 includes what the US Treasury announced on October 29 it expects to borrow in the fourth quarter.  Note this borrowing is what the Treasury does in the regular, commercial, markets, and is a net figure (i.e. new borrowing less repayment of debt coming due).  It comes after whatever the net impact of public trust fund operations (such as for the Social Security Trust Fund) is on Treasury funding needs.

The turnaround in 2018 is stark.  The US Treasury now expects to borrow in the financial markets, net, a total of $1,338 billion in 2018, up from $546 billion in 2017.  And this is at time of low unemployment, in sharp contrast to 2008 to 2010, when the economy had fallen into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression  Tax revenues were then low (incomes were low) while spending needed to be kept up.  The last time unemployment was low and similar to what it is now, in the late-1990s during the Clinton administration, the fiscal accounts were in surplus.  They are far from that now. 

E. Conclusion 

The economy has continued to grow since Trump took office, with GDP and employment rising and unemployment falling.  This has been at rates much the same as we saw under Obama.  There is, however, one big difference.  Fiscal deficits are now rising rapidly.  Such deficits are unprecedented for the US at a time when unemployment is low.  And the deficits have led to a sharp jump in Treasury borrowing needs.

These deficits are forecast to get worse in the coming years even if the economy should remain at full employment.  Yet there will eventually be a downturn.  There always has been.  And when that happens, deficits will jump even further, as taxes will fall in a downturn while spending needs will rise.

Other countries have tried such populist economic policies as Trump is now following, when despite high fiscal deficits at a time of full employment, taxes are cut while government spending is raised.  They have always, in the end, led to disasters.

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.

Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance Are at Record Lows

Weekly Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance, January 7, 2006, to November 21, 2015

Weekly Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance as a Ratio to Employment, January 1967 to October 2015

 

Initial claims for unemployment insurance are now at their lowest level, in terms of absolute numbers, in forty years, and the lowest ever when measured relative to employment (although the series goes back only to 1967).  There has been a steady improvement in the job market since soon after Barack Obama took office in January 2009, with (as discussed in a recent post on this blog) a steady increase in private sector jobs and an unemployment rate now at just 5.0%.  Yet the general discussion still fails to recognize this.  I will discuss some of the possible reasons for this perception later in this post.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance provides a good measure of the strength of the labor market, as it shows how many workers have been involuntarily laid off from a job and who are then thus eligible for unemployment insurance.  The US Department of Labor reports the figure weekly, where the numbers in the chart above are those updated through the release of November 25, 2015 (with data through November 21).  While there is a good deal of noise in the weekly figures due to various special factors (and hence most of the focus is on the four week moving average), it does provide a high frequency “yardstick” of the state of the labor market.  The charts above are for the four week moving averages.

The measure has been falling steadily (abstracting from the noise) since soon after President Obama took office.  News reports have noted that the weekly figures have been below 300,000 for some time now (close to a year).  This is a good number.  Even in the best year of the Bush administration (2006, at the height of the housing bubble), weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance averaged 312,000.  So far in 2015 (through November 21) it has averaged 279,000, and the lowest figure was just 259,250 for the week of October 24.  Initial claims for unemployment have not been so low in absolute numbers since December 1973.

But the population and labor force have grown over time.  When measured as a ratio to the number of those employed, initial claims for unemployment insurance have never been so low, although the series only begins in January 1967.  It is now well below the lowest points ever reached in the George W. Bush administration, in the Reagan administration, and even in the Clinton administration, under which the economy enjoyed the longest period of economic expansion ever recorded in the US (back to at least 1854, when the recession dating of the NBER begins).

Why then has the job market been seen by many as being especially weak under Obama? It should not be because of the unemployment rate, which has fallen steadily to 5.0% and is now well below where it was at a similar point during the Reagan administration.  Private job creation has also been steady and strong (although government jobs have been cut, for the first time in an economic downturn in at least a half century).  There has also been no increase in the share of part time employment, despite assertions from Republican politicians that Obamacare would have led to this.  And growth in GDP, while it would have been faster without the fiscal drag of government spending cuts seen 2010, has at least been steady.

What has hurt?  While no one can say for sure as the issue is some sense of the general perception of the economy, the steady criticism by Republican officials and pundits has probably been a factor.  The Obama administration has not been good at answering this.

But also important, and substantive, is that wages have remained stagnant.  While this stagnation in wages has been underway since about 1980, increased attention is being paid to it now (which is certainly a good thing).  In part due to this stagnation, the recovery that we have seen in the economy since the trough in mid-2009 has mostly been for the benefit of the very rich.  Professor Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley has calculated, based on US tax return data, that the top 1% have captured 58% of US income growth over the period 2009 to 2014.  The top 1% have seen their real incomes rise over this period by a total of 27% in real terms, while the bottom 99% have seen income growth over the period of only 4.3%.  Furthermore, most of this income growth for the bottom 99% only started in 2013.  For the period from 2009 through 2012, the top 1% captured 91% of the growth in national income.  The bottom 99% saw their real incomes rise by only 0.8% total over that period.

The issue then is not really one of jobs or overall growth.  Rather it is primarily a distribution problem.  The recovery has not felt like a recovery not because jobs or growth have been poor (although they would have been better without the fiscal drag), but rather because most of the gains of the growth have accrued to the top 1%.  It has not felt like a recovery for the other 99%, and for an understandable reason.

An Update on Progress in the Labor Market Recovery Under Obama

Cumul Private Job Growth from Inauguration to Oct 2015

Cumul Govt Job Growth from Inauguration to Oct 2015

A)  Introduction

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released on November 6 its most recent report on the state of the job market.  It was a strong report, with net job gains of 271,000 in October and the unemployment rate falling to 5.0%.  One should not, however, put too much weight on the figures in just one month’s report.  Indeed, the report for October followed relatively weaker reports in the two previous months.  Rather, one should put all these reports in the longer term context of how the labor market has moved in recent years.  And what they show is continued, and remarkably steady, improvement.

This post will look at that longer term context by updating several labor market charts that have been discussed in previous posts on this blog.  It will look first at net job growth in the private sector and in the government sector in the period since Obama’s inauguration, with a comparison to the similar period during George W. Bush’s term.  The post will then look at the continued fall in the unemployment rate, with a comparison to the similar period under Reagan, and finally to the share of part time workers in total employment.  The last is to see whether there is any evidence to support the assertion coming from Republican critics that Obamacare has led to a shift by employers to part time workers so that they can avoid providing health insurance in the overall wage compensation package for their staff.  We will find that there is no indication in the data that this has been the case.

B)  Total Job Growth

The charts at the top of this post show total net job growth, in the private sector and in the government sector, in the period since Obama’s inauguration (up to October 2015) and under Bush (for his two full terms).  They update similar charts discussed in several earlier posts on this blog, most recently from June 2014.

Private sector job growth has been strong under Obama, and continues to be.  And the record is clearly far better than that under the George W. Bush administration.  There has been a net increase of 9.3 million new private jobs under Obama since the month he was inaugurated, versus just 4.0 million new private jobs over the similar period in the Bush administration.  Furthermore, this 4.0 million additional private jobs was close to the peak achieved in the Bush years, before it started to fall and then plummet as the housing bubble burst and the economy collapsed in the last year of his second term.  By the end of his presidency there were fewer private jobs than there were on the day he was inaugurated, eight years before.

Obama faced this collapse in the jobs market as he took office.  The economy was losing 800,000 private jobs per month, with the economy contracting at the fastest pace since the Great Depression.  The new administration was able to turn this around with the stimulus package and with aggressive Fed actions, with the fall in employment first slowing and then turning around.  The result has been a net growth of 13.5 million new private jobs from the trough just one year into the new administration until now.

Government jobs, in contrast, have been cut.  This hurt total job growth both directly (government jobs are part of total jobs obviously) as well as indirectly.  Indirectly, the government job cuts (as well as the fiscal austerity that began in 2010) reduced demand for goods and hence production at a time when the economy was still depressed and suffering from insufficient demand to keep production lines going.  As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, without the fiscal austerity introduced from 2010 onwards the economy would have recovered from the economic downturn by 2013 and perhaps even 2012.  The initial stimulus package in 2009 turned things around.  It is unfortunate that the government then moved to cuts from 2010 onwards, which reduced the pace of the recovery.

It should be recognized that government jobs as recorded here include government jobs at all levels (federal, state, and local), with federal government jobs only a relatively small share of the total (12.4%).  But government jobs have fallen at all three levels, federal as well as state and local.

The cuts on government jobs during Obama’s time in office stand in sharp contrast to the growth in government jobs during Bush’s two terms.  Yet Obama is charged with being a big government liberal while the Republicans claim to be small government conservatives.

C)  The Rate of Unemployment

Unemployment Rates - Obama vs Reagan, up to Oct 2015After peaking at 10.0% in October 2009, the rate of unemployment has fallen at a remarkably steady pace under Obama (aside from the monthly fluctuations in the reported figures, which will in part be statistical noise as unemployment estimates come from household surveys).  This was discussed in this earlier post on this blog.  The record is certainly better than that under Reagan.  The unemployment rate is now 5.0%, while it was still 6.0% at the same point in the Reagan presidency.

Furthermore, Reagan was not confronted, as Obama was, with an economy in collapse as he took office.  Rather, unemployment began to rise only about a half year after Reagan took office, as he began to implement his new budgetary and other policies.  The unemployment rate then rose to a peak of 10.8% in late 1982 before starting to fall.  And while the recovery was then rapid for a period, supported by rising government spending, it stalled by mid-1984 with unemployment then fluctuating in the range of 7.0% to 7.5% for most of the next two years.  One does not see the steady improvement as one has had under Obama.

With the unemployment rate now at 5.0%, it is expected that the Fed will soon start to raise interest rates.  This would be unfortunate in my view (as well as that of many others, such as Paul Krugman).  Inflation remains low (only 0.2% over the past year for personal consumption expenditures for all goods, or 1.3% over the past year if one excludes the often volatile food and energy costs).  And while wages ticked up by 2.5% over the year before in the most recent BLS labor market report, this is still below the roughly 3 1/2% increases that would be consistent (after expected productivity gains in a normally functioning job market) with the Fed’s 2.0% inflation target.  And if wages are not allowed to rise faster than inflation, then by definition there will be no increase in real wages.

It is of course recognized that the rate of unemployment cannot fall forever.  There will always be some slack in the labor market as workers transition between jobs, and if the unemployment rate is too low, there will be excessive upward pressure on wages, and inflation can become a problem.  But where that “full employment rate of unemployment” is, is not clear.  Different economists have different views.  It does not appear to be at 5.0% under current conditions, as the rate of inflation remains low.  But whether it is at 4.5% or 4.0% is not clear.  At some point, it would be reached.

When it is, the pace of job creation will need to fall to match the pace of labor force growth (from population growth).  Otherwise, by simple arithmetic, the rate of unemployment would continue to fall.  And this cut in employment growth would be the objective of the Fed in raising interest rates:  It would be to slow down the pace of job growth to the rate that matches labor force growth.

Once the Fed does start to raise interest rates, one should then not be surprised, nor criticize, that the pace of job growth has slowed.  That is the aim.  And it will need to slow sharply from what the pace of job growth has been in recent years under Obama.  Over the past two years, for example, employment growth has averaged 236,000 per month. The labor force has grown at a pace of 101,000 per month over this period.  As a result, unemployment has fallen at a pace of 135,000 per month (= 236,000 – 101,000), with this leading the unemployment rate to fall to 5.0% now from 7.2% two years ago.  If unemployment is now to be kept constant rather than falling, the pace of job growth will need to fall by more than half, from 236,000 per month to just 101,000 per month (or slightly more, to be precise, taking into account the arithmetic of a constant unemployment rate).

I have no doubt that when this happens, and the pace of job growth slows, that Obama will be criticized by his Republican critics.  But this will reflect a fundamental confusion of what full employment implies for the labor market.

D)  Part-Time Employment as a Share of Total Employment

Part-Time Employment #2 as Share of Total Employment, Jan 2007 to Oct 2015

Finally, it is of interest to update the graph in an earlier post to see whether there is now any evidence that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has led employers to fire their regular full time workers and replace them with part-timers, in order to avoid the mandate of including health insurance coverage in the wage compensation package they pay to their workers.  Conservative politicians and media asserted this as a fact (see the earlier blog post cited for several references).  But as discussed before, and as confirmed with the more recent data, there is no indication in the data that this has been the case. Indeed, the share of part time workers in the total has been falling at an accelerated pace in the most recent two years, at a time when the Obamacare insurance mandate provisions have come into effect.

The acceleration in the pace of this improvement is consistent with the improvement seen in the overall labor market over the past several years, as discussed above.  As the economy approaches full employment, those who are working part time (not by choice, but because they have no alternative) are able to find full time jobs.  The share of part-time workers in total employment is still somewhat above (at about 4%) what would be normal when the economy is at full employment (at about 3%), lending support to those arguing that while the labor market is improving, we are not yet at full employment (and the Fed should thus wait longer before it starts to raise interest rates).  But it is getting better.

I have also added to the graph a line (in red) showing what the share of part-time employment workers were in total employment during the Reagan years.  At the comparable time in his presidency, the share was higher than what it is now under Obama.  Furthermore, it had improved only slowly under Reagan over the three years leading up to that point.  Yet Reagan is praised by conservatives for his purportedly strong labor market.

E)  Conclusion

The labor market has improved considerably in recent years under Obama.  It could have been better had the government not turned to austerity in 2010, but even with the government cuts, job growth has been reasonably good.  The unemployment rate has now fallen to 5%, and it is expected the Fed will soon begin to raise interest rates in order to slow the pace of job creation.  One should not then be surprised if fewer net new jobs are created each month, nor criticize Obama when it does.  That will be precisely the aim of the policy.  But I strongly suspect that we will nonetheless hear such criticisms.