Plan B is for Bankruptcy? Bullshit. Bold, government backed programmes are needed to kick-start the economy and stem the jobs crisis.
No, we are not out of the woods. The green shoots of recovery still remain smothered by a thick layer of mud. UK unemployment rose to 2.51million people in July. That’s 7.9% of the workforce. A fifth of UK youths are now jobless. These dismal figures are a consequence of hefty falls in public sector employment and pathetic rates of private sector job creation, much lower than that expected by the Treasury and OBR. Furthermore, the UK ranked a pitiful 25th out of 27 countries for growth over the past year, only Romania and Portugal did worse. The Institute for Fiscal Studies shovels more gloom into the mix with the news that median net household income suffered its largest one-year drop since 1981 in the last financial year, battered by the real falls in earnings, benefits and tax credits.
These are not transient troubles. Martin Weale and co authors estimate that the current recession will be the longest since the war, highly likely to lead to a greater cumulative loss of value than the Great Depression. Martin Wolf in the FT argues that it is probable for the depression to last 72 months, making it 50% longer than its longest predecessor in a century. Furthermore, the singular focus on austerity across Europe will act to black out any light at the end of the tunnel. Cameron’s description of the current figures as “disappointing” is, therefore, a gross understatement.
You would think that the continued flow of feeble figures would trigger a revaluation of the current macroeconomic strategy. But no, “Plan B is for BANKRUPTCY” we are told, “The UK will be able to ‘weather the storm’”. Little convincing evidence has been supplied to support these claims. Despite all signals pointing towards a need for change, Osborne insists that no amendments will be made to Britain’s deficit reduction programme. Although Britain does need to make credible its promise to get the public finances in better shape, such policy inflexibility is reckless. We need to slow down austerity implementation to ensure that the scars this recession leaves on the economy are not deeper than need be.
The slowdown began with a collapse in economic demand. However, it is looking more and more likely that this will get locked in by a contraction of supply. A contraction in supply means that we will find it harder to produce ‘stuff’ at the same rate as before. That a fall in demand can feed into a permanent downgrade to our growth prospects is a phenomenon known as hysteresis by economists. If demand for a firm’s output is depressed for a prolonged period, machinery may be scrapped and businesses could decide not to follow through on planned investments. The chaos in the financial sector has resulted in credit being allocated inefficiently at the wrong cost. Others note that a worker’s productivity can be harmed by unemployment. If one is out of a job for a long time, workplace skills start to fade and you become less employable. In addition, the longer someone is out of a job, the more likely it is for them to drop out of the labour market altogether. For example, women may decide to stay at home, early retirement may become an option or that back pain that’s always plagued you may become a reason to seek different types of benefits.
All of this acts to depress the trend rate of growth that the economy can sustainably achieve and will ultimately make it harder to pay those dreaded debts. With slower growth, tax revenues will remain depressed for longer than the Treasury and OBR expected when making their budget projections. Preventing the temporary blemishes associated with recession from becoming permanent scars is of upmost importance.
Unemployment of all ilks is associated with economic and social ills but the current concentration of joblessness among the young and low skilled is something of particular concern. Youth unemployment has especially pernicious consequences, affecting the individual and economy for far longer than the spell of joblessness itself. Those experiencing spells of unemployment while young face significant wage penalties and a higher risk of future joblessness compared to their peers for decades, even after controlling for a wide array of individual and family characteristics. For example, see the evidence in Gregg and Tominey (2005) for the UK and Mroz and Savage (2006) for the US. Thus, the fact that 18% of 16-24year olds are ‘NEETs’ (Not in Employment, Education or Training) should be sending alarm bells ringing through Whitehall. Their current idleness is not just an awful waste of their talents at this particular moment but makes it more likely for them to become trapped in dead-end areas of the labour market for much of their adult life. This is unfair for them, it’s not their fault that their birth date dictated they join the workforce during the worst post-war recession, as well as being highly damaging to the wider economy.
Furthermore, as the riots bought to attention earlier in the summer, unemployed youths facing a dearth of opportunity are not guaranteed to sit quietly. Unsurprisingly, increases in youth unemployment are associated with a range of social ills. For example, Carmichael and Ward (2001) found youth unemployment is associated with a statistically significant increase in burglary, fraud and forgery, theft and total crime rates. A third of NEETs agree with the statement that their life has ‘no purpose’. The social consequences of a large number of marginalised youths, who are assess their lives as purposeless, are scary to think about.
Some argue that government led job creation is a misnomer. They are wrong. The government has a role in supporting employment through this recession. Bold, innovative programmes are required to help ease the jobs crisis. Given the uncertainty and pessimism that currently clouds private sector vision and judgement, government involvement and financial backing are required to get them started. Technological change and globalisation imply that we also need to shift are thinking on how best to deal with the current labour market woes. Public works programmes represent one strategy to be explored but they are expensive and will create far fewer jobs today than they did in the past. Quoted in The Economist, the major of New York, Michael Bloomberg, notes that new government sponsored construction works will not solve the problem. “The technology is different. If you built the Hoover dam today, you would do it with far fewer people… The average worker standing in line for benefits tends not to be muscular.”
One new idea which I find particularly attractive is the creation of a small business bank. It could either be created through an initial injection of government capital or bonds funded by the Monetary Policy Committee and make use of existing agencies to allocate and dispense the loans. Credit allocation is currently a total mess. Banks aren’t lending to solvent businesses which need cash to invest and grow. If such a bank was set up, it could offer loans to small businesses at low rates, potentially concentrating funds in areas of especially afflicted by unemployment. This strategy has a number of attractions. Easing the funding restrictions on entrepreneurs and small businesses should help to kick-start innovation and growth while supporting employment. The focus on small businesses should prove especially affective at job creation. Research funded by the Kauffman Foundation shows that all net new private-sector jobs in America were created by companies less than five years old. Further, no one can turn round and say, “Oh, think of the benefits culture you’re creating”. This strategy is positive; it’s about supporting new ideas and existing businesses to thrive. In this way, the roots of the problem, as well as its consequences, are targeted.
Over the last few decades, a polarisation of the labour market into ‘lousy’ and ‘lovely’ jobs with little in between has been noted. Many routine manual jobs can now be coded up and performed by computers and machines. Other jobs are now able to be performed by individuals on the other side of the world. These hard facts need to be acknowledged by policymakers and reflected in the design of new labour market policy. Training and education systems need to be overhauled to reflect the new set of skills needed by employers. However, we also need to sit back and think through the consequences that these developments have for our vision of the modern job market. What can be done to best prepare individuals for the new world of work? How can we make the distribution of work more equitable?
These are hard questions but a few things are self evident with little deep thought. Slowing the pace of public sector redundancies will slow the rise in unemployment. Creation of something like a small business bank would not have to add to the public sector debt and could help propel the recovery forward. The government cannot afford to be complacent. A slower recovery adds to the cost of fixing their finances and creates long term hardship for many in society. The UK economy is Desperately Seeking Stimulus. Plan B is for Bankruptcy? Bullshit.