In his new book, Reset, outlining a plan to get the economy back to top performance, Professor Ross Garnaut makes the radical proposal to keep stimulating the economy until we reach full employment within four years. Excellent idea. But what is full employment? Short answer: economists don’t know.
In principle, every economist believes achieving full employment is the supreme goal of economic policy, because it would mean using every opportunity to get everyone working who wants to work and so achieve the maximum possible rate of improvement in our material living standards.
In practice, however, we haven’t achieved full employment consistently since the early 1970s – a failure that few economists seem to lose sleep over. It’s like St Augustine’s prayer: Lord make me pure – but not yet.
The economists’ ambivalence starts with the truth that, contrary to what you’d expect, full employment can’t mean an unemployment rate of zero. That’s because, at any point in time, there’ll always be some people moving between jobs.
In the days when we did achieve full employment, from the end of World War II until the early ’70s, its practical definition was an unemployment rate of less than 2 per cent.
But then economists realised that the full employment we wanted had to be lasting – “sustainable”. And if you had the economy running red hot with everyone in jobs and using the shortage of labour to demand big pay rises, this would push up the prices businesses had to charge and inflation would take off. The managers of the economy would then have to jam on the brakes, and before long we’d be back to having lots of unemployed workers.
This was when economists decided that sustainable full employment meant achieving the NAIRU – the “non-accelerating-inflation” rate of unemployment. This was the lowest point to which the unemployment rate could fall before wages and inflation began accelerating.
This makes sense as a concept. So the economic managers decided they could use fiscal policy (increases in government spending or cuts in taxes) and monetary policy (cuts in interest rates) to push the economy towards full employment, but they should stop pushing as soon as the actual unemployment rate fell down close to the NAIRU.
Trouble is, the NAIRU is “unobservable” – you can’t see it and measure it. So economists are always doing calculations to estimate its level. But every economist’s estimate is different, and their estimates keep rising and falling over time for unexplained reasons.
In the 1980s, people thought the NAIRU was about 7 per cent. In the late ’90s, when someone suggested we could get unemployment down to 5 per cent, many economists laughed. But it happened.
For a long time, our econocrats had it stuck at “about 5 per cent”. But the rich economies have been stuck in a low-growth trap, with surprisingly weak growth in wages and prices, even as unemployment edged down. This suggests the NAIRU may now be lower than our calculations suggest.
Garnaut recounts in his book US Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell saying that, in 2012, the Fed thought America’s NAIRU was 5.5 per cent. In 2020, they thought it had fallen to 4.1 per cent. But this seems still too high because, before the virus struck, the actual unemployment rate had fallen to 3.5 per cent without much inflation.
In Australia, in 2019 the Reserve lowered its estimate to a number than “begins with 4 not 5”, or “about 4.5 per cent”. With wage growth “subdued” for the past seven years, and consumer prices growing by less than 2 per cent a year for six years, this downward correction is hardly surprising. Indeed, Garnaut thinks the true figure could be 3.5 per cent or less.
But Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy said last October he thought the coronacession, like all recessions, had probably increased the NAIRU – to about 5 per cent.
Now get this. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said he won’t start trying to reduce the budget deficit – apply the fiscal brakes – until unemployment is “comfortably below 6 per cent”.
Those likely to be most “scarred” by this will be young people leaving education in search of their first proper job.
Really? That would be well above any realistic estimate of the NAIRU. So the Morrison government is saying it will stop using the budget to reach full employment well before it’s in sight, making reducing government debt its top priority. We’d love to get everyone possible back to work but, unfortunately, we can’t afford it.
So we’re prepared to let continuing unemployment erode the skills of those who go for months or even years without a job because the cost of helping them is just too high. Those likely to be most “scarred” by this will be young people leaving education in search of their first proper job.
But we’ll blight their early working lives in ways that will harm them – and the economy they’ll be making a diminished contribution to – for years to come. That’s okay, however, because we’ll be doing it – so we tell ourselves – to ensure we don’t leave the next generation with a lot of government debt.
Josh Frydenberg seems to be saying we’d love to get everyone possible back to work but, unfortunately, we can’t afford it.Credit:James Alcock
Yeah sure. In truth, we’ll be doing it because, so long as I and my kids have jobs, we’ve learnt to live with a lot of other people not having them. We believe in full employment, but we’re happy to continue living without it.
This complacency is what Garnaut says must change. He’s right. He’s right too in saying that with the rise in wages and prices so weak for so long, we should stop trying to guess where the NAIRU is. “We can find out what it is by increasing the demand for labour until wages in the labour market are rising at a rate that threatens to take inflation above the Reserve Bank [2 to 3 per cent] range for an extended period,” he says.
And here’s something else to remember: the Reserve has begun warning that we won’t get back to meaningful real wage growth until we get back to full employment.
Ross Gittins is the economics editor.
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