Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia Business School and former chief economist to President George W. Bush, argued that we have a shortage of workers in a Wall Street Journal column. Hubbard noted the sharp fall in labor force participation since the downturn. He attributed it to a lack of incentive for people to work. This is in striking contrast to the more obvious logic, that when people have been trying unsuccessfully to find jobs for 6 months or a year, they eventually give up. (This explanation seems especially plausible since we know that employers generally will not even consider hiring a person who has been unemployed for a long period of time.)

The problem with Hubbard's story is that he doesn't have a good explanation for why people suddenly decided that they didn't want to work. He points to an increase in the length of unemployment benefits, but this happens in every downturn. Furthermore, the maximum duration of benefits has been cut back sharply from its peak of 99 weeks in the first years of the recession with no corresponding surge in employment.

The Affordable Care Act will make it possible for many people to get health care insurance without working or without working full time, but that should only have begun affecting the data in the last few months as the health care exchanges came into existence. It would not explain the drop in labor force participation that was already quite evident by the summer of last year.

If the problem is really on the supply side then we should be seeing a surge in vacancies. In fact, the vacancy rate is still more than 10 percent below the pre-recession level and more than 20 percent below the 2000 level. We should also see an increase in the length of the average workweek. While this is more or less back to its pre-recession level (slightly above in manufacturing), it certainly is not unusually high. And we should be seeing rapid wage growth as firms compete for workers. Wages are now just moderately outpacing inflation.

In short, we have no reason to believe that the problem with the labor force is on the supply side. There remains an incredibly simple story that the housing bubble that was driving demand collapsed. With no source of demand to replace the housing and consumption driven by the bubble we are destined to slog through a prolonged period of slow growth and high unemployment. That one seems straightforward but it is apparently too simple for economists to understand.

 

 

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