A Liberal Agenda Without Full Employment?

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Tuesday, 22 January 2013 04:56

There were numerous news stories and columns touting the liberal agenda that President Obama put forward in his second inaugural address yesterday (e.g. here and here). While the speech certainly hit on several issues that have historically been important to liberals, the failure to mention full employment was a major omission.

The fact that the economy is still more than 9 million jobs below its trend growth path implies enormous suffering. Not only are millions of people unnecessarily unemployed or underemployed, high levels of unemployment mean that most workers lack bargaining power. As a result they are unable to raise their wages and get their share of productivity growth. This means that income is likely to continue to be redistributed upward.

There are not easy political paths to full employment at this point. Government stimulus (i.e. larger deficits) is the most obvious path, but that seems out of the question in a context where deficit reduction is dominating the policy debate. If the dollar dropped, it would make U.S. goods more competitive, thereby increasing net exports, but Obama has made little commitment in this direction and the process would take time in any case.

The best prospect is probably increased use of worksharing. Germany has used worksharing to lower its unemployment rate by more than 2 percentage points below its pre-recession level, even though its growth has been no better than growth in the United States. Worksharing does enjoy bipartisan support in the United States and is an option in the unemployment insurance systems in 25 states, but the takeup rate has been extremely low. It's possible that a major presidential push could substantially increase the use of worksharing.

Anyhow, it is striking that a speech that touched on many liberal themes did not make a commitment to full employment. This should have been noted in the coverage.