How Many Jobs Do We Need: Teaching Arithmetic To Economists

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Sunday, 09 October 2011 08:10

I hate to harp on a seemingly small point, but it does offend me that professional economists and people who write on economics have such an aversion to simple arithmetic. One of the numbers that frequently in appears in discussions on the state of the economy is the number of jobs that we need to keep pace with the growth of the labor force. I have consistently been using 90,000 a month, however I see considerably higher numbers routinely thrown out, sometimes as high as 150,000 a month. For example, this Post article on the September jobs numbers told readers that the economy has to create 125,000 jobs a month to keep pace with the growth of the labor force.

There are two different ways to get to my 90,000 a month number. The first is to take the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) estimates of the potential growth of the labor force. Its latest reports put this at 0.7 percent annually. Payroll employment peaked at just under 138 million before the downturn. Assuming normal growth, we would be at 142,000 million today Seven tenths of a percent of 142 million translates in 994,000 jobs a year, or roughly 83,000 jobs a month.

Of course CBO is not God, they could be wrong. But on the other hand, since their projections on the deficit are treated with such enormous reverence in the same news outlets, it would be absurd to just dismiss the economic projections that provide the basis for the budget projections. In other words, if we take CBO's budget projections seriously, then we must take their economic projections seriously. The latter are the basis for the former.

The other way we can get to the 90,000 a month number is by taking the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates of the growth in the non-institutionalized population and multiply by the employment to population ratio (EPOP). According to the BLS, the non-institutionalized population grew by 1,750,000 last year. If we apply assume a pre-recession EPOP of 63 percent, this implies an increase in employment over the last year of 1,103,000. If we assume that 6 percent of these workers will be self-employed (the average for the current workforce), this implies that we would have needed 1,036,000 payroll jobs to keep pace with the growth of the labor force over the last year, or 86,000 jobs a month.

This is how I get my 90,000 jobs a month, I don't know where others get their higher numbers. Again, this is not an especially important point in the context of an economy that is missing 10 million jobs, but the lack of respect for arithmetic is. It was a lack of respect for arithmetic that caused almost all economists and economics reporters to miss the housing bubble and the stock bubble before it. If we can't prod the people at the top of the profession to do the simple arithmetic that underlies the claims they make about the economy then we are in serious trouble.