The two main political parties are sniping at each other about the just-concluded tax deal, largely because Republicans are happy and Democrats are displeased that all of the 2001/2003 tax cuts are being extended for all taxpayers.
Almost nobody is paying attention to the new spending that is in the agreement, however, most notably the 13-month extension of unemployment benefits. And to the extent anybody is paying attention, a small handful of fiscal conservatives wanted to offset that new spending by reducing spending someplace else.
That sentiment is laudable, but somebody should be pointing out that this policy actually is bad news for workers. Here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal story, which reports on a study from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank.
A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found the unemployment rate at the end of 2009 would have been nearly half a percentage point lower—9.6%, instead of 10%—if jobless benefits hadn’t been extended beyond their usual 26 weeks to as much as 99 weeks. …The extension of jobless benefits is likely to worsen that trend for at least several months. For one, individuals not actively searching for work or willing to take available jobs may claim they are unemployed in order to receive benefits. That could artificially boost the size of the labor force, which is used to determine the unemployment rate. Another concern, as the San Francisco Fed notes, is that the extension of jobless benefits may “reduce the intensity” with which the unemployed search for work. Longer term, this could lead to a higher level of structural unemployment in the economy as workers’ skills erode.
Some leftists may think this is propaganda from free-market purists, yet the San Francisco Fed certainly does not have a reputation for libertarian views. Nonetheless, perhaps it would be a good idea to see what some other people have to say. Here’s what one well-known economist wrote in a textbook.
Public policy designed to help workers who lose their jobs can lead to structural unemployment as an unintended side effect. . . . In other countries, particularly in Europe, benefits are more generous and last longer. The drawback to this generosity is that it reduces a worker’s incentive to quickly find a new job. Generous unemployment benefits in some European countries are widely believed to be one of the main causes of “Eurosclerosis,” the persistent high unemployment that affects a number of European countries.
Was this Milton Friedman? Ludwig von Mises? Nope, the author of this mean-spirited right-wing bile is Paul Krugman. And here’s something else written by an economist about the impact of unemployment benefits.
Empirical evidence shows that two causes are welfare payments and unemployment insurance. …unemployment insurance increases the measure of unemployment by inducing people to say that they are job hunting in order to collect benefits. The second way government assistance programs contribute to long-term unemployment is by providing an incentive, and the means, not to work. Each unemployed person has a “reservation wage”—the minimum wage he or she insists on getting before accepting a job. Unemployment insurance and other social assistance programs increase that reservation wage, causing an unemployed person to remain unemployed longer. …Unemployment insurance also extends the time a person stays off the job. Clark and I estimated that the existence of unemployment insurance almost doubles the number of unemployment spells lasting more than three months. If unemployment insurance were eliminated, the unemployment rate would drop by more than half a percentage point, which means that the number of unemployed people would fall by about 750,000. This is all the more significant in light of the fact that less than half of the unemployed receive insurance benefits, largely because many have not worked enough to qualify.
Who wrote this? A Tea Party fanatic? A knuckle-dragging GOP Congressman? Hardly, this passage was penned by Larry Summers, the outgoing Chairman of Barack Obama’s National Economic Council.
Given their partisan leanings, you won’t be surprised that Krugman and Summers now semi-disavow their academic writings on this issue, claiming that somehow their analysis does not apply in the current situation. But the bottom line is that incentives matter. If you pay people to remain unemployed, they will have less reason to find a job. The only real issue is the degree to which unemployment benefits increase joblessness.
This doesn’t imply that lawmakers should do nothing about unemployment, but it does suggest that their focus should be on pro-growth policies that will facilitate job creation. Permanently lower tax rates would help, as would reduction in government spending so that more resources would be available for the economy’s productive sector. Trade liberalization and deregulation also would be a good idea.
Unfortunately, all these ideas reduce the power of the political elite, so they are not nearly as popular in Washington as unemployment benefits.