When Black Unemployment Rates Were Equal to White Unemployment Rates…

In a twitter-debate with Tariq Nasheed, I pointed out that the wages rates did converge between the 1940s and 1990s. Recently, Robert Margo of the University of Chicago extended this to per capita incomes since 1870. It is fascinating to see that there was convergence between 1870 and 1940 in spite of Jim Crow laws (it tells you how much more blacks could have achieved had the laws not existed – see notably the work of Bob Higgs on this).


Each time I see this evidence, I am bemused. You see, I often debate colleagues on particular features of social policy in order to assess policy reforms or the effects of past reforms. But, its always good to take a step back and look at the long-view of history. It puts things in perspective. The Margo graph does just that. It tells me the story of what could have been. And just for the sake of remembering properly (infer whatever conclusions you like), it is worth showing racial differences in unemployment rates since 1890. What strikes me is how similar the rates are until the 1950s. What happened at that point? When you ask yourself this question, you’re forced to put everything in perspective. And it becomes harder to have “generic” answers in the lazy-form of “its racism”. Why would racism explain the difference after 1950, but not before?

Maybe, just maybe, people like Tariq Nasheed should stop proving that H.L. Mencken was right in saying that “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is simple, clear and plainly wrong”.


Unemployment: What’s To Be Done?

In Part 1 I outlined natural unemployment, government-caused unemployment, and the attempts to measure these. We saw how ambiguous and subjective some of the concepts of unemployment are and how the government, specifically the Federal Reserve, is charged with managing it. Now we turn to current conditions and what can be done about them.

There have been huge advances in technology and substantial declines in trade barriers in recent years. While these developments have raised living standards they have been hard on people whose skills were rendered obsolete or uncompetitive. When changes evolve gradually, as when so many people left farming in the last century, the disruption is not so great. Changes are now coming faster and are extending to some high-paid professional jobs. Automated systems can now handle at least the routine aspects of some legal research and medical diagnosis.

Time and time again new doors have opened to workers as old doors closed. Machines replace workers, but they raise productivity and produce new employment opportunities. We can expect this pattern to continue for a long time to come. Still, it is within the realm of possibility that robots and computers could take over so much work that the demand for human workers would shrink drastically. But those very machines would mean higher productivity and thus higher living standards.

A great deal of work can be now be done remotely, providing an advantage to areas with low living costs. Substantial outsourcing of such jobs to foreign countries has occurred (though that trend may be reversing as low-cost areas of the United States become competitive and as customer dissatisfaction and problems with managing offshore workers come up). The benefits of outsourcing and other productivity enhancements are spread across all consumers, but the job losses are concentrated among small and sometimes vocal minorities. Continue reading

From the Comments: the Unemployment Rate

Dr. Gibson has won the much-cherished gold star I had offered in a previous comment. My question had to do with the green dot in this graph, and Dr. Gibson explained it to perfection. He writes:

The widely followed U3 unemployment rate, as shown in the figure, is the number of unemployed divided by the labor force. The labor force excludes discouraged workers. The labor force participation rate is the labor force size (employed & unemployed) divided by the population. The green dot shows what the U3 rate would be if that ratio had stayed the same since Jan. 2009.

The U6 statistic counts discouraged workers as unemployed. That rate is currently around 15%.

See also: Unemployment: What It Is

From the article Dr. Gibson directs us towards comes some other important information:

Government policies contribute to unemployment above and beyond natural unemployment. The most notorious of these policies are minimum wage laws. These laws make it illegal, effectively, for low-skilled workers to accept employment. Anyone who cannot generate $8 worth of production per hour cannot expect to be paid more than $8. Such unfortunate people might be productive at $6 per hour but are forbidden to accept employment at this rate and are instead condemned to joblessness and all its attendant miseries. This burden falls most heavily on black teenagers, whose unemployment rate (based on those seeking work and excluding those who are in school) is well over 40 percent. The benefits accrue mainly to slightly higher-skilled workers, who have climbed onto the metaphorical ladder leading to better jobs and who are shielded from competition from those excluded by minimum-wage laws […]

Labor unions, as voluntary associations bargaining freely with employers, are unobjectionable. They did a lot of good in the past when working conditions in many places were pretty bad. But now they are granted special privileges by law—basically the privilege to engage in violent or coercive activities. The result is often wage agreements that are above market-clearing levels. Those left out are of course unemployed.

While labor unions can boost their members’ compensation at the expense of non-union workers, higher wages generally and higher living standards are due mainly to increased productivity, which in turn depends on high levels of capital investment. People are more willing to save and invest when they have confidence in the future, and that confidence comes from respect for property rights.

For more on minimum wage laws, see Bad Idea of the Year.