What causes mass unemployment?

Today we consider the causes of mass unemployment of the sort that most nations are enduring at present. This also involves the consideration of the relationship between wages and employment. This is an area in economics that has been hotly contested across paradigm lines for years. Mainstream economic commentators still claim that the employment situation can be improved if wages are cut. They are wrong. Modern monetary theory (MMT) is clear – mass unemployment arises when the budget deficit is too low. To reduce unemployment you have to increase aggregate demand. If private spending growth declines then net public spending has to fill the gap. In engaging this debate, we also have to be careful about using experience in one sector to make generalisations about the overall macroeconomic outcomes that might accompany a policy change.

To understand the position that modern monetary theory (MMT) takes on this issue, we can start with an incredibly simple economy which is populated by two people, one being government and the other is the private (non-government) sector. Suspend your prejudices for a little while and just go with the flow in this economy.

The government is the monopoly issuer of the fiat currency which it also demands as payments in tax. It uses its spending to move private activity into the public sector (to pursue its socio-economic goals). All spending and taxation is done electronically via computers.

If the government runs a balanced budget (spends 100 dollars and taxes 100 dollars) then private accumulation of fiat currency (savings) is zero in that period and the private budget is also balanced.

Say the government spends $120 and taxes remain at $100, then private saving is $20 which can accumulate as financial assets. The corresponding $20 was issued by the government to cover its additional expenses.

The government may decide to issue an interest-bearing bond to encourage saving but operationally it does not have to do this to finance its deficit. The government deficit of $20 is exactly the private savings of $20.

Now if government continued in this vein, accumulated private savings would equal the cumulative budget deficits. However, should government decide to run a surplus (say spend $80 and tax $100) then the private (non-government) sector would owe the government a net tax payment of $20 and would need to sell something back to the government to get the needed funds. The result is the government generally buys back some bonds it had previously sold.

Either way accumulated private saving is reduced dollar-for-dollar when there is a government surplus. The government surplus has two negative effects for the private sector: (a) the stock of financial assets (money or bonds) held by the private sector, which represents its wealth, falls; and (b) private disposable income also falls in line with the net taxation impost.

Some may retort that government bond purchases provide the private wealth-holder with cash. That is true but the liquidation of wealth is driven by the shortage of cash in the private sector arising from tax demands exceeding income. The cash from the bond sales pays the Government’s net tax bill.

The result is exactly the same when expanding this example by allowing for private income generation, a banking sector and diversifying the non-government sector into a foreign and domestic sector.

So with that accounting clear we can see what MMT says about mass unemployment, of the type that we are seeing around the World now and which we also saw during the Great Depression.

MMT tells us that state money introduces the possibility of unemployment. There is no unemployment in non-monetary economies.

From our simple example, it is clear that the person who is the government does not have to raise taxes or issue a financial asset (bond) in order to spend. So the government in a fiat monetary system is not “revenue-constrained”.

Intuitively this is hard to accept because we are so wedded to the idea that nothing is certain but death and taxes and that the latter is to raise money for governments to spend. The issue of taxation is also very emotional – as we see in some comments on my blog – taxation is linked by conservatives to concepts of slavery; loss of freedom; etc.

So the idea of a government that is not revenue-constrained is hard to grasp at the emotional level.

What this all means is that we have to analyse the functions of taxation in a different light. As a background to this discussion you might like to read this blog – Functional finance and modern monetary theory .

MMT shows that taxation functions to promote offers from private individuals to government of goods and services in return for the necessary funds to extinguish the tax liabilities.

So taxation is a way that the government can elicit resources from the non-government sector because the latter have to get $s to pay their tax bills. Where else can they get the $s unless the government spends them on goods and services provided by the non-government sector?

The mainstream economists conceive of taxation as providing revenue to the government which it requires in order to spend. In fact, the reverse is the truth.

Government spending provides revenue to the non-government sector which then allows them to extinguish their taxation liabilities. So the funds necessary to pay the tax liabilities are provided to the non-government sector by government spending.

It follows that the imposition of the taxation liability creates a demand for the government currency in the non-government sector which allows the government to pursue its economic and social policy program.

So in our 2 person economy, the government person would be able to purchase labour from the non-government person as long as the tax regime was legally enforceable. The non-government person will also accept the government money because it is the means to get the $s necessary to pay the taxes due.

This insight allows us to see another dimension of taxation which is lost in mainstream economic analysis. Given that the non-government sector requires fiat currency to pay its taxation liabilities, in the first instance, the imposition of taxes (without a concomitant injection of spending) by design creates unemployment (people seeking paid work) in the non-government sector.

The unemployed or idle non-government resources can then be utilised through demand injections via government spending which amounts to a transfer of real goods and services from the non-government to the government sector.

In turn, this transfer facilitates the government’s socio-economics program. While real resources are transferred from the non-government sector in the form of goods and services that are purchased by government, the motivation to supply these resources is sourced back to the need to acquire fiat currency to extinguish the tax liabilities.

Further, while real resources are transferred, the taxation provides no additional financial capacity to the government of issue.

Conceptualising the relationship between the government and non-government sectors in this way makes it clear that it is government spending that provides the paid work which eliminates the unemployment created by the taxes.

So it is now possible to see why mass unemployment arises. It is the introduction of State Money (defined as government taxing and spending) into a non-monetary economy that raises the spectre of involuntary unemployment.

As a matter of accounting, for aggregate output to be sold, total spending must equal the total income generated in production (whether actual income generated in production is fully spent or not in each period).

Involuntary unemployment is idle labour offered for sale with no buyers at current prices (wages). Unemployment occurs when the private sector, in aggregate, desires to earn the monetary unit of account through the offer of labour but doesn’t desire to spend all it earns, other things equal.

As a result, involuntary inventory accumulation among sellers of goods and services translates into decreased output and employment.

In this situation, nominal (or real) wage cuts per se do not clear the labour market, unless those cuts somehow eliminate the private sector desire to net save, and thereby increase spending.

So we are now seeing that at a macroeconomic level, manipulating wage levels (or rates of growth) would not seem to be an effective strategy to solve mass unemployment. I will return to this soon.

MMT then concludes that mass unemployment occurs when net government spending is too low.

To recap: The purpose of State Money is to facilitate the movement of real goods and services from the non-government (largely private) sector to the government (public) domain.

Government achieves this transfer by first levying a tax, which creates a notional demand for its currency of issue.

To obtain funds needed to pay taxes and net save, non-government agents offer real goods and services for sale in exchange for the needed units of the currency. This includes, of-course, the offer of labour by the unemployed.

The obvious conclusion is that unemployment occurs when net government spending is too low to accommodate the need to pay taxes and the desire to net save.

This analysis also sets the limits on government spending. It is clear that government spending has to be sufficient to allow taxes to be paid. In addition, net government spending is required to meet the private desire to save (accumulate net financial assets).

It is also clear that if the Government doesn’t spend enough to cover taxes and the non-government sector’s desire to save the manifestation of this deficiency will be unemployment.

Keynesians have used the term demand-deficient unemployment. In MMT, the basis of this deficiency is at all times inadequate net government spending, given the private spending (saving) decisions in force at any particular time.

Shift in private spending certainly lead to job losses but the persistent of these job losses is all down to inadequate net government spending.

There is a lovely quote from Michael Piore (1979, Unemployment and Inflation: Institutionalist and Structuralist Views. Sharpe Press, page 10) who was criticising the mainstream view that governments are powerless to eliminate unemployment:

Presumably, there is an irreducible residual level of unemployment composed of people who don’t want to work, who are moving between jobs, or who are unqualified. If there is in fact some such residual level of unemployment, it is not one we have encountered in the United States. Never in the post war period has the government been unsuccessful when it has made a sustained effort to reduce unemployment. (emphasis in original)

Further, for a time, what may appear to be inadequate levels of net government spending can continue without rising unemployment. In these situations, as is evidenced in countries like the US and Australia over the last several years, GDP growth can be driven by an expansion in private debt.

The problem with this strategy is that when the debt service levels reach some threshold percentage of income, the private sector will “run out of borrowing capacity” as incomes limit debt service.

This tends to restructure their balance sheets to make them less precarious and as a consequence the aggregate demand from debt expansion slows and the economy falters. In this case, any fiscal drag (inadequate levels of net spending) begins to manifest as unemployment.

The point is that for a given tax structure, if people want to work but do not want to continue consuming (and going further into debt) at the previous rate, then the Government can increase spending and purchase goods and services and full employment is maintained. The alternative is unemployment and a recessed economy.

The debate about the role of wage cuts in stimulating employment was well rehearsed in the famous Keynes versus the Classic debate during the Great Depression.

The debate was multi-dimensioned but the role of wage flexibility was a key aspect. In the classical model of employment determination which is the basis (still) of the typical mainstream textbook analysis, cuts in the nominal wage will increase employment.

In the General Theory, Keynes questioned whether wage reductions could be readily achieved and was skeptical that, even if they could, employment would rise. The adverse consequences for the effective demand for output were his principal concern.

The mainstream model assumes that economies produce under the constraint of the so-called diminishing marginal product of labor. So adding an extra worker will reduce productivity because they assume capital is fixed in the short-run.

This assertion which does not stack up in the real world, yields the downward sloping marginal product of labor schedule in the textbook model. Then profit maximising firms set the marginal product (the contribution of the last worker to production) equal to the real wage to determine their employment decisions.

Labour demand is thus inverse to the real wage. As the real wage rises, employment falls in this model.

The simplest version is that labour supply in the mainstream model (and complex versions don’t add anything anyway) says that households equate the marginal disutility of work (the slope of the labour supply function) with the real wage (indicating the opportunity cost of leisure) to determine their utility maximising labour supply.

So workers hate work and enjoy surfing. They will only go to work to get an income and the higher the real wage the more work they will supply. Again, this conception is arbitrary and not consistent with countless empirical studies which show the total labour supply is more or less invariant to movements in the real wage.

Other more complex variations of the mainstream model depict labor supply functions with both non-zero real wage elasticities and, consistent with recent real business cycle analysis, sensitivity to the real interest rate. All ridiculous.

In the mainstream model, labour market clearing thus means that the real wage equals the marginal product of labour. The real wage will change to ensure that this is maintained at all times thus providing the classical model with continuous full employment. So anything that prevents this from happening (government regulations) will create unemployment.

The equilibrium employment levels thus determine via the technological state of the economy (productivity function) the equilibrium (or full employment) level of aggregate supply of real output.

It was of particular significance for Keynes that the classical explanation for real output determination does not depend on the demand for it at all.

Keynes proposed the revolutionary idea that employment was determined by effective monetary demand for output. Since there was no reason why the total demand for output would necessarily correspond to full employment, involuntary unemployment was likely.

Keynes revived (although unknowingly) Marx’s earlier works on effective demand. What determined effective demand? There were two major elements: the consumption demand of households, and the investment demands of business.

So demand for aggregate output determined production levels which in turn determined total employment.

Keynes model reversed the classical causality in the macroeconomy. Demand determined output. Production levels then determined employment based on the current level of productivity. The labour market is then constrained by this level of employment demand. At the current money wage level, the level of unemployment (supply minus demand) is then determined. The firms will not expand employment unless the aggregate constraint is relaxed.

Keynes also argued that in a recession, the real wage might not fall. But it should be clear that the problem is not that this real wage is too high, but rather that the prices are too low (as prices fall with lower production).

Workers, Keynes pointed out, bargain for money or nominal wages, not real wages. The act of dropping money wages across the board would also reduce aggregate demand and prices would also fall. So there was no guarantee that real wages (the ratio of wages to prices) would therefore fall. They may rise or stay about the same.

Falling prices might, however, depress business profit expectations and so cut into demand for investment. This would actually reduce the demand for workers and prevent total employment from rising. The system interacts with itself, and an equilibrium of full employment cannot be achieved within the labor market.

However, in Keynes’ analysis, attempting to cut real wages by cutting nominal wages would be resisted by the workers because they will not promote higher employment or output and also would imperil their abiltiy to service their nominal contractual commitments (like mortgages). The argument is that workers will tolerate a fall in real wages brought about by prices rising faster than nominal wages because, within limits, they can still pay their nominal contractual obligations (by cutting back on other expenditure).

A more subtle point argued by Keynes is that wage cut resistance may be beneficial because of the distribution of income implications. If real wages fall, the share of real output claimed by the owners of capital (or non-labor fixed inputs) rises. Assuming such ownership is concentrated in a few hands, capitalists can be expected to have a higher propensity to save than the working class.

If so, aggregate saving from real output will increase and aggregate demand will fall further setting off a second round of oversupply of output and job losses.

It is also important to differentiate what happens if a firm lowers its wage level against what happens in the whole economy does the same. This relates to the so-called interdependence of demand and supply curves.

The mainstream model claims that the two sides of the market are independent so that a supply shift will not cause the demand side of the market to shift. So in this context, if a firm can lower its money wage rates it would not expect a major fall in the demand for its products because its workforce are a small proportion of total employment and their incomes are a small proportion of total demand.

If so, the firm can reduce its prices and may enjoy rising demand for its output and hence put more workers on. So the demand and supply of output are independent.

However there are solid reasons why firms will not want to behave like this. They get the reputation of being a capricious employer and will struggle to retain labour when the economy improves. Further, worker morale will fall and with it productivity. Other pathologies such as increased absenteeism etc would accompany this sort of firm behaviour.

But if the whole economy takes a wage cut, then while wage are a cost on the supply side they are an income on the demand side. So a cut in wages may reduce supply costs but also will reduce demand for output. In this case the aggregate demand and supply are interdependent and this violates the mainstream depiction.

This argument demonstrates one of the famous fallacies of composition in mainstream theory. That is, policies that might work at the micro (firm/sector) level will not generalise to work at the macroeconomic level.

You might like to read Paul Krugman on this topic. he says:

So let me repeat a point I made a number of times back when the usual suspects were declaring that FDR prolonged the Depression by raising wages: the belief that lower wages would raise overall employment rests on a fallacy of composition. In reality, reducing wages would at best do nothing for employment; more likely it would actually be contractionary.

Here’s how the fallacy works: if some subset of the work force accepts lower wages, it can gain jobs. If workers in the widget industry take a pay cut, this will lead to lower prices of widgets relative to other things, so people will buy more widgets, hence more employment.

But if everyone takes a pay cut, that logic no longer applies. The only way a general cut in wages can increase employment is if it leads people to buy more across the board. And why should it do that?

There was much more to the Keynes versus the Classics debate but the general idea is as presented.

It should be clear now that MMT integrates the insights of Keynes and others into a broader monetary framework. But the essential point is that mass unemployment is a macroeconomic phenomenon and trying to manipulate wage levels (relative to prices) will only change output and employment at the macroeconomic level if changes in demand are achieved as saving desires of the non-government sector respond.

It is highly unlikely for all the reasons noted that cutting real wages will reduce the non-government desire to save.

Bill Mitchell


5 responses to “What causes mass unemployment?

  1. “They get the reputation of being a capricious employer and will struggle to retain labour when the economy improves. Further, worker morale will fall and with it productivity. Other pathologies such as increased absenteeism etc would accompany this sort of firm behaviour.”

    Except that isn’t how it works in the real world. Employers tend to behave like that all the time in an environment where there are fewer jobs than there are workers. Employers increasingly use psychological techniques (fear essentially, coupled with cheap comfort blankets like sexy job titles ) to lock people into positions.

    In a depressed environment quits are lower – therefore it makes business sense to make sure that the environment remains at a level of depression that suppresses quits. Perhaps that is the real reason why the economy is run persistently under capacity.

  2. Probably also government spending is not used as a means to boost an economy because the rich fear higher taxation down the line and in one sense they would be right because MMTers regard taxation as a tool to cool off an economy. MMT theory doesn’t seem to spend much time addressing the psychotic fears of the rich but in the real world their Neo-Liberal ideology currently rules the roost.

  3. “In a depressed environment quits are lower – therefore it makes business sense to make sure that the environment remains at a level of depression that suppresses quits. Perhaps that is the real reason why the economy is run persistently under capacity.”

    This comment makes no sense. Yes, quits are lower in a depressed economy, but so are profits.

  4. Pingback: Create Currency ~ One | The Money Conspiracy

  5. What happens with employment when the country is flooded with cheap, foreign labour?

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