Frantic about jobs? Really?

If policymakers’ effectiveness in alleviating joblessness matched their rhetorical commitment, we would live in a much happier country (and world). There is not an incumbent national politician in the country who doesn’t claim to be extremely concerned, even frantic, about the need to fight joblessness. Despite this, and despite claims that we’re just not sure what would really work to fight joblessness, the simple fact is that there are powerful policy levers that, if pulled, would rapidly lower the unemployment rate that are not being used.

Why policymakers are reluctant to use them is a pretty fascinating question that I hope to write more on (the essential place to start pondering this question is here), but today I’ll just sketch out the policy levers and make claims about the extent of their under-utilization – and this will alone make this far too long for a blog-post, so sorry about that.

These policy solutions are all premised on the belief that the problems facing the economy today stem from the failure of businesses, households, and government to spend enough money to keep all workers that want a job employed. When the $8 trillion bubble in housing popped, the construction activity and consumer spending associated with it left a gaping hole in overall demand for goods and services that has not yet been filled.

There are basically three policy levers that can be used to help fill this shortfall in demand: fiscal, monetary, and exchange-rate policies. None of them are close to being maxed-out and some are going in precisely the wrong direction one would want if fighting joblessness was actually your top priority. Most strangely, the prevailing conventional wisdom is that it is politically unrealistic indeed – downright naïve, in fact – to call for these levers to be pulled with real force and reduce joblessness. What most voters don’t (but need to) know is that this rock-solid conventional wisdom is utterly at odds with textbook macroeconomics – in fact it’s essentially economic flat-earthism. And yet it’s powerful enough to keep policymakers inert while millions of Americans remain unemployed.

Given that jobs is the topic dominating media coverage this week, here is a quick overview for deciding whether or not a policymaker is genuinely concerned about joblessness or just playing such a concerned policymaker on TV. If they’re really devoted to ending joblessness, they will be talking about these policy levers and how they should be pulled.

Fiscal policy: When business and household spending craters, government spending (and, generally less-effectively, tax cuts) can and should increase to stem the private declines. How much fiscal support should be provided to today’s economy? Currently, the “output gap” is roughly $1 trillion – meaning that this much additional aggregate demand is needed to soak up the resources idled during the recession.

Assuming a reasonable multiplier makes it clear that the economy could absorb at least $600 billion in additional fiscal support in the coming year before it came close to returning to pre-recession unemployment rates. Now, of course this isn’t politically realistic, and that’s a real problem because fiscal support is the lever most guaranteed to work and with sufficient scale to fully solve the jobs-crisis.

This said, policymakers who were genuinely frantic about the problem of joblessness would be talking about the need for more fiscal support and talking on a similar scale. Such policymakers do exist!

Needless to say, policymakers truly frantic about fighting joblessness wouldn’t be slashing at spending in the near-term, or stressing the need for government to “tighten its belt” the way cash-strapped families need to.

Monetary policy:  Normally as the economy enters recession, the Federal Reserve lowers the short-term interest rates that it directly controls. By doing this, they hope to put downward pressure on the longer-term rates that influence business investment in plant and equipment and household spending on big-ticket items like durables and housing. These short-term rates currently sit at (essentially) zero. So it is too often said that the Federal Reserve has “run out of ammunition.”

This is not so. There are a range of things that could still be done. They could launch another round of “large-scale asset purchases” – buying longer-term debt to directly target the interest rates that influence business investment and consumer spending. And they could launch it on a scale that would actually move the economy. They could announce a higher inflation target to provide confidence to households burdened by large debt overhangs that these burdens would lighten over time.

Policymakers who thought this aggressive approach to fighting joblessness was warranted could do more than just call for it (though even that would be a bold act in today’s “realistic” climate) – they could also agitate for the appointment of unemployment hawks to the two vacancies in the Federal Reserve Board of Governors – including recess appointments if confirmation of these unemployment hawks was held up by the Senate. Such talk would, of course, bring stern lectures from purveyors of conventional wisdom about the danger of threatening “central bank independence” – but in fact there is no central bank independence in the current system, there is only insulation from stakeholders that are not the finance sector.

What policymakers not particularly concerned about joblessness will do is complain that the Fed is overreached or has laid the ground for runaway inflation.

Exchange-rate policy: The Swiss government announced this week that too many investors fleeing Euro-denominated assets had begun demanding Franc-denominated ones; the increased demand for Francs pushed up the Swiss currency and made it too expensive for Swiss products to compete on global markets. They vowed to fight this development with the policy tools they had available.

What’s this have to do with us? Well, the U.S. dollar has been over-valued (and continues to be) for years – and remedying this over-valuation in the next couple of years could boost our net exports and jobs. And the overvaluation of the U.S. dollar (unlike that of the Franc) is actually not a case of markets getting panicked – it stems instead from the policy decisions of major trading partners (China, in particular) to keep their own currencies from rising against the dollar by buying hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. assets. In short, the over-valuation of the dollar is now almost entirely driven by policy – so the remedy should be, too.

Such a revaluation of the Chinese currency against the dollar would essentially take aggregate demand from the Chinese economy and give it to U.S. economy. This might sound somehow unfair at first blush, but it turns out that the U.S. needs this demand and China doesn’t. In fact, China in the past year has actually begun raising domestic interest rates and restricting credit to choke off too-rapid demand growth in their economy.

So what would policymakers frantic about joblessness call for in terms of engineering a revaluation of currencies that are pegged too low against the dollar? Take your pick. But they surely would be doing something ; or at the very least something besides saying that a strong dollar is good for the United States.

As we watch President Obama’s speech and Congress’ response, ask yourself if this looks like a group of policymakers who are genuinely frantic about fighting joblessness. If the answer’s ‘yes’, that will be a huge improvement.