Archive for the 'Labour' Category


I just got this email from the careers service here at LSE (emphasis mine):

A Conservative MP is looking for support in his role on the Public Accounts Select Committee.

The position is paid £7.85 p/h and will be for approx 15 hours per week.

The successful candidate must have excellent financial understanding in order to examine and analyse accounts.

The candidate should be inquisitive and have an interest in challenging public accounts.

The candidate should also be able to draft their findings into concise briefings and press releases.

To apply please send your CV and covering letter (1 page max) to XXXX by email ASAP

£7.85 per hour?  Are they kidding?  They’re sending this to every economics Ph.D. candidate at the London School of EconomicsWhat the f*** are they thinking?  (the first person to say “non-monetary incentives” gets a clip ’round the ear)

Update 23 September 2010: Professor Frank Cowell, over on facebook, points us towards:

Gneezy, U. and Rustichini, A. (2000) “Pay Enough or Don’t Pay at All“, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115, pp. 791-810.

Here’s the abstract:

Economists usually assume that monetary incentives improve performance, and psychologists claim that the opposite may happen. We present and discuss a set of experiments designed to test these contrasting claims. We found that the effect of monetary compensation on performance was not monotonic. In the treatments in which money was offered, a larger amount yielded a higher performance. However, offering money did not always produce an improvement: subjects who were offered monetary incentives performed more poorly than those who were offered no compensation. Several possible interpretations of the results are discussed.

Why I (probably) oppose the RMT’s strikes at London Underground

Here is a quick, dirty and poorly-written explanation why I (probably) oppose the RMT’s strike action at London Underground:

The Tube, like most public services, is a monopoly.  As such, Transport for London (TfL) has pricing power and the ability to extract economic rents from consumers.  To whom would those rents flow?  There are three possible groups:  Capital owners (bonds), Capital owners (equity) and Labour (the suppliers of the stuff, not the political party).

The owners of capital in the form of bonds have no ability to insist on being paid economic rents because they cannot credibly threaten to walk away.  There are plenty of other (institutional) investors that are perfectly happy to step in and receive the low interest rates paid by TfL because TfL has the backing (implicit or otherwise) of the UK government and investors value that security.

The sole owner of capital in the form of equity is the UK government.  They have no desire to extract economic rents.  Indeed, they have an incentive to keep economic rents to a minimum because their existence is, on net, welfare-destroying for Britain as a whole.

That leaves the suppliers of labour.  If no TfL worker was unionised, then individual employees would be unlikely to be able to insist on receiving economic rent (i.e. a wage in excess of the value of their marginal product).  By being unionised, however, the employees have collective bargaining power and are therefore able to insist on economic rents.  They can do this because they can credibly threaten to stop the tube from working.  The current strikes are a demonstration of the credibility of any future threat.

There are two further issues to consider, however.  First:  what if without the union, workers would be unfairly exploited — paid less than the value of their marginal product?  If this were the case, the increased bargaining power of unionisation would be justified as it would offset the exploitation.  This is not a problem, however, because the owner of the Tube — the UK government — is not a a profit maximiser.  It is a (zero-profit seeking) service maximiser.  They have literally no incentive to pay less than the employees are genuinely worth.

Second:  what if, when paid the value of their marginal product, TfL employees end up with incomes that are less than the cost of living?  Once again, this fails as an argument for unionisation of TfL workers.  It is the job of the government to guarantee a living wage to all workers across the country, regardless of their job.  If TfL employees are concerned about this, they should be canvassing for an increase in the national minimum wage, not insisting on a higher wage just for themselves.

Therefore, to a first approximation, there is no justification for the unionisation of (and hence, no justification for the strike action by) London Underground employees.

Variation in US unemployment

The NY Times brings us a another wonderful graphic.  As of September 2009, white women aged 25 to 34 with a college degree had an unemployment rate of just 3.6%, while black men aged 18 to 24 without a highschool diploma had an unemployment rate of 48.5%.  Change that last group to white men aged 18 to 24 without a highschool diploma and it falls to 25.6%.

In which I respectfully disagree with Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman [Ideas, Princeton, Unofficial archive] has recently started using the phrase “jobless recovery” to describe what appears to be the start of the economic recovery in the United States [10 Feb, 21 Aug, 22 Aug, 24 Aug].  The phrase is not new.  It was first used to describe the recovery following the 1990/1991 recession and then used extensively in describing the recovery from the 2001 recession.  In it’s simplest form, it is a description of an economic recovery that is not accompanied by strong jobs growth.  Following the 2001 recession, in particular, people kept losing jobs long after the economy as a whole had reached bottom and even when employment did bottom out, it was very slow to come back up again.  Professor Krugman (correctly) points out that this is a feature of both post-1990 recessions, while prior to that recessions and their subsequent recoveries were much more “V-shaped”.  He worries that it will also describe the recovery from the current recession.

While Professor Krugman’s characterisations of recent recessions are broadly correct, I am still inclined to disagree with him in predicting what will occur in the current recovery.  This is despite Brad DeLong’s excellent advice:

  1. Remember that Paul Krugman is right.
  2. If your analysis leads you to conclude that Paul Krugman is wrong, refer to rule #1.

This will be quite a long post, so settle in.  It’s quite graph-heavy, though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to read. 🙂

Professor Krugman used his 24 August post on his blog to illustrate his point.  I’m going to quote most of it in full, if for no other reason than because his diagrams are awesome:

First, here’s the standard business cycle picture:


Real GDP wobbles up and down, but has an overall upward trend. “Potential output” is what the economy would produce at “full employment”, which is the maximum level consistent with stable inflation. Potential output trends steadily up. The “output gap” — the difference between actual GDP and potential — is what mainly determines the unemployment rate.

Basically, a recession is a period of falling GDP, an expansion a period of rising GDP (yes, there’s some flex in the rules, but that’s more or less what it amounts to.) But what does that say about jobs?

Traditionally, recessions were V-shaped, like this:


So the end of the recession was also the point at which the output gap started falling rapidly, and therefore the point at which the unemployment rate began declining. Here’s the 1981-2 recession and aftermath:


Since 1990, however, growth coming out of a slump has tended to be slow at first, insufficient to prevent a widening output gap and rising unemployment. Here’s a schematic picture:


And here’s the aftermath of the 2001 recession:


Notice that this is NOT just saying that unemployment is a lagging indicator. In 2001-2003 the job market continued to get worse for a year and a half after GDP turned up. The bad times could easily last longer this time.

Before I begin, I have a minor quibble about Prof. Krugman’s definition of “potential output.”  I think of potential output as what would occur with full employment and no structural frictions, while I would call full employment with structural frictions the “natural level of output.”  To me, potential output is a theoretical concept that will never be realised while natural output is the central bank’s target for actual GDP.  See this excellent post by Menzie Chinn.  This doesn’t really matter for my purposes, though.

In everything that follows, I use total hours worked per capita as my variable since that most closely represents the employment situation witnessed by the average household.  I only have data for the last seven US recessions (going back to 1964).  You can get the spreadsheet with all of my data here: US_Employment [Excel].  For all images below, you can click on them to get a bigger version.

The first real point I want to make is that it is entirely normal for employment to start falling before the official start and to continue falling after the official end of recessions.  Although Prof. Krugman is correct to point out that it continued for longer following the 1990/91 and 2001 recessions, in five of the last six recessions (not counting the current one) employment continued to fall after the NBER-determined trough.  As you can see in the following, it is also the case that six times out of seven, employment started falling before the NBER-determined peak, too.

Hours per capita fell before and after recessions

Prof. Krugman is also correct to point out that the recovery in employment following the 1990/91 and 2001 recessions was quite slow, but it is important to appreciate that this followed a remarkably slow decline during the downturn.  The following graph centres each recession around it’s actual trough in hours worked per capita and shows changes relative to those troughs:

Hours per capita relative to and centred around trough

The recoveries following the 1990/91 and 2001 recessions were indeed the slowest of the last six, but they were also the slowest coming down in the first place.  Notice that in comparison, the current downturn has been particularly rapid.

We can go further:  the speed with which hours per capita fell during the downturn is an excellent predictor of how rapidly they rise during the recovery.  Here is a scatter plot that takes points in time chosen symmetrically about each trough (e.g. 3 months before and 3 months after) to compare how far hours per capita fell over that time coming down and how far it had climbed on the way back up:


Notice that for five of the last six recoveries, there is quite a tight line describing the speed of recovery as a direct linear function of the speed of the initial decline.  The recovery following the 1981/82 recession was unusually rapid relative to the speed of it’s initial decline.  Remember (go back up and look) that Prof. Krugman used the 1981/82 recession and subsequent recovery to illustrate the classic “V-shaped” recession.  It turns out to have been an unfortunate choice since that recovery was abnormally rapid even for pre-1990 downturns.

Excluding the 1981/82 recession on the basis that it’s recovery seems to have been driven by a separate process, we get quite a good fit for a simple linear regression:


Now, I’m the first to admit that this is a very rough-and-ready analysis.  In particular, I’ve not allowed for any autoregressive component to employment growth during the recovery.  Nevertheless, it is quite strongly suggestive.

Given the speed of the decline that we have seen in the current recession, this points us towards quite a rapid recovery in hours worked per capita (although note that the above suggests that all recoveries are slower than the preceding declines – if they were equal, the fitted line would be at 45% (the coefficient would be one)).

On the symmetry of employment contraction and recovery in US recessions

A couple of days ago I gave some graphs depicting movements in weekly hours worked per capita during US recessions since 1964.  Towards the end, I gave this graph:

Comparing US recessions in hours worked per capita, centred around their troughs

I thought it might be worthwhile to look at this idea further.  Here is the equivalent graph where movements in hours worked per capita are made relative to their actual troughs rather than their actual peaks:

Comparing US recessions in hours worked per capita, centred around and relative to their troughs

At a first glance, recoveries do appear to be somewhat symmetric to their corresponding contractions, although they do also appear to be a bit slower coming back up to falling down in the first place.

I then identified data pairs that are symmetric in time around each trough (e.g. 3 months before and after the trough) and put them in a scatter-plot:

Scatter plot of falls-to-come in weekly hours per capita against subsequent gains in recovery

Points along the 45-degree line here would represent recoveries that were perfectly symmetric with their preceding contraction.  Notice that for five of the six recessions shown, recoveries are in a fairly tight line below the 45-degree line.  By comparison, the recovery following the ’81-’82 recession was especially rapid – it came back up faster than it fell down.

Excluding the ’81-’82 recession on the basis that it’s recovery seems to have been driven by a separate process, a simple linear regression gives a remarkably good fit:


This is a very rough-and-ready analysis.  In particular, I’ve not allowed for any autoregressive component to employment growth during the recovery.  Nevertheless, it is suggestive.

There are more serious efforts in looking at this for the economy as a whole (rather than just hours worked).  James Hamilton is not convinced that it will occur this time.  The oddly rapid recovery in hours worked per capita following the ’81-’82 recession should give us reason to agree with Professor Hamilton, not disagree: it shows that the typical recovery is not guaranteed.  Look back at the scatter-plot of all the recessions.  Notice that the recovery following the ’69-’70 recession was actually quite slow.  It’s fitted line is y = 0.252 x.

For me, the big thing that makes me lean towards Professor Hamilton’s fears of a slower-than-typical recovery is the possibility of zombie banks, or as John Hempton argues, zombie borrowers.  Zombie borrowers should worry us because, if they exist, they are keeping hold of the capital that could (and should) be better placed elsewhere in the economy, which means that those more deserving would-be borrowers are not able to expand and employ more people.

As Hempton argues in the second of his posts, on this basis it is a Good Thing ™ that two of the three US car manufacturers have been forced into a bankruptcy-induced contraction.  Note that Ford only really managed to avoid the same fate by borrowing a huge amount just before the credit markets froze.  It probably needs (from the point of view of the economy as a whole) to follow the same process, whether inside or outside the courts.

But the car manufacturers are by no means the only candidates for the “zombie borrower” epithet.  The really big borrower behind all of the mess in the financial sector is the one at the bottom of all the “toxic” CDOs:  the underwater American households.