Break the Silence on the Unemployment Problem

In his inaugural address, President Obama said that “An economic recovery has begun.” It was an applause line. The line is correct of course, but it is really nothing to applaud. As economists define it, the recovery began nearly four years ago when the 2007-2009 recession ended in June 2009. So we have had a recovery for most of the Obama Administration. The problem is that it is a recovery in name only, one of the weakest recoveries in American history. Growth has been about 2 percent since the recovery began and median household income has declined. That is far less economic growth than recoveries following deep recessions with financial crises in American history.

This slow recovery has left unemployment tragically high in most parts of the country. In the San Francisco Bay Area where I live we are relatively lucky. In San Francisco the unemployment rate is 6.7%. The rate is 7.8 % in the country as a whole, and 9.8 % in the state as a whole. In the nearby central valley—cities like Yuba City, Modesto, Merced, Fresno—it’s about 15%, and down south in El Centro California it’s 27%.

The numbers would all be worse if they included the unusually large number of people who have dropped out of the labor force and are no longer counted as unemployed. If they counted, the national unemployment rate would be 9.1 percent. Another way to think about this is to look at the fraction of working age adults who are employed. Though this number usually rises during recoveries, it is actually smaller now than when the recovery began.

But you know even that relatively low 6.7% in San Francisco is pretty terrible. I like to tell the story about what Senator Hubert Humphrey said when President Ford’s Council of Economic Advisers, where I worked with Alan Greenspan, reported to the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) that it was raising the definition of the normal unemployment rate from 4.0% to 4.9%. Humphrey, who chaired the JEC, was outraged and told us in the JEC hearing that “if the country was suffering a plague and you economists were doctors your solution would be to raise the definition of normal body temperature above 98.6 degrees”

So I am worried when people stop talking about today’s very high unemployment rates as if they were normal. It is not a good sign that the inaugural address was silent on the subject, not even including the word unemployment.

About John B. Taylor 117 Articles

Affiliation: Stanford University

John B. Taylor is the Mary and Robert Raymond Professor of Economics at Stanford University and the Bowen H. and Janice Arthur McCoy Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He formerly served as the director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, where he is now a senior fellow, and he was founding director of Stanford's Introductory Economics Center.

Taylor’s academic fields of expertise are macroeconomics, monetary economics, and international economics. He is known for his research on the foundations of modern monetary theory and policy, which has been applied by central banks and financial market analysts around the world. He has an active interest in public policy. Taylor is currently a member of the California Governor's Council of Economic Advisors, where he also previously served from 1996 to 1998. In the past, he served as senior economist on the President's Council of Economic Advisers from 1976 to 1977, as a member of the President's Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1991. He was also a member of the Congressional Budget Office's Panel of Economic Advisers from 1995 to 2001.

For four years from 2001 to 2005, Taylor served as Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs where he was responsible for U.S. policies in international finance, which includes currency markets, trade in financial services, foreign investment, international debt and development, and oversight of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He was also responsible for coordinating financial policy with the G-7 countries, was chair of the working party on international macroeconomics at the OECD, and was a member of the Board of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. His book Global Financial Warriors: The Untold Story of International Finance in the Post-9/11 World chronicles his years as head of the international division at Treasury.

Taylor was awarded the Alexander Hamilton Award for his overall leadership in international finance at the U.S. Treasury. He was also awarded the Treasury Distinguished Service Award for designing and implementing the currency reforms in Iraq, and the Medal of the Republic of Uruguay for his work in resolving the 2002 financial crisis. In 2005, he was awarded the George P. Shultz Distinguished Public Service Award. Taylor has also won many teaching awards; he was awarded the Hoagland Prize for excellence in undergraduate teaching and the Rhodes Prize for his high teaching ratings in Stanford's introductory economics course. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his research, and he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Econometric Society; he formerly served as vice president of the American Economic Association.

Before joining the Stanford faculty in 1984, Taylor held positions as professor of economics at Princeton University and Columbia University. Taylor received a B.A. in economics summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1968 and a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University in 1973.

Visit: John Taylor's Page, Blog

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