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Wage stickiness and unflattering accounts of the unemployed and poor
It is common for left-wing progressives to complain that conservatives serve up unflattering accounts of the unemployed and poor, such as by calling them “moochers” and the like.
But many versions of the standard Keynesian account, once we deconstruct them a bit, don’t paint such a flattering picture of the unemployed either. In one Keynesian scenario, many of the unemployed have lacked jobs for years because they have sticky nominal wage demands. Under one scenario, they could find jobs for $x an hour but won’t take the work. If government policy could reflate the economy enough, those jobs in nominal terms would offer more and the unemployed would be in essence fooled into taking the offer. The job would be paying the same in real terms, so the ex ante stubbornness is a big mistake, at least under this account of the matter.
Such a mistake is made throughout years of material suffering and psychological deprivation, including serious problems for one’s children. Yet a mere nominal trick, by boosting pride just a bit, will move them back into a job.
It is of course a well-known stylized fact that, at least in America, unemployment rates for the poor and undereducated are much higher than for wealthier or better educated people. So a general citation of “money illusion” won’t rescue the victims from the rather unflattering Keynesian portrait painted here.
Alternatively, the relevant mechanism may operate through the demand for labor, rather than the supply. Perhaps low-skilled workers cannot be employed at lower wages because their resentment at the low wage would be so high that they would impose unacceptable morale costs on the organizations employing them. In other words, insult them with a sub-par wage offer and they turn destructive toward the entire organization. Companies of course prefer to keep these workers at arms’ length under this hypothesis.
If Charles Murray had come up with that hypothesis, he would have been savagely attacked for it. Yet there is growing evidence, for instance from the work of Alan Blinder, that it is a major cause of wage stickiness.
Left-wing Keynesians are reluctant to acknowledge their own implicit unflattering treatment of the poor, which I should add came (in part) from snobby and elite British economists, including Keynes. Often microfoundations are considered an embarrassing topic, and the emphasis is on “well, we know that wages are sticky,” with a desire not to look too closely under the hood, or to consider how those stories jive with other deeply held views, many of which try to raise the relative status of the poor and unemployed.
Bryan Caplan is consistent and is also happy to satisfy the publicity condition. He believes in nominal stickiness as a driver of unemployment (under many circumstances) and he holds a relatively skeptical view of the decision-making capabilities of many (by no means all) of the poor.
The most flattering macro theories toward the poor, undereducated, and unemployed are the complementarity, increasing returns, and RBC “the poor are maximizing given some bad constraints” approaches. Insider-Outsider models make the unemployed victims of exclusion who don’t even get a chance, rather than potential troublemakers ready to sabotage an enterprise at a moment’s notice. The same can be said for Scott Sumner’s “musical chairs” account. As for schools of thought, the rational expectations theorists provide the most flattering picture of the poor, yet in the context of macroeconomics they are very frequently mocked for their unrealistic assumptions. Search theory models of unemployment, which for instance I have tried to promote, also paint a not unfavorable picture of the jobless, but they too are not very popular in the New Old Keynesian economics. If I were to generalize, and yes there are many exceptions, but still I would say that these more flattering pictures of the unemployed are more likely to be associated with or embraced by the political Right.
Consistency is hard to come by, and probably always will be