Behind the Numbers: Today’s Unemployment Numbers are Good News on the Economy … and Bad News on Economic Policy

June 7, 2019

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released the unemployment figures for May. As expected, the reported unemployment rate was very low—3.6 percent, the same as last month. Combined with the steady growth in employment over the past few years, this level of unemployment—not seen since the 1960s—suggests an exceptionally strong labor market by historical standards.  On one level this really is good news for the economy. But at the same time it is very bad news for economic policy: The fact that employment this low is possible, shows that we have fallen even farther short of full employment in earlier years than we thought.

Some skeptics, of course, will cast doubts on how meaningful the BLS numbers are. The headline unemployment rate, they will argue, understates true slack in the labor market; many of the jobs being created are low-wage and insecure; workers’ overall position is still weak and precarious by historical standards.

This is all true. But it is also true that the unemployment numbers are not an isolated outlier. Virtually every other measure also suggests a labor market that is relatively favorable to workers, at least by the standards of the past 20 years.

The broader unemployment measures published by the BLS, while higher than the headline rate, have come down more or less in lockstep with it. (The new release shows that the BLS’s broadest measure of unemployment, U-6, continued to decline in May, thanks to a steep fall in the number of people working part-time because they can’t find full-time work.) The labor force participation rate, after declining for a number of years, has now started to trend back upward, suggesting that  people who might have given up on finding a job a few years ago are once again finding it worthwhile to look for one. The fraction of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs, at 2.3 percent, is now higher than it ever got during the previous business cycle. The quit rate is a good measure of labor market tightness—one of former Federal Reserve (the Fed) chair Janet Yellen’s preferred measures—because it shows you how people evaluate their own job prospects; people are much more likely to quit their current job if they expect to get a better one. Reported job openings, a longstanding measure of labor market conditions, are at their highest level on record, with employers reporting that nearly 5 percent of positions are unfilled. Wage growth, which was nowhere to be seen well into the official recovery, has finally begun to pick up, with wage growth noticeably faster since 2016 than in the first six years of the expansion. In the nonfinancial business sector—where the shares of labor and capital are most easily measured—the share of value added going to labor has finally begun to tick up, from a steady 57 percent from 2011 to 2014 up to 59 percent by 2017. Though still far short of the 65 percent of value added claimed by labor at the height of the late-1990s boom, the recent increase does suggest an environment in which bargaining power has at last begun to shift in favor of workers.

For progressives, it can be a challenge to talk about the strengthening labor market. Our first instinct is often to call attention to the ways in which workers’ position is still worse than it was a generation ago, and to all the ways that the labor market is still rigged in favor of employers. This instinct is not wrong, but it is only one side of the picture. At the same time, we need to call attention to the real gains to working people from a high-pressure economy—one where aggregate demand is running ahead of available labor.

A high-pressure economy is especially important for those at the back of the hiring queue. People sometimes say that full employment is fine, but that it doesn’t help people of color, younger people, or those without college degrees. This thinking, however, is backwards. It is educated white men with plenty of experience whose job prospects depend least on overall labor market conditions; their employment prospects are good whether overall unemployment rates are high or low. It is those at the back of the hiring queue—Black Americans, those who have received less education, people with criminal records, and others discriminated against by potential employers—who depend much more on a strong labor market. The Atlanta Fed’s useful wage tracker shows this clearly: Wage growth for lower-wage, non-white, and less-educated workers lagged behind that of college-educated white workers during the high-unemployment years following the recession. Since 2016, however, that pattern has reversed, with the biggest wage gains for nonwhite workers and those at the bottom of the wage distribution. This pattern has been documented in careful empirical work by Josh Bivens and Ben Zipperer of the Economic Policy Institute, who show that, historically, tight labor markets have disproportionately benefited Black workers and raised wages most at the bottom.

Does this mean we should be satisfied with the state of macroeconomic policy—if not in every detail, at least with its broad direction?

No, it means just the opposite. Labor markets do seem to be doing well today. But that only shows that macroeconomic performance over the past decade was even worse than we thought.

This is true in a precise sense. Macroeconomic policy always aims at keeping the economy near some target. Whether we define the target as potential output or full employment, the goal of policy is to keep the actual level of activity as close to it as possible. But we can’t see the target directly. We know how high gross domestic product (GDP) growth is or how low unemployment is, but we don’t know how high or how low they could be. Everyone agrees that the US fell short of full employment for much of the past decade, but we don’t know how far short. Every month that the US records an unemployment rate below 4 percent suggests that these low unemployment rates are indeed sustainable. Which means that they should be the benchmark for full employment. Which also means that the economy fell that much further short of full employment in the years after the 2008-2009 recession—and, indeed, in the years before it.

For example: In 2014, the headline unemployment rate averaged 6.2 percent. At that time, the benchmark for full employment (technically, the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU) used by the federal government was 4.8 percent, suggesting a 1.4 point shortfall, equivalent to 2.2 million excess people out of work. But let’s suppose that today’s unemployment rate of 3.6 percent is sustainable—which it certainly seems to be, given that it is, in fact, being sustained. Then the unemployment rate in 2014 wasn’t 1.4 points too high but 2.6 points too high, which is nearly twice as big of a gap as policymakers thought at the time. Again, this implies that the failure of demand management after the Great Recession was even worse than we thought.

These mistakes have consequences. For years now, we have been repeatedly told that the US is at or above full employment—claims that have been repeatedly proved wrong as the labor market continues to strengthen. Only three years ago, respectable opinion dismissed the idea that, with sufficient stimulus, the unemployment could fall below 4 percent as absurd. As a result, we spent years talking about how to rein in demand and bring down the deficit, when in retrospect it is clear that we should have been talking about big new public spending programs to boost demand.

This, then, is a lesson we can draw from today’s strong unemployment numbers. Strong economic growth does improve the bargaining position of workers relative to employers, just as it has in the past. The fact that the genuine gains for working people over the past couple years have only begun to roll back the losses of the past 20 doesn’t mean that strong demand is not an important goal for policy. It means that we need much more of it, sustained for much longer. More fundamentally, strong labor markets today are no grounds for complacency about the state of macroeconomic policy. Again, the fact that today’s labor market outcomes are better than people thought possible a few years ago shows that the earlier outcomes were even worse than we thought. The lesson we should take is not that today’s good numbers are somehow fake; they are real, or at least they reflect a real shift from the position of a few years ago. Rather, the lesson we should take is that we need to set our sights higher. If today’s strong labor markets are sustainable—and there’s no reason to think that they are not—then we should not accept a macroeconomic policy consensus that has been willing to settle for so much less for so long.