At its December meeting, the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate a quarter point. The move, while widely expected, represented a clear rebuke to President Trump, who has repeatedly urged the Fed to keep rates low. He took to Twitter after the move to attack Fed head Jerome Powell as a golfer who has no touch (“he can’t putt”)—strong words in the president’s social circle.
Trump’s critics on the left may be tempted to cheer the Fed’s decision as a welcome triumph of the separation of powers. But opposing him on the grounds that the labor market is already great may end up weakening the case for a progressive agenda. We need to consider the possibility that, in this one case, the president is right.
By raising rates, the Fed is signaling that it thinks that the economy is now operating at potential, or full employment. Conventional economic theory says that when the economy is below potential, more spending will bring unemployed and underemployed people to work, and more fully utilize structures and equipment, but once potential is reached, additional spending will just lead to higher prices. So when output is below potential, anything that raises spending—whether it is tax cuts, increased federal spending, a more favorable trade balance, or lower interest rates—is macroeconomically useful. But once the economy is at potential, and there are no more unemployed people or underused buildings and machines, the same policies will lead only to more inflation.
By this standard, the case for the most recent rate increase was plausible, though not a slam dunk. By the official measures produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), 2018 was the first year since 2007 that GDP reached potential, and at 3.7 percent, the headline unemployment rate is quite low by historical standards. So textbook logic suggests that if demand growth does not slow, inflation is likely to rise.
The past decade, however, has given us reason to doubt the textbook models. As I argued in the Roosevelt report What Recovery?, it is far from clear that the BEA’s measure does a good job capturing the productive potential of the economy. Similarly, the headline unemployment rate may no longer be a good measure of the economically relevant category of people available for work; many people move directly between being out of the laborforce and being employed. The behavior of inflation has defied any mechanical linkage with GDP growth, wages, or unemployment. And even if one accepts that output is nearing potential, a higher interest rate may not be necessary to slow it. (This is related to the idea of r*, the “neutral” rate of interest, which neither raises nor lowers demand—something that many people, including Powell himself, have suggested we don’t actually know.) Given these uncertainties, many people—across the political spectrum—have argued that it’s foolish for the central bank to try to make policy based on guesses of where inflation is heading. Instead, they should wait to raise rates until it is clear that inflation is above target.
More broadly, the question of whether the economy is at full employment implies a judgement on whether this is the best we can do, economically. Are the millions of people who have dropped out of the laborforce over the past decade really unable or unwilling to engage in paid work? Is the decline of American manufacturing the inevitable result of a lack of competitiveness? Are the millions of people working at low-wage, dead-end jobs incapable of doing anything more rewarding? The decision to raise rates implicitly assumes that the answers are yes. People who think that the economy could work better for ordinary people should hesitate to agree.
We live in a country filled with energetic, talented, creative people, many of whom are forced to spend their days doing tedious busywork. Personally, I find it offensive to claim that a job at McDonald’s or in a nail salon or Amazon warehouse is the fullest use of anyone’s potential. When John Maynard Keynes said “we will build our New Jerusalem out of the labour which in our former vain folly we were keeping unused and unhappy in enforced idleness,” he didn’t only mean literal idleness, but wasted labor more broadly. In a society in which aggregate expenditure was constantly pushing against supply constraints, millions of people today who spend their working hours in menial, unproductive activities would instead be developing their capacities as engineers, artists, electricians, doctors, and scientists.
Progressives concerned about the distribution of income should also pause before cheering an interest rate hike. The textbook model assumes that wage changes are passed more or less one for one to prices (that’s why the Fed pays so much attention to unemployment). But we know that this is not true. Slow wage growth may simply mean a lower share of income going to workers, rather than lower inflation, and high wages may lead to an increase in labor share rather than to higher inflation. Indeed, as a matter of math, the labor share of income cannot rise unless wages rise faster than the sum of productivity growth and inflation. For most of the past decade—and much of the decade before—wages have risen more slowly than this. As a result, labor compensation has fallen to 58 percent of value added in the corporate sector (where it is most reliably measured), down from 60 percent a decade ago and 66 percent in 2000. The only way that this shift from labor to capital can be reversed is if we see an extended period of “excessive” wage growth. This recent hike suggests that the Fed will not tolerate that.
The alternative is to deliberately foster what is sometimes called a “high-pressure” economy. Allowing the unemployment rate to remain low enough for sustained rapid wage growth won’t just help restore the ground that workers have lost over the past decade. It could also boost laborforce participation, as discouraged workers return to the labor market. And it could boost productivity, as scarce workers and strong demand encourage businesses to undertake labor-saving investment. An increasing number of economists think that these kinds of effects, called hysteresis, mean that weak demand conditions can reduce the economy’s productive potential—and strong demand can increase it.
We are already seeing some signs of this. The fall in the laborforce participation over the past decade was, according to most studies, was much larger than can be explained by aging and other demographic factors. Now, as the labor market gets stronger, people who dropped out of the laborforce are reentering it. Some businesses in low-unemployment areas are now paying for English lessons so they can hire non-English speaking immigrants, who are normally among the last to be employed. After years of stagnation, wages are beginning to rise fast enough to produce a modest rise in the hare of output going to workers—the predictable result of a strong labor market. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta confirmed that a high-pressure economy, with unemployment well below normal levels, can boost earnings and strengthen attachment to the laborforce. The effects are long-lasting and strongest for those at the back of the hiring queue, such as Black Americans and those with less-formal education. Labor productivity has yet to pick up, but business investment is now quite strong, so it is likely that productivity may soon start rising as well. None of these gains will be realized if the Fed acts too quickly to rein in a boom.
Critics of the president who argue that the economy is already at full employment risk replaying the 2016 election, where the Democrats were perceived—fairly or not—as defenders of the status quo, while Trump spoke to and for those left behind by the recovery. And they risk throwing away one of the best arguments for a progressive program in 2021 and beyond. The next Democratic president will enter office with an ambitious agenda. Whether the top priority is Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, universal childcare, or free higher education, realizing this agenda will require a substantial increase in government spending. Making the case for this will be much easier if there is broad agreement that the economy still suffers from a demand shortfall that public spending can fill.