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Under the Microscope: Understanding Economics and the Unemployment Rate   

“She Sat like Patience on a Monument, Smiling at Grief.”

Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare

Introduction

     The unemployment rate is but one factor or variable in our economy. There are many others including:

  • Inflation
  •  consumer aggregate demand for goods and services
  •  governmental fiscal policy (spending and taxes)
  •  monetary policy (policies around the expansion or contraction of the money supply)
  •  private sector business practices including business contraction or expansion
  •  population expansion or contraction
  •  different industries
  •  technological development
  •  national and global politics
  •  Entrepreneurship
  •  skill sets and educational level of Americans today.

Then there is one important “juice of the economy” that affects everyone, and is known as Credit Availability. All these factors or variables affect each other to one degree or another.

A Sense of Bewilderment and Frustration

     Understanding the unemployment rate has never been a simple task. Complex interactive variables and a constantly changing economy sometimes seem to conspire to give the public a sense of bewilderment when trying to understand or figure out what is going on. It’s sad and disappointing when your close friends and/or family members just can’t seem to find a job. The Unemployment Rate is more than a statistic; it’s about real people, their lives, and their livelihood.

This bewilderment and frustration does cause anger creating a kind of collective social consciousness where everybody agrees on only one thing, namely: Let’s point a finger and play the “Blame Game.”

People want to blame the Congress, the President, or Democrats and Republicans in general, the Federal Reserve or its chairman, or the global economy when jobs are viewed as leaving the United States.

Economists aren’t too helpful sometimes because they cannot always agree on what is the best course of action for creating jobs or achieving full employment in the United States. Others prefer to blame labor unions, illegal immigration, Wall Street, or big business and/or small business.

As a blogger I can’t extricate the public from their frustrations, lack of knowledge, or prejudices.  However, one way I can help is to provide a more factual and theoretical basis for understanding what unemployment really is, and how it fits within the overall framework of what we call the economy. Under the microscope, here is some background which should help with understanding the economy.

Background

       Generally, astute observers might suggest that the problem of unemployment is somehow tied to the economy or business cycles such as (Expansion and Growth, Prosperity, Recession [or contraction], and finally Recovery). Other economists prefer the following descriptive terms: (Prosperity, Recession, Depression, and Recovery). The guy on the street might suggest that our economy simply involves only three cycles (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly). All of this will become clearer later in this Blog.

Economic cycles, however described, do account for the lion’s share of the explanation of how the economy works, including how the Unemployment Rate fits in. Economic forces seem to have a life of their own. Nevertheless, other forces besides economic cycles are important.

The other explanation for the economy and unemployment rate relates to politics and government actions to deal with the economy and unemployment.

Current Economic Environment

     In the current economy the country does seem to be in a very long recovery cycle. Although business cycles always occur in the same order, the length of each cycle cannot easily be predicted.

Since much unemployment or underemployment occurs among the poor and the working poor, some people feel the replacement of lower skilled jobs with better technology and more jobs requiring higher skill sets has left the poor and working poor holding the bag. However, given that almost every profession experiences unemployment during a recession (engineers, scientists, teachers, highly skilled technicians, etc.) a reasonable person might conclude that unemployment affects everyone, not just the poor and the working poor.

Other targets for blame include: the rich and wealthy in society, poor planning of the job-seeker himself, and finally—the consumer for not spending enough money that would support and stimulate business. When business suffers as consumer demand ebbs, it creates the conditions that allows  a higher than normal unemployment rate.

How best can one unravel the various complexities of understanding the economy and begin to shed light on the unemployment rate? In an ideal world we all want full employment for our citizens. Unfortunately, no society ever lives in an ideal world.

     So what is the best course to understanding the complexities of the economy and the unemployment rate?

In a cosmic sense every variable affects every other variable to some degree. But in a down-to-earth way we have to remember the famous words of Jack Webb’s character Joe Friday in the hugely popular television series, Dragnet. “Just give me the facts, mame!”So, what are the facts?

     First we need to start with a few facts on the unemployment rate in America followed by an explanation of the various phases of the business cycle.

 

Unemployment Rate Data

 

The Unemployment Rate in the United States (January and December 2003-2013)

 

                               January                 December

2003                            5.8                            5.7

2004                            5.7                            5.4

2005                            5.3                            4.9

2006                            4.7                            4.4

2007                            4.6                            5.0

2008                            5.0                            7.3

2009                            7.8                            9.9

2010                            9.8                            9.3

2011                            9.1                            8.5

2012                            8.3                            7.8

2013                            7.9*

*As of August 2013 the unemployment rate in the United States was 7.3%, a level not seen since December, 2008. It went from a high of 9.9% in December 2009 to a low of 7.3% in August, 2013. This 2.6% drop in the unemployment rate occurred during the administration of President Barack Obama, who said “Yes We Can” while Republicans blamed him for the high unemployment. This was despite the fact they created the conditions that caused the unemployment rate to jump from 5.0% to 7.3% during the catastrophic economic collapse of 2008 which occurred during the last year of the Bush Administration.

Definitions and Concepts

    

 

Unemployment

 

There are four types of unemployment:

 

Structural Unemployment

     Structural unemployment is caused by the types of production and laws of an economy that govern whose skills are valuable in the marketplace.

Frictional Unemployment

     Frictional unemployment is associated with changing jobs, often because workers are searching for better opportunities or moving to new locations.

Cyclical Unemployment

     Cyclical unemployment is caused by changes in real GDP that are associated with the business cycle.

Seasonal Unemployment

     Lastly, seasonal unemployment is caused by changes in employment associated with changes in the seasons.

 

The Basic Business Cycle

The four phases of a business cycle are briefly explained as follows:

1. Prosperity Phase

When there is an expansion of output, income, employment, prices and profits, there is also a rise in the standard of living. This period is termed as Prosperity phase.

The features of prosperity are:

  1. High level of output and trade.
  2. High level of effective demand.
  3. High level of income and employment.
  4. Rising interest rates.
  5. Inflation.
  6. Large expansion of bank credit.
  7. Overall business optimism.
  8. A high level of MEC (Marginal efficiency of capital) and investment.

Due to full employment of resources, the level of production is Maximum and there is a rise in GNP (Gross National Product). Due to a high level of economic activity (buying and selling goods and services), it causes a rise in prices and profits. There is an upswing in the economic activity and economy reaches its Peak. This is also called as a Boom Period.

2. Recession Phase

The turning point from prosperity to depression is termed as the Recession Phase.

During a recession period, economic activities slow down. When demand starts falling, the overproduction and future investment plans are also given up. There is a steady decline in the output, income, employment, prices and profits.

The businessmen lose confidence and become pessimistic (Negative). It reduces investment. The banks and the people try to get greater liquidity, so credit also contracts. Expansion of business stops, stock market falls. Orders are cancelled and people start losing their jobs. An increase in unemployment occurs with or following a sharp decline in income and aggregate demand. Generally, recession lasts for a short period.

Many people talk about a “mild recession” and even “severe recession.” These are all matters of degree and economists can endlessly debate which is which. However, almost no one wants to consider or talk about the more devastating type of decline called a Depression.

3. Depression Phase

When there is a continuous decrease of output, income, employment, prices and profits, there is a fall in the standard of living and depression sets in.

The features of depression are:

  1. Fall in volume of output and trade.
  2. Fall in income and rise in unemployment.
  3. Decline in consumption and demand.
  4. Fall in interest rate.
  5. Deflation.
  6. Contraction of bank credit.
  7. Overall business pessimism.
  8. Fall in MEC (Marginal efficiency of capital) and investment.

In depression, there is under-utilization of resources and fall in GNP (Gross National Product). The aggregate economic activity is at the lowest, causing a decline in prices and profits until the economy reaches its Trough (low point).

4. Recovery Phase

The turning point from depression to expansion is termed as Recovery or Revival Phase.

During the period of revival or recovery, there are expansions and rise in economic activities. When demand starts rising (many economists assert that consumers are the driving force of any economy), production increases and this causes an increase in investment. There is a steady rise in output, income, employment, prices and profits. The businessmen gain confidence and become optimistic (Positive). This further increases investments.

The stimulation of investment brings about the revival or recovery of the economy. The banks expand credit, business expansion takes place and stock markets are activated. There is an increase in employment, production, income and aggregate demand, prices and profits start rising, and business expands. Revival slowly emerges into prosperity, and the business cycle is repeated.

Thus we see that, during the expansionary or prosperity phase, there is inflation and during the contraction or depression phase, there is deflation.

Economics and Employment in a Nutshell

     As our population increases there is more consumer demand. And, there are those that say that the driving force behind any economy is the consumer. This aggregate demand for goods and services causes businesses to have to keep up with consumer demand. Business does this by expanding or creating more products (inventory) and needed services.

This creates more money for businesses through profits and may require credit and acquiring loans to expand a business as well. In turn, business must hire more people.

Hiring people involves more money for salaries, insurance, office space, vehicles, etc. But here is the rub: In order for business to pay for all this expansion, they must raise the prices on goods and services. This, as everyone knows, is Inflation.

 As prices go higher consumer demand begins to lessen, and people get laid off when consumer demand begins to really tank. The sad truth is—as prices come down (deflation), the unemployment rate goes up. When the economy heats up again, then the expansionary business cycle causes businesses to once again hire more people. Near full employment (not real full employment) is achieved during the economic cycle known as “Prosperity.” The variability one finds in the unemployment rate is a direct result collectively of the four business cycles, and political factors as well.       

Political Influences on the Economy

     In the final analysis, a high unemployment rate is due to both political factors and the recessionary/depression economic business cycles. Economic business cycles are inevitable, but very difficult to predict how long each cycle will last. However, political factors make their own contribution to a high unemployment rate. And, everyone should be aware,  the order of economic cycles cannot be altered. Although timing of economic cycles can’t be predicted, they can be influenced by political factors. Such timing is heavily influenced by which political party dominates fiscal and monetary policies. These policies can be narrowed down to party-related tax policies, spending policies, monetary policies, and policies dealing with the availability of credit. All of these factors affect the unemployment rate.

Explanations for all these governmental actions can be found in a seven part series I blogged called, “Election Year Politics and the Economy,” back in 2012.

The Current Political Environment

     One question the public needs to think about is whether Republicans or democrats are better at tinkering with the economy and the unemployment problem?

At the present time that question is difficult to answer because the U.S. Government is in a state of crisis where efforts to help the unemployed or improve the economy have taken a back seat to politics and the shutting down of the government.

A hand full of Republican Tea Party members in Congress wanted and decided to hold the American people, and its government, hostage. It was a strategy created in lieu of the normal legislative process. As a result this caused a government shutdown. They did so primarily over just one issue—The Affordable Care Act. Until the government shutdown is really over, plans and resources to stimulate the economy and lower the unemployment rate—are evidently on hold.

So the public needs to start asking questions of Tea Party members now, long before the public goes to the polls in 2014. They might take this approach. Like Inspector Harry Callahan (played by Clint Eastwood) in the 1971 movie Dirty Harry, they might ask Tea Party members something like this: “So, you have to ask yourself this question. Do you feel lucky? Well, do you punk? The serial killer thought he was lucky. He reached for his gun and Inspector Harry Callahan blew him away.

Tea Party members, like Dirty Harry’s serial killer, may think they just might get lucky by holding the country hostage. Unfortunately, with recalcitrant Tea Party members controlling The House of Representative like domestic terrorists, they just might succeed. Polls indicate the Republican Party is going to get the most blame for the failed ill-conceived strategy to shut down the government and government services. The country is really pissed over the government shutdown!

Metaphorically speaking, the public after having been raped in 2013 by Tea Party members is going to get the last word, and perhaps poetic justice and revenge. It is my fondest hope that during the upcoming 2014 elections, the public, like the Terminator or Dirty Harry, is going to end the political careers of all Tea Party members who shouldn’t have been elected to Congress in the first place. However, the public has a very short memory. So, we’ll see what happens in 2014.

But a bigger question remains. How should sensible moderate Republicans or Democrats in general be viewed as to their ability to help improve the economy or help to lower the unemployment rate via job creation? In the upcoming congressional and senatorial elections in 2014 how should you vote if unemployment and a thriving economy is your uppermost concern?

To understand and answer the question, one needs only to look at past behavior of either political party. Again, who best can tinker effectively with the economy and the unemployment problem, Democrats or Republicans?

 

The Answer

     Since Democrat John F. Kennedy took office in January 1961, non-government payrolls in the U.S. swelled by almost 42 million jobs under Democrats, compared with 24 million for Republican presidents, according to Labor Department figures. Democrats hold the edge though they occupied the Oval Office for 23 years since Kennedy’s inauguration, compared with 28 for the Republicans. In addition, over the past 50 years, Republican administrations oversaw the largest decline in wages as measured as a percentage of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

If you really care about data and facts (not just value judgments), then it should be very clear to you who to vote for during the 2014 and 2016 elections.

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