What is Full Employment?

By Alex Tabarrok

As Tyler argued last week one of the most common analytical inaccuracies on Twitter is to blame the Fed for being too conservative with monetary policy over the last few years. I see this problem on both the left and the right. One of the ways the argument goes is as follows::

This month’s unemployment rate is lower than last month’s unemployment rate. Thus, we could not have been at full employment last month.

Followed by:

Monetary policy should be less conservative. If only we had been more aggressive earlier, we could have reached where we are sooner and made millions of people better off.

All of this is wrong. To begin, full employment does not mean the lowest possible unemployment rate. We are at full employment when we are at the natural rate of unemployment and as Milton Friedman wrote:

The ‘natural rate of unemployment’….is the level that would be ground out by the Walrasian system of general equilibrium equations, provided there is imbedded in them the actual structural characteristics of the labor and commodity markets, including market imperfections, stochastic variability in demands and supplies, the cost of gathering information about job vacancies and labor availabilities, the costs of mobility, and so on.

The natural rate can change over time, even in a sustained direction, as the structural characteristics of the economy change, as demand, supply, demographics, information and so forth change. Change does not mean disequilibrium. When the production of apples is bigger this year than last year we don’t jump to the conclusion that last year the apple market was out of equilibrium. Similarly, the fact that unemployment was lower this year than last year does not mean that we weren’t at full employment last year.

The point of Friedman’s 1968 piece was that monetary policy can’t do much to influence the natural or full employment rate. Thus, the second half of the argument also doesn’t follow. In other words, it doesn’t follow from the fact that unemployment is declining that monetary policy last year could have achieved this year’s unemployment rate last year. My children are taller this year than last year but that doesn’t mean I could have accelerated their growth by feeding them more last year.

Monetary policy can make a big difference in arresting a negative spiral of declining spending leading to declining income leading to declining spending….Keynes was right. Scott Sumner was also right to call for more aggressive monetary policy in 2008-2010. But that was a disequilibrium event, now long over. When children are starving, you can get them to grow faster by feeding them more, but don’t try using that rule in normal times. Today we are in normal times. The economy has been growing steadily for over a decade. We are not in a downward spiral and wages and prices are not stuck at 2008 levels. In fact, since the end of the recession a large majority of workers are in new jobs! Indeed, a good chunk of the labor force has retired since 2008 to be replaced by entirely new workers. Nothing sticky there.

Standard macro models do not imply that monetary policy can always lower unemployment. (I can’t believe I have to write that in 2020 but the great forgetting is well upon us). Indeed, the standard models, as Tyler discussed, are all about testing and deepening our understanding of the Friedman list, most notably “the cost of gathering information about job vacancies and labor availabilities.” Bottom line is that nobody ever said that we had to like the Walrasian equilibrium but like it or not, monetary policy can’t do much to change it.