Employment and Unemployment

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Definitions and Basics

    Unemployment, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    Each month, the federal government's Bureau of Labor Statistics randomly surveys sixty thousand individuals around the nation. If respondents say they are both out of work and seeking employment, they are counted as unemployed members of the labor force. Jobless respondents who have chosen not to continue looking for work are considered out of the labor force and therefore are not counted as unemployed....
    Full Employment: Business Cycles, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    Just as there is no regularity in the timing of business cycles, there is no reason why cycles have to occur at all. The prevailing view among economists is that there is a level of economic activity, often referred to as full employment, at which the economy theoretically could stay forever. Full employment refers to a level of production at which all the inputs to the production process are being used, but not so intensively that they wear out, break down, or insist on higher wages and more vacations. If nothing disturbs the economy, the full-employment level of output, which naturally tends to grow as the population increases and new technologies are discovered, can be maintained forever. There is no reason why a time of full employment has to give way to either a full-fledged boom or a recession....
    Unemployment Insurance, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    The United States unemployment insurance program is intended to offset income lost by workers who lose their jobs as a result of employer cutbacks. The program, launched by the Social Security Act of 1935, is the government's single most important source of assistance to the jobless.

    A second goal of the program is to counter the negative impacts on the national economy, and especially on local economies, of major layoffs, seasonal cutbacks, or a recession. Unemployment benefits help sustain the level of income and hence the demand for goods and services in areas hard hit by unemployment. In short, unemployment insurance supports consumer buying power....
    Welfare, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    ... in 1996, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which replaced AFDC with TANF. Under the new program, the federal government eliminated the entitlement to cash welfare, placed limits on the length of time families could collect benefits, and introduced work requirements. By law, a family cannot receive TANF benefits for more than a lifetime limit of five years, cumulative across welfare spells. Regarding work requirements, TANF mandated that at least 50 percent of recipients participate in "work" activities by 2002, with activities including employment, on-the-job training, vocational EDUCATION, job search, and community service....
    New Keynesian Economics, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    The primary disagreement between new classical and new Keynesian economists is over how quickly wages and prices adjust. New classical economists build their macroeconomic theories on the assumption that wages and prices are flexible. They believe that prices "clear" markets--balance supply and demand--by adjusting quickly. New Keynesian economists, however, believe that market-clearing models cannot explain short-run economic fluctuations, and so they advocate models with "sticky" wages and prices. New Keynesian theories rely on this stickiness of wages and prices to explain why involuntary unemployment exists and why monetary policy has such a strong influence on economic activity....

In the News and Examples

    Russ Roberts on the Least Pleasant Jobs. Podcast on EconTalk, April 21, 2008.
    EconTalk host Russ Roberts talks about the claim that for capitalism to succeed there have to be people at the bottom to do the unpleasant tasks and that the rich thrive because of the suffering of those at the bottom. He critiques the idea that capitalism is a zero sum game where to get ahead, someone has to fall back. He also looks at the evolution of the least pleasant jobs over time and how technology interacts with rising productivity to make the least pleasant jobs more pleasant....
    Bhide on Outsourcing, Uncertainty, and the Venturesome Economy. Podcast at EconTalk.
    Amar Bhidé, of Columbia University and author of The Venturesome Economy, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the role of entrepreneurship and innovation in a global economy. Bhidé argues that the worries about outsourcing and America's alleged declining leadership in technology are misplaced. He argues that the source of prosperity is not technology per se but the application of technology to actual products that improve our lives and that the American venture system and labor market are very effective at the application of technology. The end of the conversation turns to the role of uncertainty in both venture capital and entrepreneurship but also to the role of financial institutions and financial innovation.
    Ed Leamer on Outsourcing and Globalization. Podcast on EconTalk, July 09, 2007.
    Is outsourcing good for America? How does foreign competition affect wages in the United States? Ed Leamer, professor of economics at UCLA, talks about the effects of outsourcing on wages, jobs, and the U.S. standard of living....
    Labor Unions, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    Many unions have won higher wages and better working conditions for their members. In doing so, however, they have reduced the number of jobs available....
    Minimum Wages, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    Minimum wage laws set legal minimums for the hourly wages paid to certain groups of workers. In the United States, amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act have increased the federal minimum wage from $.25 per hour in 1938 to $5.15 in 1997. Minimum wage laws were invented in Australia and New Zealand with the purpose of guaranteeing a minimum standard of living for unskilled workers. Most noneconomists believe that minimum wage laws protect workers from exploitation by employers and reduce poverty. Most economists believe that minimum wage laws cause unnecessary hardship for the very people they are supposed to help....
    Wages and Working Conditions, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    CEOs of multinational corporations, exotic dancers, and children with lemonade stands have at least one thing in common. They all expect a return for their effort. Most workers get that return in a subtle and ever-changing combination of money wages and working conditions. This article describes how they changed for the typical U.S. worker during the twentieth century....

    Surely the single most fundamental working condition is the chance of death on the job. In every society workers are killed or injured in the process of production. While occupational deaths are comparatively rare overall in the United States today, they still occur with some regularity in ocean fishing, the construction of giant bridges and skyscrapers, and a few other activities.

A Little History: Primary Sources and References

    Great Depression, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    A worldwide depression struck countries with market economies at the end of the 1920s. Although the Great Depression was relatively mild in some countries, it was severe in others, particularly in the United States, where, at its nadir in 1933, 25 percent of all workers and 37 percent of all nonfarm workers were completely out of work. Some people starved; many others lost their farms and homes....

    By June 1937, the recovery--during which the unemployment rate had fallen to 12 percent--was over. Two policies, labor cost increases and a contractionary monetary policy, caused the economy to contract further. Although the contraction ended around June 1938, the ensuing recovery was quite slow. The average rate of unemployment for all of 1938 was 19.1 percent, compared with an average unemployment rate for all of 1937 of 14.3 percent. Even in 1940, the unemployment rate still averaged 14.6 percent.
    Phillips Curve, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    The Phillips curve represents the relationship between the rate of inflation and the unemployment rate....

    At the height of the Phillips curve's popularity as a guide to policy, Edmund Phelps and Milton Friedman independently challenged its theoretical underpinnings. They argued that well-informed, rational employers and workers would pay attention only to real wages--the inflation-adjusted purchasing power of money wages. In their view, real wages would adjust to make the supply of labor equal to the demand for labor, and the unemployment rate would then stand at a level uniquely associated with that real wage--the "natural rate" of unemployment....
    John Maynard Keynes, biography from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    Keynes's ideas took a dramatic change, however, as unemployment in Britain dragged on during the interwar period, reaching levels as high as 20 percent. Keynes investigated other causes of Britain's economic woes, and The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was the result....

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