labor market

jobsThis is the 9th Post in a sequence about Re-Reading Keynes. In chapter 2 of General Theory, Keynes wishes to develop a theory of employment. He claims that classical economics does not have a theory of employment, because it assumes that all resources will be fully employed. But the theory that unemployment will always be 0% – except for frictional – is not a theory which can explain observations of high and persistent unemployment. Taking this post-Depression observation for granted, the question arises how we can create a theory in which the labor resources can be utilized at different levels. In order show that classical theory cannot explain the observed fluctuations in the level of employment, Keynes lists the four possibilities under classical theory which could create a change in the quantity of labor being employed:

  1. A more efficiently organized labor market, which find faster matches between the unemployed and job opportunities, would lower frictional unemployment and increase employment.
  2. A decrease in the disutility of labor would mean that laborers would be willing to accept lower wage offers, which would lead to expansion of the employment.
  3. An increase in the productivity of labor would bring greater rewards to the employers and induce them to hire more labor at a given wage.
  4. An exogenous decline in price of consumer goods purchased by laborers would increase the real wage and thereby employment. Exogenous means that demand for these goods by non-laborers decreases, causing the price decline.

These factors constitute the classical theory of employment in the sense that the variations in the equilibrium quantity of labor can only be brought about by varying these four factors. Keynes argues for the necessity of radical revision in the classical theory by showing that employment levels following the Great Depression cannot be explained by these factors.

Keynesian theory is going to be built around the rejection of the 2nd Postulate: labor is supplied until the marginal disutility of additional units of labor is exactly offset by the real wage. This means that the fourth possible explanation based on changes in real wages is not valid. The evidence for this is the NON-FUNDAMENTAL argument of Keynes. Laborers react to cuts in nominal wages by going on strike. They do not respond similarly to general increases in the price of consumption goods. It follows that the decision to offer labor is not a function of the real wage.

The Scientific Method: There is a huge amount of confusion regarding the nature of science and the scientific method. See for example, the best-selling, widely used textbook by Chalmers: “What is this thing called science?” for clearing up many widespread myths. Making minimal claims, I would argue that an important aspect of science is the revision of theories to match discordant observations. Contrary to Popper, observations in conflict with theories do not falsify the theory. Rather, they create a puzzle, an anomaly in Kuhn’s terminology. This is a challenge for researchers to find a modification of the theory which will explain the anomaly. If all such attempts fail, or such attempts create a degenerating research program which adds ad-hoc assumptions without explanatory power, to protect core axioms of the theory [Like Ptolemaic astronomy], then situation becomes ripe for a scientific revolution.

The fundamental conflict between classical theory and empirical observation is the existence of involuntary unemployment:

It is not very plausible to assert that unemployment in the United States in 1932 was due either to labour obstinately refusing to accept a reduction of money-wages or to its obstinately demanding a real wage beyond what the productivity of the economic machine was capable of furnishing. Wide variations are experienced in the volume of employment without any apparent change either in the minimum real demands of labour or in its productivity. Labour is not more truculent in the depression than in the boom; far from it. Nor is its physical productivity less. These facts from experience are a prima facie ground for questioning the adequacy of the classical analysis.

Just like observations of elliptical orbits conflict with the circular orbits assumptions of Ptolemy, so the above observation of Keynes conflicts with the standard postulates of economic theory (both pre-Keynesian and modern economics) about the labor market. Once we have an observation in conflict with our fundamental theory of the labor market, we have two options which are routinely used in science.

OPTION 1: (Normal Science) Work on finding ways to explain these conflicting observations while retaining the postulates. The standard explanations for lower equilibrium employment would follow the FOUR possibilities that Keynes has listed. These are all the possibilities available which allow for changes in the volume of employment in a way consistent with the classical postulates of the labor market.  He rejects all of these possible explanations in the paragraph above. Another possibility is that strong unions keep wages above equilibrium; he discusses and rejects this possibility elsewhere. In the above passage, he indicates that Labour is not more truculent in the depression. This does not end the possibilities. It is part of normal science to look at the situation carefully and try to find other ways to create a compatibility between the observed long and persistent unemployment and the postulates.

OPTION 2: (Kuhnian Revolution). Keynes became convinced that the classical postulates for labor market CANNOT be reconciled with the observation of large fluctuations in volume of employment, as well as the observation of different reactions of labor to cuts in wages and rise in price levels. Therefore, he proposes to overthrow the second postulate, while retaining the first one. This really is a revolutionary step, because it amounts to rejecting Supply & Demand theory in the Labor Market. It also amounts to rejecting the efficacy of the free market mechanism in the labor market. These ideas are sacred ideologies – for example, when David Card published research showing that raising minimum wages did not lead to increased unemployment, “It cost me a lot of friends. … (economists) became very angry … They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.” Keynes is also aware that his revolutionary ideas might anger some people, and lose him some friends:

The classical theorists resemble Euclidean geometers in a non-Euclidean world who, discovering that in experience straight lines apparently parallel often meet, rebuke the lines for not keeping straight, as the only remedy for the unfortunate collisions which are occurring. Yet, in truth, there is no remedy except to throw over the axiom of parallels and to work out a non-Euclidean geometry. Something similar is required to-day in economics. We need to throw over the second postulate of the classical doctrine and to work out the behaviour of a system in which involuntary unemployment in the strict sense is possible.

(Non)-OPTION 3: (Ostrich Mode) One can try to explain it away, or revise core theories, but the option to ignore, or to assume away, empirical evidence is not available to scientists. Yet this is precisely the route that was followed by macro-economics since the 1970’s. This is why Romer has said that the Chicago School ignored basic principles of science. What Romer fails to realize is that the entire edifice of modern economics is based on an anti-scientific methodology in which validity of statements is determined by authority and reputation, and not by consistency with empirical evidence. The Nobel Prize in 2010 seeks to re-habilitate the “friction” explanation (modernized as search theory) for unemployment, which Keynes rejected because it was obvious that the frictions remained the same while the volume of employment fluctuated. Anti-scientific hostility to empirical evidence was reflected in the response by mainstream journals to my paper “The Empirical Evidence Against  Neoclassical Utility Theory: A Review of the Literature” [with Mehmet Karacuka] International Journal for Pluralism and Economics Education Vol. 3 (4)  2012, p 366-414. This paper provides overwhelming empirical evidence against the vaunted micro-foundations of economics. Referee’s reports from the leading Economics Journals did not say that the paper was wrong, but rather that it was too insulting to economists. Given strong evidence of dramatic conflicts between the models and reality, scientific methodology would demand an urgent search for alternative bases for a theory of consumer behavior, which is at the foundation of all modern economic theory. Instead, a few token behavioral economists are hired to deflect criticism, while homo economicus continues business as usual within mainstream economics departments. Since criticisms of economic methodology conflict with ideological commitments, I have criticized econometric methodology, which is less charged emotionally. In my paper, Methodological Mistakes and Econometric Consequences, I have shown how contemporary methodology of econometrics is based on logical positivist ideas and is deeply flawed.

The upshot of all this is that the Keynesian Revolution was aborted before it got started. Keynes observed that empirical evidence of behavior of laborers conflicts with the standard homo economicus model of rational behavior of laborers; this conflict strikes at the root of modern economic theory. In an extremely ironic twist, instead of accepting his insights, economists rejected Keynesian theory on the very grounds that it is not compatible with rational behavior of laborers – when this incompatibility was the raison d’etre of Keynesian theory.

To continue his analogy, Keynes told the Euclidean geometers that your axioms conflict with observations, so let us drop the parallel postulate, and instead use another axiom which is compatible with what we see around us. The Euclideans rejected this theory on the ground that it lacks “micro-foundations” — meaning that it is not compatible with the Euclidean parallel postulate, which is the foundation of Euclidean thought, and cannot be questioned.