Sunday, January 12, 2014

American Moving Inertia: A Reason for Persistent Unemployment?

Photo: Decrepit U-Move: Is this the reason for unemployment?

Leaving out stupid or ignorant "reasons" for persistent unemployment (e.g. "the unemployed refuse to take jobs they think are beneath them") offered by knuckle-draggers, the question does emerge of what's behind the stats. Most recently, the BLS delivered an unemployment rate a few ticks lower than last month but the labor participation rate was also lower, at 62.4 percent. Also, the number of jobs created -at 74,000 - was significantly below the 200,000 needed to feel the unemployment situation is improved.

Economists are therefore looking now from a different angle: mobility. As they often state in research, Americans' geographic mobility is tied to economic mobility. If you can't move to where the jobs actually are, then logically you won't find the jobs, including the ones best suited to your skill set.  In this sense, the Census stats show the lowest proportion of Americans (since post WWII)  moving in the last few years.

According to Census Bureau data from 2013, about 4.8 million Americans moved across state lines in the previous year. This is down from 5.7 million in 2006 and 7.5 million in 1999. Taken collectively, the percentage of Americans moving across state lines has dropped by half since the 1990s.  The stats also show that even immigrants who arrive on our shores are more likely to stay put than they were 30 years ago. All of this has an impact not only on finding jobs, but creating them.

Having said that, no one who is rational or sane can deny that the 2008 financial meltdown, credit crisis and stock crash - leading to a prolonged recession - also has impacted Americans' ability to move.  This is not advanced calculus or rocket science: You can't move for a job if no job exists, and you can't buy a new house if no one gives you a mortgage .....or you are unable to sell your existing home to be able to make a move.  In other words, this 'trifecta' of risk made it many times more difficult to move since the recession, than in times past Given also the recession was of the "balance sheet" form, it spawned an endemic or system inertia that in many cases remains even today. In many places, for example, people are still "under water" - meaning they owe more in their mortgage than the home is worth. How can they move? They can't! How can they move to get a job? They can't!

Another factor contributing to the lower moving rates must be the age of the population. It is axiomatic that older people tend to move much less than younger folks. This also isn't rocket science or advanced calc: it's damned hard to pack up all your stuff and move across country - as wifey and I learned when we left Maryland for Colorado in 2000. Needless to say, it's a move we'd likely not make again unless really extreme circumstances arose, say like fracking wells being set up next door and the fumes, polluted water driving us out.

Rising costs of living can also dent the yen to move, even among the young. A case in point is the San Francisco area where the home prices are now so sky high teachers are having to move many miles away to lower cost communities. This means teachers have less time to spend with the students, tutoring or in after school activities, because of the long commute.

Those who've just graduated from college are also finding the jobs hard to come by. They may have taken out loans in excess of $30,000 to pay for their college education, and can only obtain jobs - say at Mickey D's or Starbucks - that pay barely $8 to 9.50 an hour. This won't pay for a car loan, far less a home - so they have to live with mom and pop. 

This means that the military , with all other avenues of job opportunity closed, becomes the default employer. No surprise then that all too many young people hike to the nearest Army station to enlist and commence a military career, with the hope of having most of their college paid for later. Of course, the recruiters never tell these kids they may get wounded by IEDs or brain-damaged in some new fangled "war" (occupation) first, say in Iran, Syria or wherever the military industrial complex sees fit to next meddle.

Barbara  Ehrenreich notes ('This Land is THEIR Land', p. 61):

"Market forces ensure that a volunteer army will necessarily be an army of the poor. The trouble is that enlistment doesn't do a lot to brighten one's economic future".

Yes, they do get benefits, but these enable families to barely keep heads above water. Also, as Ehrenreich notes, many service men and women have had to use credit cards in years past to purchase kevlar or other protective vests because the Army couldn't afford them.
The dynamic then generates an enormous military jobs program while the domestic (private) jobs program is left to suck salt. This military jobs program is also not cheap. It is passing incredible that too many Rightist  knuckle draggers don't see the irony of carping against an infrastructure maintenance program (which is REALLY needed, to repair the crumbling water mains, sewer lines and bridges) but express no money worries by funding a monstrous military jobs program. Especially given the latter will always be used to invoke ever more interventions. ("After all, if yuh got the Army why let it go to waste?" )

Anyway, back to other ironies pertaining to job mobility. Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia (real estate website) did an analysis and found on indexing the 100 largest metro areas by affordability - San Fran and New York City were at the bottom, while 'hollowed out' less affluent communities wee at the top. The problem? Many fewer jobs were available in the latter, than the former. However, when Americans did move to these municipal  'backwaters' they justified their decision by noting the cheaper living costs outweighed less economic-job opportunity. In other words, it was a trade off. In hardly any cases, except for graduated 1-percenter  scions hailing from top private universities, was the situation 'win-win'.

Another explanation to account for the job mobility inertia comes from Greg Kaplan or Princeton University and Samuel Schulhofer- Wohl of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. They theorize that there is no longer any upside to moving because labor market have become more homogeneous. Because earnings have been leveled across the country, there's a lot less incentive to move from one location to another, say in search of a raise. In addition, the spread of fast food franchises and the service industry are ubiquitous across the country. Moving to any location to find such a job is essentially pointless, especially if one can't count on the property taxes remaining lower. The solution could only be to raise the minimum wage, say to at least $15 an hour. But the knuckle draggers will never let this happen.

The effect is that  economic inequality grows, partly as a result of too low taxes (especially on the 'upper crust') and partly on account of the best jobs shipped overseas (with the concomitant decline of domestic manufacturing) along with the growth of the low wage service industry. It is no wonder then that the middle class is being slowly eviscerated, while the upper 1 % have more money than they know what to do with, although they can opt for weekends in St. Kitts to get rose wine wraps, e.g.

By one measure, as reported by Barbara Ehrenreich ('This Land is THEIR Land', p. 23): "the share of pre-tax income going to the top 1 percent of American households has risen to 16 percent. At the same time, the share of income going to the bottom 80 percent has fallen by 7 percentage points."

But it's worse than that! Those top 1 percent of people and indeed the top 5 %, have made out like bandits since the Bush tax cuts were passed in 2001. As a result, there has been an average transference of $7,000 every year from lower and middle income earners to the top.

According to a New York Times piece cited by Ehrenreich: "It's as if every household in the bottom 80% is writing a check for $7,000 every year and sending it to the top 1 percent".

Left unsaid in all this, is how capital has come to dominate over labor in this country. The dirty little secret, seldom broadcast by the MSM,  is that low inflation (such as Bernanke has incited with his $4 trillion cheap money infusion program) increases stock prices - which makes more money available to business (though not to their employees, since profits are always invested in new capital - i.e. issuing more shares, rather than labor). The end result is that there is an enormous impetus to eliminate as many good jobs and workers as possible - to maximize a company's stock prices, and enhance capital.

In other words, capital is opted for over labor, and this was the topic of The Judas Economy: The Triumph of Capital and the Betrayal of Work, by William Wolman and Anne Colamosca.

The point is then, that labor is devalued precisely because we live in a "Judas Economy" where capital is revered over it. One of the most disgusting indices as the authors note, is that productivity in relation to GDP has increased more than 40% in the interval since 1973 even as wages-salaries have remained almost stagnant. Of course, one major reason is how "greater productivity" is attained. Often by firing a number of workers and ditching their benefits, and making the remaining force do their work plus that of the downsized ones. OR- tossing out 80% of a workforce and replacing them all with automation.

These observations suggest Americans haven't stopped moving because of housing prices, or cost of living or other financial concerns but because they simply don't see the need to. Since the entire country is royally fucked in terms of metastasizing inequality and lack of  job opportunity - it doesn't matter which part of the 'ship' you high tail it to if the whole ship is sinking.  Uneducated or semi-educated troglodytes can sit in their own little comfy dens - high on their own gov't benefits - and bemoan the "laziness" or "selfishness" of the long term unemployed, but they have no room to talk. The fact remains our long term unemployment problem is systemic and structural and no amount of 'moving chairs on the Titanic' will change that. Until economic inequality is addressed. This can only be done by raising taxes which will increase genuine productivity as well as job creation, as the authors of The Indebted Society have shown.

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