Friday, March 8, 2013

Le Mieux est l'ennemi du Bien.

One of the hardest things in life is to know when something's done -- when it's good enough, versus when it's perfect.  Voltaire's observation that the best is the enemy of the good (the original version,
en français, is the title of this post) and Herbert Simon's principle of satisficing both come to mind. The list of interesting blog posts in my drafts folder is a testament to that fact; I'm definitely the sort that wants the post to be right, not merely good.

But having said that, sometimes I see something in my daily reading that's so obviously important that I have a sense that it's worth comment on, even if only briefly.

Civilian Employment-Population Ratio
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
Today, it's the graph on the right, courtesy of Brad DeLong, a professor of Economics and chair of the Political Economy major at the University of California, Berkeley.  His post today concerns the +236,000 change in nonfarm payrolls in February 2013.  Anyone getting back into work is A Good Thing, but Brad's reality check is well warranted.  The graph on the right really tells the story.  The St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank has outstanding statistical reports on their web site (oh, if I had only been a student today with tools like this available ...), and Brad's has his eye on the Civilian Employment-Population Ratio.  It was around 63% until 2008, and then fell off a cliff that it hasn't recovered from.  To start getting this number up over 59% again generally will require more than 300,000 new jobs every month, and as this graph (painfully) demonstrates, it's just not happening.  

It seems that every spring since the start of the Lesser Depression businessmen are hopeful this will be the year things turn. Yet to paraphrase Brad, there has been no closing of the output gap and no decline in the unemployment rate from putting a greater share of the adult population to work -- all of the decline in the output gap and all of the decline in the unemployment rate since 2008 is from the collapse in labor force participation. And as Paul Krugman notes this morning, hundreds of billions of dollars are piling up in the treasuries of corporations that, facing weak consumer demand, see no reason to put those dollars to work -- and thus, sadly, I must note that this time it doesn't look like it's going to be any different.