Epstein on Recent Jobs Report

How Democrats Kill Jobs
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
January 14, 2014

The latest government labor report indicates that job growth has slowed once again. It is now at a three-year low, with only an estimated 74,000 new jobs added this past month. To be sure, the nominal unemployment rate dropped to 6.7 percent, but as experts on both the left and the right have noted, the only reason for this “improvement” is the decline of labor force participation, which is at the lowest level since 1978, with little prospect of any short-term improvement.

The Economic Logic of Supply and Demand

One might think that these figures would be taken as evidence that a radical change in course is needed to boost labor market participation. The grounds for that revision rest on a straightforward application of the fundamental economic law of demand: As the cost of labor increases, the demand for labor will decrease. There are, of course, empirical disputes as to just how rapidly wage increases will reduce that demand for labor.

The federal government has apparently (and foolishly) assumed that these effects will be small, and that the unemployed can somehow be better helped by government interventions into the labor markets. However, only a free market in labor is able to balance changes in both supply and demand, so as to reduce the incidence of unemployment. Government efforts to impose various minimum wages will, happily, have little adverse effect if the market wage is greater than the government mandate. But the same form of increase could have devastating effects on labor markets when the required wage is set too high relative to market wages. The number of workers eager to take jobs at these higher levels will be great, but the number of jobs available at that wage level will shrink. Unemployment levels will increase, and working off the books could increase.

Faculty: 
Richard A. Epstein