The ‘bad luck’ theory of unemployment
from Lars Syll
As is well-known, New Classical economists have never accepted Keynes’s distinction between voluntary and involuntary unemployment. According to New Classical übereconomist Robert Lucas, an unemployed worker can always instantaneously find some job. No matter how miserable the work options are, “one can always choose to accept them,” according to Lucas.
But sadly enough this extraterrestrial view of unemployment is actually shared by ‘New Keynesians,’ whose microfounded dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models cannot even incorporate such a basic fact of reality as involuntary unemployment!
Of course, working with microfunded representative agent models, this should come as no surprise. If one representative agent is employed, all representative agents are. The kind of unemployment that occurs is voluntary, since it is only adjustments of the hours of work that these optimizing agents make to maximize their utility.
In the basic DSGE models used by most ‘New Keynesians’, the labour market is always cleared – responding to a changing interest rate, expected life time incomes, or real wages, the representative agent maximizes the utility function by varying her labour supply, money holding and consumption over time. Most importantly – if the real wage somehow deviates from its “equilibrium value,” the representative agent adjust her labour supply, so that when the real wage is higher than its “equilibrium value,” labour supply is increased, and when the real wage is below its “equilibrium value,” labour supply is decreased.
In this model world, unemployment is always an optimal choice to changes in the labour market conditions. Hence, unemployment is totally voluntary. To be unemployed is something one optimally chooses to be.
If substantive questions about the real world are being posed, it is the formalistic-mathematical representations utilized to analyze them that have to match reality, not the other way around.
To Keynes this was self-evident. But obviously not so to New Classical and ‘New Keynesian’ economists.
The notion that unemployment is voluntary is, in the context of the current self-inflicted wound in Europe, downright offensive. Real workers must pay bills and feed families from jobs that have fixed hours and fixed wage rates. The idea that workers ‘trade off’ labor against leisure by figuring out the real wage rate and then slacking off or going on an indefinite unpaid leave is the type of thinking that leads us to see the Great Depression as a giant, unexpected, and astonishingly long unpaid vacation for millions of people: original, yes; helpful, no.