Posted by Jay Livingston
Listen to the Republicans, and you're certain to hear about uncertainty. What’s keeping unemployment high and stalling economic recovery? Uncertainty. Specifically, uncertainty about government regulation.
Now, here’s the evidence for it – Stephen L. Carter’s recent article “Economic Stagnation Explained, at 30,000 Feet”
The man in the aisle seat is trying to tell me why he refuses to hire anybody. His business is successful, he says, as the 737 cruises smoothly eastward. Demand for his product is up. But he still won’t hire.It’s anecdotal evidence, useful as an illustration. But we don’t know if it describes what’s going on with most other businesses. In fact, Carter’s seatmate might not even be accurate about his own firm. As Will Wilkinson and Ezra Klein suggest, the guy might be repeating the Republican line just because he’s a Republican.
“Because I don’t know how much it will cost,” he explains. “How can I hire new workers today, when I don’t know how much they will cost me tomorrow?”
He’s referring not to wages, but to regulation: He has no way of telling what new rules will go into effect when. His business, although it covers several states, operates on low margins. He can’t afford to take the chance of losing what little profit there is to the next round of regulatory changes. And so he’s hiring nobody until he has some certainty about cost.
A lot of people who do the hiring (or decide not to hire) are Republicans.
If companies aren’t hiring, the real problem, I suspect, is not lack of certainty but lack of customers. A NFIB report last fall, “Small Business Economic Trends,” asked small businesses what their “single most important problem” was. Unfortunately, “uncertainty about regulation” was not one of the choices, but the survey did offer “regulation”
The big winner is lack of demand. Three years ago, fewer than 10% rated it as the most important problem. In the current recession, that has risen to over 30%.
The NYT had a very pretty graph of the longitudinal data.*
The Poor Sales section (white in the graph) suggests that when demand is high (good sales), as it was in the 90s, business have the luxury of worrying about regulation (orange). In good times, when employment is high, businesses may have trouble finding enough qualified workers (blue). But the problem today is not too much regulation or too few workers. It’s lack of demand.
I am not in business, but if demand is really up, as Carter’s seatmate claims, and if you don’t hire more workers, there are only two options:
- Get more out of your current workers – better technology or more hours.
- Ignore the demand.
But there are limits what newly-bought technology can do to increase production in the short run, and there are limits to how much employees can or will work.
As for option two – ignoring the demand – if the guy on the plane is letting orders go unfilled because he doesn’t want to hire workers, he is leaving money on the table. As I say, I’m not an MBA, but I suspect that not many “business models” (as we say today) call for turning away customers.
The point is that neither of these responses has anything to do with uncertainty about regulation. If businesses are not hiring, it’s probably because they are uncertain of how much of their product they can sell.
* The trouble with this data is that each year the percents must add up to 100% no matter how numerous or few the problems are.