NAIRU — a failed metaphor legitimizing austerity policies

29 september, 2014 kl. 13:09 | Publicerat i Economics, Politics & Society | 1 kommentar

In our extended NAIRU model, labor productivity growth is included in the wage bargaining process … The logical consequence of this broadening of the theoretical canvas has been that the NAIRU becomes endogenous itself and ceases to be an attractor — Milton Friedman’s natural, stable and timeless equilibrium point from which the system cannot permanently deviate. In our model, a deviation from the initial equilibrium affects not only wages and prices (keeping the rest of the system unchanged) but also demand, technology, workers’ motivation, and work intensity; as a result, productivity growth and ultimately equilibrium unemployment will change. There is in other words, nothing natural or inescapable about equilibrium unemployment, as is Friedman’s presumption, following Wicksell; rather, the NAIRU is a social construct, fluctuating in response to fiscal and monetary policies and labor market interventions. Its ephemeral (rather than structural) nature may explain why the best economists working on the NAIRU have persistently failed to agree on how high the NAIRU actually is and how to estimate it.

Servaas Storm & C. W. M. Naastepad

jobbluffenNAIRU has been the subject of much heated discussion and debate in Sweden lately, after SVT, the Swedish national public TV broadcaster, aired a documentary on NAIRU and the fact that many politicians  — and economists — subscribe to the NAIRU story and its policy implication that attempts to promote full employment is doomed to fail, since governments and central banks can’t push unemployment below the critical NAIRU threshold without causing harmful runaway inflation.

One of  the main problems with NAIRU is that it essentially  is a timeless long-run equilibrium attractor to which actual unemployment (allegedly) has to adjust. But if that equilibrium is itself changing — and in ways that depend on the process of getting to the equilibrium —  well, then we can’t really be sure what that equlibrium will be without contextualizing unemployment in real historical time. And when we do, we will — as highlighted by Storm and Naastepad — see how seriously wrong we go if we omit demand from the analysis. Demand  policy has long-run effects and matters also for structural unemployment — and governments and central banks can’t just look the other way and legitimize their passivity re unemploy-ment by refering to NAIRU.

NAIRU does not hold water simply because it does not exist — and to base economic policy on such a weak theoretical and empirical construct is nothing short of writing out a prescription for self-inflicted economic havoc.

1 kommentar

  1. I often use the phrase NAIRU, but it never occurred to me that anyone would use it to refer to a “timeless long-run equilibrium”. Obviously that idea is nonsense. But that’s not a reason to discard the NAIRU idea. Clearly the minimum level of unemployment attainable at any point in time without excess inflation will depend on a variety of factors, e.g. what unemployment has been recently and whether there have been any recent changes in the pattern of demand for labour (for example sparked off by a change in the price of oil).

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