What Would You Do to Improve Job Growth?

Reason asks economists, writers, and wonks for real ways to increase job growth


Faced with a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, a deeply disgruntled public and a creeping election season, President Barack Obama is hastily "pivoting" away from the debt ceiling debate toward jobs. In Michigan, where the unemployment rate is 10.5 percent, the president recently proclaimed "We know that there are things that we can do right now that will support job growth." Things like building roads, extending unemployment benefits, cutting payroll taxes, and that old standby, clean energy. 

Like Obama, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blames partisan bickering in Washington for the nation's economic woes and recently accused Republicans of having "passed bills that would destroy up to 2 million jobs—nearly 10,000 jobs per day" in the 200 days since she was booted from her role as House speaker. Pelosi, of course, is an old hand at job pivotry. She prefers her jobs bought and paid for by federal money, and in a pleasing shade of green.

Republicans have their own jobs agenda, but mostly prefer to talk trash about the Democrats. "Spurring jobs and the economy is always next on the Obama Administration's to-do list," sniped Current House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in an August 3 blog post, "right after more spending, more taxing, and more regulating."

Meanwhile, the American people are raising a collective skeptical eyebrow at both parties on the employment front. A July Pew Research poll showed an even 39-39 split on which party Americans trust more on jobs. But a CNN/ORC poll released Friday finds that only 29 percent of respondents think there will be more jobs in their communities a year from now—and 26 percent think there will be fewer jobs. 

In an effort to produce real free-market ideas for boosting employment, Reason asked some of our favorite economists, writers, professors, and entrepreneurs for one concrete policy change they would recommend that would increase job growth. —Lucy Steigerwald

Robert Higgs

Repeal of ObamaCare would probably do wonders to spur hiring, especially for permanent positions. Compensation for such jobs usually includes a benefits package with health care insurance, as well as a money wage or salary. Health care insurance often constitutes a major part of the employer's cost of keeping a permanent worker on the payroll, and anything that makes this cost difficult to forecast makes employers leery to take on new workers.                       

ObamaCare—the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—is a gigantic statute, and it would be a big bite for employers to digest in any event. But as it stands, it serves mainly as an announcement that a large number of legal black boxes must be filled with new regulations that various administrative agencies will eventually promulgate. As Gary Lawson has written recently, "Implementation of the Act will require many years and literally thousands of administrative regulations that will determine its substantive content and coverage."

This situation creates tremendous uncertainty that affects virtually all firms. After all, no matter how firms may differ in other regards, they all hire employees, and in most cases employee compensation amounts to a major part of their total cost of operation. Repeal of ObamaCare would have many benefits, but surely a great benefit would be the removal of an ominous cloud of uncertainty about a critical matter that now hangs over the entire labor market. In the face of this uncertainty, few firms have been, or will be, willing to assume the risk associated with increasing their permanent, full-time workforce.

Robert Higgs is a senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute. He is the author of Crisis and Leviathan: Criticial Episodes in the Growth of American Government, and several other books.

Deirdre McCloskey

"Jobs" are deals between workers and employers, and so "creating" them out of unwilling parties is impossible. The state, though, can outlaw deals, and has. So: eliminate the minimum wage for people younger than 25. The resulting boom in jobs for young people will amaze. Maybe it will inspire voters to get the state out of the job-outlawing business. Probably not, so sure are we that the state "protects" by stopping deals between willing parties.

Deirdre McCloskey is a professor of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.

Amity Shlaes

The single thing the U.S. could do to ensure long-term growth, including that of jobs, is to reform our Federal Reserve so that monetary policy is rules-based, not personality-based. Even a return to the gold standard would do, though it is also possible to fashion a monetary regime under which the currency is pegged to a basket of commodities. 

Amity Shlaes is a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. Her biography of Calvin Coolidge will be released next spring.

John Stossel

Close the Departments of Labor, Commerce, Agriculture, Energy, and HUD, then eliminate three fourths of all regulations.

John Stossel's show Stossel airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Fox Business Network. He contributes a regular column to Reason.com.

Donald Boudreaux

My answer (within the realm of "remotely politically possible") is: Replace all income taxes, including that on capital gains, with a consumption tax. But do this only if the Constitution is amended to prevent government from taxing incomes and capital gains.                     

A second, less radical, proposal is to eliminate capital gains taxes and amend the Constitution to prevent Uncle Sam from taxing personal and corporate incomes at marginal rates higher than 20 percent.

Donald Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University, and blogs at Cafe Hayek.

Bryan Caplan

Easy: Cut employers' share of the payroll tax.

Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He is the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, and most recently, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

Bruce Bartlett

I don't believe there is any way to increase employment significantly without raising the rate of economic growth. Therefore, the real question is how to raise economic growth. I continue to believe that the economy's fundamental problem is a lack of aggregate demand.

I think a dose of inflation is just what the economy needs and libertarians should stop being so obsessive about it. Moreover, I think at some point they need to admit that the Fed cannot raise aggregate demand by itself when the economy is in a liquidity trap, which it obviously is based on the level of interest rates being close to zero.

Under these circumstances, I believe that some form of aggressive fiscal policy is necessary to get money circulating, raise the velocity of money, and get the economy out of a liquidity trap. I do not believe, under current circumstances, there is any type of tax cut that would achieve this goal; only direct spending by the government on purchases of goods and services will help. Therefore, the Fed will, somehow or other, have to figure out how to raise aggregate demand by itself.

The only other thing I can think of to raise growth would be a deliberate devaluation of the dollar, which would raise exports. Theoretically, the Fed could buy as much foreign currency as necessary to bring the dollar down. But this is impractical because foreign countries can retaliate by buying dollars with their own currency or impose restrictions on U.S. imports. Any policy of devaluation would be strenuously opposed domestically by those who are obsessed with the idea that the dollar should be strong regardless of the economic conditions.

I realize that everything I have just said is totally contrary to the libertarian worldview. However, I believe that implementation of libertarian policies, such as cutting spending and tightening monetary policy, under current economic conditions will only make it worse. I support any regulatory measure anyone can think of to reduce unemployment, but am disinclined to think there are any that will have more than a trivial effect under current macroeconomic conditions.

Bruce Bartlett was a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official under George H.W. Bush. His most recent book is The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward.

Jeffrey Miron

Policymakers should stop worrying about job growth. Instead, they should focus on eliminating economic policies that impede economic efficiency—runaway entitlements, a horrendous tax code, excessive regulation, impediments to free trade, and more—and then let the job situation fix itself.

Jeffrey Miron is the director of undergraduate studies and a professor of economics at Harvard University.

John Berlau

Repeal portions of the Bush-era Sarbanes-Oxley Act to make it easier for smaller companies to raise capital by going public, and thus expand and create thousands more jobs.

Repeal portions of last year's Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which has created hundreds of pending rules causing uncertainty and a halt in hiring for everyone from banks and credit unions to retailers and manufacturers that extend credit or hedge financial risks with derivatives.

Pass the bipartisan Small Business Lending Enhancement Act—S. 509 by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and in HR 1418, by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.)—to lift the aribitrary cap on business lending by credit unions. The Credit Union National Association estimates that easing this barrier would create over 140,000 jobs in the first year and thousands more in the years after that.

John Berlau is director of the Center for Investors and Entrepreneurs at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Allan Meltzer

We have made the mistake of using short-term policy changes to try to cope with a long-term problem. There are several long-term changes called for. There is great uncertainty and lack of confidence in the future. That reduces investment and employment. One change that would reduce uncertainty is a five-year moratorium on new regulation except for national security. Another would be a budget agreement that made the debt sustainable. Not likely. Third; corporate tax rate reduction paid for by closing loopholes. Finally, we need assurance that we won't have inflation. A credible, enforced inflation target would work.

Allan Meltzer is a professor of economics and the political economy at the Carnegie Mellon University Kepper School of Business.

Ira Stoll

Congress should stop extending unemployment benefits, and better yet, restructure the unemployment insurance program or block-grant it to the states to allow them to experiment with ways of doing so. The idea is to change the program so it creates an incentive for recipients to get a job, rather than an incentive for them to remain unemployed.

This could involve altering the unemployment benefit formula so that the amount of the payment gradually decreases over time, reducing the propensity of beneficiaries to stay on unemployment until they frantically search for a job and find it just as the benefits run out.

Or it could involve allowing states "the flexibility to convert their unemployment insurance payments from checks sent to the jobless into vouchers that can be used by companies to hire workers," as Bloomberg News columnist Jonathan Alter suggests, relaying an idea from a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, Alan Khazei.

Or it could involve changing the program so recipients get a hefty share of their benefits up front, as a lump sum. They can then use the money as capital to start small businesses. Or if they find a job quickly, they can save or invest or spend the money. (No repeat passes, though; the idea is to increase incentives for finding or creating a job, not rewards for people who get themselves fired.) Another approach might be to fold unemployment together with health, college, homeownership and retirement as expenses that people can save for in a tax-favored account.

Ira Stoll is the editor and founder of FutureOfCapitalism.com and the author of Samuel Adams: A Life. His weekly column appears at Reason.com.

Walter Olson

If I could press a button and instantly vaporize one sector of employment law, I think I'd pick age discrimination.

Its beneficiaries are among those needing least assistance. The main cash-and-carry effect of age-bias law is to confer legal leverage on older male holders of desirable jobs, such as managers, pilots, and college professors, who by threatening to raise the issue can extract ampler severance packets than might otherwise be offered them. Much legal talent is wasted in the resulting exit negotiations, which seldom seem to rouse the ire of critics of gaudy executive pay, golden parachutes and so forth. 

It blatantly backfires on those it tries to help. Once cut loose from the old job, those same buyout recipients find it harder to land the next high-level job because of the perception that older hires are more likely to need buyouts not far down the road.

It generates pointless avoidance mechanisms. Ask your HR director about the costly stage in layoff strategy known as "age-balancing the RIF" or about the many small-talk questions you're not supposed to ask at job interviews for fear of seeming interested in the subject ("I notice you're a veteran. Which war?") or about the brain-cracking legal headaches that arise from the premise that (at least in some situations) the design of pension plans is supposed to take no notice of age.

Its intellectual basis is lighter than helium. Race, sex, sexual orientation and disability each form the basis of a major identity politics movement. But really: "ageism?" It's one thing to abridge liberty to expiate the national guilt of antebellum slavery, but can anyone keep a straight face in proclaiming persons of late middle age a historically oppressed class?

Please, I want to see this law repealed before I'm too old to enjoy it.

Walter Olson is a contributing editor to Reason, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and proprietor of Overlawyered.com.

Peter Schiff

To make the greatest impact on persistent unemployment, the government should pursue policies that allow the free market to set wages, benefits, and all issues related to employment. Just as employees are allowed to leave jobs for whatever reason, employers should be allowed to hire and fire based on any criteria without fear of litigation. In other words, liability cost for hiring employees should be minimized. Employees become easier to hire once employers know that their downside risks are minimized. In addition, all labor laws protecting employees from employers, including minimum wage laws, should be repealed.                      

Employment is a voluntary relationship between two parties. Our laws should reflect and support that concept to the highest extent possible. Employees do not qualify for special privileges (inappropriately labeled worker's rights) simply because they accept a job, and employers do not lose their rights and become subjected to special obligations just because they hire. The playing field should be level.

Peter Schiff is the CEO of Euro Pacific Capital and the author of How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes.

Alex Tabarrok

QE3: Fed should buy lots of long term T-bonds.

Alex Tabarrok is the Bartley J. Madden Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Fred L. Smith

Approve the Keystone XL Pipeline: 20,000 jobs created. The 1,700 mile Keystone XL Pipeline would link expanding Canadian crude production from tar sands with America's first-class refining hub in the Midwest and along the Gulf. The $7 billion project would roughly double U.S. imports of tar sands oil from western Canada.

Because the Keystone XL pipeline crosses an international border, the primary permitting agency is the State Department. However, oil production from tar sands is more carbon-intensive than traditional production, so environmentalist groups are staunchly opposed to it. As a result, the project has been in a permitting limbo for three years. By approving the project in short order, President Barack Obama would directly create more than 20,000 high-wage manufacturing jobs and construction jobs in 2011-2013, according to an independent analysis by the Perryman Group.

Fred L. Smith Jr. is the president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.