The Fed’s “Hammer” Can Be Used to Great Effect to Improve Prospects for Minority Workers

Update: Binyamin Appelbaum has made a useful change to his article that I comment on below, noting that Black workers do indeed stand to benefit disproportionately from any demand boost that keeps overall unemployment rates falling in coming years. Again, however, I think that while he makes an important point, it still doesn’t strike me as right to frame it as about the limits of monetary policy. His point (as I read it) is that the gap in unemployment rates between Black and White workers is an economic problem that policymakers should seek to end, but this end-goal of no racial unemployment gap at all cannot be achieved with any single policy lever. 

But while an expansionary monetary policy is not a sufficient condition to erase the racial unemployment gap, it is a necessary condition. That is, the first step towards tearing down racial bias in hiring is to rob employers of the economic power they can use to indulge this bias. And the best way to rob them of this economic power is to have tight labor markets that force employers to compete to hire workers. So, macroeconomic policy (which is dominated by the Federal Reserve) is just crucial to meeting the long-run goal of ending racial unemployment gaps. 

Finally, while the existence of a racial unemployment gap in both good and bad times is a terrible problem, it’s an even bigger problem when the respective White and Black unemployment rates are 5.3 and 11.3 percent (like they were in 2014) than when they are 3.5 and 7.6 percent (like they were in 2000). So while ending the racial unemployment gap entirely should be the long-game, we also need to be keenly aware of what can alleviate economic pain in the short run. And that short-run is just dominated by what the Fed decides to do. 

Simply put, the most effective policy lever to reduce the black unemployment rate in the next few years is for the Fed to keep its foot off the economic brakes by keeping short-term interest rates low until we see real signs of healthy wage growth for American workers.

Binyamin Appelbaum gets one deeply wrong in the New York Times, riffing off a report released by the Center for Popular Democracy with (full disclosure) data assistance from EPI and concludes with a version of the old saying that the Fed’s “hammer” can’t effectively address non-nail problems like excessive unemployment.

Appelbaum notes that the report shows that Black unemployment rates are significantly higher than White (or overall) unemployment rates in both recessions and recoveries. Fair enough. And if his conclusions had simply been that because the gap persists in both booms and busts that monetary policy alone cannot completely erase these unemployment gaps, that would also have been fair enough.

But instead he pushed this idea way too far, and ended getting something completely wrong. In his words (brackets and emphasis added by me):

“The same factors [that keep unemployment rates higher for Black workers in both good times and bad] help to explain why black workers are quicker to lose jobs and slower to return to work. Any given level of economic stimulus, as a result, helps black workers less than it helps white workers.”

This is totally backwards. Because Black unemployment is almost exactly double White unemployment in both recessions and booms, this means that Black workers are indeed “quicker to lose jobs” during recoveries, but they are actually faster, not “slower” to return to work. And any given level of economic stimulus reduces Black unemployment by twice as many percentage points as it reduces White unemployment, helping Black workers more than it helps White workers. In short, as the CPD report shows, the stakes regarding at what pace the economy improves and overall unemployment falls are highest for Black workers. And this means that the stakes regarding Fed decisions are highest for Black workers.

He also notes, “And it follows that the level of stimulus necessary to reduce excessive black unemployment may well be excessive for the economy as a whole.”

Maybe, though lots depends on both instances of “excessive” in that sentence. Regarding current debates over the Fed (ie, what they do in the next 6-12 months) we know that current Black unemployment is indeed “excessive” and we also know that it will be significantly reduced (at twice the pace of the overall rate!) the longer the Fed allows the recovery to proceed without braking it by raising interest rates.

And worries about “excessive” overall aggregate demand growth and monetary stimulus are still completely theoretical. This demand growth can be labeled “excessive” with respect to the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target only when there is a sustained period of wage-growth that is about double its current pace (which really hasn’t picked up since the recession’s trough).

The late 1990s offers a good reminder on both these points. First, when overall unemployment fell far enough to average just over 4 percent for two full years in 1999 and 2000, Black unemployment fell to levels (7.0 percent for a month, and below 8 percent for a majority of months in 1999 and 2000)) far lower than the 11.3 percent it averaged during 2014. And there was no evidence from that earlier period that these levels of overall unemployment and demand-growth were excessive – inflation actually fell in the late 90s, even as wages rose across-the-board.

What CPD and EPI (and others) are calling for when they ask the Fed to keep its foot off of the economic brakes in the name of helping the lot of the most vulnerable workers is precisely to probe the limits of excessive stimulus. That is, the Fed should be much more willing to experiment with very low rates of unemployment even if it risks a period of above-average inflation. If the Fed pursued this it would do more to help the most vulnerable workers than nearly any other single policy. So in this regard, the economic health of minority communities is one problem that the Fed’s policy hammer is very well designed to help.