The decline of home construction is not the primary reason that our labor market remains depressed: Keynesian policies are.
If we accept that the housing sector was overbuilt by 2006, then it might seem inevitable that a recession would follow as the housing sector downsized, workers shifted from construction to other industries and workers moved from overbuilt regions to other places in America.
But as Paul Krugman points out in his “End This Depression Now!” the recession of 2008-9 did not have many industries that were growing, let alone growing as a consequence of reallocation away from home construction.
Moreover, transitions between industries and regions have happened before, but happened gradually as demographic and other trends slowly but powerfully altered the composition of economic activity. By comparison, this recession came on suddenly.
To put it another way: for every worker that construction lost between 2007 and 2010, the rest of the economy lost at least another five workers, rather than gaining workers. I agree with Professor Krugman and other opponents of the “sectoral shifts theory” that something must have happened — in less than a year or two — that profoundly affected practically all industries and practically every region.
But just because sectoral shifts are at best a small part of what happened does not mean that huge government subsidies would take the labor market back to what it was before the recession. A Keynesian-style demand collapse is not the only aggregate event that could happen or did happen.
In my new book, I explain how, in the matter of a few quarters of 2008 and 2009, new federal and state laws greatly enhanced the help given to the poor and unemployed — from expansion of food-stamp eligibility to enlargement of food-stamp benefits to payment of unemployment bonuses — sharply eroding (and, in some cases, fully eliminating) the incentives for workers to seek and retain jobs, and for employers to create jobs or avoid layoffs.
Economists normally think that eroding incentives (as they call it, raising marginal labor income tax rates) depresses the labor market rather than expanding it, and that it would be tough for the labor market to get back to its 2007 form without returning incentives to what they were back then.
Yet Professor Krugman asserts that he would end this depression now with an even bigger stimulus — with more help for the poor and unemployed — that would further erode incentives and further penalize success.
Remarkably, “End This Depression Now!” says nothing about marginal tax rates or incentives to work, either as they actually evolved or as they would appear in Professor Krugman’s ideal stimulus. Nor does the book explain why economists or anyone else should ignore sharp marginal tax-rate increases, or why paying people for not working would have nearly the expansionary effect of military buildups and the like. (These absences are conspicuous to economists who are familiar with Professor Krugman’s academic work on how excessive debts harm debtor incentives.)