How Close Are We To 'Full Employment'?

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By New Deal Democrat

Paul Krugman ignited a small kerfluffle this week when he suggested that we are close enough to full employment that any fiscal stimulus would lead to "crowding out." Jared Bernstein disagreed.

I think Bernstein is correct. We aren't yet at full employment.

One way to look at this is to compare the UNemployment rate (U3) with the UNDERemployment rate (U6):

In the above graph, we see that in the last two expansions, the U6 rate was at its current 9.5% rate, when U3 was about 5.3%. In other words, our current situation is akin to what we had at 5.3% unemployment in the last two expansions - not a recession rate to be sure, but not full employment either.

An even better way, I think, is to look at two perennially lackluster employment series: "Not in the Labor Force, but Want a Job Now" and "Part Time for Economic Reasons."

In the below graphs, I show how they compare with the official unemployment rate during this expansion vs. the prior two expansions (the "part time" series only goes back to 1994).

Here is Not in Labor Force, but Want a Job Now:

During the best years of both expansions since 1994, about 4.6 million people +/-300,000 put themselves in this category. As of December 2016, this was at about 5.6 million people - or 1 million over periods of full employment.

Here is Part Time for Economic Reasons:

During the best years of the 1990s expansion, a little over 3 million people put themselves in this category. During the weaker 2000s expansion, it was a little over 4 million. This too as of December 2016 stood at about 5.6 million people.

In other words, to get to the best years of even the weaker 2000s expansion, we would need 1 million people who want a job to enter the workforce, plus another 1.5 million part-timers to find full-time employment.

As of last month, the civilian labor force was 159,640,000 people. Thus, we need a little over 1.5% improvement in the employment situation (2.5 million of 160 million) to get to what constituted full employment in the last two expansions.