“Cyclical” Unemployment – Part 5 of ‘Unemployment and Revolution’ (by Albert Langer in 1981)

Part 5: “Cyclical” Unemployment

– Anarchy of Production
– Planning and Money
– Profitability
– Overproduction
– Are Wages Too High?
– Stimulating Demand
– Economic Crisis

5. “CYCLICAL” UNEMPLOYMENT

Well, we have established that the normal adjustment mechanisms in the labour market will not necessarily eliminate unemployment, and we have shown that the unemployment we have now is not “technological”. We have conceded that there is a “real wage overhang” but not conceded that lower real wages would reduce unemployment. We have not yet answered the question of why things have changed from the “normal” regulation of unemployment, nor what can be done about it.

We will now attempt to explain what is meant by “cyclical” unemployment and how this involves a “crisis of overproduction”. Unfortunately the explanation below is not very clear or complete. Generally a good test of whether you really understand something is how well you can explain it to others. So I guess I am not very clear on this stuff myself. Any queries and comments on the following material would be especially welcome.

First of all, what’s new? Why is the labour market not regulating unemployment like it used to? The conventional wisdoms about unemployment just take it for granted that since there is something wrong with the labour market then both the cause of the problem and the solution to it must also lie in the labour market. But in fact they do not, because unemployment and wage rates are not the only things out of kilter.

The labour market is not operating normally because forces outside the labour market have changed the way in which jobs are being created and destroyed. We must therefore look outside it to explain those changes.

Unemployment is part of the mechanism that regulates wages, prices, the rate of profit and the balance between production, consumption and investment. However it would be a gross oversimplification to pretend that it is the sole, or even the main factor.

Unemployment is not even the only factor regulating wages, let alone regulating the economy as a whole. In addition to the labour market, other markets are also out of balance.

Commodity prices are at record levels and still rising, financial markets have record interest rates, foreign exchange market are all over the place, and so on. Something has really gone quite wrong, and it is something that effects all aspects of the economy.

We will argue that what is wrong is “overproduction”. The fundamental cause is the basic anarchy of a market economy. Nothing very much can be done about it except passing through another major economic crisis – or overthrowing the system and building a new one.

Anarchy of Production

It is often assumed that the output of capitalist industry is simply divided between wages and profits.
From one side this leads to the idea that profitability can be simply restored by cutting wages. From the other side it leads to the idea that increasing wages would “stimulate demand”. Once again we have both “left-wing” and “right-wing” prescriptions resting on the same faulty analysis.

In fact only a small part of the total output of industry goes into consumption goods purchased either from wages or profits. The bulk of the output consists of means of production which are used either to replace those used up in the previous period, or for investment in expanding production in the next period.

The “Gross National Product” is not the total output, but output net of all the intermediate products produced and consumed in further production. Even the GNP includes investment as well as consumption. Cutting wages will not solve the problem of realising profits by selling the total output on the market. The product has to be sold before the proceeds can be divided up between wages and profits.

Raising wages also will not solve that problem. Most of the total output is bought by capitalists as means of production, and their ability to buy it depends critically on profits, which would be reduced further by raising wages.

For reproduction to proceed smoothly, the demand for means of production as replacement and new investment must provide a market for those means of production that have actually been produced. The profits made selling goods and services on the market must provide the investment funds to buy them on the same market. Surplus value is produced when products are made, but profits are not realised until the products are sold.

The demand for consumer goods and services by capitalists and workers must correspond to the consumption goods that have been produced. The increase in demand for consumer goods from one period to the next must correspond to the investment that has been made in the previous period to meet that demand. The investment in industries producing consumer goods depends on previous investment by industries producing the necessary means of production, and so on.

Not only the profits, but the cost of production itself, can only be realised if the products are sold on the market. The sale of each firm’s output depends on some other firm (or consumer), buying these products as inputs. The money to buy the inputs depends on the sale of the outputs.

Production has become highly socialised, with every firm directly or indirectly dependent on every other firm through the immensely complex social division of labour. The gigantic means of production operated by huge labour forces are geared to production for the whole of society. They are basically social means of production only useable in common. Yet the physical exchange of necessary inputs and outputs between different establishments is entirely dependent on free market relations.

Any disproportions will result in goods unsold, profits unrealised and investments not made – whether wages are high or low. Sever disproportions will result in suppliers unpaid, bankruptcies and market collapses. This cannot be rectified simply by cutting wages, if there is no market for what has been produced.

In a full scale crisis, products can be virtually unsaleable at any price,and may be dumped on the market by bankrupt firms unable to pay their creditors. Not only can profit margins become too small, and then disappear entirely, but the value added can disappear too, so that production would not be worthwhile even with zero wages. *In fact the value of raw materials (plant and stock) etc can also disappear so that a finished product will fetch more as scrap for its component materials than it will on the oversaturated market for that product. Whole steel plants and shipbuilding yards were scrapped in this way during the last depression.

What ensures that the proper proportions will be maintained so that exactly those goods are produced that are required? Very simple. It is a market economy, so the market regulates it. If demand for a particular product exceeds supply, the price will go up. If production becomes more profitable than average, capital will be attracted to that industry instead of others. Profit is what regulates the economy and profit is all that regulates it. The miracle is not that this sometimes breaks down in a crisis, but that it ever hangs together at all!

Planning and Money

Actually of course, things are not quite that fragile. There is a lot of leeway because firms can go on producing even at less than the average rate of profit, so long as they do not make a loss. They can even bear a loss for some time, as long as they do not go bankrupt. They can even keep trading after they have become insolvent, as long as nobody knows. Goods that are not sold to final buyers can still be sold to wholesalers, or accumulated in inventory.

The credit system is extremely flexible and can be stretched to cover disproportions in particular sectors, and also in the economy as a whole. This is a major topic in itself, quite central to understanding overproduction and crises, but unfortunately it can not be covered here.

But all this leeway and flexibility also implies that disproportions can continue developing for some time before they break out in a crisis.

It will seem to highly profitable firms that their market is still expanding, when actually the demand is coming from firms that are already operating on reduced profit margins, or are insolvent, and from wholesalers which are not actually able to sell the goods to final buyers, and so on. Faced with this apparently “expanding” market the profitable firms will expand their investment, which in turn stimulates demand in other sectors and keeps the whole boom going. But the margins get narrower, credit gets tighter and eventually the whole thing blows up *(implodes).

Another aspect is that production is far more planned than it used to be. Whole sectors of the world economy are each under the management of a single centralised transnational corporation. Governments and international organisations play important co-ordinating and planning roles. There are serious efforts to predict the demand, supply and prices of everything that is produced, and to use these predictions for quite long range planning of production and investment.

But these forecasts and plans still revolve around the market. Nobody allocates the total social product between the different sectors of industry and individual establishments. They buy and sell it from each other because they each privately own a different part of it. Their relations are money relations.

When money breaks down, the “social fabric” unwinds, because money is the social fabric of a market economy. The more large scale and long term the plans, the more fundamental the disproportions that can develop before the crisis actually breaks out.

Again, we need to study the essential nature of money to understand why it breaks down in a crisis, but that will not be gone into here. We tend to take money for granted, as though it is perfectly natural that everything produced should have a price. Yet the social relations expressed by money are extremely difficult to grasp and absolutely fundamental to the nature of market economies.

Profitability

If any single regulator can be considered decisive in a capitalist economy, it is the real average rate of profit. This is what determines the flow of investment from one sector to another and regulates a balance between production and consumption. Wages are one factor influencing profitability, but others are just as important.

In “equilibrium”, higher wages means lower profits, but we are now discussing “disequilibrium” and very often the same factors that push profits above and below their “natural” rate, will push wages in the same direction, until the underlying real movement forces a change in direction for both.

What determines the creation and destruction of jobs is the extent and labour intensity of investment. Investment depends on profitability, in which wages are only one factor. The price at which the output can be sold is just as big a factor.

Over the whole period of the capitalist business cycle we find a general trend up and down in the rate of profit with corresponding trends in employment, prices, interest rates and so on. When the business cycle lasted only five or ten years, these movements were very obvious. But since we have not had a full scale crash since the 1930’s, the changes appear to be long term secular movements rather than features of a business cycle.

Yet the usual pattern can be seen of an apparent high rate of profit with rising prices followed by overproduction, falling profit margins, increasing unemployment and so on.

A characteristic feature is the gradual stretching of credit as overproduction intensifies, until the whole structure becomes top heavy and topples over. While Keynesians are clamouring for more credit expansion, the structure of debt has already become far more top heavy than in any previous period. Most corporations now run on ratios of debt to equity in excess of 80%. There is no room for the slightest drop in prices and profitability without actual bankruptcy.

Another feature is the gradual increase in unemployment until the actual crisis breaks out and intensifies unemployment enormously. This unemployment is “cyclical” because it reaches a peak at the depths of a depression and is a minimum at the height of prosperity. It reflects an overall state of demand in the economy that moves quite differently from the “normal” regulation of wages and unemployment during the phase of prosperity.

There is not the slightest sign of a reversal in these trends and no reason to believe they can be reversed except by the outbreak of a full scale crisis. Just as the labour market is unregulated and must correct its own fluctuations, so there is no overall authority that can ensure a balance between production and consumption, savings and investment, borrowing and lending. In general terms, production creates its own market, and it is theoretically possible for capitalist production and accumulation to continue indefinitely. Theories of “underconsumption” are quite wrong.

But periodic overproduction is inevitable, for reasons explained here. It is only the overproduction itself, and its effect on the rate of profit, that can bring into play the mechanism for restoring a balance. The mechanism for restoring a balance is a collapse in the rate of profit, that is to say, the balance is restored by having an economic crisis.

Overproduction

During a boom, excess demand pulls up prices, including wages, and there is an overinvestment of capital so that more capital is being invested than can ultimately return the expected rate of profit.

More workers may also be attracted into the labour force. This may go on for a long time, with various ups and downs, as the demand for investment goods and services feeds itself, and as credit is stretched.

Each firm can only estimate its market from previous trends and price movements. It has no “guaranteed buyers” for the same reason that labour does not. Planning must proceed on the basis of an assumed expansion of markets, and generally that assumption is self-fulfilling.

The general expansion of investments itself creates a market for the goods produced and allows the expansion to continue. *Every firm is continuously engaged in a relative overproduction, producing more than it knows it has a market for. Yet while the economy is expanding generally, the consequences of a miscalculation will only be a local loss of profits and not bankruptcy or market collapse.

As long as business is brisk, capitalism hardly seems to be obstructing the growth of the productive forces at all. There is no barrier to production beyond the capacity of labour, natural resources and existing plant and stockpiles to produce more goods. But eventually the shit hits the fan and plant is installed to produce goods and services that just cannot be sold at the expected profit margins.

Then the nice “demand pull inflation” that was stimulating increased production turns into nasty “cost push inflation” with the opposite effect. It has to, since one firm’s costs are another firm’s demands. All that can postpone the equation between input “costs” and output “prices” is continued intensification of the excess demand of the boom, and the same factors that postpone it must intensify the crash when it comes.

It turns out then that there is a barrier to capitalist production, namely profitability. Goods can only be produced if they can be sold for more than it cost to produce them. When too many are produced to keep prices at that level, profits disappear and so does production.

It turns out then that for a long time investment has been taking place in the wrong proportions between the sectors producing consumer goods and those producing means of production. More should have gone to producing the means of production for producing more means of production. Less should have gone into directly producing consumer goods because the market there is mainly wages and the workers are not very rich.

But this could not have been noticed before, because production was being expanded more or less uniformly on the assumption of uniformly expanded demand. Why should anyone think that capitalist production has to produce a higher and higher proportion of means of production instead of a balanced output including the final consumer goods themselves?

When the boom stops feeding itself and stops being fed, there is a sudden collapse in the rate of profit and a “crisis of overproduction”. Consumer goods sectors crash because there is not a market for the amount that has been produced (not that we could not benefit from a higher standard of living, but we have not got the money to pay for it). Sectors producing means of production also crash because nobody is buying means of production to expand their capacity to produce goods that cannot be sold.

In the subsequent “bust”, wages are one of the things that have to come down before a new boom can begin, but a lot of other adjustments have to occur too. The crisis involves destroying or devaluing a large part of the overinvested capital and restructuring the whole economy.

When the crisis is over, capital has been restructured in favour of means of production so that much more productive techniques are used, with a higher organic composition of capital. This lays the basis for the next boom with a much higher standard of living than the last one.

Monopoly capitalism is much more flexible than laissez-faire capitalism and has mechanisms for relatively smooth variations of output to correspond to demand. Minor fluctuations will not produce large price movements or great changes in installed plant capacity, but only changes in plant utilisation, inventory levels, and credit stretching. As with the labour market and unemployment or labour shortages, these flexible mechanisms have to already be stretched considerably, before disproportions will actually show up as overproduction and reduced profits.

Even more stretching is required before overproduction could result in the sort of market collapse that used to occur quite regularly in the days of laissez-faire. But since there is no other overall regulator, that stretching is bound to occur, until it does produce the crisis needed to restructure the economy and restore a balance. Since the end of laissez-faire capitalism, crises have been much less frequent but far more devastating, when the flexible limits are eventually overstretched.

Are Wages Too High?

In the period between boom and bust, it is possible for the share of wages in GNP, and real wage costs per unit output, to be higher than usual, even while real wages are falling and unemployment is growing. Conservative economists conclude that this must be the cause of the problem, and the solution must be to push real wages down faster.

But wages appear to be “high” because profits are low. Real profits are falling because overproduction means the goods cannot be sold at their usual profit margins, even if nominal accounting profits at inflated prices are still “record”. This alone implies a higher relative share for wages. The real problem is how to raise profits, and that depends more in this case on prices than wages.

If there was simply a “fluctuation” in demand, with a smooth corresponding adjustment of production and employment, then there would be no problem. Real wage costs would not depart from their normal trend. This has been the experience in previous recessions in Australia, such as 1951-52 and 1960-61. But “overproduction” implies that the unsaleable goods have actually been produced, or the plant capacities to produce them have actually been installed, so that profit levels remain depressed and the ratio of wages to output is changed.

Overproduction implies that the prices of firms’ outputs cannot go up fast enough compared with the prices of their inputs, and this is described as “cost-push inflation” rather than the “demand-pull inflation” of the boom. But it really reflects a situation where there is not a sufficient market for the goods that have been produced. The result is excess capacity as firms cut back their production to keep prices up, and lower labour productivity since the labour force is not reduced in proportion to the restriction in production.

This lower labour productivity resulting from capitalist anarchy becomes the subject of sermons to the workers on not being too greedy. The underlying cause of changes in the relative share of labour in the GNP and the real cost of labour per unit output, is the overproduction and overinvestment, not any imbalance in the labour market. Nevertheless, the effect is similar to labour shortages having driven up wages (which indeed is one of the many things that does happen when overinvestment reaches its peak at the height of the boom),. The response is a slackening in job creating investment and increased unemployment.

One feature is that investment can become more capital intensive than normal, based on the apparently high real cost of labour per unit output. This can destroy jobs faster than they are being created. The unemployment created in this way can and does produce lower real wages since it implies a “slacker” demand for labour. The normal operation of the labour market, will bring down wages until this particular source of increased unemployment is no longer operating, even though the apparently high relative cost of labour is due to output restrictions rather than high real wages.

But the more important reason for growing unemployment is that since profit margins are not high enough on the overproduced goods, there is a lack of funds for any investment that would create new jobs at all – whether labour intensive or capital intensive.

Will Lower Wages Reduce Unemployment?

Lower real wages cannot increase employment since high wages were not the cause of investment drying up. So the apparent imbalances in the labour market continue growing and unemployment continues increasing without being able to produce any equilibrium.

Indeed it is even possible for real wages to rise during a depression, despite mass unemployment. This can occur because it is not wages, but markets, that are limiting investment and employment. Firms can continue their (reduced) production levels despite high wages, and will not expand production and increase employment just because wages come down. Unemployment exerts a downward pressure on wages, but since the employers demand for labour is not highly dependent on wage levels, that pressure can be counteracted.

Wage rates are determined far more by variations in the demand for labour with price than by variations in its supply. Thus the predictions of orthodox economists have been totally confounded by the simultaneous expansion of female employment together with equal pay, and by the trade unions present capacity to fight for shorter hours and higher wages despite more unemployment.

In both these situations we have a level of demand for labour that is not sharply dependent on its price. The first during a boom and the second at the end of one.

Even when the demand for labour is falling, it need not produce a fall in wages unless the demand depends on the wage rate. A firm that has already cut staff to reduce output and has excess capacity, will not necessarily cut staff further if wages go up. The same output will still be required to maximise profit, and the same staff will be required to achieve that output, even if profit is further depressed by increasing wages.

Thus even while the total demand for labour is reduced, that demand may become less “slack” – less variable according to wages, and the bargaining position of workers who are still employed may actually improve. Wages can still rise to the point at which it becomes more profitable to use less labour intensive techniques, or to cut back production and employment further. Given excess capacity, there may be considerable room for wages to rise before either of those points is reached.

Here the distinction between “slack demand” and “unemployment” as a cause of falling wages becomes important. Real wages actually rose at times during the last depression, despite mass unemployment. They also rose sharply during the “wages explosion” of 1974, despite increasing unemployment. They have still not fallen a great deal. The conventional conservative theory of wages and unemployment finds it difficult to account for these facts and compensates for this difficulty by hysterical attacks on unions.

Mass unemployment can compel a reduction in real wages, after working class organisation has been smashed. It can do this by compelling workers to accept wages that are less than the value of their labour power (ie less than the “marginal product” of labour they can obtain as unionists selling at a monopoly price). But that in itself is not enough to restore equilibrium. Unemployment will continue until the overinvestment and overproduction has been worked out of the system. More drastic cuts in real wages will not change the fact that goods are not being sold profitably enough for new investment to absorb the unemployment.

Further cuts in real wages will certainly increase profits, and will be welcomed by employers, but no amount of cuts can make investment profitable when there is no market for more goods. Even at zero wages, nobody is going to build new car plants, when the cars already produced are piling up unsold, or are being sold at low profit margins. More cars may be sold because they are cheaper with lower wages, but not enough more to absorb the excess capacity and encourage new investment. The lower wages will simply increase profits without increasing investment. By keeping up wages in a depression, unions are not doing the unemployed out of a job, but simply depriving capitalists of surplus profits.

Stimulating Demand

Keynesians argue that excess production capacity implies a “slack” in the economy which leaves room for employment to be increased by government action to stimulate demand, without necessarily pulling up prices. But this misses the whole point of the adjustment mechanisms that have produced the excess capacity in the first place.

Excess capacity has appeared because market demand does not allow firms to raise their output prices enough to maintain profit margins. Any stimulation of demand must therefore produce a rise in prices before it will produce an increase in output. There would be “slack” if plant was being underutilised because of a fluctuation in demand and the normal adjustment to it. But there is no “slack” when profit margins have already fallen. There is just “excess capacity”.

Once excess capacity has appeared, attempts to stimulate demand by extending credit with the budget deficit, amount to buying up the overproduced goods on the “never-never”. Extending credit means extending debt. Ultimately there has to be a real market or the postponement of bankruptcy by extending credit only adds to the size of the crash when it finally comes.

That of course may not be such a bad thing. There is no harm in demonstrating what heights of prosperity could be achieved by the permanent boom of socialism at the expense of a deeper crash by capitalism when it fails to maintain that prosperity. But we are already at a stage where the credit has been rather fully extended. While governments should and will continue to extend it as long as they can, that may not be all that long. Governments go bankrupt too.

Economic Crisis

The next phase of the business cycle, which we have not seen yet, involves market collapses to restructure production and get rid of the overinvestment. This is not the place to enter into a detailed analysis of the nature of capitalist crisis, and the particular characteristics and timing of the coming one. This would also involve considering the expansion and contraction of credit, the operation of financial and capital markets and so on. It would also be necessary to explain inflation and the real and apparent movements of relative prices. In any case I do not understand it well enough to say much more.

But the implication of all this for unemployment is simple. The whole world economy is out of balance and only an overall crisis will restore that balance. It is not just a matter of pushing down wages until the labour market is back in balance. Nor are there any other easy solutions.

At the moment we have both rising prices and growing unemployment and that is seen as a unique phenomenon different from any previous cycle of boom and bust. But in fact it is simply a more long, drawn out version of the usual pattern. The boom has basically ended and unemployment has started to grow. But the “bust” has not happened yet and we have not yet got a real crisis or massive unemployment. There is still real economic growth and rising prices and even room for some renewed mini-booms because the next phase of the business cycle has not yet begun. During the late 1920’s unemployment also started to rise while prices were still going up and before the actual crash.

The “price mechanism” we learn about in orthodox economics textbooks does work. A market economy, a capitalist economy, can develop the productive forces to higher and higher levels without central planning. But a pool of unemployed fluctuating between small and large is an essential part of how it works. The price mechanism does not prevent market collapses and economic crises. Crises are an essential feature of the way it works. Booms end in busts and busts pave the way for booms because there is no other regulatory mechanism in a market economy.

The “balancing mechanisms” and regulators of a market economy all sound quite neat and clever. But they are proving extremely destructive. What an incredibly archaic way to regulate an economy in this day and age!

The Great Depression of the 1930’s was the only way that the “roaring twenties” could end. That depression and the Second World War paved the way for unparalleled prosperity in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The post war boom was longer and reached greater heights than any previous boom in the history of capitalism. The period of teetering on the edge between boom and bust has been longer than any previous such period in history. We can reasonably expect that the coming crisis and depression, which is certainly not here yet, will be very much deeper than the 1930’s.

(Next instalment: ‘Solutions’)

Poetry of Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Langston Hughes is one of the great figures in C20th American history. Poet, playwright, novelist who stood on the side of the people, his writings during the 1930s and beyond are brilliant, passionate, fighting words.

He often wrote about everyday life for black Americans in Harlem, and he used the African-American dialect he heard around him. A form known as ‘jazz poetry’ emerged from this.

He was very much on the left, and strongly internationalist, but in 1953 denied before McCarthy’s sub-committee on subversion that he was a communist. He refused to dob people in, and stuck to good left-wing values: opposition to racism, support for democracy, and opposition to black nationalism within the civil rights struggle in the US in the 1960s.

Of course, the McCarthyite anti-communists had reason to regard him as a ‘Red’. He had visited the Soviet Union in 1932, wrote favourably about its industrial achievements and absence of the kind of racism he experienced in his homeland.

During this period of his writing, he wrote a poem called ‘Good morning, Revolution’:

GOOD MORNING, REVOLUTION

Good-morning, Revolution:

You’re the very best friend

I ever had.

We gonna pal around together from now on.

Listen, Revolution,

We’re buddies, see—

Together,

We can take everything:

Factories, arsenals, houses, ships

Railroads, forests, fields, orchards,

Bus lines, telegraphs, radios

(Jesus! Raise hell with radios!)

Steel mills, coal mines, oil wells, gas,

All the tools of production,

(Great day in the morning!)

Everything—

And turn ‘em over to the people who work.

Rule and run ‘em for us people who work.

_ _ _ _ _

Anyone needed inspiration about how a mass movement for justice can develop and grow – and win! – should read his 1962 history of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, ‘Fight for Freedom’.

One of his last poems was called ‘Backlash Blues’ and was made into a song by Nina Simone:

THE BACKLASH BLUES

Mister Backlash, Mister Backlash,
Just who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages,
Send my son to Vietnam.

You give me second class houses,
Second class schools.
Do you think that colored folks
Are just second class fools?

When I try to find a job
To earn a little cash,
All you got to offer
Is a white backlash.

But the world is big,
Big and bright and round–
And it’s full of folks like me who are
Black, Yellow, Beige, and Brown.

Mister Backlash, Mister Backlash,
What do you think I got to lose?
I’m gonna leave you, Mister Backlash,
Singing your mean old backlash blues.

You’re the one
Will have the blues.
not me–
Wait and see!

_ _ _ _ _

After World War Two, he could see how the expectations for equal opportunity and an end to racial discrimination on the part of African-Americans could lead to violence if progress was not made quickly.

‘A dream deferred’ is one of my favourites, and I have attempted to recite it:

Hughes is a popular cultural figure in the US today. He is ‘claimed’ by many disparate groups – including the US Postal Service! – but many have reinvented him as a ‘social justice activist’ rather than celebrate him as a one-time socialist revolutionary.

What would he think of America today? He would be enthralled by the progress since the 1960s but would still be there, in the front lines of the struggle for equal opportunity. He would have no time for victimology – he hated the victimizers but in his writings asserted the need for blacks never to succumb to thinking of themselves as victims. He would have no time for the black nationalists, too, and would still see the importance of the need expressed in his ‘Letter to the South’:

White worker,
Here is my hand.

Today,
We’re Man to Man.

Unemployment and Revolution (Part 3): What regulates unemployment? (written by Albert Langer in 1981)

Part 3: What regulates unemployment?

– What Do the Unemployed Actually Do?

– How Unemployment Regulates Wages

– Booms and Busts

– Wages and Class Struggle

– Union Solidarity

– Arbitration and Wage Indexation

– Capital Accumulation

– Technological Change

– Job Creation and Destruction

Somehow, the size of the pool of unemployed itself must regulate the rates of job creation and destruction. Otherwise the number of unemployed would fluctuate wildly all the time. We shall find out later how the regulation works normally, and why it is not working now. But we already know that unemployment must be some sort of regulator. The larger the pool of unemployment, the more jobs must get created and the less must get destroyed. Otherwise we cannot account for the usual balance eventually reached between these two quite independent rates.

Moreover, we know the mechanism usually tends to reach a balance with only a relatively small pool of unemployed. Therefore the mechanism must continue increasing the rate of job creation and/or reducing the rate of job destruction, as long as there is a certain amount of unemployment. It does not usually stop working with half the workforce still unemployed, just because unemployment is not still increasing.

Finally, we know that whatever this mechanism is, it does not always work. Right now, a small pool of unemployment is not balancing the rates of job creation and destruction. We await each month’s statistics with bated breath to find out whether unemployment has risen or fallen, and we usually find that it has risen. We know that periodically capitalism goes through major upheavals called economic crises, in which a large part of the labour force does get left unemployed for a long period. Our explanation of the balancing mechanism must account for that too.

Whatever the mechanism may turn out to be, we know that as long as it still is not working normally, no amount of artificial “job creation” can prevent the continuing mismatch between normal job creation and destruction from quickly recreating a large pool of unemployed. The only effective remedy for unemployment must be one that gets this balancing mechanism to work again. On this point we can agree with conservative economists. But what is the mechanism, why is it not working normally, and how can it be made to work again?

According to conservative economists the mechanism is simply that increased unemployment tends to pull down wages until it is profitable for capitalists to employ more workers. They conclude that the remedy is push down wages and increase profitability until the unemployment is absorbed.

That sounds quite plausible. If it is true, communists have no reason to deny it. We never claimed that capitalism could permanently maintain full employment without periodically pushing down wages to boost profits. Our answer would simply be that we do not feel like pushing down wages and boosting profits, thank you very much. We would prefer to abolish wages and profits and establish communism.

But a mystery remains as to why the mechanism should not be working, and why the remedy does not seem to work either! To resolve that mystery we shall first have to examine how unemployment regulates wages, and then how wages regulate employment and unemployment. We shall find that there is indeed a close connection between unemployment and wages, and between wages and job creation. But it is not as simple as the conservatives make out, it mainly works in one direction, and it does not work all the time. Most important, we shall find that we can not increase employment simply by pushing down wages. First let’s look at what the unemployed actually do to see how unemployment can regulate wages.

What Do the Unemployed Actually Do?

Under normal circumstances most of the unemployed are not just a stagnant “pool” but an active part of the “stream” moving from one job to another. They form a part of the stream that is temporarily banked up looking for outlets. They are an active part of the stream because they spend their time looking for jobs, not just rotting.

Unemployment is normally a period between jobs rather than a permanent status. When there was “full employment”, half the unemployed at any given time got jobs within four weeks. By 1978 more than a quarter had been waiting for over six months and another quarter for over three months. In a sense, one can measure how “normal” unemployment is, by its average duration, more than by the total numbers involved. It really is not a big problem if the economy is so dynamic that large numbers of people are changing their jobs each year, and they are spending a couple of weeks unemployed between each job. But it is very different when there are actually less people changing jobs than usual, but they are spending a longer time looking.

When unemployment increases slightly, it usually means that people moving from one job to another, or from school to work and so on, have to spend a longer time looking. But it does not immediately mean that a larger number of people are outside the labour force altogether.

Of course some unemployed workers do end up outside the labour force altogether, and even become permanently unemployable as a result of demoralisation. The larger the pool of unemployment, the larger the section of it that ends up stagnating instead of flowing back into employment, and the more peoples’ lives are ruined in this way.

Increasingly the unemployment we have got is taking on the features of a stagnant pool, rather than a flowing stream. This is compounded by the sharp reduction in normal labour turnover as people are reluctant to leave their old jobs unless they have new ones lined up. This stagnant unemployment is a different thing altogether from the “normal” unemployment that somehow regulates the rates of job creation and destruction. Nevertheless, we must first understand how “normal” unemployment does regulate these rates, before we can understand why the new unemployment does not.

The important thing about normal unemployment is that a larger part of the labour force is spending more time looking for work, and not that a section of the population has ceased to be part of the labour force. Hence the concept that the unemployed form a “reserve army of labour” that plays an active role in capitalist production, just as reserve armies play a vital role, and are not simply “inactive” in military battles. Some soldiers are in battle, and others are available to be deployed where required. Some workers work, and others are available to work where they are required. Both those in active service and those in reserve are necessary for things to go smoothly.

An important difference is that reserve armies of soldiers are deployed where their officers decide they are needed. With conscious military planning, reserves can be kept to a minimum and troops transferred directly from one front to another as required. Unemployed workers have no officers and are expected to find their own jobs. (Although there is now a fair bit of “manpower planning” and so forth).

The economic function of the unemployed is to look for work. Those that do not are no longer “unemployed”, but are “not in the labour force”. Those that do will normally find a job eventually. Their place in the unemployment pool may then be taken by someone else looking for employment. How long it takes, and what proportion miss out entirely, depends on the level of unemployment. But the unemployed individuals economic function does not change, their basic situation does not depend on the level of unemployment.

It is important to realise this when attempting to organise the unemployed. One reason they are very difficult to organise is that even now, most of them are not permanently unemployed – and the ones with enough initiative to get organised are also likely to get jobs quicker than average. On the other hand those that do become permanently unemployed can end up getting demoralised and dropping out of the labour force so they are no longer “unemployed” either, and are pretty hard to get involved in anything.

Let’s face it, unless things are really desperate, an individual unemployed worker can get more immediate benefit out of looking harder for a job than out of agitating against the government. The harder you look, the more chance you have of eventually getting to the front of the queue leading back into employment.

How Unemployment Regulates Wages

By looking for work, the unemployed play a vital role in the labour market. Their number determines the ease with which employers can recruit labour for expansion or replacement. That recruitment is going on all the time, even when there is a net reduction in the total number of jobs. There are always vacancies as well as people unemployed (and isolated examples of unfilled vacancies are always pointed to even though there are many times as many people looking for work as there are jobs available). The proportion of unemployed workers to job vacancies determines the average speed with which vacancies can be filled, just as it determines the average length of unemployment.

If vacancies cannot be filled fast enough any other way, then employers will bid up the price of labour by competing with each other to fill their vacancies. As in any other commodity market, this will continue until the supply of labour increases to fill the vacancies, or until the demand for labour has fallen (more likely, since the size of the labour force is relatively inflexible). The demand for labour will fall when the price has been bid up high enough, because investments that would have required more labour will cease to be profitable at the higher wage rate. So less jobs will be created and more will be destroyed. This includes of course the accelerated shift to less labour intensive production techniques.

We will examine the details shortly, but the important point to note is that unemployment only regulates wages in one direction. In fact unemployment only regulates wages when there hardly is any! As soon as there is enough unemployment to avoid a “wages explosion”, additional amounts will not significantly increase the ease with which employers can fill their vacancies.

There is no reason to believe that increased unemployment will cause employers to bid less for labour, or will cause unions to accept less. It may be that with really massive unemployment, union solidarity will be broken down. It may also be that the same slack demand for labour that has created unemployment will also make it unprofitable for employers to bid as much for labour as before. But these are both entirely separate questions. All we know for sure about unemployment as a regulator is that lack of unemployment will drive wages up and that will in turn force employment down.

This one-sided regulation is quite sufficient to explain the observed fact of a normal balance between job creation and destruction with very little unemployment. As long as markets are expanding and there is a tendency for the demand for labour to increase, that tendency will be checked by the size of the available labour force, but will permit full employment and real wages rising together with productivity.

This leaves open the question of whether other factors can also push unemployment and wages up or down and whether unemployment can coexist with high and low wages. That is as it should be, since we know that something other than the normal mechanism must account for the abnormal situation of high unemployment.

By way of contrast, the usual explanation that low wages will increase demand for labour, and high unemployment will push wages back down, explains too much. This would imply that any unemployment will correct itself, when it manifestly does not.

The usual explanation also implies that we should never expect to find increasing demand for labour alongside increasing relative wages. Yet that is exactly what has been happening with increased female labour force participation alongside equal pay.

Finally, the mechanism we have described gives no reason to believe that lowering real wages will automatically produce an increased demand for labour. All it says is that excess demand for labour (more than is available), will cause wages to go up. It does not follow that reduced wages would cause demand for labour to go up. That is also as it should be. Despite all predictions from the conservative camp, unemployment has continued rising while real wages have continued falling.

Since our unemployment regulator only explains one side of wages and unemployment, we need to look elsewhere to find what causes the abnormal movements in a crisis.

First, let us look at what happens before a crisis, namely a boom.

Booms and Busts

In a boom, real wages can even increase faster than productivity, so that the share of wages compared to profits will rise and the rate of exploitation will fall. This actually happened in the 1974 “wages explosion”. That was certainly a “boom” even though there was considerable unemployment at the time. Conversely, when demand is slack, unions have little bargaining power and the share of wages, or even the absolute level of real wages, will fall. That is happening right now.

When the economy is booming there is a general tendency for firms to increase their demand for labour power, raw materials and other inputs, in order to meet the demand for their output. This drains the pool of unemployed, reduces warehouse stocks, increases plant capacity utilisation and drives up wages and other prices. The increased demand for inputs and increased consumer spending can itself feed the boom to a certain extent, by further increasing demand.

But when the price of labour and other inputs is rising faster than the price of firms outputs, profit margins are reduced. There is then a general tendency for firms to cut back their investment and expansion, or even undertake contraction. This reduces the demand for labour and other inputs, and eventually recreates a pool of unemployed as well as stockpiles of other commodities and excess production capacities. Prices and wages are then forced back down (relatively).

These movements occur in individual sectors, but also in the economy as a whole. One firm’s inputs are another firm’s outputs and changes in demand act across the board. The balance between production, consumption and investment depends on movements in wages, prices and the rate of profit. This “balance” is always dynamic since it is precisely the imbalances that bring into play the factors for restoring a balance. Hence there is an unending succession of booms and busts in the economy as a whole and in particular sectors of it.

A problem with the above description of booms and busts is that it seems to describe a self-regulating mechanism that would automatically correct for unemployment or labour shortages by moving wage rates, or the capital intensity of investment, in the appropriate direction. So one would expect things to never get all that far out of balance. Indeed capitalism does work like that, a lot of the time, and normal “fluctuations” in the economy can be adapted to quite smoothly. But there must be more to it than that, when we have a “crisis”. Before going into that, we will look at wages, and then look at the normal balancing mechanism in more detail.

Wages and Class Struggle

Conservative economists assume that left to itself, capitalism always works smoothly, and when it does not, they therefore argue that there must be some institutional factor which is preventing prices from clearing market – for example, unions preventing wages from adjusting to the level of unemployment. Hence the calls for “wage restraint” and polemics against the unions.

To some extent this is hypocritical. Conservative economists are generally well aware that the level of wages is determined by the demand for labour, and not vice versa. They could not really believe that wages are greatly influenced by the effect of polemics against unions. They know that the only effective way to bring down wages is through reduced demand for labour, and that means increased unemployment. So it is quite illusory to talk of unemployment and “wage restraint” as alternatives. They go together.

Even though union leaderships might be very willing to go along with “wage restraint”, the employers themselves will bid up the price of labour power if there is not enough unemployment to hold it down. The propaganda for bringing down wages is really propaganda for accepting mass unemployment.

References here and elsewhere to “unemployment” holding down wages are not meant to imply that competition from the unemployed is the restraining factor. While union solidarity remains effective, there is little such competition. It would be more accurate to say “slack demand for labour” holds down wages. But generally (although not always), slack demand for labour is closely associated with unemployment. So the shorthand reference to”unemployment” is near enough.

Illusions about what determines wages are often spread from the labour movement, and especially its left wing, who sometimes picture the level of wages and conditions as primarily determined by the outcome of sharp class struggles on the shop floor.

This is certainly true to a greater extent than for other commodities. Because of the social elements in wages determination, worker militancy can effect wages more than farmer militancy can effect the price of wheat or supermarket rapaciousness can effect the price of groceries. A militant union can secure more for its members than a weak one and a militant workforce can enjoy a higher standard of living than a more servile one in a country with a comparable level of economic development.

There is an element of real bargaining, and extra-economic factors can also influence the outcome – for example fascist governments that suppress unions, or the threat of revolution. Even so, on a world scale it is clear that the level of wages corresponds very directly to the level of economic development in various countries.

Union Solidarity

The main variable in wage determination is the degree of unionisation and solidarity among the workers. If they are solid, they can get the full value of their labour power – its monopoly price. If they are not solid, they can be forced to accept anything below that – right down to minimum physical subsistence level. Unionisation has been and remains enormously important in raising workers above physical subsistence level and securing the value of their labour power. Smashing unions is still a goal for employers to force workers wages below their value and extract surplus profits.

But once unionisation is well established, unions cannot secure any more than the value of labour power. Like any other monopoly, they cannot charge what they feel like, but only “what the traffic will bear”. In this case “the traffic” is what employers will bid to secure extra labour.

In particular, the main effect of the “level of class struggle” is in determining the overall level of labour conditions for the whole nation. It has much less effect on wages in any particular industry or workplace. Even at a national level, class struggle probably has a greater impact on normal working hours and work intensity and on “social conditions” generally, than on actual wage rates.

Since there is free movement of labour between occupations and industries, the level of wages and conditions in any industry is influenced far more by the overall state of the labour market, than by the level of militancy in the particular industry. Workers in low paying industries will look for jobs in high paying ones, producing a labour shortage in the low paid industry which can only be eliminated by offering higher wages.

The bargaining position of a union also depends more on the demand for its members labour than on the dedication of its leadership. We are talking about variations a few percentage points above and below the wage rate determined by “market forces”. Failure to fight could halve wages compared to their “market” rate. But fighting harder could not double them above the market rate, because the market rate is not some arbitrary figure, but the maximum employers can be made to pay before their investment would be diverted elsewhere. Provided a union does fight, it will get more or less the market rate.

There is a parallel with land rent. Landlords can surrender part of their rent, or have it taken from them in taxes. But they cannot compel capitalists to pay a rent that will leave them with less than the average rate of profit on the capital they invest in the land. The capitalists just would not invest in that land.

Real wages have doubled in Australia since World War II, yet it is not a fundamentally different kind of society. They doubled because of economic development, not because of a sudden upsurge in militancy. Indeed the value of labour power has probably not changed very much. The increase in real wages has resulted directly from the relative cheapening of consumer goods, due to increased productivity.

Arbitration and Wage Indexation

The Australian Arbitration system provides elaborate rituals according to which wage rates are supposed to be determined by impartial judges on the basis of principles of equity. Token 24 hour strikes are an important part of those rituals and feed the illusion that wages are determined by some combination of industrial strength and skill in advocacy.

But arbitration is simply an attempt to measure the bargaining strength of the two sides, without them having to actually waste energy to prove that strength by fighting it out each time there may have been some change. The factors investigated in Arbitration Commission hearings, include the “state of the economy”, “productivity”, “capacity to pay”, “cost of living” and especially “work value” and “relativities”. These are precisely the factors that effect the market determined wage rates. The token strikes are a part of that measurement process rather than a form of real class struggle.

The Commission is trying to determine what the market wage rates objectively are. It does not “set” them. When the Commission guesses wrong, it is soon proved wrong by industrial trouble and/or over award payments and/or sectoral labour shortages or unemployment. Adjustments in the “awards” are then required.

The farce of “wage indexation” is a good illustration. When the Commission really did try to “set” wages according to uniform “guidelines”, it failed miserably. Unions and employers, and finally even the government urged it to allow wages to reflect market forces.

There is no reason to believe that the overall level of wages has been kept either artificially high or artificially low by the Arbitration Commission. The Commission itself is well aware that its centrality in the wage fixing process depends critically on how well it estimates actual labour market conditions. It has as much power to “set” wages as the Prices Justification Tribunal had to “set” (or even “justify”) prices, and less power than the Reserve Bank and the Treasury have to “set” interest rates. These institutions can help smooth things out in their respective markets, and they can stuff things up. But they cannot change the overall direction of market movements.

“Rigidities” have allegedly been introduced into the Australian wage structure by the Commission’s fixed “relativities” between occupations and skills. But this has not prevented wages moving in response to changing demands for labour, nor has it prevented labour moving in response to changing demand. It has simply ensured that the wage movements are slowed down and take the form of over award payments rather than awards. Less flexible “relativities” have encouraged more “manpower planning” to cope with shortages and surpluses of particular occupations, instead of the clumsier process of a change in relative wages having to indirectly attract labour from one occupation to another. Likewise, any “rigidity” in overall wage levels could only produce a time-lag in the effect of underlying market movements.

Leaving aside the hypocrisy, conservative economists do believe that bringing down real wages is an essential part of any program for economic recovery. They have masses of quite genuine statistics to prove that wages have increased more than productivity, the share of wages in Gross National Product has increased and so on. They rightly conclude that there is a “real wage overhang” keeping the economy out of balance, even though the purchasing power of wages may be declining.

Therefore, they see unemployment as necessary to bring down real wages, although they prefer not to emphasise that aspect, but just talk about “wage restraint”. But if more unemployment will bring down wages, why hasn’t it? Why is any “program” for economic recovery necessary at all?

The weak point in conservative arguments is that they do not explain what has changed. It is not good enough to just point out that there is a “real wage overhang” since the “wages explosion”. Why is there, and why have “market forces” not corrected it? Before answering that, we need to look at the normal adjustment mechanism in some detail.

Capital Accumulation

Capitalist production is always a process of production for the purpose of accumulating more capital. One part of profits is spent unproductively by capitalists, maintaining themselves and their retainers “in the manner to which they have become accustomed”. That can be fantastically expensive if you look at the lifestyles of Jackie Onassis and the like. But is a very small proportion of total profits, because there are very few really wealthy capitalists.

The more important part of profits is accumulated as new capital. This does not mean it goes into their pockets, or is hoarded into a pile of gold. It is invested in expanding the wealth and power of the individual capitalist, and incidentally developing the productive forces of humanity.

Capital investment means buying more labour power and raw materials to produce more goods, to be sold for more profits (some of which will allow the capitalist to “become accustomed” to an even more lavish lifestyle, and most of which will be invested to expand further). It is a process of continually expanded reproduction. If there was a fixed supply of labour and a fixed technology, this expanded reproduction would become impossible. The new capital would be trying to recruit workers already employed by the old capital, and it would have no market for its products. Only simple reproduction would be possible, with no net investment.

Even if we allow for increasing supplies of labour, a fixed technology would still only permit expanded reproduction at exactly the rate of labour force growth, with no increase in capital or output per worker.

In fact some “models” of the process of capital accumulation are based on assumptions like that. Naturally, they have not been able to explain very much about real economic growth, which always involves new technology with an increasing social division of labour and more capital and more output per worker.

Real capitalism is always expanding. Hence imperialism. Capital can expand intensively or extensively. It can expand extensively by employing more workers, even with the same technology and the same capital per worker. That is important in the third world where there are still reservoirs of peasants who are not employed as wage workers, and it has been important in pulling women out of the household and into wage labour. It also absorbs population increases.

But capitalism also expands intensively, by investing more capital per worker. This implies new technology and a development of the productive forces, and has made capitalism a far more dynamic and progressive social formation than previous ones which went on reproducing themselves without constantly revolutionising the technique of production.

The increasing organic composition of capital implies a falling rate of profit. Here is not the place for a detailed discussion of that, but it is worth mentioning that the difference in internal rates of profit between more developed and less developed countries is equalised by imperialist capital export and import.

A fuller treatment of capital accumulation should examine it internationally. This is very necessary to combat the narrow nationalist outlook so common in the Australian “left”. Suffice it to say that the unemployment we are suffering in Australia is clearly part of a worldwide problem and will require a worldwide solution. Our industries are not just “foreign owned”. They are part of an integrated world capitalist economy. We should think big.

Technological Change

At any given time, there is always a range of known techniques that can be used for production. This range is also always being extended by the discovery of new techniques, which usually involve the use of new intermediate products and hence an increasing social division of labour. But even without new inventions, there is a range of different ways of doing things, some of which will be economic while others are not.

At lower wage rates and a higher average rate of profit, a given labour intensive technique may be cheaper than a capital intensive technique for doing the same job, even though the capital intensive technique is more productive.

For example, third world countries with little capital invested in roads and so on, are forced to use more labour intensive techniques, even though the more advanced methods used in wealthier countries are already known. It can actually be cheaper to use donkeys for transport until capital is available for investment in building roads and truck plants, producing trucks, training drivers and so on. That capital will not be available until the rate of profit on that kind of investment is higher than on alternatives. As more capital is accumulated, the alternatives with higher rates of profit become saturated, the rate of profit goes down, wages go up, and eventually it becomes cheaper to use a truck. It was always more productive to do so.

One day it may be cheaper to use aircraft for regular inter-city transport. We already know how to, but truck drivers’ wages are not high enough, and the rate of profit is not low enough to justify the massive capital investment required.

Increasing returns to scale often dictate a change in technique when a market has reached a certain size. A road will then be replaced by a railway for example. The railway has greater productivity, but the capital investment required is not economic at low volumes of traffic.

Often increasing returns to scale are associated with a greater social division of labour. Special functions are split away from general purpose establishments and achieve a higher productivity while handling the greater volume. A special repair shop will only become economic with a certain level of repairs. Designs will be produced in-house until their volume permits a specialised design firm to do the job more efficiently.

An increase in the scale of operations as more capital is invested and markets expand, may not be regarded as a change in technique. But there will almost always be changes associated with it, like those mentioned above. In most industries the days are long gone when expansion simply meant that more establishments would be set up using essentially the same techniques.

This increasing social division of labour implies more interconnection between different sections of the economy. Each is producing for all, and all for each. It does not imply greater occupational specialisation. On the contrary it requires greater flexibility in the labour force as they change repeatedly from one job to another.

New capital can be invested in the same old techniques to employ more workers using the same old sort of plant to turn the same old raw materials into more of the same old products. But this is only possible if more workers are available. It always creates jobs, provided there is a market for more of the old product. But it creates no new market and assumes that for some reason the market for the old product has increased.

Otherwise new capital can only be invested in more productive techniques that allow fewer workers (usually using more fixed plant and machinery) to turn more raw materials and intermediate products into more products per worker. This destroys some of the old jobs and creates more or less new ones according to whether the output is increased faster or slower than the labour productivity is increased. That depends on how fast the market expands, which depends partly on how much the new techniques cheapen the product (relatively).

New capital intensive investment is always expanding the market, since it does relatively cheapen the product (or the old technique would continue in use), and since it creates a demand for the additional new plant and intermediate products required by the new technique. If there was no technological progress, capitalism would in fact reach the state of stagnation implied by most economic models, since there would be no expanding market for expanded reproduction.

If output is expanding slower than productivity, the result of capital intensive investment will be less workers employed in that sector of industry. If that is happening overall, the result will be an increasing pool of unemployment since more jobs are being destroyed than created. If output is expanding faster than productivity, then labour intensive investments must be expanding employment.

Job Creation and Destruction

Now we can see how a small pool of unemployment normally maintains a balance between job creation and destruction. As profits are continually being invested to become new capital, old jobs are continually being destroyed and new jobs are continually being created. The balance depends on the relative profitability of capital intensive and labour intensive production techniques in new investment.

As long as wages keep increasing at exactly the right rate to keep on gradually tipping the balance towards capital intensive techniques, investment can continue, with increasing capital per worker, even though the labour force is not growing as fast as capital is being invested (provided there is a market for the products).

Otherwise, if wages fail to grow fast enough, the existing techniques would continue being used by new investments, and this will absorb the pool of unemployed until competition for labour drives up wages and restores a balance.

If wages grow too fast, due to labour shortages, there will be a tendency to switch more rapidly to capital intensive techniques which reduce the demand for labour. Slack demand may then force wages down, but even if it does not, there will be no renewed upward pressure until the labour market has again been tightened by further accumulation.

The point is that in “normal” balance, the demand for labour is directly regulating wages so that demand equals supply. It follows that there can be no such thing as “too many workers” or “too few jobs”. The number of jobs will adapt to the number of available workers as capital accumulates. Likewise, wages will not be “too high” or “too low”. They are determined by the demand for labour. It seems then that “everything is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds”. Mass unemployment is impossible as the textbooks insist.

But this process of adaptation only applies to new capital investments. The existing capital investments can only adapt to labour shortages and surpluses, or changes in wage rates and the rate of profit, within fairly narrow limits. A steel mill cannot employ very much more or less labour according to wages rates. Its design is more or less fixed. Changes can only effect the design of new steel mills, or extensions to plant capacity, and the decision to expand steel production at all.

Lower wages will not encourage existing steel mills to hire more workers. It will only encourage designers of future steel mills to continue using more obsolete, labour intensive techniques. That will only create more jobs when, and if, an increased demand for steel causes more investment in expansion of steel mills.

Thus if there is some disturbance to the normal relationships, unemployment can increase, regardless of wage rates. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of economists, there is no automatic mechanism that would quickly restore a balance. The automatic mechanism can quickly cope with labour shortages, by choking off new labour intensive investment. But it cannot quickly cope with labour surpluses. The unemployment will be absorbed when, and only when, new investment has created new jobs, and that may take some time.

(Next instalment: Technological unemployment)