Food stamps cause global depression ?

by John Quiggin on November 2, 2012

Chicago is about as close to the American heartland as you can get and still be in a major city (the infamous Heartland Institute is located there, for example), but even so, I’d expect a professor at the University of Chicago to be aware that the USA is not the only country in the world. That’s not true, apparently, of Casey Mulligan, who claims that the continued weakness of employment in the US is due to policies introduced in 2008 and 2009, which ” 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.”

Mulligan’s claims about US policy are dubious at best (see over fold), but there’s a much more critical problem with his argument. If US unemployment is caused, not by a demand shock but by the mistaken policies of the Obama Administration, why did unemployment move in the same way, and at the same time, in many different countries? Did Iceland expand its food stamp program? Does Estonia pay unemployment bonuses? Sadly, no. And while many countries adopted Keynesian policies in the immediate aftermath of the Wall Street meltdown, others did not, and most have now switched to the disastrous policy of austerity. An even clearer demonstration is given by the Great Depression, where nearly all governments pursued austerity policies after 1929 (Mark Blyth’s soon-to-appear Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea tells the story)>

This isn’t just a problem for Mulligan. The simultaneous occurrence of a sustained increase in unemployment in many countries, with different institutions and policies undermines any explanation of unemployment that works at the national level. That includes all forms of New Classical Economics, in which unemployment arises from labor market “distortions”, as well as Real Business Cycle theories (except if you stretch the idea of a technology shock to the point where “technology” effectively means “aggregate demand”).

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