I am not keen on poking at a post appearing on Angry Bear, a friendly blog that often links favorably to posts here by many of us and with which I generally agree. But maybe it is precisely because of this usual agreement that I am posting here an extension I made of a comment there on an August 1 post by Edward Lambert arguing that not only is 6.2% the US natural rate of unemployment, but that it is also the NAIRU (Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment), because, hey, the two are equal to each other, period.
Much of the post is quite good and interesting. Lambert has a model that focuses on such things as capital stock capacity utilization and such measures for land aalso, as well as the unemployment rate. Based on his model, levels of capital stock capacity utilization are now in ranges that look like full employment of capital stock, at least. This may reflect the low rate of capital stock formation in recent years, a supply-side damage coming from insufficient aggregate demand over an extended period of time, but Lambert may well be on to something.
Let me also state that I am not necessarily opposed to the idea of a "natural rate of unemployment," although I think that one should not make too much of it, which Lambert does (along with many others). I think it is more useful to think of a "natural rate of employment," more relevant to the current state of low labor force particpation. Indeed, Lambert trumpets that he beat out the Brookings Institution in forecasting the most recent unemployment rate. They (and "most economists") said the UR would go down while he said it would go up, and, whoop de doo!, he was right. However, it turns out that this was not due to some failure of job growth, but due to a favorable response on the labor force participation side. There are plenty of reasons for employment to continue rising without any inflationary presssure in the near term, something Lambert actually admits, but what happens to the unemployment rate per se may really mean nearly nothing.
As it is, the original definition of the natural rate of unemployment by Milton Friedman back in 1968 was simply a rate that the economy would tend to go to if left to itself with "neutral" policy (if that can be defined) at any point in time. Such may well exist. The issue is whether this natural rate has any signfiicance for policy, and for that things are not at all convincing. Indeed, from the very beginning, others who were pushing similar ideas, notably Edmund Phelps, were heavily caveating the concept with the fact this natural rate is highly endogenous to the recent rate, particularly for labor force participation reasons, many of those related to how labor market skills (if not labor skills themselves) can deterioriate during lengthy periods of unemployment, an issue most relevant to the current situation.
My big complaint here has to do with identifying this natural rate with NAIRU, a highly problematic concept. Friedman vaguely suggested such a link in his original talk, but he never really made a case for why inflation would not only increase, but that the rise would accelerate. Indeed, aside from some handwaving about expectations, the case for why such an acceleration should occur at URs below the natural rate has never ever been made anywhere in any rigorous or coherent way by anybody. That said, the subsequent inflation of the 70s was blamed by many on the supposedly excessively stimulative policies of the 60s, even as the acceleration of that inflation coincided with rising unemployment (and unemployment rates) in the notorious staglation. But this somehow came to be identified with Friedman being right, and the identification of the natural rate with NAIRU entered macro textbooks at nearly all levels despite the lack of clear or rigorous or even empirically validated arguments supporting it. It became something "everybody knows," (or should know) with even progressive economists who should know better such as Lambert falling for this empty nonsense.
Quite aside from the warnings from Day One about endogeneity of the natural rate to the recent actual rate, the famous episode of the 90s when Greenspan, urged on by Janet Yellen btw, allowed continued stimulative monetary policy even as the UR went below its then widely advertised natural rate and we saw falling inflation rather than rising, much less accelerating. Many considered this to be the death knell of this identity, with some such as James Galbraith declaring it publicly in print in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 1997 in "Time to Ditch the NAIRU" (although Jamie made it clear then that he had never thought much of the concept, and I don't think he has ever thought much of the natural rate concept either).
Now Lambert does recognize the Greenspan episode, but elides the issue by saying that it set up the economy for the next recession, which took a good half a decade to show up. What caused that recession in most peoples' books was the collapse of the dot.com bubble. Now, maybe it was the stimulative monetary policy that goosed that bubble to ridiculous levels, but it had been going on for some time and was associated with real capital investment in that leading sector that did generate a lot of non-inflationary growth with lowered unemployment and reduced inequality. Not too bad. And the end of it was not associated with any increase in inflation.
Lambert's position is given in his final remarks:
"...when unemployment pushes below its natural level, the economy tends to overheat and become unstable. At which point, the economy would like to return to its natural level. The paths of that process can involve inflation, reduced output, falling capacity utilization and even tighter monetary policy."
Well, just two final comments on this. One is that he leaves out what happened last month and also what happened during the three year period in the mid-80s when employment and output grew but the UR remained stuck at 7.0%, namely that labor force participation can increase, particularly if it has been "unnaturally" suppressed for an extended period. The"natural rate of unemployment" may not even be tied to any particular level of the economy, much less its "natural" level.
The other comment is that in fact those declines in output and capacity utilization that have occurred in the past when "overheating" has occurred have usually been triggered by the tighter monetary policy, which has usually been a result of either actual inflation picking up or in many cases the Fed (or foreign central banks such as the ECB in recent years) getting nervous that inflation might pick up, in some cases spooked into doing so by taking too seriously all these fantasy stories so embedded in so much literature about the natural rate equaling the NAIRU.
This is a fantasy that needs to be exposed once and for all and banished from the textbooks once and for all, and indeed from publich discourse more generally, particularly by economists.