There is an enormous amount of political debate over various pieces of legislation that are supposed to be massive job killers. For example, Republicans lambasted President Obama’s increase in taxes on the wealthy back in 2013 as a job killer. They endlessly have condemned the Affordable Care Act as a job killer. The same is true for proposals to raise the minimum wage.
While there is great concern in Washington over these and other imaginary job killers, the Federal Reserve Board is openly mapping out an actual job-killing strategy and drawing almost no attention at all for it. The Fed’s job-killing strategy centers on its plan to start raising interest rates, which is generally expected to begin at some point this year.
The Fed’s plans to raise interest rates are rarely spoken of as hurting employment, but job-killing is really at the center of the story. The rationale for raising interest rates is that inflation could begin to pick up and start to exceed the Fed’s current 2.0 percent target if the Fed doesn’t slow the economy with higher interest rates.
Higher interest rates slow the economy by discouraging people from borrowing to buy homes or cars. They will also have some effect in discouraging businesses from investing. With reduced demand from these sectors, businesses will hire fewer workers. This will weaken the labor market, which means workers have less bargaining power. If workers have less bargaining power, they will be less well-situated to get pay increases. And if wages are not rising there will be less inflationary pressure in the economy.
The potential impact of Fed rate hikes on jobs is large. Suppose the Fed raises interest rates enough to shave 0.2 percentage points off the growth rate, say pushing growth for the year down from 2.4 percent to 2.2 percent. If we assume employment growth drops roughly in proportion to GDP growth, this would imply a reduction in the rate of job growth of almost 10 percent. If the economy would have otherwise created 2.4 million jobs over the course of the year, the Fed’s rate hikes would have cost the economy more than 200,000 jobs in this scenario.
For comparison purposes, we are having a big fight over the Keystone pipeline. The proponents of the pipeline point to the jobs created by building a pipeline as an important justification, even if the oil being pumped through the pipeline may cause enormous damage to the environment. According to the State Department’s analysis, building the pipeline would create 21,000 jobs for two years. This pipeline related jobs gain has been widely touted in the media and is supposed to make it difficult for many members of Congress to go along with President Obama in opposing Keystone.
Yet, the Fed can easily destroy ten times as many jobs with a set of interest rate hikes this year with its actions passing largely unnoticed. In fact, the impact of Fed interest rate hikes on jobs can easily be far larger than this 200,000 number. If the Fed decides that the unemployment rate should not fall below a certain level (5.4 percent is a number is often used), then it could be costing the economy millions of jobs if the economy could actually sustain a considerably lower level of unemployment as it did in the late 1990s.
To be clear, Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen and her colleagues on the Fed’s Open Market Committee (FOMC), the committee that determines interest rates, are not evil people sitting around figuring out how to ruin the lives of American workers. The Fed has a legal mandate to control inflation, in addition to its mandate to sustain high levels of unemployment. If they raise interest rates it will be because they fear inflationary pressures will build if they let the economy continue to grow and unemployment to fall.
But this is inevitably a judgment call. The call is based on both their assessment of the risk of inflation and also the relative harm from higher rates of inflation as opposed to higher rates of unemployment. It is likely that the members of the FOMC, who largely come from the financial industry, are much more concerned about inflation than the population as a whole. They are also likely to be less concerned about unemployment. These are people who tend to read about unemployment in the data, not to see it themselves or among their friends and family members.
This is why it is important that the public be paying attention to the Fed’s interest rate policies and let them know how they feel about raising interest rates to kill jobs. The Center for Popular Democracy has organized an impressive grassroots campaign around the Fed’s interest rate policies. Those who don’t want to see the government deliberately trying to kill jobs might want to join in.
About the Author: Dean Baker is an American economist whose books have been published by the University of Chicago Press, MIT Press, and Cambridge University Press.