Employment update: the job creation meme

On the radio yesterday morning, some DJ quoted Hillary Clinton, who recently said that ‘business don’t create jobs’ or something along those lines. The statement is meant, I believe, to reflect the notion that consumers create jobs, through their demand for goods and services. Implicitly, the statement seeks to counter the argument that the governing plutocrats are benevolent and generous ‘job creators.’ I think it was a mistake for left/progressive commentators to adopt this theme, but it is here, so let’s first take a look at the process of job creation and then employment and job statistics. My question is: what do we know about job creation, conceptually and descriptively? The post here is going to tackle the first of these, and I’ll write-up another one with some data later.


First of all, businesses change the number of jobs recorded in the formal economy by adding workers to or removing them from their payrolls. We know that businesses ‘create jobs’ because the government counts jobs as the number of workers who are employed by firms. So, purely from a methodological perspective, when we talk about jobs, we are talking about the gains and losses of salaried/employed workers at US firms (and occasionally at government agencies) as reported by payroll data (which in turn are reported to the almighty IRS).

Second, businesses do not want to create jobs. Employees are costly, and employers are really only going to hire a new employee after other efforts to cope with increasing workloads (overtime, or productivity-enhancing strategies, for instance) have failed to relieve the stresses from the rising demand for their goods and services. Clearly, there is an important relationship between demand for a firm’s output and the way that the firm adjusts to this changing demand. It is not necessarily the case that a firm will hire more workers as demand rises. Some owners are incompetent, for example. Some firms enter into long-term contracts that so structure their budgets that they simply cannot hire new workers, while other contracts make firing difficult. There is also a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the economy. The process of hiring and firing may be responding to events that are not fully formed or are ambiguous. So when a firm decides to hire/fire an employee, the process will usually be undertaken in the face of exigent circumstances. Again, business don’t want to do this. It’s expensive, it’s uncertain whether it will solve its workload problems, and it may be based on faulty information about its business prospects.

Third, the hiring/firing process is one of the miracles of the economy. I use ‘miracles’ advisedly because it is, in fact, a process that is extraordinary, a welcome but surprising event, and difficult to be observed or explained. Job creation statistics do not actually observe the hiring and firing process. Remember that those statistics simply count the reported number of employed workers at firms at a given time (beginning or end of the quarter, usually). If you want to actually see the phenomena of job creation, you will need to be either a manager or a (prospective/former) employee. The Census doesn’t see job creation; I can’t see ‘job creation’ happening directly. This is partly semantics, but also it should emphasize the fact that the process is personal and sociological. That is, hiring/firing really comes down to a host of economic, political, and cultural factors that are probably highly specific to context (national, regional, sectoral), with a dose of randomness as well. My point here is, if you really want to understand job creation, then you should absolutely be talking to prospective employees, recently hired employees, recently fired employees, and the people who hire and fire them. Then you can get a sense of how the process works.

These are some preliminary comments. In a post later I will elaborate on how job creation happens between sectors and how it varies depending on the quantitative measures utilized.


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