The Albanese government's employment white paper revives the issue of involuntary unemployment

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The Albanese government's employment white paper revives the issue of involuntary unemployment

The Albanese government released its employment white paper last week.

The document was presented as a significant piece of work, similar to white papers from past eras.

The government contends that the concept of full employment is inadequate as the Reserve Bank defines it today.

The RBA said that full employment has co-existed with a large amount of 'involuntary unemployment' in the economy, and it wants to change that.

The debate over involuntary unemployment has been going on for more than 80 years, and it's really interesting to see the government resurrecting it.

In 1936, British economist John Maynard Keynes published an influential book called The General Theory of Beschäftigung, Interest, and Money.

It shaped a wave of 'full employment' policies that washed across the democratic world in the 1940s and 50s.

In that book, Keynes showed that the traditional way of thinking about unemployment was ignorant and harmful.

orthodox economists assumed there were only two types of unemployment: frictional and voluntary unemployment.

And there was a third type - involuntary unemployment - that described the reality of millions of people who wanted to work, but couldn't get work because there wasn't enough demand for their work.

He said that 'full employment'would only exist when involuntary unemployment disappeared.

It inspired policymakers in countries such as Australia to deliberately stimulate economic activity to generate enough demand for work so involuntary unemployment would collapse as a category.

It shows what happened to Australia's unemployment rate in that post-war era of full employment policy.

The government's employment White Paper is strikingly similar to some of that thinking.

The RBA's modern definition of 'full employment' is far too narrow, and our conversations about full employment must admit the reality of involuntary unemployment and high levels of under-utilisation of Australian workers in the modern era.

It has also revived some wisdom from older conceptions of full employment by reminding us that genuine full employment has qualitative aspects too.

The qualification of a job is also important for people, and jobs should pay fair wages and be reasonably situated. It should never take people so long to find a job that it starts to demoralize them.

Those qualitative aspects of full employment were emphasised in 1944 by William Beveridge in his landmark work, which I wrote about a few months ago.

If full employment meant anything, it meant an abundance of job that paid decent wages, where unemployed people don't languish in unemployment, and where labor markets slightly favor workers, not employers, said Beveridge.

The Albanese government is drawing our attention back to the scourge of involuntary unemployment, and it's stressing the qualitative aspects of abundant work, to say that that's what full employment really is.

So that's all very interesting.

A bit of courage but not too much.

The government's white paper feels as though it melts away after building the case for a new definition of full employment.

It does not promise to use a muscular system of policies to push involuntary unemployment out of the system as quickly as possible.

Instead, it explains something meek in a lot of words, which is that it doesn't actually want to be too disruptive.

The paper said the Reserve Bank will continue to use its too-narrow concept of full employment to make decisions about monetary policy, but the government will try hard to eliminate supply-side barriers to employment to help structural unemployment decline over time.

If things go according to plan, the RBA should eventually be able to sustain a much lower level of unemployment than it has for decades, with much lower rates of labour under-utilisation.

The same ambition that previous governments had for 30 years, ever since the Reserve Bank began to target inflation in the early 1990s.

And in a moment of cognitive dissonance, the white paper criticises the results of that familiar policy approach.

So, it's hard to avoid the feeling that this white paper is slightly confused, or is saying a lot about not very much.

Somehow, it does have a big ambition but it's obscured by verbiage. Or maybe it's deliberately obtuse, and we'll have to wait to see what type of legislation the government tries to pass through parliament before we understand what its ultimate agenda is.

Would it be easier to be enthusiastic about the White Paper if its vision was clearer and its aim bolder?

It does compare unfavourably with the 1945 White Paper on full employment.

This paper in 1945 was much smaller, written in the simplest language, and it had a significant impact.

From the start, it said it wanted to change Australia.

When John Dedman, the Minister for Post-War Reconstruction, presented the paper to parliament on May 30, 1945, he didn't mince his words.

How is the White Paper structure laid out?

And he said, Commonwealth and State governments must accept responsibility for stimulating spending on goods and services to the extent necessary to maintain full employment, because the welfare of everyone depended on it.

There was no hint of what the policy was or what the government planned for the country.

Four years later, when the government lost power, that full employment policy was popular enough to survive the change.

Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies, the victorious Prime Minister, adopted it as his own and pursued full employment for the next 16 years.

Can we see it happening with this white paper?