Dealing with joblessness and income inequality: has Australia taken the wrong turn?

All governments keep a sensitive eye on what is happening to inequality of incomes and inequality of opportunity because they want to be seen to be fair and because sharing the nation’s incremental prosperity helps bind the community together. But governments are also concerned about national productivity, because it is the key to prosperity and high real wages, and joblessness because it causes economic waste, poverty and unhappiness.

These four policy targets are not always reconcilable with each other. Too much fiscal zeal in pursuit of egalitarian values can have disincentive effects on work and innovation. Excessive use of employment protection laws (EPL) laws which restrict the rights of employers to set wages, dismiss employees, use casuals etc. – can deter employment of low-skill workers. Increased employment of ‘fringe’ workers often requires some sacrifice of national productivity. And to pursue productivity without regard for its wider effects on quality of life and inequality is to lose sight of what society is all about.

To assess how governments have been responding to these policy trade-offs and challenges over the last 15 to 20 years, I have chosen four performance indicators far from comprehensive 1 but all important predictors of community happiness and cohesion.

1. Income inequality – the share of GDP going to the lowest income quintiles
2. Income mobility – the degree of upward income mobility over one’s lifetime or relative to one’s parents, as measured by longitudinal studies
3. Productivity – measured either by GDP per hour worked or multi-factor productivity (which are better indicators than GDP per worker as the latter ignores cross-country differences in rates of investment and in work/leisure preferences).
4. Employment measured as a proportion of working age population.

Governments differ as to the relative policy weight they give to each of these goals and the methods they use to advance them (in particular the role played by EPL). Amongst developed countries, there seem to be four distinct ‘social models’. The Table sums up how the models differ on scale and mix of redistribution (with relative number of stars implying no normative judgment) and the sorts of outcomes they have delivered (with most stars going to the best performers on the four societal criteria above).


Model 1

Model 2

Model 3

Model 4

Scale of fiscal redistribution





Scale of employment regulation







Income equality





Income mobility















What does the Table tell us?

Model 1 is dominated by the USA. Its overall scale of fiscal redistribution is at the low end of the spectrum, with relatively ‘flat’ tax structures and low levels of income support and social investment. And it has relatively free labour markets, with little use made of EPL.

This model delivers very good economic outcomes but poor distribution outcomes, both in terms of income inequality and income mobility.

Model 2 has been embraced by countries like Britain, Canada, Ireland and NZ. Relative to model 1, income support benefits are more generous (although conditional) and there is a little more job protection. But the overall scale of redistribution, especially through EPL, is modest compared to models 3 and 4.

Model 2 can boast good economic outcomes but on income distribution and mobility it produces very mediocre results although with less inequality than model 1.

Model 3 is found among the larger continental Europeans such as France and Germany and some of their neighbours. It redistributes on a large scale, making extensive use of EPL and unconditional income support.

This model delivers a more equal income distribution than models 1 and 2 but its performance on social mobility is only marginally better. Its productivity performance (properly measured) is about equal to that of the first two groups. But it performs poorly on employment – not as poorly as is often claimed by those who focus solely on official unemployment figures, but certainly well below par.

Model 4 is favoured by the Scandinavian countries and some of the smaller Europeans (such as the Netherlands and Austria). It involves high taxes and redistribution on an even larger scale than group 3 – but the income support provided, while generous, is more work-conditional and employment protection laws are less strict than group 3 – although stricter than in groups 1 and 2 (or Australia). Instead this model relies heavily on ‘active’ social programs to enhance the productivity and mobility of low income people throughout their life cycle. For example, in addition to spending much more on education, governments in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands invest about four times more (relative to GDP) on active labour market programs job placement, training, employment incentives, integration of the disabled, direct job creation and start-up incentives – than the English-speaking countries.

The policy works. Model 4 delivers low and stable levels of income inequality, high and rising levels of income mobility and very good productivity and employment outcomes.2 The Scandinavians also rank high in international competitiveness league tables.

The’ best’ mix of instruments?

The poor employment outcomes in much of continental Europe are partly due to rigid monetary policy but, one suspects, they are also due to excessive reliance on EPL. This suspicion is confirmed when one looks at Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Greece. These countries, which are not included in our tabular analysis, have very restrictive job-protection laws and deliver poor employment outcomes (as well, they are not generous with fiscal redistribution so they also produce poor distribution outcomes!).

On the other hand, the success of model 4 suggests that high levels of redistribution are not per se incompatible with good economic and employment outcomes – provided the main redistribution method is fiscal rather than regulatory and the policy mix is liberally spiced with ‘active’ government intervention to help people get jobs and improve mobility and work incentives.

Lessons for Australia

Australia’s policy mix of the last decade – liberal economic reform with moderate employment protection regulation and conditional income support for working age Australians has been fairly close to that of model 2. And it has delivered similar employment and productivity outcomes but with somewhat less income inequality.3 With a record like this, Australia could have simply rested on its laurels. But reform is the name of the game. So we got the recent workplace and welfare reforms. These take us towards model 1 (indeed in terms of how we treat trade unions and how we reward welfare to work we now have harsher regimes than the Americans!).

But the cross-country evidence above suggests that moving from model 2 to model 1 produces little economic benefit and considerable distributional pain. On the other hand, even a partial move from model 2 to model 4 offers more equality of opportunity without any national economic cost. Sweden, for example, has much less income inequality than Australia, as well as more generous sickness, parental and study leave arrangements, better education outcomes and, it appears, greater intra-generational social mobility! Yet over the last five years it has achieved much stronger productivity growth than Australia, as well as higher employment/population ratios (with fewer casual jobs), lower inflation and a substantial external account surplus (unlike our big deficits, despite booming commodity prices). Much the same can be said of the other Scandinavian countries.

Has Australia taken the wrong turn?


1 Model 4 countries, in common with others, experience occasional economic
fluctuations. For example, The Netherlands has just experienced four years of
cyclically-induced productivity slow-down but it is now recovering and the long
term productivity trend (over two decades) remains relatively strong.

2 Private incomes (before taxes and transfers) are more unequal in
Australia than in most other comparable OECD countries (the poorest quintile has
the lowest share of earnings of any OECD country). But because our
redistributive system is particularly effective in reallocating private incomes
to people in the lowest income quintile, the inequality of final incomes is
lower here than in UK, NZ and USA and average by OECD standards.

3 For example, because of inadequate data, quality of life indicators (such as
the living, working and natural environment) are largely ignored in the
evaluation. Again, the effects of policy on individual freedom are
ignored – not because they are unimportant but because ‘freedom’ is hard to
measure (it means very different things for example to Malcolm Turnbull,
Archbishop Jensen and Clive Hamilton). Further, my evaluation takes no account
of economic stability (i.e. the resilience of the economy following adverse
shocks). And employment outcomes are treated here as ‘economic’ in that they
affect the size of the economic cake (GDP), yet employment outcomes also have a
big impact on income distribution.

Editorial note [KAP] – I’ve been trying to upload an author profile for Fred Argy but can’t work out how to do it. Pending sorting it out, here is a link to a short profile at another website.

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23 Responses to Dealing with joblessness and income inequality: has Australia taken the wrong turn?

  1. Nice piece, Fred.

    On the other hand, the success of model 4 suggests that high levels of redistribution are not per se incompatible with good economic and employment outcomes – provided the main redistribution method is fiscal rather than regulatory and the policy mix is liberally spiced with ‘active’ government intervention to help people get jobs and improve mobility and work incentives.

    It would be a modest success if commentators in Australia would acknowledge this to be the case. We seem to do the exact opposite – using all sorts of (mis)targetted transfer payments through the welfare system rather than clean redistribution through the tax system, largely for political reasons, and the welfare/tax trap provides negative work incentives.

  2. Fred,

    Thanks for the article. I found it convincing.

    Australia’s electorate won’t support the Scandinavian model (or more particularly) our politicians won’t argue for it. So you have to choose between less attractive alternatives.

    I wonder why you didn’t include “Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Greece” as another – in your schema Model 5. That’s what Martin Wolf does.

  3. Rafe Champion says:

    Thanks Fred, that is a really illuminating analysis and it is interesting to see the various policy combinations that turn up. A few comments. First off, there is the problem that different people want different outcomes: some of us don’t care about inequality so long as the people at the bottom do not suffer and they have a chance to improve their lot if they are young and able-bodied. So it is hard to get a consensus on the kind of outcomes that are wanted, but we need to form coalitions on any point of agreement.

    Second, because of the policy mixes it is very hard to say what actually produces the most desirable outcomes and some of us would like to cherry pick and get what we regard as the best from each. But of course you have to work with the grain of the timber and be prepared to bore slowly if the wood is hard.

    Thirdly, there is a cultural problem in the group 3 nations where they are just starting to find out what happens when a culture of productivity is undermined. There is also the cultural problem when an underclass emerges, like third generation welfare dependents.

  4. Ken Parish says:

    Quite apart from the almost certain fact that the Australian electorate wouldn’t stand for a Scandinavian-style model (or at least substantial enough parts of the electorate to ensure that it would be political sudicide for any party to advocate such a policy mix), I also doubt that it would be viable for reasons of comparative business incentives/cost base.

    Fred’s primary post acknowledges that “[t]oo much fiscal zeal in pursuit of egalitarian values can have disincentive effects on work and innovation”. The significantly higher tax regime necessary to fund a Scandinavian-style system clearly imposes cost, and therefore potentially major disincentives, on business. In the Scandinavian countries, the combination of a highly skilled workforce (and therefore high productivity), and proximity to the huge EU market are seemingly together enough to overcome the disincentive effect of higher tax rates. Indeed the higher tax rates lead directly to the higher skill base through a superior publicly-funded education, training and retraining system. However, even if Australia were to construct such a system, we would still labour under the competitive disadvantage of a tiny local market and great distance from both suppliers and major international markets.

    There would no doubt be some high value-added products where we could still compete successfully and retain or attract business investment. Maybe we could even have duplicated Nokia’s success, for instance, had we followed the Scandinavian model, because neither availability of raw materials and components nor distance from major markets would seem to be an insuperable obstacle with physically tiny products like mobile phones. Nevertheless, I don’t think we can assume that the Scandinavian recipe in general would work here even if it was somehow politically saleable.

    As Nicholas commented, I think we can certainly learn from the Scandinavian experience and keep in mind Fred’s analysis when reading any standard neo-liberal rant about the supposedly unchallengeable superiority of the American model. But we should adapt those lessons to the Australian situation, having regard not only to immediate political realities but to subtantive differences between our size, and our geographical and resource position compared with that of Norway, Sweden etc. That may well mean funding enhanced education, training and retraining systems, as well as R & D incentives, through allowing the tax take to increase over time by bracket creep and resisting demands for tax cuts for high income earners. And it may even mean specific “hypothecated’ levies like the Medicare and Ansett levies, which for some reason seem to be better tolerated by taxpayers than broader-based non-purposive taxes. But I don’t think we should even imagine that Australia could or should aim for a total tax take anything like the Scandinavian norm of around 50%. I suspect Australia’s is probably already around 37 or 38% if you treat compulsory occupational superannuation as part of tax revenue.

    We might be able to let the total tax take creep up by a further 2 percentage points or thereabouts, whether by bracket creep or hypothecated levies, without terminal political consequences for the party presiding over it. That would fund very substantial improvements to education, training, R & D and attention to welfare-to-work disincentives, and that would be a policy program which should be eminently saleable to most of the electorate. But I don’t see any sign that the ALP is looking at doing anything remotely like this; the most they’ll do is tinker around the edges (assuming they don’t continue with Beazley’s habitual small target non-policy strategy).

  5. Mark Upcher says:

    A thought provoking post, Fred.

    I have a few queries:
    (1) are there any other countries that you would classify as having adopted the American model? If not, is a sample size of one sufficient to classify the outcomes of model 1?

    (2) Why have you restricted yourself to just two policy instruments for this analysis? Couldn’t other policies be also relevant to the outcomes you have ascribed to the different models eg. degree of product and financial market regulation and conduct of monetary policy (narrow inflation goal v. broader growth without excessive inflation objective)?

    (3) In rating outcomes you have used the full 1-4 star rating for income equality but a much narrower band for the other three outcomes. What is the basis for this ranking? Doesn’t this implicitly assume that you are giving more weight to income equality in your analysis? To see this, if I was to only use, say, 3 or 4 stars for income equality and mobility but a fuller range for productivity and employment, then Model 1 would become the preferred model. That is, the loss of income equality and mobility would be less important than the gain in productivity and employment.

  6. Ken – there are a couple of factors of the Nordic model you overlook. Norway in particular has significant exports of commodities (ie timber) and primary products (ie fish). Population is also comparable to Australia.

    The Meissner model developed in Sweden used labour market policy to force inefficient small firms out of business. So it’s the opposite of our competition first and pro-small business policies (however much both are honoured only in the breach). The idea was that with a small population base, you could best compete on world markets with concentration of capital and highly skilled labour within your domestic market.

    The universalist social policy approach is also premissed on much higher quality services for everyone as well as high levels of welfare – which had some purchase in Australia with Medicare (note – past tense) but has never really taken hold in “the wage earners’ welfare state” – and from which we’re running away at about a million miles per second.

    The idea also is that you gain political support for high quality services (in say education and health) by universalising their provision rather than seeing public services as a residual safety net from which the middle classes can and will opt out, and for which political support declines as more of those who pay the most tax opt out.

  7. Ken,

    I don’t disagree with where you come out, but with the greatest respect (as we say here on Troppo when we’re about to hop in) your second paragraph is about two hundred years out of date – to be specific it is pre-Ricardian.

    You say that “The significantly higher tax regime necessary to fund a Scandinavian-style system clearly imposes cost, and therefore potentially major disincentives, on business.” And go on to imply that this would make it difficult for Australian business to ‘compete’.

    Now imposing higher taxes in Australia (which I don’t myself support by the way) would impose costs on business as you say. Now it’s a bit of a simplification admitedly, but it’s a fair approximation to say that they have negligible impact on our ‘competitiveness’ – because ultimately the competiveness of an Australian businesses in the international marketplace is a function of their capacity to wrest resources off other businesses (and consumers) in Australia. If tax rates rise for a firm and for its competitors and for consumers then it hasn’t been disadvantaged in getting hold of those resources.

    To put it another way, we can’t (for any length of time) pay ourselves as a nation much more than we earn. But we can choose to take those earnings either more or less collectively.

  8. Yobbo says:

    Nicholas: I think you are forgetting that to have internationally competitive industries, you need to have internationally competitive talent. Higher tax rates drive our best and brightest overseas, especially to Asia.

    Norway and Sweden are probably lucky in a way that their closest neighbours are probably even worse off than they are. There wouldn’t be a lot of incentive to work in France if you already lived in Norway.

    Australia’s problem is that we are geographically very close to Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan (for Mark Upcher’s benefit, some other countries which follow the American model, more or less), all of which have vastly lower tax rates on higher income earners than we do. For mid-level professionals, choosing to remain in Australia means cutting your income basically in half, with little other rewards to make up for it.

  9. Fred Argy says:

    I am delighted that my modest little piece attracted such interesting comments. I want to pick up on a few of the issues raised.

    1. Nicholas is right. I could have treated Greece, Portugal etc. as a separate model but it struck me that they might be a different stage of development. Also, in truth, I didn’t have all the necessary stats on them.

    2. I agree that proximity to Europe helps the Nordics but we have a huge natural resource advantage and the current commodity price boom is adding an extra 40 billion dollars a year to our national income! Yet we are running big current account deficits whereas the Nordics have surpluses (forget the special case of Norway). There must be some things they are doing better.

    3. Mark is worried about weighting bias in my table. I frankly can’t see it. I give the top economic model (1) gets four stars and I give the top distribution model (4) four stars. The weighting is the same. It is true that the band between the models is narrower on productivity and employment than on inequality. But that reflects the reality. Models 2 and 4 are almost as good as model 1 on productivity (there isn’t much in it) and every bit as good on employment. On the other hand, the gap between these two models on inequality of incomes is huge and the gap in social mobility (inequality of opportunity) is quite considerable. I could have fine tuned the stars a little but we would still be left wondering why Australia should be moving solely only in one direction and not the other.

    4. Yobbo’s concern about brain drain seems to me unwarranted. The ABS figures show we are still big net importers of skills. If there is a worry, it is that we are exporting our chaps to US, UK and Singapore but pinching our skilled people from poorer Asian countries.

    4. I agree with Rafe that most Australians are much more concerned about equality of opportunity than outcomes per se. But the two are clearly related. The countries with high levels of distributional inequality like UK and US also have relatively low income mobility. I agree unreservedly with his warning about determining what causes what. So it is very judgmental. What I do know from the literature is that rigid employment protection is a key culprit in model 3 although I feel they have made a big mess of monetary policy too and that going down the deregulation route without active fiscal redistribution (especially on education and training) inevitably produces much higher inequality. So far in Australia we have used cash transfers to keep down inequality but if we embrace the full American model we will cop not only higher final income inequality but lower equality of opportunity too. And that should concern all Australians.

    5. I agree with the view (Nicholas, Ken etc.) that we could never come even close to embracing the Nordic model if only because of cultural differences. That is why I suggested a “partial move”

  10. Ken Parish says:


    As you know, I’m not an economist, and I’m entirely prepared to be shown where I’m wrong. But you don’t do so by merely scoffing “pre-Ricardian”. Your comment seems to treat Australia and its businesses and employees as if we were an isolated entity rather than part of a global economy. It’s certainly true that higher tax rates wouldn’t matter if everyone was affected by them equally, and individuals and business didn’t have the option of decamping to a country with a more favourable tax and regulatory climate, but that isn’t the case.

    In my economically untutored perception, the (implicit) suggestion that the competitiveness of a nation’s tax regime is irrelevant to business investment decisions is contrary both to observation and commonsense. China, for example, kickstarted its current explosive growth by (inter alia) offering huge tax concessions to foreign investors in its Special Economic Zones. Manifestly the strategy worked.

    More generally, in an age of globally mobile capital, investors make their decisions on a wide range of factors: labour costs, stability and productivity; public infrastructure adequacy; government stability (sovereign risk); proximity to major markets and component/raw materials supplies; frequency and cost of transport/freight links; and, last but not least, the competitiveness of a country’s tax and general regulatory regime. No single one of these factors is likely to be decisive in isolation, but all are potentially relevant depending on the nature of the industry in question. If a country has strong advantages in several of these areas (as Norway, Sweden etc do), then a higher corporate and personal tax regime than other potential investment destinations may not really matter. But where the choice is more finely balanced (as it is with Australia given our small local population and distance from major markets), the need for an internationally competitive tax regime is likely to be more important and may in some cases be decisive. That applies not only to corporate tax rates but also individual ones because, as Yobbo argued, uncompetitive personal tax rates may militate against attracting the best and brightest talent.

  11. Ken Parish says:

    That said, I agree with all Fred’s comments immediately above. In an overview sense, it appears that most of us are in fundamental agreement. Australia can and should take relatively modest but significant steps in the direction of enhanced provision of “training, education, active labour market programs, work-to-welfare incentives and early childhood intervention policies”, and we can fund such programs with only modest rises in the total tax take which would not imperil our international competitiveness.

  12. Geoff Honnor says:

    Ken, off topic but can you e me?

  13. Yobbo says:

    “And the Government could have promoted the job prospects of low-wage unskilled workers by boosting their skills and productivity.”

    That sounds nice and all, but how do you go about “increasing the productivity” of low-skilled workers? Graft an extra arm on?

    If you teach them skills, they aren’t unskilled workers any more, but that doesn’t really solve the problem, does it? People are not going to give their cleaners a wage rise because they get a degree in computer programming. And no matter how many computer programmers our universities produce, we still need people to clean our offices.

    ” Yobbo’s concern about brain drain seems to me unwarranted. The ABS figures show we are still big net importers of skills.”

    What type of skills are we talking about? The people we are losing are not “skilled workers” like bricklayers, engineers or even doctors, but rather our entrepreneurs and business heavyweights, the people who actually create wealth rather than simply fill existing job vacancies.

    “Need I go on?”

    You can if you want, but if you’re only going to bandy about meaningless catchphrases then there isn’t much point.

  14. Ken Parish says:


    I can only assume you feel a desperate need to be be gratuitously rude and aggressive in order to live up to your self-conferred nickname. But it is especially uncalled for and inappropriate in relation to Fred Argy’s post. You could have made your points in a courteous manner without in any way detracting from the force of your argument. What about giving it a try next time? I’m referring mostly to your last sentence. The rest of your comment was within the mainstream of robust but civil Troppo debate.

  15. Yobbo says:

    Ken: the rudeness in my final sentence was in response to the rudeness of Fred’s rhetorical “need I go on?” as if the debate on the issues is over and the passage of the new IR laws is unequivally bad.

    If Fred wants to have a real debate he should at least consider the possibility that others may be of the view that the Howard IR laws are a good thing rather than the unmitigated evil the anti-Howard left holds them up to be.

    So as I said, if Fred doesn’t want to consider that possibility then there really is no need for him to “go on”. And if he didn’t want an answer to that question then he shouldn’t have asked it.

  16. Ken,

    Apologies for not getting my response up for a few days, but I’ve been battling various viruses (in my computer that is).

    On ‘competitiveness’ I probably explained it better the second go – in my comment – rather than the first effort that you reacted to. The Nordics choose to take 50 odd percent of their income collectively – in the form of tax payments to governments which then redistribute and/or spend the money.

    We could do the same. Of course that would mean that we’d have to take less individually. But it wouldn’t add to business costs if we made that choice. The argument is more complicated if taxes are imposed directly on business, but even there, it’s much less of a big deal than people think. It’s only the tax on mobile factors of production that needs to be ‘competitive’ and that’s generally capital.

    One of the great justifications of the GST was the idea that it reduced costs on exports. If that’s a good thing, the thing that’s good about it is that it will move our trade balance towards surplus. In fact in most circumstances trade balances are driven by macro-economic factors – in particular investment and saving.

    As a thought experiment, lets say we (horror or horrors) imposed GST on exports. That might distort the economy more than the current arrangement (though I’m not sure of that) but it wouldn’t have hurt ‘exports’. The exchange rate would adjust largely restoring firms’ ‘competitiveness’ though a different probably somewhat less efficient MIX of exports would ensue.

    So in general (and with some well specified exceptions) high taxes are a national collective choice and don’t ‘weigh down’ firms with costs in the international market.

    As another analogy, when I was in France I noticed how many people consumed French champagne. Even in France it’s very expensive. Do these proclivities make the French people less competitive? No it’s a preference of theirs – so they consumer more champagne and less of other things. It’s the same with tax. The highly taxed countries have more collective consumption and less private consumption.

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  18. biaddvb says:


  19. JC says:

    “As a thought experiment, lets say we (horror or horrors) imposed GST on exports. That might distort the economy more than the current arrangement (though Im not sure of that) but it wouldnt have hurt exports. The exchange rate would adjust largely restoring firms competitiveness though a different probably somewhat less efficient MIX of exports would ensue.”

    Firstly we don’t know if it would “hurt” exports because it may mean that exporters may just absorb the tax.

    It will damage the exchange rate causing it to fall down the elevator shaft.

    However the inescapble conclusion is that it would damage our standard of living. Exporters incomes would be reduced or the exchange rate would tumble. It is evident to all what a fall in export income would do. A fall in the excahange rate would adversely affect us all, as our living standards would drop on an absolute and comparative basis.

    Argentina tried this caper in the 30’s by taxing beef and wheat exports.. It was described as possibly the worst decision made in terms of lowering living standards.

  20. JC says:

    Fred says:

    “The poor employment outcomes in much of continental Europe are partly due to rigid monetary policy but, one suspects, they are also due to excessive reliance on EPL.”

    How do you arrive at this conclusion, Fred?

    Unemployment levels have only now started to nudge downwards for some countries in Europe with France now being the sick gal in Euro Land.

    Don’t forget that the EMU (the European Monetary Mechanism) preceded the Euro. That system was actually more rigid and “harder” than the Euro seeing that in those days the 11 participating countries had to maintain 2/12% band to central parity. Later moved to 1.25% agaisnt the band.

    What did this mean? It meant that the gang of 10 had to keep their foot on the brake in order to keep as tight as the D-Mark. So it was a “brake” race in having keep up with the tightest and hardest currency in the EMU- the D-Mark.

    Nowadays monetary policy is more of an aggregation to the middle. Which means that Portugal, Spain, France or Italy no longer have to keep as tight as the Germans did. Monetary policy is looser in scope now than it was under EMU, Fred. It has to be by definition and intent. The ECB is not the Budesbank in any shape or form. Hell they have a Frog running the show now!

    So this brings up back to the fact that it is labor market alone rigidities (not monetary policy) that has kept continental unemployment at higher levels for almost a decade and a 1/2.

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