In his column yesterday, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman quoted Kauffman's Bob Litan about the importance of new and young firms to job creation and emphasized the importance of immigrants to firm formation. It was a trademark Friedman column: factoid, examples, quotations from experts, and concise policy lessons. I'm biased because Friedman used Kauffman data, but it was a good column.
Not everyone, however, wants to hear about the economic change that new firms and immigrants visit upon the U.S. economy. At Beat the Press, Dean Baker took issue with Friedman's column and Kauffman's data. With a layer of snark that is by now wearily standard in the blogosphere, Baker writes: "Friedman's conclusion about the special importance of new firms is utter nonsense." His logic:
The claim that most net new jobs came from new firms conceals the fact that existing firms added tens of millions of jobs in this 25-year period. Of course existing firms also lost tens of millions of jobs. We can say that the net job creation for existing firms was zero, but if we did not have an environment that was conducive for the job adders to grow (how many jobs did Microsoft, Apple, and Intel create after their first 5 years of existence?), then existing firms would have lost tens of millions more jobs.
Well, yes, that's true--and that's precisely the point. There are basically two ways to look at job creation in the economy: gross and net. On gross terms, large existing companies hire thousands of people each year, but they also see thousands of people leave, voluntarily or involuntarily. Gross job inflows and outflows in the American economy are enormous, an indicator of the ongoing and dynamic reallocation of resources that drives economic growth.
At the end of the day, however, if we want to keep pace with an expanding labor force (new entrants) and changing economy (the rise and fall of sectors and companies), what matters is net job creation. We have fifteen million people unemployed in the United States right now, and over the next several years net job creation has to proceed at a remarkable pace to not only provide jobs for this population but also create jobs for the millions of new people who will enter the labor force in the coming years. The last two years have seen the two biggest matriculating classes ever in American higher education, which means that in four or five years we will see a large influx of new graduates searching for jobs. How does Baker propose we keep pace with such growth?
From a macro perspective, for keeping pace with this growth, the only thing that matters is net job creation. It would be little consolation if we had 100 people looking for jobs, and large company ABC hired those 100 people but also fired 100 different people. For Baker, this is a good thing. And it is--for the 100 people who were hired. But what does Baker do with the 100 newly unemployed folks? Relate to them the wonders of big companies and their gross hiring?
Big, established companies are indisputably important--the symbiosis between new and old, small and large is a key strength of the U.S. economy. But we only get net job creation--a positive increment of new jobs to keep pace with labor force growth--from new and young companies. True, this population is highly dynamic, equally adept at creating jobs as eliminating them. Whereas this dynamic process works out to a net gain of zero in big companies, the net result among new and young companies is positive. If you subtract startups from the American economy over the past thirty years, there is only a handful of years in which the economy would have created a positive net number of new jobs. This makes sense as a brand new company can only create, not destroy jobs, but from the perspective of adding new jobs--for those 100 people above--this doesn't change the fact that new jobs come from new and young companies.
Baker also neglects to mention that once a company survives to a certain age (at age six a company is no longer classified in the data as "young") it becomes not an organic generator of jobs but an acquirer of new jobs via other companies, which are largely young and small. Baker asks, seemingly rhetorically, how many jobs Microsoft added over the age of five, but companies like Microsoft and Intel and eBay and others can generally only add a positive increment of net new jobs by acquiring young companies. So even the appearance of net job creation in our largest companies reflects the contribution of new and young firms. None of this, moreover, even begins to approach the role of new and young companies in innovation and economic expansion--not monolithic growth but the evolution of sectors and firms into new and unknown territory.
Baker also appears to cast cold water on Friedman's emphasis on the importance of immigrants, but doesn't dwell on it. There is, however, a faintly palpable nativist tinge in the comments to Baker's post. Why bring in "foreigners" to start companies? Don't we trust Americans? Nowhere, however, does Friedman (or Kauffman) claim that Americans are insufficient for entrepreneurship. In fact, immigrants who start companies in the United States create thousands of jobs for Americans--who could argue against that? For a country made great on a history of immigration, the United States risks falling prey to nativist sentiment from both the right and the left, which will inevitably stifle economic dynamism.
In criticizing Friedman (and Kauffman), Baker tries to cover his tracks with snark, wishing someone would revoke Friedman's license to discuss economics. In an altogether brilliant post last week, Michael Pettis observed, "Snarkiness is always a sign of intellectual insecurity or confusion, and never an indication of insight." Rather than snark, Baker should consider how his vision of a big-companies-only economy would lead to stultified job growth, harming the people he claims to want to protect.