Robert Frank joins the chorus calling for something to be done about unemployment:
The Payroll Tax Needs a Vacation, by Robert Frank, Commentary, NY Times: The federal budget deficit is a distraction. It’s important, yes, and must be addressed. But by a wide margin, it’s not the nation’s most pressing economic problem. That would be the widespread and persistent joblessness...
Almost 14 million people ... were officially counted as unemployed last month. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There were almost 9 million part-time workers who wanted, but couldn’t find, full-time jobs; 28 million in jobs they would have quit under normal conditions; and an additional 2.2 million who wanted work but couldn’t find any and dropped out of the labor force.
If the economy could generate jobs at the median wage for even half of these people, national income would grow by more than 10 times the total interest cost of the 2011 deficit (which was less than $40 billion). So anyone who says that reducing the deficit is more urgent than reducing unemployment is saying, in effect, that we should burn hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods and services in a national bonfire.
We ought to be tackling both problems at once. But in today’s fractious political climate, many promising dual-purpose remedies — like infrastructure investments that would generate large and rapid returns — are called unthinkable...
We need to keep posing hard questions to deficit hawks who argue that we shouldn’t be hiring unemployed workers to maintain our crumbling roads and bridges, even though postponing such projects will make them much more expensive in the future. These projects don’t impoverish our grandchildren. They enrich them.
The important point is that bringing down federal deficits is a long-run problem... But our immediate concern must be getting people back to work.
He also talks about, and favors, a payroll tax as one of the few politically viable options. About that, if we go the payroll tax reduction route, we need to design the policy in a way that protects Social Security financing. Many conservatives will try to make the payroll tax reduction permanent, and then use it to starve the Social Security program. From a previous post:
...for those who want to scale back or eliminate Social Security, this would be seen as an opportunity to starve Social Security of finances, create a crisis, then argue for cutbacks. But there are ways to do this that don't involve cutting the payroll tax per se, so the political optics are different yet amount to the same thing. For example, continue collecting Social Security taxes as before, but give workers a temporary rebate that is clearly designated as temporary, and is independent of Social Security taxes. I'm sure there are better ways to do it, but the point is that we can help workers without interrupting the usual payroll tax flow and putting Social Security at risk.
But back to infrastructure. I can't help but think about all of those people who objected to putting more infrastructure spending into the stimulus package back in late 2008 and the early months of 2009. The argument was that there weren't enough shovel ready projects available. If we tried to do too much of this type of stimulus, the economy would already be recovering by the time we put those projects into place, and it would cause the economy to become overheated.
Of course it turned out that we actually needed to provide sustained stimulus, the forecasts for a quick end to the recession were way off.
Presently, the spending is ending and creating a drag just as the economy is struggling to turn upward. The forecasts for a quick end to the recession were wrong, and a larger, more sustained stimulus effort was needed (as many of us argued at the time). Having additional projects coming online now would have been very helpful to the recovery effort.
However, when infrastructure projects are suggested now as a way to help the unemployed and our crumbling infrastrucutre at the same time, the same voices tell us that the first round of stimulus spending showed there aren't enough shovel ready projects available. There's no way to get these projects going in time to do much good.
The best response to that argument -- besides the fact that they were wrong about this before, there was plenty of time to develop projects, and they are wrong again -- is this graph:
Fed Forecast of the Unemployment Rate
There's plenty of time, plenty of unemployed resources, and interest costs are as low as they'll ever be. And, of course, there's plenty of need for investment in infrastructure so there are large benefits from this type of spending.
But we're too pennywise for this.