Why Isn’t the Unemployment Crisis a National Emergency?
[Note: An edited version of this column appeared here on 9/13. Even though the president has pivoted "from deficit reduction to job creation," and even though job creation was the theme of the weekly address Obama gave today, I can't say I'm any more encouraged about the prospects for a significant job creation package than I was when I wrote this.]
Labor markets are in terrible shape. Fourteen million people are unemployed, long-term unemployment remains near record highs, the ratio of job seekers to job openings is 4.3 to 1, and the employment to population ratio has dropped precipitously. Even if the economy grows at a robust average of 3.5% beginning in 2013, labor markets won’t fully recover until 2017. And if average growth is only 3.0% – well within the range of possibility – it will take until 2020. In short, labor markets are in crisis and the longer the crisis persists, the more permanent and growth-inhibiting the damage becomes.
So it was welcome news to see President Obama pivot from deficit reduction to job creation in his widely anticipated speech last week. The president proposed a combination of spending and tax reduction policies, and he surprised many people with the boldness of his proposals and his passion and commitment to the issue. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to do much to help with the unemployment problem.
There plenty of time to provide help, the dismal prospects for recovery detailed above make that clear. So the time it takes to implement job creation policies – the objection that there are not enough shovel ready projects – is not the issue. And while concerns over the deficit are valid for the long-run, they shouldn’t prevent us from doing more to help the jobless. The long-run debt problem is predominantly a health care cost problem, and whether or not we help the jobless doesn’t much change the magnitude of the long-run problem we face.
The problem is the political atmosphere. Republicans may go along with doing just enough to look cooperative rather than obstructionist, but no more than that and the policies that emerge are unlikely to be enough to make a substantial difference in the unemployment problem. It won’t be anywhere near the $445 billion program the president has called for, which itself is short of what is needed to really make a difference.
I don’t expect we’ll get much more help from the Fed either. There is quite a bit of disagreement among monetary policymakers over whether further easing would do more harm than good, and inflation hawks are standing in the way of those who want to aggressively attack the unemployment problem. As with Congress, the Fed is likely to adopt a compromise position and do the minimum it can while still looking as though it is trying to meet its obligation to promote full employment.
Thus, despite the President’s newfound interest in job creation, and the call from some at the Fed to treat the unemployment problem the same way they would treat elevated inflation – as though “their hair was on fire” – the actual policies that come out of Congress and the Fed are unlikely to be sufficient to make much of a dent in the problem.
It’s time for this to change. The loss of 8.75 million payroll jobs since the recession began should be a national emergency. But it’s not, and the question is why. Why has deficit reduction taken precedence over job creation? Why is our political system broken to the extent that a whole segment of the population is not being adequately represented in Congress?
That brings me to an important difference between the response to this recession and the policies that followed the Great Depression. Many of the policies that were enacted during and after the Great Depression not only addressed economic problems, they also directly or indirectly reduced the ability of special interests to capture the political process. Polices that imposed regulations on the financial sector, broke up monopolies, reduced inequality through highly progressive taxes, accorded new powers to unions, and so on shifted the balance of power toward the typical household.
But since the 1970s many of these changes have been reversed. Inequality has reverted to levels unseen since the Gilded Age, monopoly power has increased, financial regulation has waned, union power has been lost, and much of the disgust with the political process revolves around the feeling that politicians have lost touch with the interests of the working class. And it would be hard to disagree with that sentiment.
We need a serious discussion of this issue, followed by changes that shift political power toward the working class, but who will start the conversation? Congress has no interest in doing so, things are quite lucrative as they are. Unions used to have a voice, but they have been all but eliminated as a political force. The press could serve as the gatekeeper, but too many outlets are controlled by the very interests that the press needs to take on and this gives them the ability to cloud most any issue. Presidential leadership could make a difference, and Obama’s election brought hope for change, but this president does not seem inclined to take a strong stand on behalf of the working class despite the surprising boldness of his job creation speech.
Another option is that the working class itself will say enough is enough and demand change. There was a time when I would have scoffed at the idea of a mass revolt against entrenched political interests and the incivility that comes with it. We aren’t there yet – there’s still time for change – but the signs of unrest are growing and if we continue along a two-tiered path that ignores the needs of such a large proportion of society, it can no longer be ruled out.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 11:43 AM
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