More Recession


Columns from two of the most perspicacious economists on the horizon. The first, Robert Reich, was Secretary of Labor in the administration of Bill Clinton. The second is Paul Krugman, Nobel prizewinning economist who writes his column in the New York Times.

On the weekend celebrating the independence of our nation, their comments to promote the welfare of the United States, go well beyond the usual economic idiocy that now seems to be the vogue in Congress. (Obama is making the same mistake Roosevelt made in kowtowing to this deficit-hawk extremism.)

Slouching Toward a Double Dip or a Lousy Recovery at Best

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The economy is still in the gravitational pull of the Great Recession and all the booster rockets for getting us beyond it are failing. The odds of a double dip are increasing.

In June the nation added fewer jobs than necessary merely to keep up with population growth (private hiring rose by 83,000 after adding only 33,000 jobs in May). The typical workweek declined. Average earnings dropped.  Home sales are down. Retail sales are down. Factory orders in May suffered their biggest tumble since March of last year.

So what are we doing about it? Less than nothing. The states are running an anti-stimulus program (raising taxes, cutting services, laying off teachers, firefighters, police and other employees) that’s now bigger than the federal stimulus program. That federal stimulus is 75 percent gone anyway. And the House and Senate refuse to pass another one. (The Senate left Washington for the July 4th weekend without even extending unemployment benefits for millions of jobless Americans now running out.)

The second booster rocket – the Fed’s rock-bottom short-term interest rates – are having almost no effect. That’s because jobs and wages are so lousy that consumers don’t have enough money to buy much of anything, making small businesses bad credit risks and causing big ones to sit on the huge pile of cash they’ve accumulated.

Wall Street and the other biggest global banks, meanwhile, are making piles of money betting against government debt all over the world. These were the same banks and financiers, remember, that were bailed out by government not long ago. But now they’re demanding fiscal austerity, and politicians are once again doing their bidding – cutting deficits in every rich economy that should now be doing the reverse.

The people who are suffering the most from the failure of public officials and the greed of large bankers are the least able to endure it. Unemployment among people with four-year college degrees is barely over 5 percent; among high-school dropouts it’s over 25 percent. Those who have been jobless the longest or who have left  the labor force altogether are men over fifty who are least likely to get back in. Families most in need are losing the services – state-supported Medicaid, child dental care, after-school programs for the kids, public transit – they most depend on.

The irony is that had there been no bank bailout in 2008 and 2009, no large stimulus, and no extraordinary efforts by the Fed to pump trillions of dollars into the economy, we’d have had another Great Depression. And because it would have sucked almost everyone down with it, the nation would have demanded from politicians larger and more fundamental reforms that might well have lifted everyone, and set America and the world on a more sustainable path toward growth and shared prosperity: A stimulus that financed the rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure and alternative energies, single-payer health care, a cap on the size of big banks and resurrection of Glass-Steagall, earnings insurance, an Earned Income Tax Credit that extended into the middle class, and a truly progressive tax coupled with a price on carbon to pay for all of this over the long term.

No one in their right mind would have wished for another Great Depression, of course. But we seem to have got the worst of all worlds. The bank bailout, the stimulus, and the Fed brought us back from the brink just enough to dampen zeal for anything more. As a result, we are now slouching toward a tepid recovery that could just as well fall into a double dip recession, while a large portion of our population suffers immensely.

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July 4, 2010

Punishing the Jobless

By PAUL KRUGMAN

There was a time when everyone took it for granted that unemployment insurance, which normally terminates after 26 weeks, would be extended in times of persistent joblessness. It was, most people agreed, the decent thing to do.

But that was then. Today, American workers face the worst job market since the Great Depression, with five job seekers for every job opening, with the average spell of unemployment now at 35 weeks. Yet the Senate went home for the holiday weekend without extending benefits. How was that possible?

The answer is that we’re facing a coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused. Nothing can be done about the first group, and probably not much about the second. But maybe it’s possible to clear up some of the confusion.

By the heartless, I mean Republicans who have made the cynical calculation that blocking anything President Obama tries to do — including, or perhaps especially, anything that might alleviate the nation’s economic pain — improves their chances in the midterm elections. Don’t pretend to be shocked: you know they’re out there, and make up a large share of the G.O.P. caucus.

By the clueless I mean people like Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for senator from Nevada, who has repeatedly insisted that the unemployed are deliberately choosing to stay jobless, so that they can keep collecting benefits. A sample remark: “You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that is an honest job but it doesn’t pay as much. We’ve put in so much entitlement into our government that we really have spoiled our citizenry.”

Now, I don’t have the impression that unemployed Americans are spoiled; desperate seems more like it. One doubts, however, that any amount of evidence could change Ms. Angle’s view of the world — and there are, unfortunately, a lot of people in our political class just like her.

But there are also, one hopes, at least a few political players who are honestly misinformed about what unemployment benefits do — who believe, for example, that Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, was making sense when he declared that extending benefits would make unemployment worse, because “continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.” So let’s talk about why that belief is dead wrong.

Do unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to seek work? Yes: workers receiving unemployment benefits aren’t quite as desperate as workers without benefits, and are likely to be slightly more choosy about accepting new jobs. The operative word here is “slightly”: recent economic research suggests that the effect of unemployment benefits on worker behavior is much weaker than was previously believed. Still, it’s a real effect when the economy is doing well.

But it’s an effect that is completely irrelevant to our current situation. When the economy is booming, and lack of sufficient willing workers is limiting growth, generous unemployment benefits may keep employment lower than it would have been otherwise. But as you may have noticed, right now the economy isn’t booming — again, there are five unemployed workers for every job opening. Cutting off benefits to the unemployed will make them even more desperate for work — but they can’t take jobs that aren’t there.

Wait: there’s more. One main reason there aren’t enough jobs right now is weak consumer demand. Helping the unemployed, by putting money in the pockets of people who badly need it, helps support consumer spending. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office rates aid to the unemployed as a highly cost-effective form of economic stimulus. And unlike, say, large infrastructure projects, aid to the unemployed creates jobs quickly — while allowing that aid to lapse, which is what is happening right now, is a recipe for even weaker job growth, not in the distant future but over the next few months.

But won’t extending unemployment benefits worsen the budget deficit? Yes, slightly — but as I and others have been arguing at length, penny-pinching in the midst of a severely depressed economy is no way to deal with our long-run budget problems. And penny-pinching at the expense of the unemployed is cruel as well as misguided.

So, is there any chance that these arguments will get through? Not, I fear, to Republicans: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” said Upton Sinclair, “when his salary” — or, in this case, his hope of retaking Congress — “depends upon his not understanding it.” But there are also centrist Democrats who have bought into the arguments against helping the unemployed. It’s up to them to step back, realize that they have been misled — and do the right thing by passing extended benefits.

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