Robert B. Reich, a co-founder of The American Prospect, is a Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. His website can be found here and his blog can be found here.
The American economy is almost certainly in recession right now, and a lot of people are scared not only about terrorism, but also about their economic futures. The good news is that the economic fundamentals--that is, the underlying structures of the American economy--are very strong.
Consider employment. Well, undoubtedly, a lot of people are losing jobs, and it's likely that October's unemployment rate will move up a notch from the 4.9 percent it registered in September to about 5 1/2 percent, or possibly even 6 percent. That sounds bad, and it is bad news for the people who can't find a job.
Not since World War II have Americans felt so unified. We're fighting a war against terrorism and we're fighting to get the economy moving again. And we're all in this together. Except when it comes to paying the bill.
The cost of the war on terrorism since Sept. 11 is estimated to be $40 billion, just for this year. That includes at least $20 billion for the military; $7 billion for recovery and relief in New York and at the Pentagon; $3 billion to fight bioterrorism; $2 billion for more security at dams, power plants and federal buildings; and $600 million to secure our airports and aircraft.
As America mobilizes for war, Washington must think more clearly about what it wants from American industry. K Street is ablaze with proposed subsidies, loan guarantees, tax breaks, and regulatory relief for industries termed "vital" to the anti-terrorist effort. In war-fevered Washington, politicians of all stripes may be too eager to accommodate.
It's one thing for the government to give the airline industry $5 billion without strings. More than the market value of the five major airlines put together, and $10 billion in guaranteed loans. The bailout makes almost no economic sense. I mean, even if an airline went bankrupt, the planes and crews wouldn't disappear. They'd just be bought up by another airline. But at least the public understands that airlines have taken a real beating since September 11th, so it's not completely absurd to give them some financial support.
The biggest drag on this economy -- easily two-thirds of the current slowdown -- comes from the huge drop in business investment. I mean, we re talking about Niagara Falls here. The first quarter last year, business spending was rocketing at an annual rate of more than 20 percent over the year before. By the end of last year, almost nothing.
Okay, so why is American business so bearish? American companies invested like mad in the 1990s, expecting that American consumers would follow right along and buy everything that was being produced. But last year American consumers reached their limit. They re deep in debt and can t go deeper.