If you’re looking for the personification of the Washington economic establishment, you could do a lot worse than Fred Bergsten. National Security Council economics deputy under Henry Kissinger (at age 27), then head of the international desk and the monetary portfolio in Jimmy Carter’s Treasury Department, and from 1981 through last year the founding director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Bergsten has been a forceful advocate for what used to be called the Washington Consensus: an unflagging belief in the virtues of free trade and fiscal discipline.
One aspect that defines our current economy is that things are happening that shouldn’t be happening. I don’t mean that things are happening that are illegal or immoral. (Well, some of them are immoral, but that’s not what I mean.) Rather, things are happening that defy economic logic—a slippery term that really means, the economic patterns of roughly the past half-century.
The first such logic-defying thing is that corporate profits are soaring even as corporate revenues limp along. The quarterly reports of S&P 500 corporations for the first three months of 2013 are almost entirely in now, and they show profits rising by more than 5 percent even while revenues have risen by less than 1 percent. Seventy percent of these companies—the largest publicly traded U.S. firms—exceeded the analysts’ profit projections. On the other hand, 60 percent came in under the projections for their sales.
It’s official: The spending cuts of 2011 and 2012, pushed by Republicans as necessary given our deficits, have damaged the recovery and kept more people out of work. According to Jackie Calmes and Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times, “The nation’s unemployment rate would probably be nearly a point lower, roughly 6.5 percent, and economic growth almost two points higher this year if Washington had not cut spending and raised taxes as it has since 2011.”
My name is Roxanne Mimms and I work for a food service contractor at the National Zoo. I work full time but make barely minimum wage. I’m here because workers can’t live off what contractors pay us. I’m here because I don’t want my two children to grow up on public assistance. I’m here because I have dreams – My American Dream is a good job with fair wages to provide for my children, being able to pay my bills on time and save for the future. I’m here because I want to help all the workers at the National Zoo whose dreams are on hold.”
The government’s April jobs report produced some happy headlines and a big stock market rally. The dismal March jobs tally was revised upwards from under 100,000 new jobs to a still feeble 138,000. In April, the economy created 165,000 jobs. The nominal unemployment rate dropped all the way from 7.9 percent to 7.5 percent.
But look a little deeper and you’ll appreciate just how crummy these numbers are.
Here is the thing to remember about every jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
You have to wait for the revisions.
Remember, the monthly jobs report is a scientific survey of households and employers. That doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate, but for any given survey, there are ways to improve the accuracy and reach a higher degree of precision. Month after month, this is what the BLS does—it tests and adjusts, in order to get the most accurate account of the where the economy stands.
In the election of 1952 my father voted for Dwight Eisenhower. When I asked him why he explained that “FDR’s debt” was still burdening the economy—and that I and my children and my grandchildren would be paying it down for as long as we lived.
I was only six years old and had no idea what a “debt” was, let alone FDR’s. But I had nightmares about it for weeks.
Yet as the years went by my father stopped talking about “FDR’s debt,” and since I was old enough to know something about economics I never worried about it. My children have never once mentioned FDR’s debt. My four-year-old grandchild hasn’t uttered a single word about it.
Deficit reduction has been Washington’s obsession for the past two years, and the main approach of both parties is austerity—any combination of policies that raises government revenue and reduces its expenditures.
The Economic Policy Institute published a report yesterday on the supposed shortage of professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). You've probably heard of the crisis by now. America is not producing enough STEM degrees. This will be the death of innovation and global competitiveness. We must reorient higher education to convert more liberal arts students into STEM students. And so on.
The problem with this alleged crisis is that it is not real. As the EPI report lays bare, the common wisdom about our STEM problem is mistaken: We are not facing a shortage of STEM-qualified workers. In fact, we appear to have a considerable STEM surplus. Only half of students graduating with a STEM degree are able to find STEM jobs. Beyond that, if there was an actual shortage of STEM workers, basic supply and demand would predict that the wages of STEM workers would be on the rise. Instead, wages in STEM fields have not budged in over a decade. Stagnant wages and low rates of STEM job placement strongly suggest we actually have an abundance of STEM-qualified workers.
Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff wrote a wildly influential book four years ago called This Time Is Different.* The thesis of the book is that when a government has a debt-to-GDP ratio above 90 percent, it is terrible for economic growth. The authors also followed up with a couple of papers arguing the same thing. Pro-austerity forces here and elsewhere in the world have seized upon the book to push their favored policies.
This is a story about the deficit scolds who substitute attitude for argument and how they use the public’s ignorance about the federal budget to their advantage.
It comes from sparring over the House Republican budget, which Republicans claim will achieve a balanced budget within ten years, and Barack Obama’s budget, which he will be submitting to Congress this week. Neither gets us to a zero deficit. The White House spin has been that balancing the budget isn’t an important goal by itself—deficits, surpluses, or balance are only means to the end of a growing economy or creating jobs. In line with that thinking, last week White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said, “You don’t want to balance the budget for the purposes of just balancing the budget.”
There is something seriously off about the mission of the new Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, to Europe. Secretary Lew has been visiting European capitals to persuade leaders there to ease up on the austerity. He has not had a good reception.
Speaking at a joint press conference with the chagrined Lew in Berlin, Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister and uber-austerity enforcer, dressed down Lew thusly: “Nobody in Europe sees this contradiction between fiscal consolidation and growth.”
Nobody among the elite, that is.
Ordinary people in Greece, where output has declined by nearly 25 percent since the austerity tonic began, surely see the contradiction. So do young people in Spain, where the youth unemployment rate has reached 56 percent.
For accounting purposes, it makes sense to count programs like Social Security, disability insurance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as government spending. But these kinds of programs are not really government spending because the government does not actually direct how the money is spent. Unlike building a road, for instance, where the government decides that a road should be built and then pays to make it happen, cash benefit programs involve the government distributing money to people and allowing them to decide where to spend it.
From the beginning of President Obama's term, Republicans have attacked him for "growing the size of government" and creating a false recovery with higher spending. but it's hard to see what they're talking about. Yes, there's the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank. At the same time, however, the United States has seen a record decline in the number of public workers—since the official end of the recession, state and local governments (as well as the federal government) have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers.
A new bill introduced today by Senator Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, and more importantly, peg it to inflation so that it would automatically adjust. The proposed wage hike is higher than the $9 per hour proposed by President Obama and is closer to what the minimum wage would be now if it had kept up with the rate of inflation. The bill also increases the tipped wage, which has not risen in twenty years.