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.”
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.
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.
This line from David Brooks’ most recent column has stuck with me since I read it: “Right now, America faces two giant problems: social unraveling today and cataclysmic debt tomorrow.” Reasonable people can disagree about the long-term problem of debt, but it’s hard to argue that we haven’t seen some form of “social unraveling” over the last decade. As Brooks notes:
One of my pet peeves about the coverage surrounding the plight of young people in America is that it focuses heavily, and at times exclusively, on how well recent college graduates are doing. Why people focus on this is a mystery to me. I suspect it is because the chattering classes are almost all college graduates, as are their friends. To them, being a recent college graduate is simply what it means to be a young person in the labor market.
With over twenty million Americans still unable to find full-time work, Washington shouldn't take its eye off job creation for a minute. That's certainly the feeling of voters, who overwhelmingly told exit pollsters on Election Day last November that fixing the economy should be Congress's number one priority—far more than said reducing the deficit.
Frankly, though, official Washington seems better at destroying jobs these days than creating them: Exhibit A are the sequestration cuts, which are eliminating jobs as I write this. Exhibit B is the rollback of the payroll tax holiday on January 1, which ensured that nearly every working American has been living with a pay cut for the past ten weeks.
This past January was the deadliest month in Chicago in more than a decade. Forty-two people lost their lives on the city’s streets, most of them to gun violence. For 2012, the total number of homicides was 509, of which 443 involved firearms. While most of the shootings could be attributed to gang feuds, innocent people were caught in crossfire that often erupted in broad daylight and on public streets.
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.
The release of 2012 minimum-wage data last Wednesday—which shows that the number of minimum wage workers has fallen but is still higher than any period since 1998—has underscored the importance of making good on Obama’s pledge of raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. As many have pointed out, women stand to benefit disproportionately from the increase: Two-thirds of the country’s roughly 1.6 million minimum-wage workers are women.
There are two things you can say about the recovery: It's slow, and it's remarkably durable. Even with the collapse of fiscal stimulus, the shocks of austerity, and a dysfunctional government, we've seen sluggish growth with just enough to bring down unemployment. And at times—such as the winter between 2011 and 2012—there were signs it was speeding up.
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.
As we approach sequestration today the dominant narrative continues to be that the huge run-up in the deficit since the Great Recession has been our greatest political—perhaps even a moral—failure. But it isn’t a failure. This is exactly how the system was designed to work if the economy ever saw a downturn on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis. The deficit is collapsing through the same planned process. As the economy recovers, it is falling quickly, down to 7 percent in 2012, and an estimated 5.3 percent in 2013.