Zero. Nothing. Nilch.

By Felix Salmon
September 2, 2011

The symbolism of today’s payrolls report — ZERO — would be bad enough even if it wasn’t coming out in advance of the Labor Day weekend. There’s a pattern here: no matter how bad Wall Street thinks the employment report is going to be, it always seems to be worse, these days. It’s like GE’s earnings circa Jack Welch, but in reverse.

It’s increasingly looking as though the government is utterly incapable of creating jobs, but is actually pretty effective at destroying them. It’s doing so in a direct, literal way — there were 17,000 fewer government employees in August than there were the previous month, and local government has lost more than half a million jobs since September 2008. And it’s also doing so in an indirect way — there can’t be much doubt that a significant part of the jobs weakness is a function of the anger and uncertainty caused by the utter dysfunction of the legislative branch of government.

Hiring and firing decisions, of course, happen slowly — and they often happen after the summer. The jobs situation, which is always cyclical, now seems to be in a downturn rather than an upturn, which raises the prospect of a negative payrolls figure in September and further gruesome news over most of the 2012 election year. President Obama can speechify all he wants on Thursday, but I can’t imagine that he’s going to be able to get anything substantive through the House — not when Eric Cantor is demanding that even emergency hurricane relief be paid for with spending cuts.

You can call this a double dip, if you like, or you can view it as a kind of aftershock of the financial crisis. Either way, the economy is clearly now below its stall speed, and we don’t have access to the mechanisms necessary to get it moving again. That is going to make for poisonous politics, Washington gridlock, and untold human misery among millions of new and long-term unemployed across the land. Happy Labor Day, people.

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