Opinion

The Great Debate

from Edward Hadas:

Why the global recovery is so slow

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The International Monetary Fund recently engaged in what has become an annual ritual. For the fourth year in a row, it reduced its forecast for world GDP growth. The 0.7 percentage point average decline from the earlier estimate to the new 3.4 percent growth projection is not huge, but the persistent disappointments make many economists uneasy.

Larry Summers has an explanation for the problem in rich countries, which he calls secular stagnation. The former U.S. treasury secretary’s argument has several strands, but his main thesis is that investment has been too low for almost two decades because prevailing interest rates have been too high and because politicians have not permitted sufficiently large government deficits. Controversially, he suggests that growth has been painfully slow whenever financial bubbles are lacking, as in the years since the 2008 crisis.

Summers’ complaints about monetary and fiscal policy seem excessive. Before the crisis, central banks were widely praised for generating steady, non-inflationary growth around the world. That does not make them sound too tough. And the fiscal deficits since the crisis in many developed countries have been the largest ever in peacetime as a share of GDP. That hardly sounds inadequate.

A more plausible financial explanation for the disappointing global recovery starts with balance sheets that have been distorted by more than two decades of increasing borrowing. Many households, companies and governments have been left under financial pressure. Their spending is likely to be restrained without a massive reduction in debt – whether through write-offs, repayments using newly created money, or inflationary erosion.

Creating an upscale service economy

The American economy is irrevocably shifting from manufacturing to services. Our workforce has gone from 28 percent factory workers and 72 percent service workers in 1978 to 14 percent factory workers and 86 percent service workers today.

But the service sector encompasses tens of millions of “bad” jobs that are unstable and offer low pay with few benefits – routine clerical work, for example, or retail sales, fast food or low-end human services such as nurse’s aides – alongside a relatively small number of well-compensated professional positions, including doctors, lawyers and scientists, as well as astronomically rich investors and plutocrats in the financial sector.

As we move into this service economy, there are political choices to be made – or evaded. We can allow our increasingly laissez-faire economy to take a low road of underpaid and under-professionalized service jobs. Or we can use social investment, taxation and public borrowing to create more high-level careers in the human services, which will, in turn, help stimulate an economic recovery and stem the tide of inequality.

The unequal reality of Friday’s jobs report

Today’s U.S. Labor Department report on jobs confirms what we’ve known for more than a year: We have entered a new normal for jobs, with marginal gains, marginal losses and higher levels of unemployment becoming the unfortunate norm.

It also confirms that where you live, what you do, what race you are and what level of education you’ve attained profoundly shape your employment prospects. In spite of claims of a youth unemployment crisis and ample anecdotes about a punishing job markets for recent college grads, there is – statistically – no job crisis for the college-educated, with their unemployment rate hovering around 4 percent. That contrasts with the national average of 7.9 percent and an average in the mid-teens for those with a high-school degree. For African Americans of any education level, the rate is 14.3 percent; for Hispanics, 10 percent; for Asian Americans, 4.9 percent. If you live in Nebraska or North Dakota, the jobless rate is less than 4 percent, thanks to robust prices for grains and corn and the oil and gas of the shale revolution. If you live in Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota or Kansas, the rate is below 6 percent. But in California, Nevada or New Jersey, it is at or above 10 percent.

Above all, the jobs report confirms that the campaign rhetoric about what the next president and Congress will do to “get jobs moving again” is hollow at best. As the numbers starkly demonstrate, the notion of an evenly distributed national jobs crisis is a fiction. Yet all the vague plans touted by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney treat the challenge of employment in 21st century America as a shared national dilemma. Unemployment is a shared affliction the way Hurricane Sandy is a shared affliction. People who live in the Northeast and Northwest may be linked by common citizenship and a shared sense of community (at least in crisis) but not by equivalent pain and suffering. Same goes for unemployment.

What women want is political key

No matter how artificial and canned the candidates can seem at a presidential debate, no matter how competent or ineffectual the moderator — the nominee’s true self will peak out at some point.

Thus did GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney tip his hand when it comes to the all-important female vote — which both he and President Barack Obama have been scrambling after. He didn’t make a huge gaffe or get ensnared in a tough debate about choice. Moving around the stage, he seemed a 1950s throwback who had wandered in from a different decade — one where men were men, women wore shirtwaist dresses (Ann Romney’s uniform) and marriage was between a man and a woman.

Of course what drove this home was Romney’s anecdote about trying to find talented women for his staff when he was governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007. He said he actually went to a number of women’s groups “and they brought us whole binders full of women.” Though he apparently flipped this story: The groups came to him unsolicited.

Who knew jobs data could be so exciting?

The September jobs report ignited a firestorm when Jack Welch, former General Electric chief executive officer and Reuters contributor, asserted (or implied, or wondered if) the unemployment rate had been politically doctored to give President Barack Obama an electoral advantage. After all, how can the unemployment rate drop a full 0.3 percentage points to 7.8 percent when the economy is creating only 114,000 jobs?

More on that later. First, let’s dismiss the notion that the integrity of the data-collection process was undermined. Anyone at all familiar with the production of federal economic statistics – at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Federal Reserve, or elsewhere – can appreciate the firewalls that exist between the professional collection, analysis and publication of economic data and the remainder of the agencies’ missions – especially their political appointees. It is unfathomable that these would be breached.

It is even more unfathomable that they would be breached without the career civil servants getting on the telephone to, say, Reuters and reporting the political manipulation within a nanosecond of it occurring. And still more unfathomable that such a breach would be initiated and covered up successfully, while only lowering the rate to 7.8 percent. Why not 6.8?

from David Rohde:

Yes, we’re creating jobs, but how’s the pay?

Update: The December job numbers released this morning continued the same trend described in yesterday’s column. Of the 200,000 new jobs created last month, 78,000 – or nearly 40 percent -- were in transportation, warehousing and retail, sectors known for low pay and seasonal hiring. In a far more positive sign, manufacturing gained 23,000 workers in December after four months of little change. A vast expansion of that trend would benefit the middle class tremendously.

WASHINGTON -- Between now and November, middle class Americans are going to hear an enormous amount of bragging about job creation.

Mitt Romney will tout his role in the creation of Staples, The Sports Authority and Domino's, three firms that he says created 100,000 jobs. Barack Obama will say 2.9 million jobs have been created since March 2010, and highlight a surge of 140,000 new private sector jobs in November.

The income mobility myth

By David Callahan
The opinions expressed are his own.

Top Republicans have a simple answer to surging public concern about America’s vast wealth divide: More income mobility. “We want success for everybody,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said last week, adding that Americans shouldn’t “excoriate some who have been successful.” This remedy for economic unfairness taps into the popular American belief that public policy should ensure equality of opportunity, not outcome.

Too bad it won’t work.

Changes in the economy mean that, no matter how hard people work or how much they invest in education, they may still find themselves barely treading water. Even before the financial crisis, there weren’t enough good jobs to go around – thanks to globalization, automation, declining unionization, and lax labor standards. The majority of new jobs created during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were low-wage positions with no benefits. These trends – not, say, a lack of ambition – help explain why half of all American households bring in under $50,000 and have no assets.

“Success for everybody” is simply not possible against this backdrop of structural inequality. Ironically, conservatives like Cantor are placing ever more faith in the great American virtues of hard work and self-improvement even as these virtues deliver less and less mobility.

What happens after Obama’s jobs bill dies?

By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.

You can add to the list of hollow cries from history–such as “Ban the Bomb!” and “Bring the Troops Home!”–the president’s favorite refrain, “Pass the Jobs Bill Now!” Like the rest, Obama’s oft repeated demand is a sham, a mere slogan. Neither he nor his party, and certainly no Republican, believes Congress is going to pass even a small part of the bill, for it combines two elements his opponents detest the most: public works and higher taxes on the rich.

While the GOP squabbles over which of a barely electable field to pick as its candidate, Obama has already begun his reelection campaign in earnest. The simple message he is taking on the road is that Congress should “pass the jobs bill now!” That’s a plea he knows is sure to be ignored, leaving him in a position, he believes, to blame persistent joblessness on the Republican obstructionists. He is onto something. As Jimmy Carter found out, Americans hold their presidents to account when the economy is tanking; they expect them to improve the economy and are prepared to fire them when they don’t. It is a lesson for conservatives who believe that governments can’t and shouldn’t attempt to change the economic weather. Voters blame the government anyway, whether they intervene or not.

Obama, like Franklin Roosevelt, believes in trying to fix the symptoms of a broken economy, while his GOP opponent, whoever it turns out to be, must hold to the Hayekian orthodoxy insisted upon by the Tea Party and the Republicans’ fiscally conservative wing that there is nothing much governments can or should do to improve the economy and that stimulus spending either does not work at all or will only make the smallest of differences in the short term. As Obama gleefully knows, a rival promising austerity, the long haul, a far worse economy before it gets better, and a dim light at the end of a long, long tunnel will be running against the spirit of optimism that Americans feel and like to hear from their leaders.

The case for Obama’s jobs program

By Betsey Stevenson
The opinions expressed are her own.

What should we make of the President’s new jobs plan? Ignore the politics — will it pass? — and focus on the economics: If it does, will it get Americans back to work?

The centerpiece is a series of sharp payroll tax cuts. The usual problem with payroll taxes is that they largely subsidize existing workers. But this plan — three separate payroll tax cuts — is different.

The first tax cut is the most innovative: No payroll taxes at all for firms increasing their wage bill. In economics, all the action is at the margin. If we want people to do more at the margin — hire more people — then the incentives to do so should be targeted at the margin. We will get much more bang-for-our-buck by giving the biggest tax breaks to the hiring of extra workers.

The jobs proposal ignores economics

By David Callahan
The opinions expressed are his own.

It’s a cruel fact for millions of unemployed Americans that the jobs plan President Obama unveiled last night will never be fully enacted by Congress. What’s even crueler, though, is that the least effective elements of the plan have the best chance of passage. New direct federal spending, the most powerful form of stimulus, is widely considered DOA on Capitol Hill – while weaker tax cut options will get a real hearing.

That’s not how things would go if mainstream economists were calling the shots. Economics is not an exact science, but economists do have pretty good models to predict what “fiscal policy multipliers” will be most effective at stimulating growth and new hiring. Just last month, for example, the chief economist for Moody’s Analytics Mark Zandi released an analysis of stimulus measures work. Zandi advised John McCain in 2008 and is anything but a committed liberal. But his study, supported by the full weight of Moody’s modeling expertise, clearly shows that spending is the best form of stimulus.

The single most effective form of stimulus, the study found, are increased outlays for food stamps — which create $1.71 in economic activity for each dollar in federal spending. The other top two boosters are spending on unemployment benefits and infrastructure. Earlier studies, including by the Congressional Budget Office, have found largely the same thing.

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