The Great Debate

Wal-Mart’s fear of commitment

Wal-Mart distribution center in Bentonville, Arkansas June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

“Seeking an energetic person willing to drop everything when I call. Must be available 24/7, although I will make no long-term commitment to you.”

If this were a personal ad, we’d assume the writer would stay single forever. But this is essentially the help-wanted ad that Wal-Mart and other retailers are posting these days.

Retail workers who don’t have the benefit of a union contract are all too familiar with low pay, erratic part-time schedules and job insecurity. But industry standards sunk to a new low earlier this month, when Reuters reported that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. has been hiring only temporary workers at many of its U.S. stores.

These temporary workers must reapply for their jobs after 180 days. Meanwhile, existing full-time employees are seeing their hours cut to part-time, resulting in understaffed stores with long lines and un-stocked shelves.

North Carolina as the new Wisconsin

North Carolina, a state traditionally associated with Southern hospitality, college basketball and barbeque, is bucking its genteel reputation this summer as state politics reach fever pitch.

“Nowhere is the battle between liberal and conservative visions of government fiercer,” wrote David Graham of The Atlantic, “than North Carolina.” NBC Political Director Chuck Todd cited Graham’s piece as “a good argument that the best — and most important — political story that no one has probably heard about is taking place in North Carolina.”

Since April, Democrats and liberal groups upset with the state Republicans’ conservative legislation have gathered every Monday at the capitol in Raleigh — with more than 600 demonstrators arrested so far. A state Senate bill passed last week designed to increase health and safety standards at women’s reproductive rights facilities added fuel to the fire. Public protests escalated and the state garnered even more national media attention.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Austerity is a moral issue

Security worker opens the door of a government job center as people wait to enter in Marbella, Spain, December 2, 2011. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

In the nearly five years since the worst financial crash since the Great Depression, the remedy for the world’s economic doldrums has swung from full-on Keynesianism to unforgiving austerity and back.

The initial Keynesian response halted the collapse in economic activity. But it was soon met by borrowers’ remorse in the shape of paying down debt and raising taxes without delay. In the last year, full-throttle austerity has fallen out of favor with those charged with monitoring the world economy.

from The Edgy Optimist:

Obama sees the limits of government

President Barack Obama made the middle class the focus of his State of the Union address on Tuesday. He was lauded by some as fighting for jobs and opportunity, and even for launching a “war on inequality” equivalent to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1960s War on Poverty. He was assailed by others for showing his true colors as a man of big government and wealth redistribution.

Yet the initiatives Obama proposed are striking not for their sweep but for their limited scope. That reflects both pragmatism and realism: Not only is the age of big government really over, so is the age of government as the transformative force in American society. And that is all for the best.

Wait a minute, you might reasonably object: What about healthcare? What about the proposals for minimum -wage increases, for expanded preschool, for innovation centers, for $50 billion in spending on roads and infrastructure? Surely those are big government and aim, effectively or not, for transformation?

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.

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?

This economy could be as good as it gets

A familiar refrain that was popular in the early 1990s is making a comeback during the great recession of 2008-2009, which has rocked the economy and labor market for more than five years: Is it possible that the children of this generation will not be as well-off as their parents? The labor market has been hobbled. The duration of unemployment has reached unprecedented levels, and it is now the case that unemployed workers in certain age groups face the prospect of never being employed again. If all of this sounds grim (and it is), consider the possibility that this may be as good as it gets.

It is true that the depth of the recession and the current sluggish recovery are much different than anything we have seen since the Great Depression. But rather than look at the current recession in comparison with previous U.S. recessions, consider its comparison with Europe. The events in Europe that sent crippling shockwaves through much of the world might be of such a magnitude that the current speed of the recovery is fast enough. The current downturn is unusual because it was triggered by a large common shock, rather than the idiosyncratic components that usually put individual countries into a recession. We don’t have a lot of experience with such shocks, so it may be useful to look across countries to see how others have fared.

The U.S. economy accounts for about 22 percent of world GDP; the European Union is about 25 percent. The figure below from Europeansnapshot.com compares the 2008 recession and recovery in the U.S. with those in the major economies of Europe. First note that the size of the contraction was much steeper in Germany, the UK and Italy, whose economies fell roughly 6 percent from their peak. In the U.S. it was more like 4 percent. But note as well that the recovery in the U.S. has been steady compared with these countries. All except Germany appear to be headed back into recession.

‘I sat there every day and cried before going to work’

Editor’s note: This week, Reuters Opinion is publishing five excerpts – one each day – from D.W. Gibson’s new book, Not Working, an oral history of the recession. Gibson spent months traveling across America talking to people who had been laid off.

Teresa Baseler is 55, and has two grown daughters and a husband in Omaha. This is her story.

I worked at M. for 31 years. So yep, I just kept moving up and moving up and doing very well.

‘I have filled out resumes for about 380 to 390 positions’

Editor’s note: This week, Reuters Opinion is publishing five excerpts – one each day – from D.W. Gibson’s new book, Not Working, an oral history of the recession. Gibson spent months traveling across America talking to people who had been laid off.

Dominick Brocato is 58 and has lived in Kansas City his entire life. He was laid off in 2010. This is his story.

For the last 20 years, I’ve worked for D. Systems. In 2009, our existing chief operating officer had made the decision he was going to retire at the end of the year, so a new chief operating officer was brought in. He had different views towards how things should be run. We knew that in the operation that he came from, which was in Boston, he had had 12 layoffs in the last six years. So every six months, he had layoffs. But we felt confident, because our president had said we were never going to have a layoff. And we very much believed in what he had told us.

‘The only crime that I committed’

Editor’s note: This week, Reuters Opinion is publishing five excerpts – one each day – from D.W. Gibson’s new book, Not Working, an oral history of the recession. Gibson spent months traveling across America talking to people who had been laid off.

Today’s story is Christine Zika’s. Christine is a veteran and small-business owner mostly from St. Louis and the surrounding towns. She is 40 and married to an electrical engineer.

Years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I had an expectation of the life I was going to lead. And that life included being in public relations and communications. Instead, I went into the Army National Guard. After two years in college, I went there, and I served 13 years total, having served three deployments at different times. I served in Desert Storm. I also served during Operation Joint Endeavor, which was the Bosnian conflict, and then I also went to Kosovo.