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Posts Tagged unemployment

Memo to the President and Senator Reid: A Time for Silence

Over the weekend I bemoaned news that the Senate and the Administration had waived their opposition to an extension of payroll tax cuts tied to the Keystone XL Pipeline. Only days earlier, Senator Reid had declared the House bill “dead on arrival” while the president threatened to veto it. As has been the case too often, they drew a line in the sand only to fold their hands and approve a watered-down compromise, in this case a payroll tax cut extension tied to fast-tracking the decision on the Keystone pipeline. In a rare show of unity, 89 senators voted to pass the bill. Senator Reid promptly recessed the Senate in light of all the bipartisan triangulation that had smoothed the way for passage in the House.

Too good to be true. The next morning, Meet the Press hosted spoiler John Boehner, who announced that the GOP caucus didn’t support the Senate bill. Washington defaulted to gridlock as the Speaker and Majority Leader Eric “Gepetto” Cantor rambled on with their hollow aphorisms about kicking cans down the road and uncertainty. Senator Reid made clear that he had no intention to call the Senate back from its recess to compromise the already-compromised legislation.

Let’s be clear. Boehner and Cantor’s antics have nothing in the world to do with payroll tax cuts, kicking any cans down the road or that uncertainty myth. It is those feral cats running rabid in the GOP House caucus, that collection of ideological suicide bombers that once again have a stranglehold on the People’s business.

Tuesday afternoon Mr. Boehner presided over a news conference at which he pulled out every unintelligible legislative maneuver he could to thwart a straight up or down vote in the House. Meanwhile the Wolf Blitzers of the world lent currency to the nonsensical notion that there really is something to be negotiated, hoping to lather up CNN’s dwindling audience. CNN’s cameras cut from one press conference to another, all meticuously parsed by political pundits as if the fate of the western world were hanging in the balance. More drama awaits tonight’s audiences on FOX and MSNBC. Advertisers pay dearly for hyped-up political events that can be leveraged into rating points.

But it need’t be so. There’s nothing for the cable networks to hype when nobody’s listening. Speaker Boehner’s attempt to concoct a narrative about some compromise of a compromise depends on who’s listening. And that’s where the president and Senator Reid have an opportunity to play the spoilers. It will require a discipline that does not come naturally to many politicians.

Senator Reid: go home. No press conferences. Just smile and wave as you walk out the Capitol to catch your flight to Nevada. Mr. President, ignore your advisors. For God’s sake don’t hold another press conference. There’s nothing to spin, nothing to negotiate. Your position is crystal clear and you needn’t step on your message. You’ve got the high ground. Have a beer, watch a hoops game and lay low in the White House. Send the First Lady and the girls to Hawaii. Let Jay Carney and the White House press office represent you publicly. It’s just business as usual for you in what should be a slow Holiday season.

Leave Messrs. Boehner, Cantor and their playmates alone in their sandbox. As long as they’re explaining they’re losing. So Ignore them. Nobody will listen to them in short order. Eventually they will fold their tents and go home. They and their caucus are going to have a lot of explaining to do.

Caveat: the only way Boehner and Cantor can elevate their Play-Doh politics to relevancy is if either you or Senator Reid provide them with a foil.


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America’s Ugly Reality

The Bureau of Labor released its monthly unemployment report for June last Friday. Non-farm employment increased by only 18,000 jobs for the month while the unemployment rate bumped up from 9.1% in May to 9.2% in June. That contrasted with the expectation amongst 85 economists surveyed by Bloomberg that predicted job growth for June in the range of 45,000 to 175,000 jobs.

Pay scant attention to the conventional unemployment rate. It doesn’t capture the breadth of unemployment in America. Each month when the Bureau of Labor Statistics News Release on The Unemployment Situation hits the press, I jump to Table A-15 of the release which reports “Alternative measures of labor underutilization”- often referred to as the underemployment rate. The underemployment rate captures not just the unemployed but also those part- time workers who would prefer a full-time position and people who want work but have given up looking. Last month, that broader measure of unemployment increased from 15.8% to 16.2%.

What’s alarming is how little the underemployment rate has changed since peaking at 17.2% in December 2009. It’s stuck on the dial and trending upward in a more pronounced way that the conventional measurement of unemployment. Take a gander at the graph of annual underemployment for the past decade below (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics).



Underemployment Rate: 2001-2011

Though the economy is no longer shrinking (though growth is anemic) unemployment is not improving. Hiring isn’t keeping pace with the growth in the labor force. Just to maintain unemployment at current levels would require adding 125,000 jobs monthly; to decrease unemployment would require 250,000 new jobs. The effect of chronic underemployment is especially acute for minorities (black and Hispanic workers) and those with less than college degrees.

So why isn’t the private (non-government) sector hiring? It’s not due to the uncertainty of businesses to hire based on “the deficit” or “Obamacare” or “high taxes”. It’s not due to a dearth of resources: businesses are sitting on cash balances of approximately $1 trillion and banks are flush with liquidity. It’s not due to interest rates: the Fed has driven interest rates as low as we’ve seen in decades. It’s not due to outsourcing: we live in a global economy in which labor migrates to those nations where labor costs are cheapest. And it certainly will not be mitigated by reducing the deficit as the suggested by the Republican leadership and the President. All the above offer are empty piñatas for a partisan-charged electorate to bash.

During the Great Recession businesses were able to increase productivity and shed jobs. Given lackluster consumer demand they are not going to ramp up hiring until demand reaches the tipping point when productivity alone can’t keep up with demand. That is a simple explanation perhaps- but it gets at the gist of why job creation is moribund in the private sector.

America has both a short-term jobs crisis and a longer-term deficit challenge. Crises always take priority over challenges. They represent the clear and present danger to American economic and civil well being. The only reasonable action that can be undertaken to shock the US’s stalled economy is government stimulus- in the form of a multi-trillion investment program in broadband communication, public works, smart power grids and green technology. Just like any capital investment program in the private sector (building a national cable system, a utility plant or a railroad), Washington will have to borrow the money and repay it over time when those investments begin generating returns. In the interval, millions of people will be put back to work building the sort of competitive platform America must have during the 21st Century.

Washington doesn’t get it. The President and leaders from Congress are all talk, all the time about the deficit, the deficit and the deficit. They seem convinced- and have endorsed the notion- that the deficit is a root cause of unemployment- an outrageous ad hominem that defies the logic of economics and investment.

While the President and members of Congress met in the White House this evening to talk about the deficit, there were nearly 100 million Americans sitting around barren tables. Those Americans will go to bed hungry tonight. Nobody’s talking about them.


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