The double-digit jobs disaster

November 18, 2009

There's plenty of money for more economic stimulus--if Barack Obama would fight for it.

A YEAR late and a trillion dollars short, Barack Obama is calling a jobs summit next month to try to come to grips with rising unemployment.

Jobs should have been at the top of Obama's agenda even before he took office. It didn't take a Ph.D. in economics to realize that the financial panic of 2008 was going to result in a big--and long-term--rise in unemployment.

But Obama rushed to aid bankers first, putting the government on the hook for as much as $11.6 trillion in bailouts and loan guarantees. After Wall Street came the Pentagon, which got $663.8 billion for fiscal 2010 to fund two wars and more high-tech weaponry that can already destroy the world several times over.

Obama's $787 stimulus package passed early this year was touted as a means to save or create jobs. But even the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, wanted stimulus spending of at least twice as much, according to the New Yorker magazine.

Plus, to appease Republicans, the stimulus plan included hundreds of billions in tax cuts, rather than direct job-creation measures, and gave only limited aid to state governments that have slashed jobs in the wake of falling tax revenues. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the state budget cuts will drain $470 billion out of the economy between 2010 and 2012, effectively cutting the stimulus in half.

Unemployment has continued to worsen despite signs of a recovery for Wall Street

It was only after the national jobless rate surged to 10.2 percent last month--and the number of workers underemployed or forced out of the labor market to 17.5 percent--that Obama felt the pressure to give job creation the political spotlight. But after two years of slump, the enormous suffering that occurs in every recession has turned into a full-fledged catastrophe for tens of millions of people.

As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert put it:

Nobody wants to talk seriously about class in America, but the elites are smiling and perusing their stock portfolios while the checklist of Americans locked in depression-like circumstances just grows and grows: construction and manufacturing workers, young men without college degrees (especially young Black and Hispanic men), teenagers, and those who were already poor when the recession began.

Workers who should be at their peak earning years in their 40s and 50s face long stretches of joblessness or short-term work with few benefits. The resulting loss of critical skills, along with age discrimination in hiring, will put millions of workers at risk of slipping below the poverty line in their retirement years.

At the same time, young people entering the workforce in the worst labor market since 1983 will find it difficult to reach what economists call a "wage ladder"--steady employment with solid benefits that raises their standard of living over time.

Heather Boushey, a labor economist at the Center for American Progress, summed up the grim jobs picture:

Nearly a million workers have left the labor force over the past year; two-thirds of those unemployed are out of work because they lost their prior job, dwarfing new and returning labor market entrants; 9.3 million workers are employed part-time even though they would prefer a full-time jobs; the share of the population with a job has fallen to 58.5 percent, lower than at any point since 1983; adult men's employment rates fell to 66.7 percent, hitting another all-time low (going back to 1948); and teens are seeing their worst labor market ever--unemployment among 16- to 19-year-olds is a record 27.6 percent.

LIBERAL ECONOMISTS are seizing the moment to call for aggressive jobs-creation programs. Nouriel Roubini, the New York University economist who anticipated the financial crash, forecasts persistent high rates of joblessness of 10 to 11 percent despite a nascent economic recovery.

"There's really just one hope for our leaders to turn things around: a bold prescription that increases the fiscal stimulus with another round of labor-intensive, shovel-ready infrastructure projects, helps fiscally strapped state and local governments and provides a temporary tax credit to the private sector to hire more workers," Roubini wrote.

Other economists propose wage subsidies, in which government funds from unemployment insurance make up for lost wages for workers on shorter hours. Such programs already exist in 17 states, and their advocates are calling for a federal version of the plan.

Germany has used this approach to keep unemployment in check. "Germany's jobs miracle hasn't received much attention in this country--but it's real, it's striking, and it raises serious questions about whether the U.S. government is doing the right things to fight unemployment," economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote.

Economist Robert Kuttner also backs the German-style proposal, but argues for a much bolder approach:

The Roosevelt administration, in an era before computers, got a lot of public works spending going in less than a year. There are massive unmet needs in public infrastructure. The Obama administration needs a short-term and a long-term strategy. Projects such as school repair and expansion, which can get underway in a few months, should get fast-tracked funding commitments right away. Longer term needs, such as smart electrical grids and modernization of water and sewer systems, expanded mass transit, and green energy, should be targeted for funding in 2011, so that plans can get on the drawing boards now.

What should be added is that Roosevelt's main jobs program, the Works Progress Administration, was created in 1935, just months after general strikes rocked Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco. That pressure from below was essential in forcing Roosevelt to shift from his almost exclusively pro-business orientation during the early months of his administration.

So far, there's been almost no grassroots pressure on Obama to deal with the jobs crisis. And rather than use the rising unemployment numbers to build support for a second, more aggressive stimulus program to create jobs, the White House is bowing to fiscal conservatives in the face of budget deficits of $1.2 trillion. Thus, the administration has announced that it will use untapped funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to replenish government coffers.

IN FACT, there's plenty of money available to both narrow the deficit and fund the creation of jobs and other social programs. What's lacking is the political will from Obama and the Democrats.

Whenever the right screams about Obama's "socialism," remember that the top tax rate for the rich under the Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s was 90 percent, compared to 35 percent today. Surely, raising taxes on the wealthy could put a dent in the deficit while funding jobs creation. But no one in the liberal establishment would even consider such a move, given the Democrats' courtship of Wall Street.

Another quick source of funds for job creation would be an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a radical cut in defense spending. But even Obama's liberal critics would reject such a proposal as politically unfeasible.

But accepting political "realism" today means accepting a country in which the already superrich come out of the crisis unscathed, while tens of millions of people see their lives destroyed by unemployment. When Obama and his advisers urge the people who voted for "change" to be patient, what they're saying is that we have to stand by and watch joblessness drive a majority of African American kids under the poverty line, while the generals get an endless supply of guns and money in the service of U.S. imperialism.

The time for waiting for "change" is over. We need an economic policy that puts the needs of working people at the forefront, not the banks. Working people have to begin to organize in their communities and--if they have them--their unions to push for the jobs program we so urgently need.

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