The surprisingly disappointing September unemployment report – 142,000 new jobs created compared to an expectation of more than 200,000 – should break once and for all two illusions about our ability to sustain a robust economy.
The first illusion is that there is no penalty for the continuing lack of public investment in the fundamentals of the real economy – from the schools that develop the skills and creativity of our future workforce to the transportation networks that enable us to move goods and people through our communities.
Years ago we should have had a place a major plan to bring all of our common assets – from schools to roads to water systems to our energy grid – into the 21st century. Not only would this have created millions of jobs, but it would have set the nation up for sustainable, more ecologically responsible, long-term growth. We should have taken advantage of the near-zero borrowing costs and the willingness of the markets – notwithstanding the sky-is-falling bleating of the chattering class – to allow the United States to take on more debt as long as it was wisely used to build for the future.
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview on Bloomberg today that the federal spending constraints imposed by the Republican Congress – the “sequester caps” – mean the economy is producing 500,000 fewer jobs a year than it would if those constraints were lifted. Those jobs would range from construction workers to teachers to health care workers.
The second illusion is that we can continue down the road of corporate-driven so-called “free trade” – which has given us month after month of “enormous, humongous” trade deficits – and have a strong Main Street economy. Earlier this year, the White House Council of Economic Advisors issued a report that noted that during the second quarter of the year, “net exports subtracted nearly 2 full percentage points from quarterly GDP growth.” Of course it would: every month of trade deficits running between $40 billion and $50 billion represents that much less economic activity that would benefit American workers and the American economy. Plus, our strong dollar makes our exports more expensive and thus less attractive to potential foreign customers. It is no wonder, then, that this month’s jobs report reflects continued weakness in our manufacturing sector, which would be a source of good=paying jobs if it were stronger.
Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen has warned repeatedly that there was a limit to what the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy could accomplish without a pro-growth and pro-people fiscal policy to complement it. That was clear even with the sunnier initial summer jobs reports. Now that those reports have been revised to show that we’ve been averaging only an additional 167,000 jobs a month in this past three months – just enough to tread water – the truth of what Yellen has been saying is in even sharper relief.
How the Obama administration and Congress should respond is clear: End the senseless budget sequester caps, get a long-term transportation bill passed this month and don’t approve a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bill that continues the pattern of chronic trade deficits and outsourced jobs. The political machinery in Washington seems almost hopelessly constipated, but we should still seize the professed shock of this month’s employment news to change the political conversation in a way that could lead to long-term change.