Barack Hoover Obama and the Curse of the Long Term Unemployment Rate

When I wrote the morning thread at The Confluence last night, I couldn’t imagine any justification for an economic policy proscription of spending freezes coming from any one except maybe the American Enterprise Institute. Basic macroeconomic theory states that during a recession with high unemployment, the government’s fiscal policy should either consist of tax cuts or spending increases. Theory also shows that during these horrible times, budget deficits grow naturally through automatic stabilizers. Tax receipts go down because folks lose their jobs and businesses lose customers. Government spending goes up because unemployed people rely heavily on social safety net programs like unemployment insurance.

There really are no philosophical differences between conservative or liberal economists on these theories. What you usually see are arguments from both sides on which policy prescription to apply. Republicans favor tax cuts. Democrats usually go for increased spending that targets job creation. That’s been the way it’s been for a long time until THIS President who appears to believe he can rewrite economic theory the way a fundamentalist preacher rewrites geology, anthropology, cosmology, biology, and reality.

I woke up to a chorus of Barack Hoover Obama this morning coming from Economic Blogs all over the web.  It is here from Paul Krugman.

A spending freeze? That’s the brilliant response of the Obama team to their first serious political setback?

It’s appalling on every level.

It’s bad economics, depressing demand when the economy is still suffering from mass unemployment. Jonathan Zasloff writes that Obama seems to have decided to fire Tim Geithner and replace him with “the rotting corpse of Andrew Mellon” (Mellon was Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary, who according to Hoover told him to “liquidate the workers, liquidate the farmers, purge the rottenness”.)

It’s bad long-run fiscal policy, shifting attention away from the essential need to reform health care and focusing on small change instead.

It is here from Brad Delong who mentions that even deficit hawk economics find this a laughable policy.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is that this is simply another game of Dingbat Kabuki. Non-security discretionary spending is some $500 billion a year. It ought to be growing at 5% per year in nominal terms (more because we are in a deep recession and should be pulling discretionary spending forward from the future as fast as we can)–that’s only $25 billion a year in a $3 trillion budget and a $15 trillion economy.

But in a country as big as this one even this is large stakes. What we are talking about is $25 billion of fiscal drag in 2011, $50 billion in 2012, and $75 billion in 2013. By 2013 things will hopefully be better enough that the Federal Reserve will be raising interest rates and will be able to offset the damage to employment and output. But in 2011 GDP will be lower by $35 billion–employment lower by 350,000 or so–and in 2012 GDP will be lower by $70 billion–employment lower by 700,000 or so–than it would have been had non-defense discretionary grown at its normal rate. (And if you think, as I do, that the federal government really ought to be filling state budget deficit gaps over the next two years to the tune of $200 billion per year…)

And what do we get for these larger output gaps and higher unemployment rates in 2011 and 2012? Obama “signal[s] his seriousness about cutting the budget deficit,” Jackie Calmes reports.

As one deficit-hawk journalist of my acquaintance says this evening, this is a perfect example of fundamental unseriousness: rather than make proposals that will actually tackle the long-term deficit–either through future tax increases triggered by excessive deficits or through future entitlement spending caps triggered by excessive deficits–come up with a proposal that does short-term harm to the economy without tackling the deficit in any serious and significant way.

Here’s more from Mark Thoma and one from Naked Capitalism. That’s just some of the more high profile economist blogs. I didn’t even go for the dozens of links from business bloggers or the political sites. I want to put this all in perspective and I’ll use a Jan. 16 article from The Economist to do so. It’s one of the latest articles I intend to use in my classes and it’s called The Trap.

When teaching about unemployment statistics, economics professors like Krugman, Thoma, DeLong, and little ol’ me all emphasize that it’s not the big rate so much as the underlying trends and details within the rate that drive a policy. Cyclical unemployment–the type of unemployment that comes from a recession–eventually clears up on its own when the economy improves. Usually, the folks impacted by cyclical employment will not have problems finding jobs in a good economy.

There are some pervasive types of unemployment that are much more deeply rooted and take more targeted, specific job policies to eliminate. Structural unemployment is one of those phenomena that take job retraining programs or helping the labor force move where the jobs are being created (either location or industry change). You can usually spot this type of unemployment in the Long Term Unemployment Rate. These folks have been in industries or jobs that are no longer valid in the modern economy and without some refitting, they stay unemployed. If you look at the graph I posted above from The Economist, you’ll see exactly how disturbed the labor market really is right now. This unemployment is not going away and it requires some serious policy to deal with it. Until then, we will see lower tax receipts and higher need for safety net programs. Obama’s policy totally ignores the reality on the ground and goes for a quick political message. We’re not seeing solutions for the real problem at all.

The Economist article calls this the ‘curse’ of long term unemployment. This is the real problem left to this administration from the Bush years. Other than shove the young unemployed into the military, there has been no program aimed at the lackluster job creation coming from the U.S. economy since Bill Clinton left office.

THE 2000s—the Noughts, some call them—turned out to be jobless. Only about 400,000 more Americans were employed in December 2009 than in December 1999, while the population grew by nearly 30m. This dismal rate of job creation raises the distinct possibility that America’s recovery from the latest recession may also be jobless. The economy almost certainly expanded during the second half of 2009, but 800,000 additional jobs were lost all the same.

It took four solid years for employment to regain its peak after the 2001 recession. With jobs so scarce, wages stagnated even as the cost of living rose, forcing households to borrow to maintain their standard of living. According to Raghuram Rajan, an economist at the University of Chicago, this set the stage for the most recent crisis and recession—a crisis, ultimately, caused by household indebtedness. If the current recovery is indeed jobless, wages will continue to lag. Since they are now virtually unable to borrow, households will have to make do with less, and reduced spending is likely to make the economic recovery more uncertain still.

So which is it to be: jobless or job-full? Of paramount concern is the growth in long-term unemployment. Around four in every ten of the unemployed—some 6m Americans—have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. That is the highest rate since this particular record began, in 1948. These workers may forget their skills; and many began with few skills anyway. Just as troubling is a drop of 1.5m in the civilian labour force (which excludes unemployed workers who have stopped looking for work). That is unprecedented in the post-war period. If those who have stopped looking were counted, the unemployment rate would be much higher.

The only sectors that have been growing recently are the health care industry (like demand for nurses) and the education sector. I can tell you as a participant in the education sector, state-level balanced budget requirements are about to change those statistics. Both the Health and Education sectors require government funding, if that dries up, the jobs dry up even though the demand remains high.

The Obama administration has been verbal about green sector jobs, but frankly, jobs are not going to come from ethanol subsidies, that’s only going to create food shortages. The basic question, then, is where do the jobs come from, and what policies do we use to encourage job creation? It is obvious that our infrastructure needs a huge amount of rework to me and like FDR, this is one area where we could start programs to rebuild interstates, networks, and buildings. Just refitting buildings to meet earthquake or hurricane standards could be one potential area. We also don’t have enough refineries and power plants. It is possible we could subsidize the private sector in major infrastructure projects if there’s no will for a public work project. All of the highways, dams, and electrical grids are aging and in need of repair. We’ve seen realization of these problems but no policy prescriptions.

Where are the jobs of the future and how can government create an environment for their creation if we defund job training and education and fail to fully fund repairs to the infrastructure that supports job creation in the future?  Do we really need a spending freeze in this jobless century? Where are the real economists in this administration?