Friday, December 05, 2008

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Robert Reich, one of the few economists around who makes sense, asks if it is time to call it a depression.
Today's employment report, showing that employers cut 533,000 jobs in November, 320,000 in October, and 403,000 in September -- for a total of over 1.2 million over the last three months -- begs the question of whether the meltdown we're experiencing should be called a Depression.

We are falling off a cliff
. To put these numbers into some perspective, the November losses alone are the worst in 34 years. A significant percentage of Americans are now jobless or underemployed -- far higher than the official rate of 6.7 percent. Simply in order to keep up with population growth, employment needs to increase by 125,000 jobs per month.

As Ron Popeil says "But wait. There's more!"
Note also that the length of the typical workweek dropped to 33.5 hours. That's the shortest number of hours since the Department of Labor began keeping records on hours worked, back in 1964. A significant number of people are working part-time who'd rather be working full time. Coupled with those who are too discouraged even to look for work, I'd estimate that the percentage of Americans who need work right now is approaching 11 percent of the workforce. And that percent is likely to raise.

Economics isn't my area but he makes it plain. Jobs are disappearing. Those that remain are paying less. Much of the workforce is joining the ranks of the long-term unemployed. Beyond the human need for a way to pay bills and buy food, this level of unemployment tanks what is left of the economy. People can't affort to buy goods and services. More people are laid off, small businesses close, causing more unemployment. We are entering the era of a downward spiral -- what Reich called falling off of a cliff.

He argues that we need two things immediately: a bailout of actual businesses commonly referred to as 'main street' instead of the financial industry and a very large stimulus package. Reich again
the massive Treasury bailout of the financial industry must be redirected toward Main Street -- loans to small businesses, distressed homeowners, and individuals who are still good credit risks. Second, a stimulus package must be enacted right away. It needs to be more than $600 billion -- which is 4 percent of the national product. It should be focused on job creation in the United States -- infrastructure projects as well as services. Construction jobs are critical but so are elder care, hospital, child care, welfare, and countless other services that are getting clobbered. Service businesses accounted for two-thirds of the job cuts in November, meaning that the weakness in labor markets has shifted from the goods-producing sector of the economy to the far larger services.

Look, I loathe the notion as much as anybody who distains Mr. Bush does, but I am forced to conclude that our loathing of the Bush years shouldn't cause us to be pennywise and pound foolish. The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can get on with other things, including electing more Democratic senators in 2010.