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What U.S. Economic Recovery? Five Destructive Myths

15 minute read
Rana Foroohar

Double dip is not a term that a government keen to extricate itself from the economic-crisis-management business likes to hear. A couple of weeks ago, the Obama Administration was poised to switch to growth mode. Then the ugly data started pouring in like the overflowing Mississippi. First-quarter GDP numbers showed a measly 1.8% increase, well short of the expectations of above 3%, and second-quarter estimates are not much better. Then came a report on housing-price declines that have not been seen since the Great Depression, followed by reports of consumer spending at six-month lows and weak manufacturing surveys. The worst was unemployment figures to make you cry: a mere 54,000 jobs were created in May, less than half of what was expected and less than a third of what is needed to lower a 9.1% unemployment rate.

You can hardly blame Council of Economic Advisers head Austan Goolsbee for picking this moment to retreat to his tenured university post in Chicago. The professor tried to put a good face on things, brushing away worries of a double dip and citing stiff but temporary “headwinds” from such factors as the Japanese-nuclear-disaster-related supply shocks and higher gas prices. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was somewhat more sober, admitting that the recovery was proving to be “uneven” and “frustratingly slow.” Yet he gave no hint of being willing to helicopter in a third round of fiscal stimulus — at least not yet. “Monetary policy,” he said, “cannot be a panacea.” Or as Goolsbee put it, it’s time for the private sector to “stand up and lead the recovery.”

(See what Goolsbee’s resignation means for the economy.)

If only. There may be $2 trillion sitting on the balance sheets of American corporations globally, but firms show no signs of wanting to spend it in order to hire workers at home, however much Washington might hope they will. Meanwhile, the average American is feeling poorer by the week. “If one looks at unemployment and housing, it’s clear that for all practical purposes, we have yet to fully get out of recession,” says Harvard economist Ken Rogoff, summing up what everyone who doesn’t live inside the Beltway Bubble is thinking. While the White House’s official 2011 growth estimate, locked in before Japan and the oil shock, is still 3.1%, most economic seers are betting on 2.6%. That’s not nearly enough to propel us out of an unemployment crisis that threatens to create a lost generation of workers who can’t find good jobs and may never find them. Welcome to the 2% economy.

While the Administration is taking a sort of “move along, nothing to see here” approach, Republicans are trying to pin every economic problem on Obama in the run-up to the 2012 election. Let’s be clear: the slow growth the U.S. is experiencing is not an Obama-specific problem. Many of the ingredients in it were already baked into the economy and were simply laid bare by the financial crisis. According to research by Rogoff and economist Carmen Reinhart, it takes four years after a financial crisis just to get back to the same per capita GDP level you started with, and there’s no doubt things would have been dramatically worse had the Administration not taken all the action it did in the wake of the crisis.

(See “Is a Double Dip Becoming More Likely?”)

But at the same time, the growth problem is Obama’s. Every President inherits his predecessor’s economy; indeed, it’s often what gets him the job. It’s then up to the new guy to change the numbers as well as the debate. Now it looks as if Obama is losing that debate. The Republicans have pulled off a major (some would say cynical) miracle by convincing the majority of Americans that the way to jump-start the economy is to slash taxes on the wealthy and on cash-hoarding corporations while cutting benefits for millions of Americans. It’s fun-house math that can’t work; we’ll need both tax increases and sensible entitlement cuts to get back on track. Yet surveys show 50% of Americans think that not raising the debt ceiling is a good idea — that you can somehow starve your way to economic growth.

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No wonder the rest of the world is so worried about our future. Sadly, other regions won’t be able to help us out, as happened in 2008. Europe is in the middle of its own debt crisis. And emerging markets like China, which helped sustain American companies by buying everything from our heavy machinery to our luxury goods during the recession, are now slamming on the growth brakes. Why? They’re worried about inflation, which is partly a result of the Fed’s policy of increasing the money supply, known as quantitative easing. Much of that money ended up in stock markets, enriching the upper quarter of the population while the majority has been digging coins out from under couch cushions. Investor money also chased oil prices way up (which hurts the poor most of all) and created bubbles in emerging economies. Now these things are coming back to bite us.

All this sounds complicated, and it is. But it’s important to understand that our economy has changed over the past several decades in important and profound ways that politicians at both ends of the spectrum still don’t get. There are half a billion middle-class people living abroad who can do our jobs. At the same time, technology has allowed companies to weather the recession almost entirely through job cuts. While Democrats may be downplaying the bad news, Republicans, obsessed with the sideshow that is the debt-ceiling debate, haven’t offered a more cohesive explanation for the problems or any real solutions. Rather, both sides continue to push myths about what’s happening and how the economy will — or won’t — recover. Here are five of the most destructive myths and why we need to figure out a different path to growth.

(See “Will Banks Target the Unbanked Next?”)

Myth No. 1: This is a temporary blip, and then it’s full steam ahead
True, only 12.2% of economists surveyed in the past few days by the Philadelphia Fed believe that the current backsliding will develop into a double-dip recession (though that percentage is up significantly from the start of the year). Avoiding a double dip is not the same as creating growth that’s strong enough to revive the job market. In fact, there’s an unfortunate snowball effect with growth and employment when they are weak. It used to take roughly six months for the U.S. to get back to a normal employment picture after a recession; the McKinsey Global Institute estimates it will take five years this time around. That lingering unemployment cuts GDP growth by reducing consumer demand, which in turn makes it harder to create jobs. We would need to create 187,000 jobs a month, growing at a rate of 3.3%, to get to a healthy 5% unemployment rate by 2020. At the current rate of growth and job creation, we would maybe get halfway there by that time.

(See the upside of a double dip.)

Myth No. 2: We can buy our way out of all this
While a third round of stimulus shouldn’t be off the table in an emergency (Obama has already indicated it’s a possibility if things get much worse), the risk-reward ratio isn’t good. For starters, our creditors — the largest of which is China — would squawk about the debt implications of doling out more money, not to mention the risk of creating hot-money bubbles in their economies. That’s almost beside the point, though, because the stimulus — which has taken the form of Fed purchases of T-bills designed to reduce long-term interest rates and make homeowner refinancing easier — isn’t much help if homeowners don’t have jobs that allow them to make any payments at all. Although foreclosures are declining, the supply of foreclosed homes for sale is undermining the real estate market, which is dampening consumer spending and sentiment. “It’s time to move beyond financial Band-Aids,” says Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of Pimco, the world’s largest bond trader. “It’s clear that the stimulus-induced recovery hasn’t overcome the structural challenges to large-scale job creation.”

Myth No. 3: The private sector will make it all better
There is a fundamental disconnect between the fortunes of American companies, which are doing quite well, and American workers, most of whom are earning a lower hourly wage now than they did during the recession. The thing is, companies make plenty of money; they just don’t spend it on workers here.

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Half of Americans say they couldn’t come up with $2,000 in 30 days without selling some of their possessions. Meanwhile, companies are flush: American firms generated $1.68 trillion in profit in the last quarter of 2010 alone. But many firms would think twice before putting their next factory or R&D center in the U.S. when they could put it in Brazil, China or India. These emerging-market nations are churning out 70 million new middle-class workers and consumers every year. That’s one reason unemployment is high and wages are constrained here at home. This was true well before the recession and even before Obama arrived in office. From 2000 to 2007, the U.S. saw its weakest period of job creation since the Great Depression.

Nobel laureate Michael Spence, author of The Next Convergence, has looked at which American companies created jobs at home from 1990 to 2008, a period of extreme globalization. The results are startling. The companies that did business in global markets, including manufacturers, banks, exporters, energy firms and financial services, contributed almost nothing to overall American job growth. The firms that did contribute were those operating mostly in the U.S. market, immune to global competition — health care companies, government agencies, retailers and hotels. Sadly, jobs in these sectors are lower paid and lower skilled than those that were outsourced. “When I first looked at the data, I was kind of stunned,” says Spence, who now advocates a German-style industrial policy to keep jobs in some high-value sectors at home. Clearly, it’s a myth that businesses are simply waiting for more economic and regulatory “certainty” to invest back home.

(See “As the Economy Sputters, D.C. Loses Its Will to Act.”)

Myth No. 4: We’ll pack up and move for new jobs
The myth of mobility — that if you build jobs, people will come — is no longer the case. In fact, many people can’t move, in part because they are underwater on their homes but also because the much heralded American labor mobility was declining even before this whole mess began. In the 1980s, about 1 out of 5 workers moved every year; now only 1 of 10 does. That’s due in part to the rise of the two-career family — it’s no longer an easy and obvious decision to move for Dad’s job. This is a trend that will only grow stronger now that women are earning more advanced degrees and grabbing jobs in the fastest-growing fields.

A bigger issue is that the available skills in the labor pool don’t line up well with the available jobs. Case in point: there are 3 million job openings today. “There’s a tremendous mismatch in the jobs market right now,” says McKinsey partner James Manyika, co-author of a new study titled An Economy That Works: Job Creation and America’s Future. “It runs across skill set, gender, class and geography.” A labor market bifurcated by gender, skill set and geography means that unemployed autoworkers in Michigan can’t sell their underwater homes and retool as machinists in North Dakota, where homes are cheaper and the unemployment rate is under 5%.

(Is the economy hurting your kid’s report card?)

Myth No. 5: Entrepreneurs are the foundation of the economy
Entrepreneurship is still one of America’s great strengths, right? Wrong. Rates of new-business creation have been contracting since the 1980s. Funny enough, that’s just when the financial sector began to get a lot bigger. The two trends are not disconnected. A study by the Kauffman Foundation found an inverse correlation between the two. The explanation could be tied to the fact that the financial sector has sucked up so much talent that might have otherwise done something useful in Silicon Valley or in other entrepreneurial hubs. The credit crunch has exacerbated the problem. Lending is still constrained, and the old methods of self-funding a business — maxing out credit cards or taking a home-equity loan — are no longer as viable.

So where does it all leave us? With an economy that still needs a major shake-up. There are short-term and long-term solutions. Job No. 1 is to fix the housing market. While the government is understandably reluctant to get deeper into the loan business, it’s clear that private markets aren’t able to work through the pile of foreclosures quickly enough for house prices to stabilize. If the numbers don’t improve in the next month or so, it might be time for the government to step in and either take on more failing loans (a TARP for homeowners as opposed to investment banks?) or pass rules that would allow more homeowners to negotiate better terms with lenders.

See TIME’s Foroohar on the DSK debacle: “No More Gentleman’s Agreements.”

See why the job-market slowdown might not be temporary.

And let’s not forget the youth-unemployment crisis. There’s now a generation of young workers who are in danger of being permanently sidetracked in the labor markets and disconnected from society. Research shows that the long-term unemployed tend to be depressed, suffer greater health problems and even have shorter life expectancy. The youth unemployment rate is now 24%, compared with the overall rate of 9.1%. If and when these young people return to work, they’ll earn 20% less over the next 15 to 20 years than peers who were employed. That increases the wealth divide that is one of the root causes of growing political populism in our country. While Republicans have pushed back against spending on broad government-sponsored work programs and retraining, it would behoove the Administration to keep pushing for a short-term summer-work program to target the most at-risk groups.

But these are stopgaps. The real solutions, of course, are neither quick nor easy — making them especially challenging for Congress. It’s a cliché that better education is the path to a more competitive society, but it’s not just about churning out more engineers than the Chinese. The U.S. will also need a lot more welders and administrative assistants with sharper communication skills. There’s an argument for a good system of technical colleges, which would in turn require a frank conversation about the fact that not everyone can or should shell out money for a four-year liberal-arts degree that may leave them overleveraged and underemployed.

(See if sharp spending cuts could hurt the economy.)

The other major issue is bridging the divide between the fortunes of companies and the fortunes of workers. Democrats and Republicans argue about whether and how to get American corporations to repatriate money so it can be taxed, and again they are missing the point. For starters, it’s hard to imagine that crafty corporate lawyers won’t find ways around any new rules. (That in itself is an argument for tax simplification that would reduce the loopholes that allow the 400 richest Americans to pay 18% income tax.) The bottom line is that we have to find ways to make the U.S. a more attractive destination for investment.

One way to do that is by considering a third-rail term: industrial policy. It’s a concept that needs to be rebranded, because Democrats and Republicans alike shudder at being associated with something so “anti-American.” In fact, good industrial policy can be a useful economic nudge. It’s not about creating a command-and-control economy like China’s but about the private and public sectors coming together at every level, as in Germany, to decide how best to keep jobs at home.

(See “Why the Economic Recovery Is Slowing Down.”)

The lesson of Germany is a good one. Back in 2000, the Germans were facing an economic rebalancing not unlike what the U.S. is experiencing. East and West Germany had unified, creating a huge wealth gap and high unemployment at a time when German jobs were moving to central Europe. The country didn’t try to explain away the problem in quarterly blips but rather stared it directly in the face. CEOs sat down with labor leaders as partners; union reps sit on management boards in Germany. The government offered firms temporary subsidies to forestall outsourcing. Corporate leaders worked with educators to churn out a labor force with the right skills. It worked. Today Germany has not only higher levels of growth but also lower levels of unemployment than it did prerecession.

In our politically polarized society, such cooperation may seem impossible. But Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall was perhaps far more polarized. It is worth remembering that economic change tends to happen only during crises. We’ve survived the banking crisis. How we deal with the longer-range crisis — the crisis of growth and unemployment — will define our economic future for not just the next few quarters but the next few decades.

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