The Zero Economy

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that no jobs were created in August. Zero. Nada.

Well, not quite. The strike at Verizon reduced the labor force by 45,000. Minnesota government employees returned to work, adding 22,000. So in reality, America added 23,000 jobs. Almost zero.

In reality, worse than zero. We need 125,000 a month merely to keep up with population growth. So the hole continues to deepen.

Since this Depression began at the end of 2007, America’s potential labor force – working-age people who want jobs – has grown by over 7 million. But since then the number of Americans with jobs has shrunk by more than 300,000.

If this doesn’t prompt President Obama to unveil a bold jobs plan next Thursday, I don’t know what will.

The problem is on the demand side. Consumers (whose spending is 70 percent of the economy) can’t boost the economy on their own. They’re still too burdened by debt, especially on homes that are worth less than their mortgages. Their jobs are disappearinig, their pay is dropping, their medical bills are soaring.

And businesses won’t hire without more sales.

Republicans continue to claim businesses aren’t hiring because they’re uncertain about regulatory costs. Or they can’t find the skilled workers they need.

Baloney. If these were the reasons businesses weren’t hiring – and demand were growing – you’d expect companies to make more use of their current employees. The length of the average workweek would be increasing.

But the length of the average workweek has been dropping. In August it declined for the third month in a row, to 34.2 hours. That’s back to where it was at the start of the year – barely longer than what it was at its shortest point two years ago (33.7 hours in June 2009).

It’s demand, stupid.

So what does a sane nation do when the consumers and businesses can’t boost the economy on their own?

Government becomes the purchaser of last resort. It hires directly (a new WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps, for example). It helps states and locales, so they don’t have to continue to slash payrolls and public services. (The help could be structured as a loan, to be repaid when unemployment drops to, say, 6 percent.)

And it hires indirectly (contracting with companies to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, including school buildings, to take another example.)

Not only does this create jobs but also puts money in the hands of all the people who get the jobs, so they can turn around and buy the goods and services they need – generating more jobs.

Get it? Not exactly rocket science.

So why don’t Republicans get it? Either they’re knaves – they want the economy to stay awful through next Election Day so Obama gets the boot. Or they’re fools – they’ve bought the lie that reducing the deficit now creates more jobs.

Every time you hear anyone say we’re “broke” or “can’t afford to spend more,” tell them we’ll be in worse shape if we don’t. If the economy remains dead in the water, the ratio of public debt to GDP balloons.

And remind them that the federal government can now borrow at fire-sale rates. Interest on the ten-year Treasury bill is 2 percent.

Do you hear me, Mr. President? Please — be bold next week. And if, as expected, Republicans refuse to go along, take it to the people. Mobilize the public. Use the bully pulpit. That’s what you have it for.

One more thing, Mr. President. You also have to tackle inequality. When so much income and wealth continues to flow to the very top, America’s vast middle class still won’t have enough purchasing power to boost the economy. Priming the pump is necessary but won’t be sufficient without enough water in the well.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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1 Comment on The Zero Economy

  1. So you would like our Government to keep “buying” and waste our money on more Solyndra. Why not just give 500M away in the mail, let the consumers consume. Heck, make it a trillion.

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