The bleak truth about unemployment

By Steven Pearlstein
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 9:04 PM

Somewhere between the rantings of the Republican right, which is peddling the nonsense that excessive government spending is to blame for high unemployment, and the Democratic left, which clings to the false hope that another helping of fiscal stimulus is all that is needed to get millions of Americans permanently back to work, is this stubborn reality:

The loss of 8 million jobs reflects problems that are largely structural, not cyclical, which means they won't be brought back by fiddling with a magic dial in Washington that controls how much the government spends.

When I say that the problems are structural, I mean something more than what labor economists refer to when they talk about the mismatch between the skills of the people who of are out of work and the skills needed for the jobs that are being created - although that certainly seems to be a factor.

Since 2007, the manufacturing and construction sectors have each lost 2 million jobs, with finance, hospitality and retailing accounting for 2 million more. Those categories alone account for three-quarters of the nation's job losses, and while a fraction of those jobs might return as the economy recovers, it will be a long time before automakers or home builders or investment banks or retailers see the sales numbers they had at the height of the biggest credit bubble the world has ever seen. Some of those laid-off workers may have been in this country illegally and have now returned home, but most will be looking not only for new jobs but also new careers.

In other cases, the mismatch has more to do with geography than skill - the businesses with jobs are in one place, and the people with the necessary skills in another. But with many Americans living in homes they cannot sell, or can sell only at a price less than the value of the mortgages they took out to buy them, the willingness and ability of workers to move to a new city have been noticeably diminished.

One telltale sign of this mismatch is the number of job openings and the length of time it takes to fill them. As Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, noted in a recent speech, those numbers have been going up over the last year, not down, as you would expect. Another sign, he said, was the widening gap in unemployment rates between the states with the highest rates and those with the lowest. Before the recession, it was just over four percentage points; now it is more than six.

The structural problems, however, go well beyond these mismatches. The reason there were 8 million additional jobs back in 2007 is that demand for goods and services was artificially - and unsustainably - inflated by cheap, plentiful credit. Between 2002 and 2007, household debt was increasing at the torrid pace of more than 10 percent annually, while business debt and the debt of state and local governments was growing at an average of 9 percent. Much of that money was used to finance present consumption.

Now all that has reversed. Household debt is shrinking at a rate of 2.4 percent per year as the savings rate has risen from nearly zero to more than 5 percent. Meanwhile, business debt declined 2.5 percent last year and is now flat, as is the case for state and local governments.

All that deleveraging and living within our means is obviously a good thing in the long run. But what it means for the economy in the short run is that neither the excess consumption nor the jobs it supported are coming back. During the past two years, the federal government has been actively trying to take up some of the slack by going on a borrowing-and-spending binge of its own. But continuing on that path is also unsustainable - certainly politically, and probably economically as well. And once federal deficits begin to decline next year, we'll have yet another drag on economic growth and employment.

At this point, there is only one clear path out of the unemployment box we have created for ourselves.

Right now, the United States is running a trade deficit that is likely to reach $450 billion this year. That's down considerably from the $750 billion at the height of the economic bubble, but still more than a wealthy advanced economy should have. Bringing it down - either by producing more of what we consume (fewer imports) or more of what other countries consume (more exports) - represents the path toward sustainable, long-term job creation.

The problem with that strategy is that for the past two decades we have allowed our industrial and technological base to deteriorate as talent and capital were grossly misallocated toward other sectors of the economy, even as other countries were able to attract the investment, the technology and the know-how to serve the U.S. and global markets.

For a time, none of this seemed to matter because we were consuming so much that we were able to support job creation at home as well as overseas. But now that the debt-fueled consumption binge is over, we find that we don't have the companies, the workers or the competitive products to replace the stuff we now import or expand our share of export markets. Even when we do, our companies are disadvantaged by an overvalued currency or unfair trading practices.

As Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, wrote this month for Project Syndicate, a wonderful new economics Web site: "It is relatively easy to manage a structural shift out of manufacturing during a real-estate boom, but it is much more difficult to re-establish a competitive manufacturing sector once it has been lost."

A structural shift toward exports and import substitution," Gros warns, "will be difficult and time consuming." He might have added that it will also be expensive, requiring sustained investment by government and industry, and internationally disruptive, requiring a much tougher line with trading partners that consistently tilt the playing field in their favor.

In this election season, the politicians who are really serious about creating jobs and bringing down unemployment won't be the ones screaming about tax cuts, or stimulus or some imagined government takeover of the economy. They'll be the ones talking about how to make the American economy competitive again.

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