Suppose that someone had suggested to you, a year ago, that by July 1982 unemployment would be stuck at 9.5 percent with interest rates still in the stratosphere. Suppose this hypothesis added that by mid-1982 housing and automobile production were way below the 1981 levels, while the federal deficit was rising rapidly and Congress was trying to cut social benefits. What would you have guessed, a year ago, the political atmosphere in this country would be by this time?
And--a more interesting question--why hasn't it happened that way? There's immense anxiety about the economy, and endless discussion of it. But the only thing visible at the moment that might be called a mass political movement, with real force behind it, is the nuclear disarmament campaign-- which has nothing at all to do with economic policy.
At President Reagan's press conference last week, not one of the questions touched any aspect of the economic situation, although Mr. Reagan had opened it with a statement defending his tax program. The Democrats' convention in Philadelphia offered the familiar lectern-pounding, but was exceedingly cautious on anything that might actually cost money. The Democrats' performance seemed to indicate that Mr. Reagan has more latitude to pursue his plans than even the White House expected. A few days earlier, Congress had passed the Republicans' budget resolution. The past couple of weeks offer a wealth of evidence that the politics of jobs is well and truly off the accustomed track.
The reasons are a matter of speculation. But it's striking that repeatedly, in interviews and polls, people who profess no faith whatever in the Reagan economic strategy still seem willing to give Mr. Reagan more time. Whatever the source of it people are going through this recession with far more patience than they ever showed in the preceding ones. Perhaps there's been some erosion of people's faith in a president's ability to cure recessions with a wave of the golden wand. Perhaps the recurrence of severe inflation in the late 1970s frightened people more deeply than the prospect of plant closings does now. Certainly the unexpected strength of foreign competition in industries like autos and steel has stunned the strong labor unions at the center of the high-employment lobby. Perhaps, underlying all the other reasons, there's a current of uneasy suspicion that the country in general was living a little too high--spending too much, borrowing too much, not producing quite enough--and that a day of reckoning was inevitable. Hints of that are occasionally audible.
These currents of opinion are volatile, and no one can say when they might change. At this moment, it's clear only that this country's tolerance for very high unemployment, and the damage it causes, is a good deal greater than any past experience suggested. That is particularly surprising since the present recession is not moving toward the customary reassuring recovery, and there is sadly little reason to expect, in any very near future, a rapid improvement in jobs.