Los­ing more than jobs

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

The good news is that un­em­ploy­ment has fallen to “only” 9.5 per­cent. The bad news is that the job­less rate is down only be­cause so many peo­ple have given up hope of find­ing work. Per­versely, the job­less who aren’t ac­tively look­ing for jobs are not counted as “un­em­ployed.” Per­haps there should be a new cat­e­gory: “mired in ex­is­ten­tial despair.” If any­one in Washington wants to know why peo­ple in the hin­ter­lands are an­gry, one sim­ple an­swer is that our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers seem to be so cal­cu­lat­ing and un­moved about the par­lous state of the econ­omy.

The dis­heart­en­ing em­ploy­ment fig­ures re­leased Fri­day quickly be­came fod­der for the kind of po­lit­i­cal to-and-fro that has be­come stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama quickly put his spin on the num­bers, not­ing that the pri­vate sec­tor added 83,000 jobs in June. The pres­i­dent’s Repub­li­can op­po­nents noted that over­all, the econ­omy lost 125,000 jobs — tak­ing into ac­count not just the pri­vate-sec­tor gain but the end of 225,000 tem­po­rary jobs for cen­sus work­ers.

Last month, it was the other way around. The over­all num­ber, show­ing what hap­pened in May, in­di­cated a healthy-look­ing gain in jobs — so that was what Obama wanted to talk about. But the in­crease re­flected mostly cen­sus hir­ing, with the pri­vate sec­tor adding a paltry 41,000 jobs — which was the num­ber the Repub­li­cans wanted to high­light.

All the spin­ning and coun­ter­spin­ning drives peo­ple crazy. And why shouldn’t it? The em­ploy­ment num­bers aren’t just a monthly set of par­ti­san talk­ing points. They rep­re­sent ac­tual lives. They rep­re­sent mort­gages that might not be paid and col­lege ed­u­ca­tions that have to be de­ferred; they tally mental health crises and bro­ken mar­riages. Those ster­ile, emo­tion­less fig­ures speak of pain and anx­i­ety. They mock our faith in the Amer­i­can dream.

Let me put it in terms that Washington un­der­stands: The party that be­gins to treat the un­em­ploy­ment cri­sis with the hair-on-fire ur­gency that it de­serves is the party that will do well in Novem­ber.

In the past, a steep fall into re­ces­sion has of­ten led to an equally steep climb back to pros­per­ity. Clearly, that’s not the case this time. In rel­a­tively short or­der, the econ­omy lost about 7 mil­lion jobs. So far this year, we’ve gained back more than 600,000 — not bad, given that in early 2009 we were shed­ding that many jobs each month, but not nearly enough to have the kind of im­pact the nation can re­ally feel.

The de­bate among econ­o­mists about whether or not this will prove to be a “dou­ble-dip” re­ces­sion is be­side the point. For most peo­ple, this feels more like one long, un­in­ter­rupted dip — with no end in sight. Adding 83,000 pri­vate-sec­tor jobs in June sounds like some­thing of an ac­com­plish­ment, un­til you re­al­ize that the U.S. econ­omy has to add more than 125,000 jobs a month just to ac­com­mo­date the nat­u­ral growth of the work­force. With a gain of 83,000 jobs, we ac­tu­ally lost ground.

Our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers know un­em­ploy­ment is on their con­stituents’ minds, so they talk about it. A lot. But we’re not see­ing ei­ther party show the kind of courage that’s re­ally needed.

Repub­li­cans block an ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, rail about the deficit and com­plain that Democrats don’t un­der­stand that eco­nomic re­newal will come when the pri­vate sec­tor is un­leashed. The prob­lem is that since Repub­li­cans are in the mi­nor­ity, they have to work with the Democrats to get any­thing done. I sus­pect that their strat­egy — stand­ing on the side­lines and yelling, “The Democrats are do­ing it all wrong!” — will not win as much fa­vor from vot­ers as the GOP hopes.

Democrats, on the other hand, do have the power to en­act an agenda. But in­di­vid­ual mem­bers of Congress act as if they are more concerned about their own elec­toral prospects than about bring­ing those un­em­ploy­ment num­bers down. If a sec­ond eco­nomic stim­u­lus is the an­swer, then that’s what Democrats should do. If the an­swer is some­thing else, fine. But they should know that whether they call them­selves pro­gres­sives or Blue Dogs or what­ever, vot­ers see them as one party and will hold them ac­count­able.

Washington gets all ex­cited when some­one com­mits an em­bar­rass­ing or im­politic gaffe. Be­yond the Belt­way, peo­ple can­not un­der­stand why our lead­ers can’t be sim­i­larly fo­cused and en­er­getic about the most tragic spasm of eco­nomic dis­lo­ca­tion in eight decades.

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