We all know that predictions in economics can be fraught. This is for a variety of reasons, with the absence of controlled experiments high on the list. However, over the years we have learned a few things through the observation of regularities and by deducing from the things about which we are reasonably certain to formulate conjectures about things of which we are less certain.
With this in mind, let us consider the December jobs report. By all accounts, it was a “disappointing” result with only 74,000 jobs created. The “headline” rate of unemployment did fall appreciably, but that was solely and completely due to an increase in the number of people who have entirely given up looking for paid work. While we can all agree that the result is disappointing, I would like to take issue with the almost ubiquitous report that it was “surprising.”
Should the federal government bailout Detroit? That’s the question everyone is debating. We think the discussion should be expanded well beyond this narrow question. Detroit is the canary in the coal mine, but it’s symptomatic of a bigger problem, which is the lack of jobs and decent demand in the economy.
On Tuesday night, President Obama will give the first State of the Union message of his second term. Preliminary indications from Washington are that the President will attempt to shift some attention back to jobs and economic growth. But similar White House moves to address jobs and the economy over the past four years have been half-hearted and politically feeble. It is likely that the jobs message delivered by Obama will be overshadowed and weighed down by the endless and destructive partisan battles over our long-term budget position and Washington’s misguided plans for budget austerity and fiscal contraction. Obama came into office extolling “the fierce urgency of now” – but Washington’s mystifying obsessions with the federal debt and impossible projections of future budget deficits have moved the beltway agenda from the fierce urgencies of 2013 to the unknowable contingencies of 2035. The unemployed are trapped despairing and jobless here in 2013, choking on the spreadsheets of dueling beltway actuaries.