There is lots of buzz about our nation’s “economic recovery” in these first weeks of 2013. The stock market has been rising, some would say even soaring. We postponed the fiscal cliff crisis, albeit only for a few weeks – March is the new deadline. The tone and tenor of debt ceiling conversations has shifted slightly, though this will not be an issue easily negotiated. President Obama says that raising the debt ceiling to pay old bills is the right thing to do; Republicans in the House showed no reluctance in authorizing spending for two wars and other matters. Now they don’t want to pay for it.
Recovery? For the first time since 2009 our economy shrunk in the last quarter of 2012, largely because of cuts in defense spending (that were not balanced by increased spending in other areas), a sluggish world economy that could not absorb US exports. Also, inventory grew slowly, suggesting that some retailers are pessimistic about the level of spending this year.
Some economists suggest that this drag is a one-time thing since part of the drag has occurred because of factory and retail store shutdowns due to Hurricane Sandy. Additionally, they say that the economy should adjust to defense spending cuts rather quickly. And they cite strong consumer spending and business investment in the fourth quarter as positives. Even with the fourth-quarter shrinkage, growth in 2012 was higher than growth in 2011, suggesting that we are on the right path to economic recovery.
Just a minute, though. If the economy contracts because of a cut in defense spending, what will happen when federal spending is cut by 7 to 10 percent, either through automatic cuts or budget cutting negotiations. Already, federal departments are making contingency plans for cuts, figuring out ways that three people can do the work of two, and ways programs may be consolidated. While one quarter of contraction is no cause for alarm, it is certainly cause for concern. Two more quarters of contraction, however mild, will lead us into a recession.
There are other factors of concern as we look ahead. Everyone will get a 2 percent pay cut because the Social Security tax has returned to prior levels after we have experienced cuts for two years. A family earning $50,000 a year has $1000 less to spend, and it has already shown up in paychecks for those who are paid biweekly. Less disposable income means less consumer spending, means the possibility of economic slowdown since consumer spending drives more than two-thirds of the economy.
Another factor in the possibility of economic slowdown is the troubled employment situation. Though unemployment rates are lower than they were two years ago, an overall unemployment rate of more than seven percent is unacceptable. I am writing this in advanced of first Friday numbers, but predictions are the unemployment rate won’t go below seven percent. That means that the African American unemployment rate is likely to remain between 13 and 14 percent, officially, and more than 25 percent unofficially. While we can certainly point to improvement in the employment situation, the economy is not generating enough jobs to lower unemployment rates. Instead we are treading water.
Congress has not enacted the American Jobs Act, which President Obama introduced in 2011, because they say it costs too much. This is a case of being penny wise and pound-foolish. Employed people pay taxes. Employed people contribute to their communities. Gainfully employed people avoid the social pathologies that come with unemployment. Albert Camus once said, “Without work all life is rotten”. Studies show that unemployed people experience a loss of self-esteem, societal alienation, and depression, among other things. A jobs creation program would be good both for morale and the economy.
Would this be a make-work program? Not necessarily. President Obama spoke about our decaying infrastructure in his 2008 campaign, and if you’ve recently driven on our interstate highways, you can testify to the way that infrastructure has deteriorated. Why not put people to work to repair infrastructure, and work in schools and libraries? Why not put our nation back to work?
The budget cuts Congress insists on may well push our economy back into recession. On the other hand, increased spending on job programs will mean increased consumer spending and therefore economic recovery. The choice is between recession and economic growth. Those who claim to have the best interests of our nation at heart seem not to support a path that will lead us to economic growth. That’s a sorry commentary on the leadership of the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.