SYNOPSIS: With all the debt they've racked up, the Bushies have precious little job creation to show for it. Though the onset of the recession was not their fault, the complete failure over three years to retrieve those lost jobs certainly is
As job growth continues to elude the U.S. economy, we're hearing two main excuses from the Bush administration and its supporters: that the real situation is much better than you're hearing, and that to the extent employment is lagging, it's the result of factors outside the administration's control. But after three years of extravagant promises and dismal results, the time for excuses has passed.
Let's start with the real job situation. A number of readers have asked me about what Marc Racicot, who heads the Bush re-election effort, told Don Imus the other day. He claimed that those miserable job numbers are misleading, and that another survey presents both a more accurate and a much happier story. You can find the same claim all over the right-wing media. But it just isn't so.
It's true that there are two employment surveys, which have been diverging lately. The establishment survey, which asks businesses how many workers they employ, says that 2.4 million jobs have vanished in the last three years. The household survey, which asks individuals whether they have jobs, says that employment has actually risen by 450,000. The administration's supporters, understandably, prefer the second number.
But the experts disagree. According to Alan Greenspan: "I wish I could say the household survey were the more accurate. Everything we've looked at suggests that it's the payroll data which are the series which you have to follow." You may have heard that the establishment survey doesn't count jobs created by new businesses; not so. The bureau knows what it's doing — conservative commentators are raising objections only because they don't like the facts.
And even the less reliable household survey paints a bleak picture of an economy in which jobs have lagged far behind population growth. The fraction of adults who say they are employed fell steeply between early 2001 and the summer of 2003, and has stagnated since then.
But wait — hasn't the unemployment rate fallen since last summer? Yes, but that's entirely the result of people dropping out of the labor force. Even if you're out of work, you're not counted as unemployed unless you're actively looking for a job.
We don't know why so many people have stopped looking for jobs, but it probably has something to do with the fact that jobs are so hard to find: 40 percent of the unemployed have been out of work more than 15 weeks, a 20-year record. In any case, the administration should feel grateful that so many people have dropped out. As the Economic Policy Institute points out, if they hadn't dropped out, the official unemployment rate would be an eye-popping 7.4 percent, not a politically spinnable 5.6 percent.
In short, things aren't as bad as they seem; they're worse. But should we blame the Bush administration? Yes — because it refuses to learn from experience.
Franklin Roosevelt, in his efforts to combat economic woes, was famously willing to try anything until he found something that worked. George Bush, by contrast, seems determined to try the same thing, over and over again.
In 2001 the administration rammed through long-term tax cuts, heavily tilted toward the affluent. But employment didn't turn around, and by late 2002 many economists — including supporters of the original tax cut — were urging it to try something different. My own piece, "My Economic Plan," was fairly typical: I called for extended unemployment benefits, temporary aid to state and local governments, and rebates for low- and middle-income workers.
Maybe this more or less textbook response to a depressed economy wouldn't have worked. But we'll never know, because the administration rejected all such proposals. Instead, it went for a clone of the 2001 tax cut — another big break mainly for those at the top. And once again this failed to deliver the promised jobs.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has mortgaged the nation's future. If all of his tax cuts are made permanent, they'll reduce revenue by at least three times the amount that would be needed to secure Social Security benefits at current levels for the next 75 years.
No sensible person blames Mr. Bush for the onset of the recession in 2001. But he does deserve blame for the fact that all he has to show for three years of supposed job-creation policies is a mountain of debt.
Originally published in The New York Times, 3.12.04