New Unemployment, Old Solutions

Today’s unemployment data contain gloomy news. Gloomy, but expected. The interpretation of the data is even worse.

First, the data. Unemployment rose to 10.2 percent last month, breaking the double digit barrier. Most people expected it to happen, though the job loss (190,000) was a bit worse than most economic forecasts (175,000). We can maybe be happy that the October job loss wasn’t as high as September (263,000), but this modest deceleration doesn’t mean much to the 15.7 million people without work, the 9.3 million people working part-time but looking for full-time, or the 3.2 million people who are discouraged or marginally attached to the work force and barely even looking anymore. Nearly 20 percent of the workforce isn’t where it wants to be.

In other words, it’s bad. You don’t need me or the Bureau of Labor Statistics to tell you that.

The interesting part is where it’s bad and what to do about it.

The biggest job losses in October were in construction (62,000) and manufacturing (61,000). In the last year, these sectors have lost over 2.5 million jobs between them. Job losses in these sectors hurt worse than most other sectors. Manufacturing jobs have a bigger economic “multiplier” than other sectors, creating more jobs and more economic activity around them. Manufacturing creates jobs “downstream,” as production workers buy sandwiches from restaurants; and “upstream,” as steelworkers and coal miners work to provide raw material. The benefits of construction obviously count for more and last longer than just the construction itself. Anybody who doesn’t live in a cave knows that.

But manufacturing and construction are losing more jobs than any other sector. Health care and temporary jobs are the only positive — if we can cheer sickness or a temp job.

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

This isn’t just a temporary blip. Construction is sinking from the burst of the housing bubble and general economic doldrums. Manufacturing is suffering from long term structural declines and a trade policy that favors imports over domestic production.

The solution leaps out from the data. These two sectors respond most clearly to public sector investment. During this downturn, we can build roads, rail lines and bridges. During this downturn, we can fix school roofs and turn temporary trailers for overcrowded schools into permanent classrooms for eager students. During this downturn, we can build the windmills and install the solar cells to move us towards energy independence. During this downturn we can rebuild a productive economy for the future.

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Maybe a quarter of the 800 billion stimulus package pushed in this direction. We need more. First, we need more stimulus. Good old-fashioned Keynesian stimulus during the downturn. Put people to work laying those rail lines and fixing those school roofs.

Second, we need to make sure the money stays in our own economy. We can’t ask American taxpayers to foot the bill or expect American workers to cheer when the windmills of the new energy economy are imported from Spain. It’s no gift to our economy to fix the water main with pipes imported from China that were dumped in US markets at below market costs, driving our own domestic pipe industry out of business. We can do better. We need to do better.

I’ll close with the thing we don’t need, the interpretation I warned against in the beginning. The Associated Press story about today’s unemployment data put it this way: “A robust economic recovery won’t be sustainable if consumers don’t pick up their spending.

Wrong wrong wrong. The debt-driven consumption economy was the problem. The solution is not for consumers without jobs to start spending again. The solution is to rebuild our economy. From the ground up. The old fashioned way.

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