The Economy: The New Normal Isn’t

Robert Borosage

The November jobs report – 211,000 jobs with the headline unemployment rate staying at 5 percent – met “expectations.” It is now virtually inevitable that the Federal Reserve will begin raising interest rates at its December 15-16 meetings, as Fed Chair Janet Yellen indicated in her congressional testimony yesterday.

The Federal Reserve action essentially declares this economy the new normal. The unemployment rate has dropped from its 10 percent depths in the Great Recession to 5 percent. The economy has enjoyed a record 69 months of private sector jobs growth. Fed Chair Janet Yellen suggests the U.S. economy has sufficient momentum to continue to grow.

While inflation remains far below the Fed “target” of 2 percent, Yellen anticipates that the dollar won’t continue to rise in value and oil won’t continue to fall, suggesting that inflation might pick up in future months. So, she argues, it is time for the Fed to begin – in baby steps and very cautiously – to raise interest rates.

But the new normal is neither normal nor acceptable. Nearly 16 million people are still in need of full-time work. The percentage of the civilian population working or actively looking for work remained virtually unchanged at 62.5 percent, near a 40-year low (back to when women began entering the workforce in large numbers).

African-Americans suffer unemployment rates at 9.4 percent, almost twice the national average. Only one in five of young African-Americans – ages 16 to 19 – are employed.

We still haven’t returned to the same levels of employment, counting new entrants, that we enjoyed before the recession in 2007. Wages are still stagnant, up barely over 2 percent for the year for non-supervisory workers, not close to keeping up with the cost of health care or college or child care.

Worse, the Fed is tightening against the threat of future inflation that exists only in its imagination. And it does so in a world dangerously close to global downturn. Europe verges on deflation, with the European bank extending extraordinary measures to fend off decline. China is slowing faster than expected or admitted. Japan is back in recession. Brazil is suffering the deepest downturn since the Great Depression, with other emerging market countries in decline.

The U.S. economy is not strong enough to be the buyer of last resort for a world desperate to export its way to recovery. The U.S. dollar has already dramatically increased in value, with the Euro and other currencies weakening. This makes imports cheaper and exports more expensive. Already U.S. manufacturing is getting hit.

The Fed is understandably eager to begin raising rates after keeping them near zero for seven years. Free money feeds the bankers’ casino, inflates bubbles, and makes it easier for corporations to doctor their balance sheets. What is missing is any sensible policy from the Congress to get this economy going. Corporations are parking over two trillion abroad to avoid paying taxes. If Congress weren’t ruled by ideologues and bounders, it would force them to pay their fair share of taxes and use that money to rebuild the country, putting people to work in work that needs to be done.

Both the Fed Chair Yellen and the IMF have been calling for action from the Congress without success. Instead, Congress turns itself inside out to pass a modest highway bill that won’t come close to addressing the continued decline in our infrastructure.

This world is closer to a global recession than to healthy normal economic growth. The Fed’s likely action will be modest. But at a time when we need far bolder action across the globe, the Fed is signaling success when it ought to be raising warning flags.

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