By Alex Wolinsky
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Great Recession came to an end in June 2009. National output figures support this assertion, as GDP has surpassed its 2008 prerecession peak and continues to rise.
Despite this, much of the economy appears to remain depressed, and we currently approach the end of a fourth year of abysmal employment numbers. Unemployment currently stands at 8.2 percent of the labor force, well above the approximately 5 percent jobless rate prior to the recession, and its decline is excruciatingly sluggish. As a result, jobs and the labor market remain decisively at the forefront of political discussion.
A traditional recovery — one achieved through expansion of America’s conventionally strong industries, namely manufacturing and construction — might not, however, be effective or even desirable. This is because the economy has in the last decade undergone a revolution, of sorts, in which the driving force is no longer the production of physical goods but the conception and implementation of ideas. Indeed, as noted by UC Berkeley Economics Professor Enrico Moretti in his recent book The New Geography of Jobs, the most depressed areas of the country are those that have historically relied on manufacturing as an economic engine, and their situation has only worsened since 2008’s meltdown.
One might wonder why a recovery with its roots in traditional sectors is not an ideal target — after all, shouldn’t an economic rebound driven by any industry be appealing? There are reasons to believe that such a recovery might be short-lived and could even compromise the long-run economic well-being of the country. The United States is no longer the world’s dominant manufacturer, and it’s unlikely that it will ever regain that role. The reason for this is that other nations — especially China — possess larger pools of unskilled labor and thus far cheaper production overall. American workers produce far more goods per hour of labor, but attempting to compete with China’s sheer manpower is essentially hopeless and even counterproductive, because doing so would consume labor resources better allocated elsewhere.
So if not through an expansion of manufacturing and a proliferation of blue-collar jobs, how can America's leaders take action to combat unemployment?
One answer being proffered is as simple as it is clichéd: support greater access to higher education, and encourage youth to pursue advanced degrees. According to the 2009 American Community Survey, only 27.9 percent of Americans aged 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, and a mere 10.3 percent possess advanced degrees. Given the level of expertise required for jobs in ideas-based fields, these numbers, especially the latter, are wholly inadequate.
At its peak, manufacturing directly employed nearly one-fifth of the labor force. The nation’s emerging economic engine cannot hope to approach this figure unless a larger proportion of the population acquires the necessary skills. An expansion of education might thus be in order to secure the nation’s economic future.
• For a list of programs examining the employment problems of today and tomorrow from a variety of angles, see The Commonwealth Club's August series The Future of Work
Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut to enter space, died yesterday at the age of only 61. She had been fighting pancreatic cancer.
Though much of the news coverage this day after her passing is focused on her groundbreaking flight aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 or on her previously unknown female partner of 27 years -- both of which are important and interesting angles -- at The Commonwealth Club of California we also remember her crucial work championing math and science education for girls. That was the focus of her program at the Club seven years ago, titled "The Greatest Challenge Facing Humanity."
Read a PDF of her speech and audience Q&A at The Commonwealth Club on June 16, 2005.
Analysis by Alex Wolinsky
Earlier this year, the Greek parliament voted to approve austerity measures in exchange for increased foreign aid in an attempt to resuscitate the country's moribund economy. Later that day, central Athens burned.
Given the origins of Greece's predicament -- a bloated welfare state and dishonest bookkeeping, in addition to an array of other factors -- one might conclude that austerity, in conjunction with greater external oversight, is an integral ingredient of any solution to the European economic catastrophe and, by extension, to that in the United States. Economist Paul Krugman, however, argues otherwise.
"This is not the time for that, because it is literally self-defeating," he said during a lecture before The Commonwealth Club in May. "Try to do austerity now, and it actually just deepens the depression."
According to Krugman, such action would trigger a reduction in the size of the economy as workers and businesses that depend on the government for wages and revenue cut their spending. As a result, the tax base shrinks, the deficit problem -- as well as the crisis as a whole -- worsens and the solvency of the government is placed further in jeopardy.
So, if expected results resemble those described above, why would anyone advocate a policy of austerity?
The answer is that the projected outcome is decidedly rosier. By classical economic theory, a reduction in government expenditures --a fiscal contraction -- does in fact cause a decline in GDP, but accompanying this is a bolstering of foreign confidence in the long-run solvency of the government and thus greater willingness to grant loans, which can be used for economic revitalization and a brighter future.
Though there are certainly examples of austerity being successful, more often in the post-recession world -- especially in Europe -- its results are similar to those described by Krugman. Indeed, as noted by former Council of Economic Advisers Chairwoman Christina Romer in an April 28 column for The New York Times, "[A]usterity is uniquely destructive right now."
With this in mind, what should be done to combat fiscal insolvency?
Many economists, including Romer, argue that less important than a government's total debt is its debt-to-GDP ratio. Intuitively, this makes sense: A country with a larger economy should be able to assume greater total debt than a nation with a smaller GDP before it suffers from insolvency concerns. This presents the novel conclusion that a country can mitigate insolvency either through cutting spending -- through austerity -- or through boosting its GDP. This latter action is most easily pursed by implementing an increase in government expenditures, which wholly contradicts the stipulations of austerity measures.
Overall, the debt-to-GDP ratio idea offers the immensely attractive concept of an economic recovery without further, government-induced pain. And, given the current state of the austerity-rife European Union, exploring related policies might be the tempting -- albeit admittedly unlikely -- next step.
• Related upcoming event: September 6, Economist Paul Saffo -- The Great Turbulence: Economics and the New Global Order