By Paul Krugman
The New York Times
In a better world — specifically, a world with a better policy elite — a good jobs report would be cause for unalloyed celebration. In the world we actually inhabit, however, every silver lining comes with a cloud. Friday’s report was, in fact, much better than expected, and has made many people, myself included, more optimistic. But there’s a real danger that this optimism will be self-defeating, because it will encourage and empower the purge-and-liquidate crowd.
So, about that jobs report: It was genuinely good, certainly compared with the dreariness that has become the norm. Notably, for once falling unemployment was the real thing, reflecting growing availability of jobs rather than workers dropping out of the labor force, and hence out of the unemployment measure.
Furthermore, it’s not hard to see how this recovery could become self-sustaining. In particular, at this point America is seriously under-housed by historical standards, because we’ve built very few houses in the six years since the housing bubble popped. The main thing standing in the way of a housing bounce-back is a sharp fall in household formation — econospeak for lots of young adults living with their parents because they can’t afford to move out. Let enough Americans find jobs and get homes of their own, and housing, which got us into this slump, could start to power us out.
That said, our economy remains deeply depressed. As the Economic Policy Institute points out, we started 2012 with fewer workers employed than in January 2001 — zero growth after 11 years, even as the population, and therefore the number of jobs we needed, grew steadily. The institute estimates that even at January’s pace of job creation it would take us until 2019 to return to full employment.
Bear in mind, in particular, the fact that long-term unemployment — the percentage of workers who have been out of work for six months or more — remains at levels not seen since the Great Depression. And each month that this goes on means more Americans permanently alienated from the workforce, more families exhausting their savings, and, not least, more of our fellow citizens losing hope.
Very early in this slump — basically, as soon as the threat of complete financial collapse began to recede — a significant number of people within the policy community began demanding an early end to efforts to support the economy. Some of their demands focused on the fiscal side, with calls for immediate austerity despite low borrowing costs and high unemployment. But there have also been repeated demands that the Fed and its counterparts abroad tighten money and raise interest rates.
What’s the reasoning behind those demands? Well, it keeps changing. Sometimes it’s about the alleged risk of inflation: Every uptick in consumer prices has been met with calls for tighter money now, now, now. And the inflation hawks at the Fed and elsewhere seem undeterred either by the way the predicted explosion of inflation keeps not happening, or by the disastrous results in April when the European Central Bank actually did raise rates, helping to set off the current European crisis.
So here’s what needs to be said about the latest numbers: Yes, we’re doing a bit better, but no, things are not OK — not remotely OK. This is still a terrible economy, and policymakers should be doing much more than they are to make it better.