Can we find comfort in knowing that employment has long been considered a lagging indicator? It is conventionally seen as having limited predictive power because employment reflects decisions taken earlier in the business cycle. But today is different. Unemployment has doubled from 4.8 to 9.5 percent in just 16 months, a record rate so fast it may influence future economic behaviors and outlooks. Bear in mind that the lackluster increase in inventories suggests that there's little prospect in the pipeline of real growth in consumption, investment, and exports. So the terrible state of the labor market is likely to be a strong head wind against consumer spending for a long time as wages and overall income growth are decelerating and households, within a fairly short period, will have received their full portion of the stimulus package.
How could this happen when Washington has thrown trillions of dollars into the pot, including the famous $787 billion in spending that was supposed to yield $1.50 in growth for every dollar spent? For a start, too much of the money went to transfer payments—Medicaid, jobless benefits, and the like—that do nothing for jobs and growth. The spending that creates new jobs is new spending, particularly on infrastructure. It amounts to less than 10 percent of the stimulus package today.
Second, the stimulus package may have been well intentioned, but it was too small and too badly constructed to get money into the economy fast enough to replace lost consumer and business spending and to slow unemployment. Workers' pessimism is justified: About 40 percent believe the recession will continue for another full year. As paychecks shrink and disappear, consumers are more hesitant to spend and won't lead the economy out of the doldrums quickly enough.
It may have made him unpopular in parts of the Obama administration, but Vice President Joe Biden told it as it is when he said the administration misread how bad the economy was. The administration inherited the problem, but then it failed to understand how ineffective its solution would be. The program was supposed to be about jobs, jobs, and jobs. It wasn't. The recovery act may have been a single piece of legislation, but it included thousands of funding schemes for tens of thousands of projects, and those programs are stuck in the bureaucracy as the government releases the funds with typical inefficiency.
An additional $150 billion, which was allocated to state coffers so as to continue existing programs like Medicaid, did not add new jobs. Hundreds of billions of dollars were set aside for tax cuts and for new benefits for the poor and the unemployed, and that did not add new jobs. Now state budgets are drowning in red ink as jobless claims and Medicaid bills climb.
Next year, state budgets will have depleted their initial rescue dollars. Absent another rescue plan, they will have no choice but to slash spending or raise taxes, or both. The complete state and local government sector, which makes up about 15 percent of the economy, is beginning the worst contraction in postwar history in the face of a deficit gap of $166 billion for fiscal year 2010, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and a cumulative gap of $350 billion in fiscal year 2011.
Similarly, households overburdened with historic levels of debt will be saving more. The savings rate has already jumped from zero in 2007 to almost 7 percent of after-tax income now, and it is still rising. Every dollar of saving comes out of consumption. Because consumer spending is the economy's main driver, we are going to have a weak consumer sector, and many businesses simply won't have the means or the need to hire employees. In the aftermath of the 1990-1991 recession, Americans bought houses, cars, and other expensive goods. This time, the combination of a weak job picture and a severe credit crunch means that people won't be able to get the financing for big expenditures, and those who can borrow will be reluctant to do so.