The U.S. economy is still far short of where it should be, and the job market has a long way to go before it makes up the ground lost in the Great Recession. But the employment data do suggest an economy that is slowly healing, an economy in which declining consumer debt burdens and a housing revival have finally put us on the road back to full employment.
And that’s the truth that the right can’t handle. The furor over Friday’s report revealed a political movement that is rooting for American failure, so obsessed with taking down Mr. Obama that good news for the nation’s long-suffering workers drives its members into a blind rage. It also revealed a movement that lives in an intellectual bubble, dealing with uncomfortable reality — whether that reality involves polls or economic data — not just by denying the facts, but by spinning wild conspiracy theories.
It is, quite simply, frightening to think that a movement this deranged wields so much political power.
[W]e're still crawling out of the deep [job loss] crater we fell into in 2008 and 2009. The percent of the working-age population now working or actively looking for work is higher than it was, but still near a thirty-year low.
But at least we're crawling out.
Romney says we're not doing well enough, and he's right. But the prescriptions he's offering—more tax cuts for the rich and for big companies—won't do anything except enlarge the budget deficit. And the cuts he proposes in public investments like education and infrastructure, and safety nets like Medicare and Medicaid, will take money out of the pockets of people who not only desperately need it but whose spending is necessary to keep the tepid recovery going.
So, what is keeping the lid on hiring? The usual suspects: the ever-worsening economic turmoil in Europe has clearly been hurting the US economy since summer of 2011; add to that the uncertainties about the election, and the fiscal cliff, and companies are understandably nervous about taking on new hires.
Yet, in the world of soundbite and debate-a-thon economics, September's job report was a great boon for the Obama administration. With unemployment now falling below the headline number of 8%, the Obama campaign can now credibly refute Republican challenger Romney's claim that the economy is not improving. And this may, in the end, be worth a whole lot more than one night's debate performance.
Although BLS didn't cook the unemployment books, there's no question that the headline number, which is derived from a telephone survey of households, can be fairly noisy from month to month. There was a big spike upward in September's employment figure, and that could be real or it could be a statistical outlier.
Or there might be a third option: In a little-noticed part of yesterday's report, BLS announced that it had systematically undercounted jobs by 386,000 from April 2011 through March 2012. So maybe it's continued to undercount jobs since then, as Karl Smith suggests here. If so, then not only is the September number accurate, it's making up for an undercount over the past six months. That's the shaded portion under the red line in the chart below, which is a simple trend line that runs through the revised March 2012 figure and extends it through September. It suggests that the September employment number is right where you'd expect it to be if the economy were continuing a steady but modest recovery — which seems like a reasonable bet.
So here's the irony: if BLS really has been undercounting, it means that the jobs picture has looked overly gloomy during the first half of the year, which is exactly when it hurt President Obama the worst.
The role of economic growth in advanced societies is increasingly to satisfy the many claims from different groups. People can (or think they can) pursue their self-interest without harming the common good. When the system reduces or rejects many of those claims, as is now happening in Europe, the pursuit of self-interest becomes more contentious and destructive.
What’s happening in America is different in degree, but not in kind, from what’s occurring in Europe. Stalled economic growth there is straining the political system’s ability to meet all expectations. People take to the streets; extremist parties expand. To avoid Europe’s fate, we should reduce people’s claims on the system and strive for faster economic growth. That’s the lesson. If we ignore it, history may slip into reverse.
In historical fact, movement politics and electoral politics are continuously intertwined. The fundamental dynamic is triggered when politicians have to deal with voter blocs composed of the same people to whom movements direct their appeals. We can see this dynamic on both the right and the left. The Tea Party picked up steam when Republicans eager for re-election began to repeat its slogans. So did the labor movement of the 1930s gain momentum from Franklin Roosevelt’s rhetorical appeals to the “common man,” just as the civil rights movement was energized by Lyndon Johnson’s echo of the movement refrain “We shall overcome.” When politicians echo a movement’s demands, they signal a degree of vulnerability to its constituency, and the movement gains traction.
It’s also worth remembering that when politicians are dependent on electoral blocs that are also movement constituencies, they will often hesitate to use the full arsenal of the state’s repressive capacities against movement actions and may even make uncertain efforts to protect movements—as when Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, grudgingly tried to protect the Freedom Riders. [...]
This is why the diverse protests we call Occupy need a Democratic victory in 2012: not because Democrats on their own will magically implement the movement’s agenda, but because Democrats depend on some of the same constituencies that the movement represents and to whom it directs its appeals. The overlap creates space for movements to grow and thrive.
Obama’s pitch is hardly easy. His stimulus staved off depression—and prevented untold human suffering—but it wasn’t large enough to fully curb rising unemployment or spur a robust recovery. His administration’s response to the collapse of the housing market, in many ways the nub of the whole crisis, was particularly weak. By populating his administration with disciples of Robert Rubin and former denizens of the investment banks, he cloistered himself off from aggressive proposals—the kind that might have propped up homeowners with the same vigor that the government supported the banks.
The first term has a list of meaningful international accomplishments—chiefly his ruthless pursuit of Al Qaeda, the deft intervention in Libya, and the conclusion of the Iraq war. The president’s open hand to China and initial overtures to the Iranian regime have smartly been replaced by a new assertiveness. This willingness to change course has helped preserve American power in an era where it could easily have slipped away. But there have been times when Obama’s pragmatic impulses have yielded unfortunate policies. While his Cairo speech anticipated the Arab Spring, he never reaped the credit for his prescience, because he has largely sat on the sidelines as dictators have attempted to crush revolutions in Syria and Bahrain. His decision to authorize the surge in Afghanistan seems to have yielded few tangible results for the high cost of the operations in dollars and lives.
But these shortcomings do not compare with what his opponent might do if elected.
In his 2003 book, The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy, And The Making Of A New Political Subject, John Sanbonmatsu applied the lessons of Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci to the post-1968 world. He wrote that the American Left has done itself a disservice by pursuing a politics of self-expression over strategic thinking.Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett say in the Myth of men in decline that "the media routinely exaggerate women's success and present the worst possible scenarios for men. The implicit message for women is 'step back, you've gone too far.'"
In electoral politics, this current has manifested itself as a tendency to view the ballot as a personal statement. Any number of tiny parties on the Left will be running presidential candidates in 2012; to vote for these parties is to “vote one’s conscience.”
But what if your ballot is not your voice? What if, in fact, your ballot is really just a small quantum of power, to be deployed strategically in concert with other like-minded persons? In the words of Carl Davidson, a former SDS leader who is a fan of Sanbonmatsu, “In the long run you need both self-expression and strategy. You need the inspiration that can be provided by self-expression, but you need a smart strategy that enables you to win.” [...]
Of course, it could be worse. The Chicago-based anarchist group Revolutionaries for Romney is organizing under the (satiric?) slogan: “It needs to get worse before it gets better.” In 1933, anarchists in Spain believed the same thing. They urged people to boycott the congressional elections, arguing that the Right’s “victory will favor our plans.” It didn’t quite work out that way.
The anniversary is being commemorated in Great Britain, where television news still airs the procession of virtually every killed servicemember's casket: Peace activists reportedly held a "naming of the dead" ceremony in London's Trafalgar Square Sunday. Yet despite the Afghan War's immensity—the longest American war since Vietnam, a rare war that started with near-universal approval, with even the French after 9/11 declaring "nous sommes tous Américains"—there was no mention of its birthday on the front page of Sunday's New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, or Washington Post.Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute pretends that the GOP candidate just needs to put "flesh on the bones" of his pitiful excuse of a blueprint for how the United States should behave overseas in Romney’s Missing Foreign Policy.
President Obama discussed mortgage refinancing rates in his weekly address Saturday, but not America's 11-year-old war. Mitt Romney—who failed to even mention Afghanistan in his long nomination acceptance speech—made no mention of the war on his website Sunday. But he does have a major foreign policy speech planned for Monday; perhaps he'll give the conflict some acknowledgement there.