In January 2001, Bill Clinton’s final month in office, 132.4 million Americans were employed. Eleven years and six months later, that number has grown … all the way to 133 million. A whopping 600,000 more Americans have jobs today than at the dawn of the 21st Century.
In the meantime, more than 11 million workers have entered the labor force. The number of Americans of working age has grown by 35 million. This is what a Lost Decade looks like in the job market — what a small recession and a massive financial crisis, interrupted by historically meager job growth, has wrought on America’s workers.
Witness the true backdrop for Friday’s jobs report: an epic, decade-long stall in the national Jobs Machine. Even an unimaginably strong upside surprise from the Labor Department won’t come close to setting things right. And let’s be honest — neither will the economic policies that Washington lawmakers, and the two leading candidates for president, are squabbling about right now.
What are Barack Obama and Mitt Romney — and Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress — talking about in their “jobs” debate? Whether to keep decade-old tax cuts for the wealthy; whether a rich businessman-turned-candidate should release more than a year or two of past income-tax forms; whether the president says and believes mean things about business owners; whether to roll back post-crisis regulation of the financial industry; and whether lawmakers will find a way to avoid a rash of tax increases and spending cuts which, according to a suddenly popular-with-both-parties Keynesian calculation, would likely tip the weak recovery back into another recession.
Notice what’s missing? Any real discussion of why the last 12 years have been such a disaster for the U.S. job market. George W. Bush boasted the worst job-creation record of any president since the federal government started tracking monthly stats — and that was before the Great Recession wiped out all his jobs gains. The recovery under Obama has included far slower growth, in GDP and jobs, than what followed the Great Depression, the only really comparable economic period in American history to this one.
What America should be hearing from the campaign trail, and particularly every Jobs Day, is a diagnosis of what changed in the last 12 years and a prescription for righting the course. Obama and Romney should be telling us what they’ve learned from the Lost Decade, and how they’ve adjusted their policies in response.
We’re getting the opposite. Rob Portman, the Ohio senator seen as a possible vice presidential pick for the GOP, wrote this week that Romney “knows that to return to prosperity, we must create a better climate for job growth by embracing the policies of free enterprise that got us there in the first place.”
Romney’s economic advisers bristled this week when an analysis of the candidate’s tax plan did not assume a big supply-side growth bounce from lowering rates — the sort of bounce that most definitely did not follow the two rounds of tax cuts under Bush.
Romney’s campaign released an economics white paper on Thursday authored by four prominent conservative economists who are advising him. The paper runs 3,800 words, including a long section on how much better the economy recovered from recession under Ronald Reagan than it has under Obama. But it has one notable omission: any mention, at all, of the financial crisis — or of the Bush years, even though three of the four economists worked for the Bush administration.
Obama’s economic centerpiece — the long-stalled American Jobs Act — is a short-term proposition heavy on Keynesian stimulus through infrastructure spending. The president routinely calls for heftier spending on education and research and development, and he has all-but-explicitly embraced a version of industrial policy for manufacturing. He extols the middle class on the campaign trail, but mostly as a wedge to decry Romney’s tax plan.
Read the transcript of Obama’s speech on Wednesday and you get the strong impression that he believes the ticket back to fast growth is more federal construction spending, more government clean-energy investments, and a return to Clinton-era taxation. “All we’re asking people like me and Mr. Romney to do is go back to the rates we paid under Bill Clinton,” Obama said in Mansfield, Ohio. “And I don't know if you remember — that's when our economy created nearly 23 million new jobs.”
When the jobs numbers break Friday, however they look, ask yourself this question: Can the fix possibly be as simple as either of these guys are making it out to be?
And if not, isn’t it time we got a more serious discussion?