Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein often has thoughtful things to say about the economy; not today. He has one of those charming "pox on both your houses" pieces in which he even-handedly denounces the left and the right.
The denunciation of the right is fine. Complaints about economic harm from high taxes and over-regulation are utter nonsense as we all know. (We have low taxes and business-friendly regulation already.) It's the attacks on the left that defy arithmetic and logic.
He begins the piece by touting the economy's 3 percent growth rate in the fourth quarter and recent job creating pace of 200,000 a month. Then he tells readers:
"There are some on the left who also cling to the view that the economy is stuck in a depression — lest it undermine their critique about the woeful inadequacy of fiscal stimulus and the desperate need for more."
Okay, let's assume that the growth rate remains ate 3.0 percent, which is somewhat higher than most forecasts. Currently the economy is operating at about 6 percent below its potential. Potential growth is around 2.5 percent annually according to the Congressional Budget Office. This means that we will make up our shortfall at the rate of 0.5 percentage points annually. That puts 2024 as the year when we again reach potential GDP.
Taking the jobs side of the picture, the economy is currently down by around 10 million jobs from where it would be had we continued on our pre-recession job growth trend. We have to create roughly 100,000 jobs a month to keep pace with the growth of the labor force. This means that if we create 200,000 jobs a month, then we are cutting into this shortfall at the rate of 100,000 jobs a month. That gets back to full employment in 100 months or 8 and a half years.
Hey, who can call this a depression?
The substance is perhaps even more irksome than Pearlstein's arithmetic problems. He complains:
"It is true, for example, that with additional borrowing and spending, we could rehire laid-off teachers and police officers. That would certainly boost employment in the short term, reduce class sizes and make us all feel safer. But the reality is that, even if the economy were to improve as a result, it would be many years before tax revenues return to where they were at the height of the bubble. At some point, spending by state and local governments will have to be brought down to match the level of taxes that their voters are willing to pay. The notion that once unemployment falls below 6 percent everyone will join hands and finally put the fiscal house in order — well, that’s nothing more than political fantasy."
If Pearlstein ever paid any attention to the people who is criticizing, he would know that they advocate federal support for these services at the state and local level. The federal government can of course borrow very cheaply and cover the cost of this aid when the economy is in a downturn. When the unemployment rate returns to more normal levels, contrary to what Pearlstein seems to imply here, state and local governments will have the necessary tax revenue to pay for these services. (That is not true everywhere, but there are always growing and declining regions of the country.)
Pearlstein then goes on to trumpet spending on improving infrastructure, education, and research and development, all investments that will have long-term payoffs. Maybe there is someone on the left who does not support aggressive spending in these areas, but I challenge Pearlstein to find this person.
Finally, it is incredible that in a piece focused on the need to restructure the economy, Pearlstein does not once mention the value of the dollar. The fundamental imbalance in the U.S. economy is its large trade deficit. This will only be corrected by a sharp decline in the value of the dollar against the currencies of our trading partners, something that Pearlstein has written about frequently in other columns.
It certainly would have been worth mentioning this point here. When the dollar does fall to more competitive levels, the United States stands to gain 4-5 million manufacturing jobs. This will have an enormous impact on re-balancing the U.S. economy.