America's creeping new normalcy
Sluggish growth and high unemployment are increasingly just accepted.

Reuters

Job seekers prepare for career fair to open at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, January 6, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Nations never choose decline, it just happens, year by year, decade by decade, one ‘meh’ economic report at a time.

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  • At the current rate of job creation, with all else equal, the economy wouldn’t return to 4.4% unemployment for 8 years

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  • Output and job growth aren’t back to trend. Every month the output and jobs gaps grow wider.

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  • With an economy that hasn’t hummed since the 1990s, we’ve already had one lost decade. @JimPethokoukis

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  • If we accept the creeping new normalcy of our declining economy, America risks suffering its own lost generation.

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The Japanese have said “Enough.” After a generation of stagnation, they’ve chosen an all-of-the-above policy to boost economic growth. The nation’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is promising a “three arrows” strategy: bold monetary easing, increased public-works spending, and structural changes, such as regulatory reform. He’s throwing the ramen against the shoji and hoping something will stick. Some of those ideas are good ones, some probably aren’t. But it’s clear that Tokyo’s priority is growth, growth, growth. Time to get Nippon moving again.

Nations probably never choose decline, at least not consciously. More likely they become victims of a creeping normalcy. Things once objectionable can become passively acceptable if they happen slowly, incrementally: the boiling-frog syndrome. Decline just sort of happens, year by year, decade by decade, one “meh” economic report at a time.

Last Thursday the U.S. Commerce Department reported that fourth-quarter GDP fell at a 0.1 percent annual rate. For the year, the U.S. economy grew a meager 2.2 percent. That’s a bit better than 2011, but about a percentage point less than what most economists think is the economy’s current potential. Even worse, the first few recovery years after deep downturn typically exhibit abnormally strong catch-up growth. But that’s not happening post–Great Recession. White House spokesman Jay Carney conceded the obvious, that the negative quarterly report was “not good news,” and then blamed congressional Republicans for creating a “headwind” of political uncertainty.

The next day the Labor Department reported the unemployment rate ticking up to 7.9 percent in January as the economy added 157,000 net new jobs. At that rate of job creation, with all else equal, the economy wouldn’t return to 4.4 percent unemployment — the George W. Bush administration’s low point — for another eight years. Oh, and that’s assuming no recessions between now and 2021. White House economist Alan Krueger said the report provided “further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression.”

It must be terribly inconvenient for the Obama White House to be reminded every quarter and every month that the $800 billion stimulus — and subsequent mini-stimuli — failed to ignite the boom Obama economists repeatedly predicted through the first term. The president has so many higher priorities, after all: immigration reform, gun control, climate change, income inequality. Stuff with which to build a legacy.

Faster growth and faster job creation apparently don’t make the cut. A president deeply concerned about growth would perhaps have followed a few more of the recommendations of his own Jobs and Competitiveness Council before letting it expire, as Obama did last week. Sure, Obama acted on agenda items that comfortably synced with his ideology, like retrofitting government buildings for energy efficiency. But he ignored commonsense ideas that didn’t mesh, such as expanding domestic oil and gas drilling and revamping the corporate tax code. More high-skill immigration? Sorry, it will have to wait for comprehensive immigration reform.

Michael Darda, chief economist at MKM Partners, points out that “it will require a multiyear period of above-trend growth to return unemployment to more normal levels.” He speaks of the “jobs gap,” the difference between current employment levels and what they would be if a few years of catch-up economic growth had reestablished the pre-recession trend. Assuming annual private-sector employment growth of 2 percent, the average of the past three decades, we’re 14 million jobs short. And because catch-up growth never happened — say, a few years of averaging 5 percent growth, as happened after the 1981–82 recession — even if the economy returns to steady 3 percent growth, GDP levels will be trillions lower in the future than they would have been otherwise, due to the lower starting point.

But right now output growth and job growth aren’t even back to trend. And that means every month the output and jobs gaps grow a bit wider. With an economy that hasn’t hummed since the 1990s, we’ve already had one lost decade. If we begin to accept and acquiesce to the creeping new normalcy, America risks suffering its own lost generation. Someone right now needs to say “Enough” — and then back up those words with action. It would be helpful if that person were Obama.

— James Pethokoukis, a columnist, blogs for the American Enterprise Institute.

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