The jobs numbers released this morning contain good news almost across the board: nonfarm payroll employment rose by 227,000 jobs, above the 210,000 predicted by economists. Recent jobs numbers were also revised upwards: the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 284,000 jobs were added in January, not the initial estimate of 244,000. December actually saw 223,000 jobs added, not 203,000. This makes the three best months of hiring since the recession began.
The hiring came in nearly all-categories—both high-paying and low-paying sectors added workers. The service industry, mining, and professional services all added jobs. The manufacturing sector added 31,000 jobs, which is good news and a great news hook for President Obama’s visit to Virginia today, where he will announce a new manufacturing innovation initiative.
There are many reasons for the uptick, from businesses having reached productivity limits, thus requiring the addition of new workers to keep up with increasing demand, to auto manufacturing kicking back into gear after being disrupted by the earthquake in Japan one year ago today.
But the employment situation is getting better for another crucial reason: public sector jobs are no longer being savaged. Over 570,000 public sector jobs have been lost since the recession began, decreasing steadily every month—even though the private sector has been adding jobs since mid-2009. In 2011, the public sector was losing an average of 22,000 jobs per month, but in February only (“only”) 6,000 jobs were lost.
People often talk of outside factors that could derail the fragile economic recovery, from gasoline price shocks, to economic instability in Europe, to another bank failure on Wall Street. These are worrisome yet mostly uncontrollable events.
But a return to slashing austerity cuts at the federal and state level would also retard the recovery—and this is not only a completely controllable policy choice, but one many people in Washington are actively trying to make.
The bipartisan debt ceiling deal in August mandated hard spending caps for the next ten years, and they get steeper beginning in the upcoming fiscal year 2013. This automatically increasing austerity will inevitably harm not only federal workers, but also slow down aid to states struggling to retain employees. Even worse, House Budget chairman Representative Paul Ryan is going to release his blueprint for the federal budget in the coming weeks—and he’s reportedly pushing for federal spending below even these caps.
Democrats have made laudable proposals to retain teachers, firefighters, police and other public employees, but House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer is also reportedly working on some as-yet unspecified austerity plan—and as we noted last month, in his budget proposal President Obama advocated trashing the defense sequester, which if successful would ensure that much of the upcoming budget cuts would come from non-defense discretionary spending. This would mean the cuts could be less focused on eliminating expensive weapons systems, and more heavily focused on things like state aid and federal employee salaries—not to mention a wide array of indirectly stimulative domestic programs like Head Start.
One needs only to look towards Europe to see how steep austerity measures can hamper economic recovery—and progressives are already keying up to prevent that from happening here. “The US economy is finally producing jobs again, but our weak recovery—which has been aided by good public policy—could easily be choked off by stupid budget policies which would condemn a new generation of Americans to joblessness and a bleak future,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. “Americans should be wary of politicians telling us that the economy is recovering enough to turn immediately to cutting public spending.”
UPDATE: Via Chris Hayes, Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior points out another entirely controllable policy choice that could greatly help or harm the recovery—whether the Federal Reserve continues a misplaced focus on controlling inflation at the cost of helping unemployment:
[A] panic-y federal reserve and an over-obsession with keeping inflation expectations moored is the biggest threat.
For now I think it should be the mission of every Journalist to harp on Fed Officials as to why they are willing to tolerate half a decade of unemployment above 5% and the devastation and loss of skills associated with that but they are not willing to tolerate Core-PCE rising above 2%?
A reminder here that Congressional Republicans are getting involved on this issue too—Republicans on the House Financial Services Commitee are considering a measure that would strip the Fed of its dual mandate entirely.