During the run-up to the election, the monthly jobs reports were relentlessly mined for tidbits that could predict the outcome of the election. These often-esoteric extrapolations got pretty ridiculous—the election wasn’t going to be determined by slight fluctuations in labor force participation.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics report released today, however, carries true political import. As Congress and the White House attempt to hammer out a year-end deal, today’s numbers show that unemployment remains a critical problem, and that recent progress was a little bit too good to be true—so any final deal must provide short-term stimulus and delay any austerity measures.
The top-line looks good: 146,000 jobs added, which exceeded most projections, and a drop in the unemployment rate to 7.7 percent, which is the lowest it’s been since 2007. But a deeper look reveals much more depressing indicators. The labor market shrunk as 350,000 people stopped looking for work, which contributed to the lower unemployment rate. The private sector contributed virtually all of the job growth, and the retail industry was the biggest contributor—good for now, but these are likely retailers amping up for the holiday season, and thus not a reliable hiring engine going forward.
Moreover, the rosy gains of the past couple months were overstated: today’s report revised the prior two months’ report downward by 49,000 jobs. We’re still a long, long way from full employment at this rate. And if done the wrong way, a fiscal cliff deal could retard progress even further.
Also today, the IMF released a study showing that spending cuts during economic downturns in the United States could have a “statistically significant and sizeable impact.” It found that for every dollar in spending cuts enacted, the United States could lose $1.80 in economic activity. (Belying the GOP talking points, it also found that revenue increases would have an impact on growth that is “very small and not statistically significant.”)
The White House, much to its credit, recognized this fact and made a strong opening offer in which it called not only for deferring the coming sequester cuts, but enacting $50 billion in extra stimulus spending for fiscal year 2013 as well as a mass mortgage refinancing program. This is exactly the right move—if anything, more is needed—and the administration should use today’s numbers to highlight the urgency of that position.