America already has double-digit unemployment.
In fact, the real unemployment rate, as opposed to the official rate, is well over 15 percent.
That’s because the official unemployment rate — which as of Friday stood at at 9.4 percent, following another leap in jobless claims for May — is not, as economist John Williams has noted, “figured in the way that that the average person thinks of unemployment, meaning figured the way it was estimated back during the Great Depression.”
What happens when we include people who have stopped looking for work because they do not believe there are jobs to be found, along with part-time workers who would like to be working full-time?
Then, we start looking not at the unsettling 10 percent figure but the far more frightening 20 percent number.
As economist Howard Rosen told NPR after official unemployment topped 8 percent in February: “Today we learned that there are 12.5 million people who are unemployed, and we have another 8.6 million people who are working part-time because they cannot find full-time jobs. Now, you’re talking about 20 million people in this country who are either unemployed or underemployed. I don’t want to freak out people, but the unemployed number, we start talking about 15, 16 percent.”
Since February, of course, the official unemployment rate has spiked dramatically, as has the real rate.
These are the numbers that make an urgent social and economic case for the additional stimulus that my wise colleagues and other concerned commentators are suggesting.
But it is the smaller official rate that makes the political case for both more stimulus and a radical rethink of the Obama administration’s ill-thought auto bankruptcy and bailout scheme.
When the federal government actually acknowledges that the country has a double-digit unemployment rate, when a figure that is above 10 percent becomes that official number — something that the trend lines suggest could happen this summer — the country reaches an emotional and political tipping point.
“Ten is a tangible, very clear reminder that this is a severe recession,” explains Ohio State University economics professor Bruce Weinberg. “Ten becomes something psychological. People will say: ‘Whoa, we’ve got a double-digit unemployment rate.'”
Politically, it is the point at which people start looking for someone to blame. Obama and his people will blame the president’s predecessor. This is appropriate, as George Bush’s economic and regulatory policies were incredibly unsound and destructive.
The problem, of course, is that the blame game gets harder when it becomes possible to link a sitting president’s actions to soaring unemployment figures.
States that have been especially hard hit by the current recession — Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, among others — and urban areas that have been devastated by it (according to the Labor Department, 93 metropolitan areas registering an unemployment rate of at least 10 percent in April) now face the prospect of significant additional job losses in the coming months as a result of the administration’s auto bailout scheme.
As the bankruptcy and bailout projects for Chrysler and General Motors now stand, the companies plan to shutter 25 factories and warehouses across the United States (14 factories and three warehouses for GM, eight factories for Chrysler). That will eliminate the jobs of roughly 30,000 auto workers.
Additionally, the companies plan to shutter roughly 3,000 car dealerships could cost as many as 150,000 additional jobs.
Thus, the administration-backed “restructuring” of the auto companies — which is to be supported with as much as $65 billion from the U.S. Treasury — will add significantly to unemployment rates at precisely the time when it hurts the most. A “bailout” that promotes plant and dealership closings and mass layoffs may play well on Wall Street — where job cutting and offshoring tends to be rewarded, while job creation and long-term planning tends to be punished — but it is not the right plan for a country (or a president) that would prefer to avoid the highest unemployment rates in decades.
This is something those members of his team who recognize that they were given power with a mandate for change, not putting a “D” label on bad trade and fiscal policies, should be thinking about.
Blaming Bush is legitimate — as is blaming Bill Clinton, who gave us the job-killing North American Free Trade Agreement and permanent normalization of trade relations with China.
But there comes a time when a president “owns” his recession.
If the country is socked with a double-digit unemployment rate, and if the actions of the administration that is in charge are seen as feeding the increase in joblessness, that’s the political point of no return.
Voters, especially in Great Lakes battleground states where Democrats picked up lots of House seats and electoral votes in 2006 and 2008, will start looking for alternatives. And even Republicans who have not come up with much more than a monosyllabic message — “no” — could start to look wise, if not particularly articulate.
Obama and his political aides ought to be smart enough to recognize this fact. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be calling the shots.
The current “deciders” appear to be members of Obama’s economic team — led by the likes of Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and rest of the “public servants” formerly known as Wall Street insiders. Their bad calls, especially on the auto bailout, could give America a “jobless recovery” and a politically-vulnerable president.