A Recovery in Name Only?

September 7, 2012 - 4:15 AM

So how’s the economic recovery treating you? For many Americans, the answer is: not well. In fact, some may ask: What recovery?

And with good reason. There are many ways to measure a nation’s fiscal health, but people naturally tend to focus on what the jobs numbers are. Low unemployment means a strong economy, high unemployment a weak one.

Unemployment was up when President Obama came into office, and according to him, “stimulus” spending was the answer. Government would pump hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into the economy, thereby “creating or saving” millions of jobs.

In January 2009, the president’s economic advisers released a chart projecting what unemployment would be with and without the administration’s proposed stimulus. At the time, it stood at 7.6 percent. Without the stimulus, they said, unemployment would top 9 percent by December 2010. With it? Just above 7 percent.

What was the actual rate we hit at that time? 9.4 percent. That number is down from a high of 10.1 percent in October 2009, but considering the rosy projections, one again has to ask: What recovery? After all, that’s almost two and half percentage points higher than we were led to believe we’d get with no stimulus. They got their stimulus package, and we got higher unemployment. (The rate as of July was 8.3 percent.)

There’s another important number to consider when you examine this recovery, the slowest we’ve had in 70 years. And that’s how many people have dropped out of the labor force.

Today, nearly 5 million fewer Americans are working or looking for work. This drop accounts for virtually the entire reduction of the unemployment rate since 2009 -- those who aren’t looking for work don’t count as unemployed.

Who accounts for these non-working Americans? About one-fifth is simple demographics -- the baby boomers are aging, and more of them retire each day. The rest come from people going on disability insurance or attending school. As Heritage Foundation labor expert James Sherk points out in a new study, we can count only one of these groups joining the workforce eventually, and that’s the people who are in school.

The bottom line is, as bad as the unemployment figure is, it doesn’t count these Americans who have left the labor force. The economy, in short, is in even worse shape than the official numbers indicate.

More importantly, why have we been losing jobs? Many workers might be tempted to blame employers giving people pink slips. It’s true that thousands of companies have gone out of business or downsized, laying off millions of workers and increasing unemployment. But layoffs and job losses are not the main reason that unemployment remains high.

Sherk notes that while layoffs did climb during the early part of the recession, they’ve since returned to normal levels. In the first quarter of 2012, employers laid off 5.5 million workers. “Employees with jobs today are, in fact, slightly less likely to lose them than they were when the recession began,” he writes.

The simple fact is, the economy isn’t creating nearly as many new jobs as it should be. Why?

There are some lingering effects from the collapse of the housing bubble, of course. We’ve also been affected by the economic slowdowns in Europe and China. But we shouldn’t overlook the ill effects of excessive taxes and increased regulation, which discourage risk-taking and investment.

The regulatory burden on businesses has increased, thanks in large part to Obamacare. Some leaders in Congress have said they want to raise taxes by $500 billion in January.

Some things Congress can’t do, but it can certainly refrain from making the problem worse. It can also lighten the tax and regulatory burden on small business, which would encourage them to start hiring again.

Maybe then we’d have a recovery that feels like a recovery. And we’d finally get Americans back to work.