Why the US must not abandon fiscal stimulus

The Senate’s stimulus bill would alleviate unemployment and speed progress towards economic recovery

"O Lord, grant me chastity and continence -- but not yet!" So reads an oft-quoted prayer from St Augustine's Confessions, a pithy reminder of the difficulty of reining in one's impulses in favour of a far-from-appealing sense of pious restraint.

Such a conflict between profligacy and austerity is certainly familiar not only to 4th-century Roman theologians grappling with religious conundrums, but also to economic policymakers in Great Britain, the United States, and indeed any country still struggling with macroeconomic policy targeted at recovering from the worst recession the world has seen in a generation.

The conflict over spending versus restraint, closely divided along partisan lines, is framing this week's debate before the Senate over a $127bn job stimulus bill, the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act 2010.

Opponents of the bill point to recent hopeful indicators, such as an increase in wages (now 3.2 per cent higher than in December 2007 at the beginning of the economic downturn) and the addition of 431,000 jobs in the month of May, as signs that the economy may have turned the corner.

They argue that America is enjoying a strong enough recovery to allow policymakers to focus on "chastity and continence" in spending to address the nation's crippling budget deficit, projected to exceed $13trn for the first time in history. (The deficit comprises a whopping 89 per cent of GDP.)

Proponents of the bill, who range from Senate Democrats to think tanks such as the Economic Policy Institute to the editorial page of the New York Times, have united in a chorus of: "Not yet!" According to the bill's supporters, unemployment has remained too persistent -- and its effects too pernicious -- to shift attention and federal money away from job creation so soon.

Faster, faster . .

The stimulus bill includes $7bn in loan guarantees for small businesses, a $6.6bn research and development tax credit, $24bn in additional Medicaid funding, $1bn to create summer jobs for young people, and $2.6bn to extend the TANF emergency jobs fund, among other provisions. Most importantly, it extends unemployment compensation and a tax credit allowing jobless workers to continue their health insurance for 35 per cent of the original rate until the end of 2010, providing a gross $55bn in additional support for the jobless.

Approximately one-third of the bill's expenditures will be funded by increased taxation on high-income individuals and private equity earnings, while the remainder must be borrowed.

It is easy to understand why deficit hawks may be wary of this second iteration of the much larger February 2009 stimulus package. However, America's unemployed desperately need the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act to pass; the bill would also smooth the road to recovery for the economy as a whole.

To begin with, even though US GDP has improved, growing at a 3.0 per cent annual rate in the first quarter of 2010, unemployment remains a severe problem. Although an additional 431,000 workers found employment in May, this is attributable mostly to temporary census hiring by the federal government, which accounted for 412,000 of those jobs.

The national unemployment rate remains an uninspiring 9.7 per cent, with 15 million jobless Americans looking for employment and as many as six jobseekers for every open position. Without outside stimulus, the prospect of returning to pre-recession employment prosperity is slim. For reference, in its current state, in order to return to the 5 per cent unemployment rate of December 2007, the economy would have to add more than 300,000 jobs a month for the next four years -- a growth rate faster than in any four-year period, faster even than in the job boom of the 1990s. It's bound to be a long, tough slog, even with government intervention.

Worse yet, these less-than-ideal numbers do not even capture the full extent of the unemployment challenge facing the nation. The unemployment figure does not account for earners forced to work part-time because they are unable to find full-time employment -- currently at 8.8 million, a meteoric rise from the December 2007 benchmark of 4.7 million. In addition, it only measures joblessness as a fraction of those actively seeking work, discounting figures for "discouraged workers", or people not looking for work because they have given up on finding employment, which have risen 291,000 on the previous year. Projections for the gross number of Americans who are unemployed, underemployed, or discouraged have reached a record high of 25 per cent.

And inequality widens

Economically speaking, this is quite bad enough. What senators ought to find even more worring are the social consequences: the staggering inequalities of US employment that the recession has unearthed and exacerbated. Compared with previous recessions, such as the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s, which primarily affected white-collar workers, the biggest losers in the Great Recession of 2007-2009 have most worked in less well-compensated jobs such as construction and auto manufacturing.

For example, as of May 2010, the unemployment rate among college graduates is a relatively sunny 4.7 per cent, compared to high school graduates' 10.6 per cent and high school dropouts' 15 per cent. Income inequality has always been a fact of America's economic landscape, but it typically narrows during a recession. In 2007-2008, it widened.

Another social danger of the current state of American unemployment is the unique threat posed by long-term unemployment, which hits the least-educated the hardest. The average joblessness duration has reached 31.2 weeks, the longest stretch since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started collecting data of this kind in 48 weeks.

Long-term unemployment is especially damaging for a nation's economy, because it removes the resources necessary for workers fully to develop their own -- or their children's -- financial and human capital, implicit in activities as schooling, skills training and investment, all necessary for starting a business. And with a 20 per cent unemployment rate for those under 25, many of whom don't qualify for unemployment insurance at all due to their limited work history, we risk alienating an entire generation of working-class youth.

The Senate's stimulus bill would alleviate some of the most crushing problems in US unemployment and also speed the road to economic recovery. Drawing on experience, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 1.4 million to 3.4 million workers who are currently employed would be jobless, were it not for the February 2009 jobs bill, but warns that the force of the previous stimulus has largely expired.

Not only would the bill provide a safety net to some of the most in-need workers, but extending unemployment insurance stimulates demand as well. The unemployed tend to spend money immediately to address pressing expenses such as groceries, health care and automobile/home payments, thus circulating money back into hard-hit local economies. In fact, on average, every $1bn of unemployment insurance money issued generates between $1.63bn and $2.15bn of additional GDP, due to this circulation factor.

The stock market may have bounced back and America's GDP growth looks fairly solid, but lingering unemployment is still the ball and chain dragging economic recovery back to earth. The staggering extent of unemployment, underemployment and reductions in the workforce has especially damaged the long-term prospects of America's least privileged, and exacerbated the social tensions created by income inequality.

It is imperative that the Senate continue to assist the US on its path to full recovery by passing the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act, and by continuing its commitment to job creation and to alleviating the negative effects of unemployment.

O Lord, grant us fiscal austerity -- but not just yet.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage