What Today’s Job Numbers Mean

obama crowdIt’s way too early to conclude the jobs recovery is stalling, but there’s reason for concern.

Remember: Consumer spending is 70 percent of the economy. Employers won’t hire without enough sales to justify the additional hires. It’s up to consumers to make it worth their while.

But real spending (adjusted to remove price changes) this year hasn’t been going anywhere. It increased just .5 percent in February after an anemic .2 percent increase in January.

The reason consumers aren’t spending more is they don’t have the money. Personal income was up just .2 percent in February – barely enough to keep up with inflation. As a result, personal saving as a percent of disposable income tumbled to 3.7 percent in February from 4.3 percent in January.

Personal saving is now at its lowest level since March 2009.

American consumers, in short, are hitting a wall. They don’t dare save much less because their jobs are still insecure. They can’t borrow much more. Their home values are still dropping, and many are underwater – owing more on their homes than the homes are worth.

The economy has been growing but almost all the gains have gone to the very top. As I’ve noted, this is the most lopsided recovery on record.

You will hear other theories about the hiring slowdown, but they don’t wash.

It’s not due to “uncertainty” about the economy. That’s a tautology – the economy’s future is always uncertain, especially when consumers don’t have the dough to keep it going.

It’s not because of fears about a European recession. Europe has been in the skids for some time now. Besides, the American economy doesn’t really depend on exports to Europe.

And it’s not about gas prices or the rise in healthcare insurance premiums. Both are up, but they’ve been trending up for many months.

It’s because consumers’ pockets are almost empty.

We’ll avoid a double-dip, but the most likely scenario in coming months is a continuation of the same – an anemic jobs recovery.

robert reichPresident Obama will claim the economy is improving – and, technically, it is. Growth this year will most likely average around 2 percent. The problem is, most Americans aren’t feeling it in their paychecks.

Mitt Romney will claim the economy is in terrible shape – and there will be enough evidence to justify his “cup-half-empty” rhetoric.

But when it comes to explaining what’s really wrong with the economy, Romney is the perfect foil for Obama because Romney represents the richest of the rich – a man who raked in more than $20 million last year, and paid a tax rate of just 13.9 percent (lower than much of the middle class).

He made that money by buying up “under-performing” companies – that is, companies that employed more people than they needed to, and carried less debt than was necessary to show big profits (interest on debt is deductible from company income). Romney’s firm, Bain Capital, made him and his colleagues fortunes by firing workers and loading companies up with debt.

And there’s America’s economic problem in a nutshell.

robert reichRomney and his ilk are doing wonderfully well, but the rest of the nation is still in deep trouble. Yet the U.S. economy can’t fully recover on the spending of millionaires.

The President has already announced that this election is about America’s surge toward ever-greater inequality. He’s right. And this painful recovery shows it.

It would be sadly ironic if Obama lost the election because the economy responded to widening inequality exactly as expected.


  1. go99ers says

    Thanks again, Robert Reich.


    The jobs recovery is stalling, sputtering, and sounds like an old clunker about to crap out.

    What? It’s up to us consumers, when we don’t have jobs or homes or income to spend. WTF?

    Spending is anemic. The economy is still in the ICU. Life signs are almost flatlining.

    Personal saving is now at its lowest level since March 2009. How much does your needy bank pay you in interest, if you’re one of the lucky few to have any savings? It’s outrageous and infuriating.

    Prof. Reich is right on the money, again. The economy has been growing ONLY for the 1% . “Lopsided” recovery is putting it nicely.

    Let’s get rid of all those myths about why the economy is not working for the 99%.

    Romney is a perfect symbol of why the economy is failing us. He is a megashark who got himself bloated from his firm, Bain Capital, which made him and his colleagues billions by firing workers and loading companies up with debt. He looks like a nice, gentle guy, but he is supported by the zillionaire corporations and the you know who brothers.

    Excuse me while I barf.

  2. Mayanworlds says

    the most lopsided economic recovery in history, the professor notes. in sum, might be time for a new model of political economy, but neither obama nor romney will discuss this issue. romney will want to accelerate the most lopsided economic recovery in history, and obama will stress patience, it will become less lopsided in time. such is the state of political culture beltway bandit style early 21st century. change you can believe in? i imagine obama will be eating those words between now and november. how about change you can live with? or better, more of the same is better than more of the most lopsided recovery in economic history? obama is the best alternative in a world with no real alternatives.

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