The Economy is Good, ActuallyRoundup
tags: economic history, inflation, inequality, Economic Policy, wages
Zachary D. Carter is a writer in residence at Omidyar Network. He is the author of The Price Of Peace: Money, Democracy, And The Life Of John Maynard Keynes.
We are living through the best labor market in 50 years. The U.S. economy created 467,000 jobs in January, more than triple the 125,000 that economists had anticipated. According to the most recent data, the economy created 700,000 more jobs at the end of last year than previously believed. Workers are leaving their jobs for greener pastures at record levels, organized labor is enjoying a resurgence of worker power unseen in a generation, and pay for low-wage workers is up even after adjusting for inflation.
Compared with the federal government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis, the recovery from the COVID-19 crash has been an extraordinary success. It took more than a decade after the onset of the previous recession for the unemployment rate to fall back to 4 percent, the level where it stands today. Even this figure understates the gap between the Great Recession and the pandemic-era economy. Most of the jobs created after the 2008 crisis paid poverty wages, and the country never recovered all of the manufacturing jobs it lost. Today, manufacturing jobs have nearly returned to their pre-pandemic levels amid a burst of onshoring activity across different industries. The stunning jobs numbers over the past two months were secured as the Omicron variant damaged commercial activity across the country.
It remains difficult to find intellectuals or policy makers eager to take credit for these triumphs. This silence is especially noticeable on the left, which can reasonably claim much of the change in approach as its own. The federal government spent far more money over the course of the pandemic than it did in response to the 2008 crash, and spent more of that money on ordinary families. The child-tax-credit expansion unveiled by President Joe Biden in early 2021 cut child poverty in half all by itself, never mind the hardships averted by expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus checks.
The primary rationale for this reluctance to declare victory is not a secret: Many Americans are pretty miserable at the moment. The pandemic itself is a grief machine, and most of the efforts that households and governments can take to mitigate the coronavirus’s spread are extremely frustrating. Biden’s approval rating has been in the toilet since the summer, and reached new lows last month. The collapse of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, which was sabotaged by two senators in the president’s own party, has not helped his cause, and neither has his administration’s clunky and at times bizarre response to the pandemic itself. (White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki mocking the very idea of sending out free COVID-19 tests to households was probably the low point.)
But most of the conversation about the economy today is not about manufacturing jobs, strike activity, or quit rates. It’s about inflation. And wage growth across the pandemic is much less impressive when you focus on the past six months or so of consumer-price data. Inflation-adjusted wages are actually up since the first quarter of 2020, but they were down 2.4 percent over the course of 2021. (Even this data point carries a silver lining, though: Workers in the bottom third of the income distribution still enjoyed modest wage gains last year, a break with recent trends in which wage growth has been concentrated at the top.) Polling consistently indicates that voters loathe inflation. In 2013, when inflation was nonexistent, a majority of Americans cited inflation as “a very big problem.” It is less popular today.