Yesterday a friend called up, highly distressed. Her last short term job had been as a census worker in 2010, and her jobless benefits ran out this May. She is about to become homeless, although that probably means she will start couch surfing, not living in the street. I know she has not been diligent looking for work. Like some of my acquaintances, she enjoys a prolonged, taxpayer-funded vacation from the stress of work. Nevertheless, she has done some looking, and if jobs were more plentiful here is California, she would probably being going to work on Monday instead of facing an eviction notice.
Multiply that by about 14 million, and you have a nation filled with capable people who are not employed. The lucky ones are getting unemployment compensation. State benefits typically last six months; the Federal government extends that to a full two years during times of high unemployment.
There is no one cause of unemployment, but there are a few key factors at play. There are two big holes in the economy right now. One is construction, with its attendant employment of realtors and of workers that produce products that normally go into building like wood, cement, glass, and metal.
The other is government, particularly state and local governments. Ever since the economy turned up from the depths of the recession, private employers have been hiring, if not as quickly as we would like. June brought another wave of layoff notices for public employees like teachers, bureaucrats, and police. The net has been very few jobs.
In 2008 the Republicans and Democrats united briefly to save Wall Street, the banking system, and the big American automobile manufacturers. That done, they fell to quarrelling. The Republicans quarrel among themselves, Tea Party people against the old school. Almost no one listens to Barack Obama, whose lack of leadership qualities were disguised by his rhetorical abilities until he actually became President.
But high unemployment is not Barack Obama's fault. It is not anybody's fault. It evolved over time, and our politics have not yet evolved to the point where we can deal with the new reality.
Let's start by putting on our thinking caps. Why not use the money that is paid out in unemployment to pay people to do real work? In the most appalling cases, public school teachers are laid off, so they can sit on their butts for two years while the few remaining teachers take on ever more students. Can you spell S-T-U-P-I-D? But the same is true in the private sector. Some people get worked to death during a depression and almost wish they had been lucky enough to be aid off.
The problem is that our economic rules and regulations, and even business culture, are "fighting the last war." That is, they were designed to fix problems that might be the same on the surface, but that have different causes than in the past. So the fixes don't work any more, at least not as well as they should. We are feeding leaded gasoline to cars designed for unleaded, then acting surprised when the engines die.
Most of the programs we now have to deal with recessions and unemployment were initiated during the Great Depression (with bipartisan support, I might add. Go look at the Congressional Record if you don't believe me). Some pre-date that, like the Federal Reserve System. The Great Depression itself had no one cause; it was the perfect storm of changes in the global economy and American culture and politics. Hoover did not have the tools in place to deal with it, and even the New Deal did not work well. If Hitler had not started World War II (causing everyone to start ordering arms and grain from the U.S.), the Depression might have lasted even longer than it did.
Some people thought that war spending was the ticket, after that experience. The problem is that while the U.S. benefited economically from the war, the economies of Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, China and Japan were essentially destroyed. The U.S. make out best when other nations fight. Other nations make out best when they remain neutral and the U.S. fights the evil villain of the decade. The only defense spending that really helps the U.S. economy is when it is just a fig leaf for civilian spending, like the Federal Defense Highway System. Built to move tanks around the nation quickly and make road contractors rich, that defense effort is now what we call Interstate Highways.
Some people think China is to blame (two decades ago they said the same about Japan). As late as 1750 China had the world's largest economy, then it was ripped to shreds by the Great Powers (including the U.S.) and had a third world economy by 1950 when the Communists took over. I don't see how we can honestly blame China for unemployment in the U.S. In fact, if not for China buying U.S. products, we would have even more unemployment. China would buy more products if we produced them. We don't produce more products because over 10% of our workforce are loafing when they'd be willing to work if they were offered a job and their unemployment checks were cut off.
Unemployment insurance was designed to provide temporary relief to workers, allowing them to find new jobs and stay productive. During recessions it also answers as a counter-cyclical measure, keeping demand up until the business cycle gets going again. It is not a jobs program. We had no real jobs programs during the Great Recession. Some extra money was spent on infrastructure, but infrastructure work is highly mechanized and the money goes for cement and diesel fuel for bulldozers and cranes. Only a fraction is used to hire workers.
Aside from government stupidity, which is ageless and unlikely to change, the root cause of joblessness is inefficient allocation of capital, which is a function of capitalist stupidity. Let me be clear: American capitalists are rapidly becoming world class idiots, and I don't just mean Donald Trump. Not all of them are dysfunctional, there is a spectrum, but a significant proportion of our capitalist class are seriously screwing things up for all of us.
There have always been some stupid capitalists, in particular heirs to capital have a way of regressing towards not being much smarter than the average joe. Over time that sort of ordinary ineptitude sorts itself out, as their heirs of the Carnegies and Fords lose their dough to the up and coming Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbergs.
Nevertheless, the American capitalist class as a whole has seriously ossified during the last 30 years. They want sure things; they are risk averse. Hiring people for existing businesses is a risk. Starting a new business is very risky. Sure there are people who still do that, like venture capital firms, but they are the exception.
Government could do something about joblessness, but won't. It isn't that the Republicans are standing in the way of the Democrats. Ever since George McGovern failed to get elected President the Democrats have been quite capable of standing in their own way.
The good news is that we are still at the beginning of an economic up cycle. As the economy improves, our capitalists will feel safer, and want to use their money to make more money, rather than just hoarding it. To do that, they will have to hire more store clerks, maybe even begin making housing loans again, and paying workers to repair homes so people can move back into them.
If the capitalists were really smart, they would fire their $10 million + a year corporate CEOs and hire equally competent, probably more competent men at a fraction of the cost. The fact that they can't be bothered to do that shows just how bad they have become at allocating capital.