The Weekly Audit: One Nation With No Jobs

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Tens of thousands of Americans rallied for jobs and justice at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. Organizers say that 175,000 people turned out for the One Nation Working Together rally, which was organized by labor unions, the NAACP, and other progressive groups. In an interview with GritTV's Laura Flanders, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, a leader of the One Nation coalition, summed up the agenda: "Jobs, jobs, and more jobs."

America isn't working

In total, 8 million jobs have been lost in this recession and 2.5 million homes have been repossessed. According to the official figures, about 10% of Americans are unemployed. The true number may be much higher because the official stats don't count those who have given up looking for work. In AlterNet, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, another featured speaker at One Nation, points out that the black unemployment rate is nearly twice that of whites. Another 11 million Americans are underemployed, according Trumka.

No end in sight

An already bleak job market is about to get even bleaker. Last week, Senate Republicans scuttled a popular emergency fund to create jobs and an extension of long-term unemployment insurance benefits, as Andy Kroll reports in Mother Jones.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly offers more details on the now-defunct job creation program known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) emergency fund. The fund provided cash to create jobs in the public and private sectors. Over 240,000 people in 32 states and the District of Columbia worked at jobs created with TANF subsidies. Last week, Senate Democrats lost their fight to extend the program for another 3 months. With the TANF money gone, layoffs will soon follow.

The Department of Labor will release the its monthly unemployment statistics on Friday. One group of independent analysts predicts that September's unemployment rate will be higher than the previous month, according to Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo. Unemployment rose from 9.6% in July to 9.7% in August and experts surveyed by Bloomberg News expect the trend to continue. It's doubtful that the economy produced enough new jobs to make up for all the census workers whose temporary jobs ended.

Job skills for America

On the bright side, President Barack Obama is scheduled to unveil a new job training program this week, Annie Lowrey reports in The Michigan Messenger. The program is called Skills for America’s Future. The goal of the project is to encourage partnerships between community colleges and corporations. Colleges and companies will work together to identify areas of rapid job growth and train students to fill those jobs. So far, five companies have agreed to participate in the program, including the Gap., Accenture, United Technologies, PG&E and McDonald’s.

Lowrey argues that this kind of training program will do little to help unemployment in the short term. Right now, companies aren't hiring because there's an economy-wide lack of demand, not because they can't fill positions for lack of trained workers. Demand is low because unemployment is high. Quite simply, people buy less when they don't have jobs, or fear that they will lose their jobs. It's a Catch-22. The jobs won't come back because not enough people have jobs.

Food stamps are stimulus

At the most basic level, an economic stimulus package is designed to break the no jobs/no demand/no jobs impasse by injecting large amounts of cash into the economy. Extending unemployment benefits makes for very effective stimulus because the unemployed typically spend their money quickly. Food stamps are another very efficient stimulus because recipients redeem them right away. To give you some indication of how quickly, consider the Wal-Mart at Midnight effect, which Lowrey discusses in the Washington Independent.

Wal-Mart managers are noticing that increasing numbers of customers are buying staples like bread, milk, and baby formula at midnight on the first of the month. That's because state governments directly deposit welfare and food stamp benefits into debit accounts at midnight. Wal-Mart says it brings in extra staff to keep up with the influx of customers during this period.

By contrast, tax cuts are an inefficient stimulus, especially if the cuts go to people who are already wealthy. In tough times, people who already have everything they need may prefer to save their extra money instead of blowing it on luxuries. Rich people will not throng Best Buy at midnight on tax refund day, no matter how big their checks are.

The high cost of economic inequality

It would be nice to think that unemployment is part of a cyclical downturn, but there is mounting evidence that short-term unemployment is a symptom of a deeper problem: pervasive and growing inequality. Sam Petulla of the American Prospect interviews economist Jacob Hacker and political scientist Paul Pierson about their new book, Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class.

The authors note that the U.S. has greater inequality than other industrialized countries. Since the 1970s, the richest Americans have gotten much richer while the rest of us lagged further behind. The authors found that almost 40% of household income gains from 1979-2007 went to the richest 1% of households. The trend is accelerating: the top 1% of households pocketed over half of the economic gains of the 2000s. Hacker and Pierson blame tax cuts for the wealth, lax financial regulations that allow the wealthy to rake in unprecedented profits, and stagnating middle class wages for the widening gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of society.

This brings us back to the old demand/jobs paradox. Contrary to the platitudes of trickledown economics, shoveling an ever greater share of society's resources to the ultra-rich doesn't make everyone else better off. Shocking, right?

Right wing economists say that letting the ultra-rich accumulate still more wealth is good for the economy as a whole because the rich have more money to invest in businesses, which are the main source of jobs. The ultra-rich aren't stupid, however. They aren't going to start businesses unless they foresee demand for goods and services; and everyone knows that demand is flat because there are no jobs. Trying to stimulate the economy by making the rich richer is like shoving money into a black hole. The tried and true way to end a recession is to create jobs and provide social services for people who need the money enough to spend it.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Are Handouts For Billionaires More Important Than Feeding Children?

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

The crazy conservative assault on government spending has become one of the most irrational economic policy debates in recent years.

The Republican Party is trying to maintain the fiction that direct economic relief for millions of working Americans is a fiscally irresponsible splurge, while simultaneously backing hundreds of billions of dollars worth of economically useless tax cuts for the wealthy. The demands are staggering: cut food stamps for the poor, but preserve perks for billionaires.

As Tim Fernholz notes for The American Prospect, serious economists do not believe that President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich are an effective way to stimulate the economy. Rich people don’t spend money, they save it. We need lots of consumer spending to reinvigorate economic growth and put people back to work.

If we want to create jobs, we need to put money in the hands of people who will spend it. At minimum, that means directing aid to the unemployed and providing federal assistance to states, so that local governments don’t lay off hundreds of thousands of teachers and cops. This is not only the decent, humane thing to do when the economy is struggling, it actually helps. Money the government spends to save a teacher’s job goes out into the economy to pay bills and buy products. For states, this also means that basic public infrastructure is preserved—kids learn and the streets stay safe.

Stonewalling aid

But as the editors of The Nation highlight, Republican politicians have made it nearly impossible to get that critical aid out to American families. They’ve demanded strict measures for these benefits, forcing Democrats to cut food stamps—that’s right, food stamps—in order to keep teachers in school and cops on the street.

Millions of families all over the country depend on food stamps. In the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Republican politicians took a stand to take food from the mouths of children—and they did it while supporting a $300 billion a year in handouts for the rich.

There is no immediate budget crisis. The government can borrow money at record low interest rates, meaning that investors don’t believe the federal budget deficit is too big. But if conservatives were really serious about shrinking the deficit, they’d be encouraging economic growth, not backing billionaire giveaways.

Banking on predation

Our perverse economic policy preferences aren’t limited to budget priorities. As Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez emphasize in a segment for Democracy Now!, inadequate rules governing bank lending practices were a fundamental cause of the recession, and are actively hampering the economy’s recovery today.

The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA) required banks to make good loans to credit-worthy borrowers in the bank’s community. The idea was simple: If a bank wants to benefit from a community’s resources, it has to give something back and help strengthen the local economy.

Conservatives have lashed out at CRA, blaming it for the mortgage crisis, but the truth is that CRA loans had almost nothing to do with the subprime disaster. CRA loans are affordable loans to creditworthy borrowers—the whole point of subprime lending was to charge outrageously high rates to borrowers with poor credit.

In reality, policymakers’ refusal to expand CRA exacerbated the crisis. Only traditional banks are subject to CRA guidelines, and during the past two decades a host of independent mortgage companies have taken over large swaths of the mortgage market. These unregulated firms issued a lot of lousy loans, often working under direct, explicit instructions from bigger banks, who outsourced their lending in order to get around CRA rules and rip off whole neighborhoods.

Lending is critical to moving the economy out of the recession, and CRA provides reliable, proven rules to get banks back in the business of helping our communities and our economy.

Overdrafting the banks

But a host of other banking policies are also making the recession worse. One of the most egregious is the overdraft fee, which, as Annie Lowrey notes for The Washington Independent, scored banks over $38 billion in 2009 alone. To put that in perspective, the entire banking industry earned a combined profit of $12.5 billion last year, which means that the banks are making their money from gotcha fees, not from productive lending.

Banks have spent years charging overdraft fees without telling their customers that they’re subject to such gouging. Lowrey notes that the average fee is $35 on an average charge of $17. But they also have engaged in a backdating scam, rearranging the order of their customers’ purchases in order to charge more overdraft fees. As I explain for AlterNet:

“Say you’ve got $80 in your checking account, and you decide to pay some bills and run some errands. You spend $30 on gas and another $20 on your water bill. Later, you head to the grocery store and spend $81—oops!—on groceries. To reasonable people, it looks like you’re going to get hit with an overdraft fee. That last purchase put you over the line. But instead, the banks reorder your transactions, processing the groceries first. Now you’re below zero, and they can charge additional fees for your gas and water bills. Wells Fargo charged up to $39 per overdraft. This one mistake cost you $117, and nobody even bothered to tell you it was going to happen.”

Fortunately, a federal judge in California just ruled that this backdating scam was grossly illegal, and ordered megabank Wells Fargo to pay back every penny that it swindled from its California customers with the practice since 2004. But Wells Fargo was not alone—every large bank in the United States does the exact same thing, and it’s allowed them to score billions in deceptive profits. A similar ruling in a larger case against all of the big banks could end a transparent outrage, and restore an enormous amount of unfairly seized wealth to citizens all over the country.

We don’t need to be pushing policies that benefit billionaires at the expense of everyone else. The Bush tax cuts are an unnecessary economic waste. Financial policy that puts the interests of a few giant predatory banks above those of the entire citizenry makes no economic sense.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Why Are Unemployment Benefits A Major Political Fight?

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Congress finally authorized an extension of unemployment benefits on Wednesday, providing a critical lifeline to families across the country and an absolutely essential boost to the economy.

But with the jobless rate hovering near 10 percent, minimum measures like unemployment benefits shouldn’t be a source of controversy. Lawmakers should be debating big-picture jobs packages to get people back to work, not drips and drabs that keep a worst-case-scenario from getting unbearable.

As Annie Lowrey notes for the Iowa Independent, Senate Republicans blocked the unemployment benefits bill for two months, causing benefits to lapse for 2.6 million Americans. That’s a humanitarian outrage. When people don’t have access to this minimal support, they can’t pay bills or feed their kids. There is no excuse for anyone in a position of power to cut off access to such basic social necessities. So what’s the hold up?

It’s a mix of talking points and public misconception. Conservatives have been demonizing the unemployed and using erroneous claims about the federal budget deficit as an excuse to block unemployment benefits, and that narrative has been reinforced by President Barack Obama’s handling of the public debate over the economic stimulus package approved in February 2009.

Unemployment Benefits = Economic Stimulus

In addition to the humanitarian imperative, there’s a broader economic case for extending unemployment benefits. When people are out of work, they can’t spend money. If people don’t spend money, businesses can’t sell anything. And if businesses can’t sell anything, they have to lay off more workers. Putting money in the pockets of the unemployed isn’t just a humanitarian necessity—it also prevents layoffs and creates jobs.

But you wouldn’t know it from the economically illiterate nonsense that conservatives have been spewing during the unemployment benefits debate. Writing for The Nation, Robert Scheer quotes prominent conservative intellectual Niall Ferguson. Here’s Ferguson’s vile diatribe blaming lazy, unemployed people for the recession:

“If you pay people to do nothing, they’ll find themselves doing nothing for very long periods of time. Long-term unemployment is at an all-time high in the United States, and it is a direct consequence of a misconceived public policy.”

$293 a week

Ferguson actually said that. He really believes that a major reason why unemployment is so high is because the United States pays out unemployment benefits, and that jobs would just miraculously be created if we stopped supporting the people hit hardest by the recession. And as Seth Freed Wessler emphasizes for ColorLines, Republican politicians repeatedly parroted this nonsense argument again as they attempted to block the unemployment benefits legislation.

Wessler notes that the average unemployment benefits package comes to just $293 per week. People like to feel like they have contributed meaningfully to society and be rewarded with an honest day’s pay. They do not choose to live in squalor out of laziness, as much as Ferguson might wish that were the case.

Preventing more public-sector layoffs

The economy has shed 8 million jobs since the Wall Street crash. Our job woes are a direct result of recklessness in the upper echelons of the financial sector—lazy workers did not create the recession, and they are not prolonging it.

Given the enormity of lost jobs, you’d think politicians would be considering robust programs to put people back to work—hundreds of billions of dollars in jobs programs, rather than a $30 billion extension of unemployment checks.

As Danny Schechter details for GRITtv, the economy is facing a host of major hurdles that hit families hardest. In addition to epic joblessness, we’re also facing record foreclosure numbers and state budgets that are stretched beyond the breaking point. The state situation is dire. Without federal aid, states will be forced to lay off 900,000 public employees in the coming months

That’s what makes the jobs debate so crazy. There are easy ways to prevent layoffs and create jobs right now. A quick injection of cash into state governments would have an immediate stabilizing effect. The government can’t bring the unemployment rate down to 5 percent overnight, but it can keep things from getting worse and start bringing the rate down.

Don’t blame the deficit

But, as Lowrey notes, some conservatives are not blaming the unemployed, but harping on the deficit, claiming that they’re all for benefits, they just want them to be paid for. This is a disingenuous excuse for inaction.

The conservative deficit-talk is totally misleading, and it’s the wrong way to deal with deficits. Since Republicans have been universally opposed to all tax increases, demanding that unemployment benefits be paid for means pulling spending out of other programs, which means cutting jobs in other areas (slashing the defense budget probably wouldn’t hurt the jobs picture, but good luck getting a Republican to vote for it).

The U.S. doesn’t have a deficit problem. If it did, investors would be demanding a very high interest rate on U.S. Treasury bonds. But in fact, the interest rate on those bonds is at record lows. If the U.S. did have a deficit problem, however, sabotaging jobs and growth would be a lousy way to fix it. Consider Ireland. The country had a vastly larger deficit than that faced by the U.S., and implemented draconian austerity programs. Those spending cuts hit economic growth so hard that the nation’s deficit problem actually got worse, so much worse that the rating agency Moody’s just downgraded Ireland’s debt.

If the U.S. wants to deal with deficit issues, it should address big long-term structural issues, like the enormous defense budget, extremely generous tax rates for the wealthy and the rising cost of health care. It makes zero economic sense to be attacking jobs in the name of the deficit, when doing so only makes the deficit larger.

What about that economic stimulus package?

So why can’t we get a decent jobs package? As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, much of the public uneasiness stems from misunderstandings about how the economic stimulus package passed in February 2009 worked.

The stimulus was very much a success—it kept the unemployment rate from reaching 12 percent or higher. But it was also much too small, in part because the Obama administration underestimated the severity of the recession, but mostly because Republicans created ludicrous political hurdles for the package, forcing it to shrink. Unfortunately, with unemployment still out of control, many in the public believe the stimulus didn’t actually stimulate. That’s the wrong lesson to learn. As Benen puts it:

“Imagine there’s a massive, dangerous fire. Those responsible for the blaze insist that some lighter fluid should take care of the problem, while the fire department recommends water. Forced to compromise, the fire department uses less water than is needed, and the blaze is only partially contained.”

It’s about time Congress got around to extending unemployment benefits. But in the face of the longest and most severe jobs crisis since the Great Depression, much stronger action on jobs is needed, and soon.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Another short-term extension of unemployment benefits becomes law

The Senate approved another short-term extension of unemployment benefits yesterday by a vote of 59 to 39 (roll call). The bill also extends COBRA benefits (related to keeping your health insurance after leaving your job) and delays a planned cut in Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. (Click here for the text of the bill. Three Republicans joined Senate Democrats to support the bill: Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio. Scott Brown of Massachusetts voted to end a filibuster of the bill earlier this week, but stuck with the GOP caucus on all procedural votes yesterday.

The House of Representatives quickly passed the bill as amended by the Senate. The bill had more bipartisan support in the House, with 49 Republicans joining 240 Democrats (roll call).

President Barack Obama signed the bill last night, but Congress will revisit this issue soon, because the new law extends unemployment benefits only until June 2 and other measures through the end of May.

Unemployment benefits will run out for many on Monday

Although the March jobs report was encouraging, the unemployment rate and the number of long-term unemployed are still at historically high levels. Unfortunately, unemployment benefits for about 200,000 Americans will run out on April 5 because Congress adjourned for its Easter recess before resolving an dispute over extending those and other benefits. The Hill reports:

The interruption in benefits will last two weeks at a minimum, according to Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), since lawmakers return from spring break on April 12.

As the two-week recess began, Congress was at an impasse over how to extend the emergency unemployment insurance program and other expiring provisions, including increased COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed, the Medicare doctor payment rate and federal flood insurance.

Senate Republicans said the $9.3 billion, 30-day extension preferred by Democrats should be paid for, while Democrats said the bill's cost didn't need to be offset because the program was "emergency spending."

Under the jobless benefits program that ends Monday, Americans out of work are eligible for up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. The program, aimed at helping jobless Americans stay afloat when new jobs aren't readily available, gives an unemployed worker more than the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance normally available. But with the program ending, those out of work for as few as six months will see an interruption in their benefit checks.

I love how Republicans who approved every blank check for war in Iraq and tax cut for the top 1 percent always demand that unemployment benefits be "paid for." I don't expect them to hold up action on unemployment benefits forever, but even if Democrats are able to apply extensions retroactively later this month, a lot of families will experience real hardship in the meantime. I hope Democrats succeed in passing a bill that would extend the benefits until the end of the year, so these battles won't recur every month.

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