Friday, January 07, 2011
The Unrecovery (And What You Can Do About It)
Welcome to the curious case of the incredible non-recovering recovery. Call it, if you like, the unrecovery. By that, I mean a "recovery" which economists, pundits, and talking heads will continue to glowingly back-slap one another about, because industrial age measures tick marginally upwards--but one that won't be a lived, felt, breathed "recovery" in any meaningful economic or financial (not to mention social or political) sense for 99% of people, because those industrial age concepts and conceits are, in a hyperconnected 21st century, bereft of any kind of meaning. Result? an empty "recovery": one empty, null, and void of real prosperity, whether denominated in either incomes or outcomes.
To lend credence to my little point, consider the following (courtesy of Emily Kaiser at Reuters).
"The unemployment rate dropped to 9.4 percent in December, even though employers reported hiring a disappointingly skimpy 103,000 new workers. But the reason for the big drop from 9.8 percent in November is somewhat disconcerting. While the Labor Department's volatile survey of households showed employment surging by 297,000, the labor force shrank by some 260,000.
Even though the U.S. economy added jobs in every month in 2010, hundreds of thousands of people gave up looking for work. The number of discouraged workers climbed to 1.32 million in December, from 1.28 million the month before."
Emily's right. The shrinkage in the labor force in relative terms outweighs any job creation effect. That's not just worrying--it's alarming--that after literally trillions spent trying to revive and resuscitate the economy, it's not like a patient sputtering back to life. Rather, it seems to be suffering through something akin to a malady, perhaps terminal, that no therapy seems capable of stopping.
Sounds hyperbolic, right? Then try this, from the Labor Department, on for size--because Emily's point is just the tip of the iceberg.
"Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 103,000 in December. Employment rose in leisure and hospitality and in health care but changed little in other major industries. Since December 2009, total payroll employment has increased by 1.1 million, or an average of 94,000 per month. (See table
So far, so not good (because, as you know, merely to keep pace with population growth, growth in employment is about half of what it must be). But here's what's really, really bad.
The fastest growing category within even this moribund, deeply disappointing employment picture?
"Employment in leisure and hospitality increased by 47,000 in December. Within the industry, job gains continued in food services and drinking places (+25,000). Since a recent low in December 2009, the food services industry has added 188,000 jobs."
Want fries with that Ponziconomy? The economy's not just failing to create jobs: the meagre jobs it is creating are literally mostly McJobs. Nearly half of all the new jobs created were low-wage, zero-growth, no-future burger-flippers, waiters, valets, dishwashers, and the like. When you factor in the fact that the second fastest growing category was Temporary Help, you might begin to feel just a tiny bit alarmed--because together, the majority of jobs created, devoid of earning power, spending power, saving power, skills gains, or, crucially, future real marginal productivity gains, are more reminiscent of an economy in terminal decline than one in anything even mildly resembling the word "recovery".
Here's what I'd suggest just might be worth beginning to consider, given the fatal dynamics above.
There's no recovery because it's not a recession. As I discuss in the Manifesto, It's a great reconfiguration--a great reboot of global economic institutions. This time, reigniting real, enduring global growth (instead of the zombified zero-sum game China, America, and Europe are playing now) is going to demand deeply rooted institutional innovation. "GDP", jobs, corporations, "profit", "Current Accounts"--these are the cornerstones of the global economy in the 21st century. But they were built in--and for--an industrial age.
Tomorrow's jobs? Yesterday's institutions create zero incentive to create them (anywhere). Yet, the deeper, less well understood, more troubling truth is that they fail to create lasting incentives for nearly any of the components of an enduring prosperity, whether outcomes, income, meaning, purpose, happiness, trust, or resilience. On all of these scores--and many more--industrial age institutions fail systemically, chronically, persistently, predictably. Instead, their characteristic long run dynamic equilibrium--their telltale signature, if you like--is transferring wealth (from the global poor to the rich, the young to the old, tomorrow to today) instead of creating authentically new, enduring wealth. This counter-recovery is that macro institutional failure writ both very large and very small, into the fabric of Europe's austerity and America's chronically, dispiritedly unemployed. And so every economy built on them is a house of cards.
Hence, though it's deeply counterintuitive to most, today's great challenge--and greatest opportunity, if it's envelope-shattering returns you seek--isn't in pushing "product", extracting resources, or brokering a few more deals. It's in reimagining and reinventing yesterday's institutions--and rewriting the tired, toxic industrial age recipe for prosperity.