The world economy is growing; stock markets are up; talk of recovery, not world depression, fills the business pages. As the leaders of the 20 leading economies gather in Pittsburgh this week, they might well feel the euphoria of someone who has survived a near-death experience. (For an insightful report on Pittsburgh and the G-20, go here)
Well, hold the champagne. Don’t declare victory while the enemy is still advancing. Bush’s calamitous folly in Afghanistan—celebrating victory and invading Iraq while the Taliban and al-Qaeda were regrouping in the mountains—should have taught us that much. Let’s not go Bush on the economy.
The question is one of jobs. The reality is companies are still shedding workers; unemployment is still rising. There is no recovery until jobs are being generated. Before the leaders deal with what comes after the recovery, they better secure it. Pittsburgh should be first and foremost a summit on jobs.
The leaders of the labor union federations from the 20 countries, led by the AFL-CIO, call the leaders to sober up in their "Pittsburgh Declaration." Unemployment is high and rising. It is slated, they report, to almost double over the next 18 months in the industrial countries, and continue rising with rates over 10 percent well into 2011. Over 200 million workers worldwide could be pushed into extreme poverty.
In the U.S., one in six workers is unemployed or underemployed. Companies are shedding jobs, not hiring. Young workers are hurt the most. Even recent college graduates struggle, with 80 percent of new college graduates—the boomerang generation—moving back in with their parents. Long-term unemployment is at record rates. Unemployment is the worst in a quarter century and rising.
High unemployment is accompanied by stagnant wages and benefits, and cutbacks in hours. This comes after a lost decade in which most families lost ground. Hard-pressed families have no choice but to tighten belts. Declining consumption means more layoffs. Declining incomes mean falling revenues for governments. State and local governments, having burned through their rainy day funds, are now laying off teachers and police.
The unprecedented intervention of the Federal Reserve to bail out the banks—interest rates near zero, purchasing over a trillion in mortgage backed securities, and much more—and the Obama recovery plan—providing aid to states and localities, bolstering low-wage workers, and beginning to generate jobs from public works programs—have managed to staunch the hemorrhaging, at least temporarily. Unprecedented in scope, they aren’t yet enough to generate a recovery.
The union leaders get it right. The recovery plans to date "are inadequate in size" and "do not sufficiently focus on employment." They urge the leaders of the G-20 not to exit from their stimulus measures prematurely. Instead they argue for another round of job-focused spending, targeted on putting people to work, and sustained until the recovery is clear.
This is heresy in this country. Our know-nothing right dismisses the recovery plan as a failure, when it is in fact what is holding up the economy. The business community and conservative economists are railing about debt, calling for cutting back the current spending plans. They fret more about the potential of future inflation than the reality of right-now misery, and the clear and present danger of continued stagnation. The big banks are gamboling back into leveraged speculation and million-dollar bonuses, and fending off efforts to shut down their casino.
Obama must stand firm against this tide. The president should make it clear to the leaders in Pittsburgh that the measure of a recovery is that people are back at work, and that wages are rising once more. He should challenge them to focus on jobs, pushing for another round of coordinated recovery plans to put people to work. Hold off on the party. There is no recovery without jobs. And no victory while unemployment is rising.