In his seventh, and final, State of the Union address this January, President Obama, clearly looking to bolster his legacy as the president who vanquished the Great Recession, boldly asserted that “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.” Unfortunately for the President, more and more Americans seem to believe (with an adequate basis in proof) that the fiction is emanating from the White House.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone can really assert with a straight face that the economy is currently “strong.” The most recent Gross Domestic Product (GDP), from 4th Quarter 2015, shows us barely inching along at a 1% annualized growth rate (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2/26/16). Given that moderate growth used to be measured in the 3%-4% range, and that recent declines in the trade balance could further subtract from both 4th (2015) and 1st quarter GDP, we could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow or two in reaction to Obama’s boast.
For the President and his boosters, last week’s February non-farm payroll report, which showed 242,000 new jobs created and an unemployment rate below the crucial 5% level (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3/4/16), provided proof that the Administration's economic policies, whatever they may actually be, are working. By beating the 190,000 consensus forecast for February of economists surveyed by Reuters, and revising upward the low 151,000 jobs previously reported in January to 172,000 (BLS, 3/4/16), the government was able to point to two months that averaged north of 200,000 new jobs.
The good news prompted Obama to invite reporters into a Cabinet meeting to crow about the results and to shame those who somehow remain skeptical, saying (to paraphrase) “America’s businesses are creating jobs at the fastest pace since the 1990s…and I don’t expect…this evidence to convince some…to change their doomsday rhetoric.”(The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 3/4/16) He’s right on that point, the gloom should remain. Yes, the economy is creating jobs, but they are not the kind that can bring us back to the days of solid growth. The more important fact, which Obama did not mention, was that the report showed one of the largest drops in weekly earnings ever reported. It’s too bad that our media seems to be incapable of noticing such a tremendous problem right below the surface.
One month ago, the January jobs report was enlivened by a healthy .5% jump in average hourly earnings. At the time, I argued that such good news would be a one-time event as it resulted from the increases in minimum wages that kicked in at the start of the year in many states across the country. As predicted, the momentum was fleeting. In February, average hourly earnings did not increase the .2% that was expected, but fell .1%. The drop may not seem like much, but it is the first decline since December 2014, and one of only six declines in the past ten years, according to BLS data. Making matters worse, average hours worked declined from 34.6 hours to 34.4. Combining falling wages and falling hours translated into a .7% decline in weekly earnings, the biggest drop ever measured in that statistic. (BLS, 3/4/16) For some reason Obama let that one slide.