“Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Proof that this adage rings true can be seen in two recent stories declaring the national unemployment rate had dropped to 8.6 percent and that the State of Minnesota had a budget surplus of $876 million. While many herald these numbers as signs that the American and Minnesota economies are improving, the truth is that both mask a reality that is far grimmer than the statistics reveal.
The meek jobless recovery from the 2008 recession persists. With unemployment hovering around 9 percent, the American economy seems stuck in terms of job production. Obama had proposed a series of tax cuts and projects to stimulate hiring, but their fate in Congress during a presidential election has doomed them. Even if passed, the original September $450 billion jobs plan would do little to encourage business hiring. That will not occur until consumers are willing to spend enough money on goods and services to make it profitable for businesses to hire. As late as just a few weeks ago the Federal Reserve Board predicted that well into next year unemployment would not fall below 8.5 percent. Such a number poses a political problem for Obama – with the exception of FDR, no president has been reelected with an unemployment rate greater than 8 percent.
The surprising drop in the unemployment rate from 9 percent to 8.6 percent in November appeared to be good political and economic news. Yet it is not for several reasons. First, the rate reflected less a robust growth in the economy than many individuals leaving the workforce because they could not find work. The official unemployment rate calculates only those actively looking for work. If you cannot find work and have stopped looking, you are not counted among the ranks of the unemployed. Buried in recent unemployment figures was evidence that the workforce was contracting — many individuals have simply stopped looking for work. Perhaps half if not more of the drop in the rate in the last month was due to this fact.
Low rate of job creation
Yes, the economy produced 120,000 new jobs. That appears to be good news, but not really. The country is millions of jobs away from re-creating all of the positions lost since 2008. Millions of additional jobs are also required for new workers entering the labor force. The economy needs to produce perhaps 300,000 or more new jobs per month for several years before the loses of 2008 are recaptured. This would require economic growth far greater than the 2–2.5 percent increase projected for the near future.
There is little sign of significant turnaround for the American economy. Consumer debt remains high – nearly $830 billion – and student-loan debt will soon be $1 trillion. Housing prices and sales remain flat, consumer confidence low, and despite some bright signs that Black Friday and Cyber Monday were good, few are foretelling a serious consumer economic boom. The 8.6 percent unemployment rate fails to capture all this.
Minnesota: In the money?
If the 8.6 percent unemployment rate is a lie, news of the $876 million budget surplus is even more so. With predictions prior to the announcement last week that the state was up to at least $1 billion in the red, news of the surplus was greeted as proof that the Minnesota had turned the corner. Republicans cheered the news as proof that balancing the budget with cuts alone and no tax increases was correct. Dayton, with nodding approval of Zygi Wilf, hoped that the surplus would make public financing of anew Vikings stadium more salable. But despite claims by all that a surplus exists, the reality is: It does not.
First, recall the budget deal from last July to end the government shutdown. It came with $2.2 billion taken from K-12, and $700 million in borrowing off of Minnesota’s tobacco endowment. This was on top of other budget cuts to vital programs.
The reality is that the balanced budget was achieved by serious debt financing.
Second, the budget projection benefits from a law that calculates inflation when it comes to state revenue but ignores it for obligations. This means that the actual projection released last week is distorted by overestimating income and underestimating obligations.
Third, the budget agreement from July required that approximately the first $900 million of surplus must be used to replenish the state budget reserves and rainy-day funds. Thus, this $876 million is already called for and not available for spending.
Fourth, whatever the reality of the current state budget, the fixes, such as borrowing to balance it last July, were one-timers. They failed to address to long-term fiscal imbalances in state financing, setting up the next biennial budget to again be several billions of dollars in the hole.
Finally, whatever the fiscal forecast stated, another one is due at the end of February 2012. That is the one that will be used by legislators to make the budget. It is still not clear whether it will be as optimistic as the one just released, especially if the state and national economies fail to recover.
Minnesota really does not have a surplus. Nor is the United States experiencing a serious decrease in unemployment. These two statistics mask a reality that shows how numbers do not always tell the truth.
David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships. He is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). Schultz blogs at Schultz’s Take.