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Brain Dead: Why Is D.C.'s Answer to the Jobs Crisis a Deficit Solution?

04/09/2013 04:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

Last week, President Obama proposed an initiative to map the complete structure and activity of the brain. The so-called BRAIN project (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) would kick off next year with $100 million in funding and, it's hoped, lead to breakthroughs on conditions like autism, Alzheimer's, and strokes.

"As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away," the president said. "We can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears."

I'm all in favor of the effort, especially if it can unlock one particular mystery of those three pounds that was very much in evidence in the days following the president's proposal: How can the human brain -- not just individually but collectively as well, and especially when located in our nation's capital -- not perceive something that's right in front of it? It's a mystery that's been going on for years now and defies logical explanation.

I'm talking about the massive jobs crisis in which the country remains mired. It certainly shouldn't be very hard to get one's mind around -- it's not small, it's all around us, and it's been going on for five years now. But the brain's ability to ignore things is clearly very formidable, as we saw last Friday.

That morning, jobs numbers for the previous month were announced, and they were, as they've been so often in the last five years, pretty dismal. The report showed that in March the economy added only 88,000 jobs, far below the roughly 125,000 that are needed simply to keep pace with population growth. The unemployment rate dipped from 7.7 percent to 7.6 percent, but only because nearly half a million people gave up looking for a job, sending the share of the population participating in the workforce down to 63.3 percent, the lowest level since 1979. In addition, the median duration of unemployment hit 18.1 weeks, up from 16 weeks just two months earlier. And the average length of unemployment increased to 37.1 weeks, up from 35.3 in January. At these rates of growth, it would take until around the year 2020 to reach full employment.

It was a "terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad jobs report," wrote Neil Irwin, that "leaves us with this overarching conclusion: this economy isn't as strong as we thought it was."

"This is a punch to the gut," said Obama's former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Austan Goolsbee.

And even though these numbers were below expectations, it's not like they should have come as any big surprise. As Dean Baker notes, the economy grew only .4 percent in the last quarter of 2012. "It's not clear what someone would have had to have been smoking to expect a marked upturn from this pace," he wrote. "Any serious look at the data would have told people that the economy was weak before the March numbers were released."

So, in short: a crisis, a big crisis, and an obvious one that's been going on for a long time.

Yet only a few hours after the release of the jobs numbers, details were released of President Obama's budget, which will be formally unveiled tomorrow. You might think that, given the obviousness of our most urgent economic problem, the president's major economic document would naturally focus on this problem. But if that's what you thought, then the three pounds of matter between your ears led you astray. In fact, the major emphasis of the president's proposal was on the particulars of cutting $1.8 trillion from the deficit over the next 10 years. Keep in mind, again, that we'll be struggling to reach full employment for most of the 10 years in which we'll be cutting $1.8 trillion out of our economy.

There was one other element of the budget that made big news. Unfortunately it also wasn't about growth, but rather cutting -- I mean, "reforming" -- entitlements, like a proposal to reformulate the Social Security cost of living increases in a way that would result in a cut in benefits.

Largely missing from the plan, and from all the breathless press around it, was any real acknowledgment of the jobs crisis that had -- yet again -- been made obvious only hours earlier. So if you knew absolutely nothing about what was going on in the United States and then read the details of the president's budget and the coverage that followed, you certainly wouldn't come away thinking, "Wow, there must really be a big jobs crisis here."

Nor, for all the hoopla, was there actually much new in the president's budget. As HuffPost's Jason Linkins writes, "Nothing that Obama is proposing deviates in any recognizable way from anything else he's been proposing -- a 'balanced approach' that includes line item budget cuts, calls for new revenue, and 'entitlement reforms.'" So it's not as if this proposal was some out-of-the-box idea to shake up the debate. Rather, it was the same thing we've had before: a jobs crisis being met with a solution for a far-less-pressing deficit crisis.

In his weekly radio address, the president spoke about the "tough choices" he's willing to make. But demonstrating a fixation on the deficit in a town obsessed with the deficit doesn't seem particularly tough. The president also said that "for years, an argument in Washington has raged between reducing our deficits at all costs, and making the investments we need to grow the economy," and that his budget "puts that argument to rest." I guess I've missed all those raging arguments in Washington on the side of growth.

The president went on to say that "we don't have to choose between these goals -- we can do both." But, in fact, we can't -- at least to the extent that the accepted version of reducing the deficit means making cuts instead of growing our way to deficit reduction. Obama did say that, as happened in the '90s, "nothing reduces the deficit faster than a growing economy." But that conviction isn't borne out in his budget.

One of those who has been making the case against fiscal austerity is the Chairman of the Fed. This is how Ben Bernanke put it in his testimony to the Senate banking committee in February:

A substantial portion of the recent progress in lowering the deficit has been concentrated in near-term budget changes, which, taken together, could create a significant headwind for the economic recovery ... This additional near-term burden on the recovery is significant. Moreover, besides having adverse effects on jobs and incomes, a slower recovery would lead to less actual deficit reduction in the short run for any given set of fiscal actions.

And yet most of the debate has centered on how stiff the headwind we create for ourselves should be and how it should be structured -- not on how we can create a significant tailwind for economic recovery and job creation.

In the simplest terms, this isn't about ideology or abstract theory, it's about ignoring facts and data and hard evidence -- again and again and again. We can actually see what's in store for us on the road we've chosen to go down. In the Eurozone countries, unemployment just hit a record high of 12 percent last week. Nearly 20 million people are jobless, almost two million more than at this same time last year. In the U.K., austerity policies have the country teetering on the edge of a triple-dip recession.

Which brings us back to our freaky, brain-dead Friday. This isn't just something that's happening. This is no act of God -- this is definitely an act of man. "This looks to me like a confirmation of the basic truth that policy matters, especially at a time like this," writes Jared Bernstein. "And from the perspective of a labor market that has yet to reliably show consistent signs of solid gains, we're simply not making the right policy choices." Or, as HuffPost's Mark Gongloff put it, "Austerity may be starting to squeeze the life out of the job market."

So what accounts for the epidemic of illogical thinking in Washington, where policy makers refuse to grasp what's plainly right in front of them? Maybe the BRAIN initiative can find the answer. Or maybe we bring in Oliver Sacks, since this bizarre condition seems not unlike the title story of one of his most famous books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Except in this case it's The Town That Mistook a Jobs Crisis for a Deficit Crisis.

So how long is it going to be before Washington admits the truth -- that the emperor has no jobs? Perhaps it will be like DOMA -- a policy that makes no sense, and then one day the conventional wisdom crumbles, scales fall from our leaders' eyes and suddenly, hallelujah, they can see. But when will our DOMA moment be for the jobs crisis? We're years into it, millions of lives have been derailed and destroyed, and yet you'd never guess that by listening to what's being prioritized in Washington. We have the capacity to see it and, thanks to those three pounds of matter between our ears, decide to do something about it. But, as the saying goes, "there's none so blind as those who will not see." Or, to quote an even higher authority, "if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch."