Peruse the press coverage of the presidential election, where the outcome supposedly hinges on the economy, and you get the sense that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are huddled over a craps table waiting to see if the country is about to come up lucky sevens. If the economy shakes out right, then Obama wins a second term; if results are disappointing, he hands the keys to the White House over to Romney.
But this established bit of wisdom obscures a foundational reality: In any plausible scenario, the one part of the economy most people care about -- the job market -- will remain bleak regardless of what happens between now and November. And regardless of who occupies the White House next year, the country will still confront a situation little different from that of today, with not enough paychecks and no engine for growth that can deliver meaningful improvement.
This may make for discouraging conversation -- hardly a narrative either candidate wants to own -- yet this is the story the data is screaming. This is the central fact the working press ought to be repeating ad nauseum in pressing the candidates, not for spin on whatever momentary economic indicator happens to be capturing attention, but for serious answers to a serious question: How can we create millions of decent-paying jobs?
Have a look at the chart below, which, in simplest terms, demonstrates that the last five years have been some of the leanest in American history. The worst downturn since the Great Depression has been followed by the weakest recovery on record.
Graphic by Chris Spurlock
As of March -- a full 33 months after the official end of the last recession (and the last month for which data is available) -- the number of non-agricultural jobs within the economy was still 3.7 percent below the number it held at the beginning of the recession, in December 2007.
I went back and looked at every official recession since the end of World War II, a sample of a dozen downturns. Only twice before have 33 months elapsed after a recession and left the economy holding fewer jobs than at its beginning. This happened in the wake of recessions that ended in July 1980 and in November 2001. In both of those cases, the jobs deficits were much smaller than today's, and those recessions were much less severe than our most recent downturn, with total job losses of no more than 1.2 percent. By contrast, the latest recession -- now known as the Great Recession, with good reason -- cut non-farm payrolls by 5.4 percent.
How many net jobs would have to be created between now and Election Day to bring the economy even with the number it held at the beginning of the last recession? About 5.2 million, or about 645,000 per month. The odds of that happening are approximately equivalent to those of Martians arriving to buy up all the vacant homes in Florida and Nevada. If the economy simply managed to regain the vigor of the mid-1990s, when it added upwards of 250,000 net jobs a month, it would need to sustain that pace for nearly 20 months just to come level with the number of jobs it held at the beginning of the Great Recession.
This ought to be treated as a full-blown national emergency, but the American conversation has become so steeped in decline that the the jobs crisis feels stale and is too often eclipsed in the presidential campaign by talk of dogs on roofs or arguments about motherhood. The disappearance of work is a lousy prop for the stagecraft of politics. It is a troubling storyline, one impervious to the electorate's demands for instant gratification. It will not be solved easily or without considerable public investment. Addressing it requires wading into the sorts of subjects that prompt many television viewers to grab the remote and turn on "Jersey Shore": trade and tax policy, economic inequality, the skills gap and shortfalls in public education.
Both presidential candidates do discuss the economy with regularity, of course, but rarely in terms of the systemic breakdown at hand. Obama seizes on whatever indicator presents itself -- a drop in the official unemployment rate, an expansion on the factory floor -- in arguing that things are getting better and will continue to do so if voters allow him to maintain his current address. Romney points to the persistence of unemployment in a predictably disingenuous effort to pin the blame for every problem on the incumbent.
Neither candidate wants to discuss the depth of the historic crisis for a myriad of reasons, not least, because making voters depressed rarely if ever seems like a wise campaign strategy.
In Obama's case, he deserves none of the blame for the Great Recession but a good share for failing to attack it with greater potency. It began on his predecessor's watch, and it stemmed from the accumulated damage of a quarter-century of unfortunate policy, from Reagan's reckless tax cuts through Clinton's disastrous financial deregulation to George W. Bush's even more reckless tax cuts, along with his budget-busting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, as the chart makes clear, while the current (supposed) economic recovery is lean to an unprecedented degree, the two before it were also exceptionally weak.
This legacy of lean times delivering a full-blown disaster has given Obama a rare opportunity to unleash extreme measures to forge a new economy. But he has squandered the chance, along with much of his public support. His ill-conceived and poorly executed efforts to lift the housing market have perpetuated the underlying problems. His economic stimulus package was too small to make a dent in the crisis of joblessness. (And while Larry Summers can whine all he wants about the political constraints that made more aggressive stimulus impossible, bold leaders exploit crises to transcend limits.) The administration failed to condition the second tranche of Wall Street bailouts on a regimen of rules to curb speculative excesses, leaving the country vulnerable to a repeat of dangerous shenanigans.
These are serious shortcomings, visible to anyone who has been paying attention. Enough time has elapsed that Obama cannot acknowledge the abysmal state of the economy without taking some of the blame. So, rather than dig into to the longterm reality of a dysfunctional American job market -- a problem born at least a quarter-century ago -- he instead offers dubious assurances that solutions are already here, if we just wait a little longer.
Romney does not want to discuss the realities of an American economy that has lost its power, for the simple reason that it undercuts the fantasy at the center of his campaign: Free enterprise liberated from "nanny state"-loving government bureaucrats will fix everything. (And anyone left out of the resulting prosperity is a loser, undeserving of a social safety net.)
For the Romney campaign, American history began in January 2009, when a socialist seized the White House for no other reason than to antagonize red-blooded entrepreneurs. No need to look further back for signs of what his own party did to savage the present. Moreover, the policies Romney has been advocating in pandering to extremists who control his party are identical to the those that put the country in its current hole: tax cuts for the rich, deregulation for high finance.
Both candidates have been doing what candidates must -- laying out a storyline that ends on a positive note, with their election, followed by American prosperity. They see no angle in copping to the fact that the real story will inevitably feature many more years of struggle before Americans have a realistic shot at appreciably better days.
But the press is supposed to be freed of such concerns, able and willing to ask the tough, substantive questions, while pressing for answers. We can only hope that will happen.
Between now and November, the punditry will seize on every of flickering data point as irrefutable evidence of whatever plot line has currency. The Labor Department counts a few more jobs than expected, and cable television will buzz with talk of an Obama return. Factory orders slow for a month and the Twittersphere will obsess over the inevitability of Romney's election.
This may be how the political marketplace functions, with voter sentiments susceptible to a barrage of instant analysis that skips right past the full context. But it makes for bad reality. We need a sustained debate about jobs or the long, slow decline will continue.