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The Jobs Report, and America's Two Economies

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At a time when corporate profits are through the roof, the Dow is flirting with 12,000, Wall Street paychecks are fat again, and big corporations are sitting on more than $1 trillion in cash, you'd expect jobs be coming back. But you'd be wrong.

The U.S. economy added just 36,000 jobs in January, according to today's report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Remember, 125,000 are needed just to keep up with the increase in the population of Americans wanting and needing work. And 300,000 a month are needed -- continuously, for five years -- if we're to get back to anything like the employment we had before the Great Recession.

In other words, today's employment report should be sending alarm bells all over official Washington. Granted, unusually bad weather may have accounted for some of the reluctance of employers to hire in January. But even considering the weather, the economy is still terribly sick. (Technical note: The official rate of unemployment fell to 9 percent from 9.4 percent, but that's because more workers have left the labor market, too discouraged to continue looking for work. The official rate reflects how many people are actively looking for work.)

We have two economies. The first is in recovery. The second remains in a continuous depression.

The first is a professional, college-educated, high-wage economy centered in New York and Washington, that's living well off of global corporate profits. Corporations continue to make money by selling abroad from their foreign operations while cutting costs (especially labor) here at home. Wall Street is making money by taking the Fed's free money and speculating with it. The richest 10 percent of Americans, holding 90 percent of all financial assets, are riding the wave. And their upscale spending has given high-end retailers and producers a bounce.

The second is most of the rest of America, and it's still struggling with a mountain of debt, declining home prices, and job losses. In coming months most Americans will also be contending with sharply rising prices of food and fuel.

Our representatives in Washington see and hear mostly the first economy. The business press reports mainly on the first economy. Corporate and Wall Street economists are concerned largely with the first economy.

But the second economy will determine our politics in 2012 and beyond.

And not even the first can be sustained permanently on its own. Corporate profits cannot continue to rise on the basis of foreign sales (which are slowing as Europe adopts austerity and China raises interest rates), the purchases of the richest 10 percent of Americans (which are dependent on a rising stock market), and cost-cutting measures at home (which are necessarily limited). Without a strong and broadly-based middle-class recovery, America's big money economy will fall in on itself. A major stock market "correction" is a certainty.

Robert Reich is the author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, now in bookstores. This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.